Who Lost Pearl Harbor?

The history behind current events.
Dec. 7 2000 9:00 PM

Who Lost Pearl Harbor?

Two generations later, the conspiracy theorists still blame the successful sneak attack on FDR.

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In May 1999, the 10 World War II veterans in the U.S. Senate were arguing about who was to blame for the fateful American unpreparedness of Dec. 7, 1941. Specifically, they were debating an amendment to a military spending bill that would clear the names of the Pacific commanders, Adm. Husband E. Kimmel and Lt. Gen. Walter C. Short—both long since dead, demoted, and disgraced for sleeping at the watch at Pearl Harbor. Veterans Jesse Helms, Strom Thurmond, and William Roth favored clemency; veterans John Warner, John Chafee, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan did not. Ultimately, the amendment, introduced at the behest of Kimmel's son Edward (a constituent of Roth's), passed, 52-47. Afterward, Sen. Roth announced, a bit defensively, "We're not rewriting history. We're just correcting the record."

Roth was right about this much: No history book will be altered because of the Senate's gesture. Nor, surely, have we heard the last from those who maintain the innocence of Kimmel and Short. After all, the debate over their culpability—and its more important flip side, the debate over President Franklin Roosevelt's role—has been swirling for 59 years. Even today, as another Pearl Harbor anniversary passes, military hobbyists and crusty Roosevelt-haters are propounding far-flung theories about presidential treachery while historians wearily rebut them.

Like a pesky kid brother, devotees of the who-lost-Pearl Harbor "controversy" are always hanging around when the big-boy historians want to discuss the Pacific War, demanding attention and making a fuss if they don't get their away. Some years ago, historian Donald Goldstein was on the circuit promoting Gordon Prange's much-praised book about Pearl Harbor (At Dawn We Slept), which Goldstein had helped edit for publication after Prange's death. Goldstein found his audiences so monomaniacally fixated on the blame issue that he returned to Prange's original overlong manuscript to extract a second book (Pearl Harbor: The Verdict of History) to satisfy the enthusiasts.

Indeed, the question of who lost Pearl Harbor is the Kennedy assassination for the GI Generation, a favorite of amateurs, conspiracy theorists, and military buffs. And like the Kennedy assassination, the Pearl Harbor debate is interesting more as historiography than as history—more for what it says about the different camps and their worldviews than about the actual events of Dec. 7, 1941.

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The controversy dates back to the Pearl Harbor attack itself. After the Japanese raid on the U.S. fleet in Hawaii, Americans were shocked and confused, and they looked for explanations and for heads that could roll. Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox immediately conducted an inquiry and concluded that the Pacific command had been derelict, having anticipated a submarine assault but not an air raid. Kimmel and Short, the chief Navy and Army commanders in the Pacific, were relieved of their duties on Dec. 17.

As quickly as the top brass and the administration fingered Kimmel and Short, Republicans rose to defend them and to blame the Roosevelt administration. The motivations were at least threefold. First, the GOP, then as now, disliked the principle of civilian control of the military, and many were convinced that higher-ups in Washington were scapegoating honorable fighting men. Second, the right's ideological hatred of Roosevelt ran deep—conservatives, refusing to use FDR's name, called him "That Man in the White House"—and Pearl Harbor presented another emotion-filled occasion for partisan attack. Third, many on the right remained defiantly isolationist even after the war began, and they believed that the American people would never have licensed entry into the battle had Roosevelt not hoodwinked them.

Though Knox's report was well received by the public, FDR feared that the punishment of the Pacific commanders could be explosive, and he sought to quell a potential uproar with a blue-ribbon investigatory panel. He named Supreme Court Justice Owen Roberts to head a commission composed mostly of military officials that would settle the question of why America had been caught unawares. But when, in early 1942, the Roberts Commission returned a verdict similar to Knox's, it only stoked conservative fears that it was fostering a cover-up at the highest levels—not unlike another Supreme Court justice-led panel a generation later.

Conservative foes of the administration launched tirades against the commission and the president. David Lawrence of U.S.News claimed that Kimmel and Short were being scapegoated for "the negligence in Washington" and said that FDR and "his colleagues in the New Deal" had been decadent, lax, and heedless of their military duties. A barrage of similar charges followed from conservative journalists and Republican congressmen. The far-right isolationist press openly claimed that Japan's aggression had been provoked by American bellicosity. Recriminations continued even during the heat of wartime. From 1942 to 1946, Congress conducted eight investigations into the matter.

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In June 1944, with a presidential election approaching, the Republicans decided to make Pearl Harbor a campaign issue. Officials nationwide, including presidential candidate Tom Dewey, laid into Roosevelt over his failure to protect the country. The most outlandish condemnation came on Sept. 11, when Rep. Forest Harness, R-Ind., claimed on the House floor that the Australian government, three days before the attack, had warned Washington that a Japanese aircraft carrier was bound for Hawaii and that officials had withheld the information from Kimmel and Short. Rumors of this sort had long been in the air, but Harness' speech brought them into public view—and sparked a firestorm whose residual embers still burn today.

Among military men, isolationists, and FDR-haters, it became an article of faith that all along the president had been seeking a "back door" into World War II. He suppressed signs of the impending attack, it was claimed, because he reasoned that only a strike against American soil would unite the public behind his goal. This is the canard that so many books, in the decades since, have labored to prove.

In the late 1940s and 1950s, conservative, isolationist writers such as John T. Flynn (The Truth About Pearl Harbor), John Chamberlain ("Pearl Harbor," in Life magazine), and Harry Elmer Barnes (Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace) perpetuated the tales of FDR's treachery, as did military men such as Rear Adm. Robert A. Theobald (The Final Secret of Pearl Harbor). Even some left-wing isolationists got into the act. The eminent historian Charles A. Beard, once fired from Columbia University for opposing World War I, saw World War II through the prism of the first one and, in a sad coda to a great career, charged FDR with maneuvering America into conflict in 1941.

But as pernicious as the pseudo-scholarly books and articles was the folk wisdom that took hold among citizens, many of them in the armed forces. They circulated outlandish stories: that Roosevelt adviser Harry Hopkins had transferred planes away from Hawaii just before the attack; that FDR and Winston Churchill had actually plotted the raid with the Japanese; that British and American airmen had manned the offending planes.

Over the years, historians dutifully exposed the flaws (and lies) in the revisionist arguments. Those arguments, like most conspiracy theories, had a kernel of truth. FDR certainly favored American intervention in the war, as had been obvious at least since his support for Lend-Lease in 1940. It's also true that Kimmel and Short weren't as well informed of Washington's intelligence as they should have been. But the revisionists have never made the critical leap between motive and action. Most significant, no one ever produced credible evidence that Roosevelt knew the attack was coming. In fact, contemporaneous diaries and accounts show reactions of surprise among top officials.

Recent revelations from Japanese archives have also dealt a blow to the revisionists. Until last year, many people believed that Japan had tried to notify the United States about its plans to make war but that the message had been delayed in transmission. While not necessarily subscribing to the darkest fantasies about FDR's behavior, some skeptics believed that it was Washington—not Tokyo—that was bent on war and refused to pursue available diplomatic channels. But as the New York Times has reported, a researcher working in the Japanese foreign ministry archives recently found documents showing that Tokyo actively chose the path of war and, worse, intentionally concealed its hostile aims, even from its own diplomats in Washington, and that Japanese officials took pride in the deception. The famous message alerting the United States about the attack was in all probability deliberately delayed. While not speaking directly to the question of what FDR knew, this evidence demolishes the portrait of a Japanese government forced into war by Washington's intractability.

As damning to the revisionist claims as the ignorance of facts is the absence of logic. Gaping holes riddle the revisionists' reasoning. Even if FDR sought a Japanese attack as a pretext for war, would he really allow all the major ships of the American fleet to lie vulnerable and so many Americans to be killed? Surely a strike on American soil that was far less crippling would still have aroused the public indignation to make war against an aggressor.

And yet the stories have persisted into our own day, only to be blown apart. Consider:

  • In 1981, journalist-historian John Toland published Infamy, which cited an interview with an unidentified seaman who claimed to have intercepted reports of a Japanese aircraft carrier approaching Hawaii just before the raid. But once the seaman was unmasked as Robert Ogg, and the interview on which Toland was relying was made known, it became clear Toland had distorted or misread Ogg's account.

  • In 1991, James Rusbridger argued in Betrayal at Pearl Harbor that it was Churchill, not FDR, who suppressed intercepted news of the invasion. But Rusbridger's reliance on the claims of a 92-year-old naval captain persuaded few reviewers.

  • This spring, Robert Stinnett published Day of Deceit: The Truth About FDR and Pearl Harbor, which uses the fact that American intelligence did seem to intercept Japanese messages not far from Hawaii. But as reviewers noted, Stinnett never demonstrated that those intercepts were fully understood or even relayed to the highest levels. Like many conspiracy theorists, he attributed to high-level plotting what was in fact something far more common: human error.

Alas, the repeated failure of the dozens of tracts, from the 1940s to our own day, to stand up to scrutiny will not deter those who believe history is full of conspiracies any more than it will deter Sen. Roth from pandering to a constituent. No amount of evidence or argument will persuade those who wish to believe in Roosevelt's treachery or in Adm. Kimmel's faultlessness. Which is not a surprise. Have you ever tried to convince a True Believer that Oswald acted alone? 

David Greenberg, a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers and author of three books of political history, has written the "History Lesson" column since 1998.