Pearl Harbor

Introduction to the Literature

The level of dispute that continues to surround the events of 7 December 1941 is amazing. Every few years, another book purporting to say something new on the subject appears and enjoys relatively brisk sales.

For the most part, the basic facts about what happened on that day over 60 years ago are well established. However, many of the "how" & "why" questions continue to be debated, and most of the areas in dispute involve issues of intelligence. Essentially, the questions concern what was known and by whom and what was done or not done about it. There are at least two broad categories of contention.

The first category is what we can call conspiracy theories. Pearl Harbor abounds in such theories.

One such theory says that President Roosevelt knew the Japanese attack was coming and -- because of an overweening desire to see the United States in the war -- did not warn the Army and Navy commanders in Hawaii. Readers are referred to the following articles to get both sides of this particular dispute: Edward S. Barkin and L. Michael Meyer, "COMINT and Pearl Harbor: FDR's Mistake," International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence 2, no. 4 (Winter 1988): 513-531; and Edwin C. Fishel and Louis W. Tordello, "FDR's Mistake? Not Likely," International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence 5, no. 3 (Fall 1991): 360-372.

For a discussion of another entry into the "FDR-knew" sweepstakes, see John C. Zimmerman, "Pearl Harbor Revisionism: Robert Stinnett's Day of Deceit," Intelligence and National Security 17, no. 2 (Summer 2002): 127-146, a "Review Essay" focused on Robert Stinnett, Day of Deceit: The Truth about FDR and Pearl Harbor (New York: Free Press, 1999).

A second conspiracy theory accuses British Prime Minister Winston Churchill of knowing that the Japanese fleet was on the way to attack Pearl Harbor but not warning Roosevelt. The reason suggested for Churchill's action was a belief that the America's joining with England was the only way that Hitler could be defeated. The central work in this category is probably James Rusbridger and Eric Nave, Betrayal at Pearl Harbor: How Churchill Lured Roosevelt into World War II (Old Tappan, NJ: Simon & Schuster, 1992). Rusbridger was a prolific -- and often sensationalist -- author on intelligence matters. Nave is regarded by some as the father of British codebreaking in the Far East. Based largely on Nave's memory decades after the fact, the book contends that both the British and the Dutch intercepted -- and read -- a radio signal sent to the Japanese carrier force on 25 November 1941. That message is supposed to have revealed the position and likely destination of the Japanese fleet. The authors assert that Churchill received this message -- and deliberately withheld it in order to ensure that the United States would be attacked and thereby brought into the war.

The assertions in the Rusbridger and Nave book were greeted with some enthusiasm by the popular press, but were rejected almost universally by historians and intelligence experts. In the main, the book is based on hearsay and bits and pieces of information presented as evidence. The central argument in the book violates all that is known about the history of British and American cryptology. Briefly stated, the Japanese code that Rusbridger and Nave claim the message was sent in had not by all credible evidence -- and that evidence is voluminous -- been broken in 1941. In addition, the recently released minutes of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) for 1941 do not support the revisionist suggestion that Churchill had and withheld foreknowledge of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. See Richard Aldrich, "British and American Policy on Intelligence Archives: Never-Never Land and Wonderland?" Studies in Intelligence 38, no. 5 (1995): 18.

To show that conspiracy theorists are committed to equal opportunity for friends and nonfriends alike, a third theory gives Stalin knowledge of the Japanese plans. Like Churchill, he is supposed to have so badly wanted the United States in the war against Hitler that he withheld that information from the Americans.

A second category of dispute comes from within the U.S. military. This argument began with the commanders of American Army and Navy forces in Hawaii. Both Admiral Kimmel and General Short were relieved of their commands in the wake of the Pearl Harbor disaster. Throughout the investigations that followed, both men maintained that Washington had withheld vital information that prevented them from being alert against a surprise attack. To this day -- and this is particularly true of Navy veterans -- the treatment of Kimmel and Short remains a grievance that ever so often gives rise to calls to restore them to a place of respect.

One of the most vigorous defenses of Admiral Kimmel is contained in the bestseller by Edwin T. Layton [RAdm/USN (Ret.)], with Roger Pineau [CAPT/USNR (Ret.)] and John Costello, And I Was There: Pearl Harbor and Midway--Breaking the Secrets (New York: Morrow, 1985). A more recent book with a clearly enunciated agenda is Edward L. Beach, Scapegoats: A Defense of Kimmel and Short at Pearl Harbor (Annapolis, MD: U.S. Naval Institute Press, 1995).

On the other side of this fence is a book that is highly credible -- you could even say authoritative -- but still controversial. The book is Henry C. Clausen and Bruce Lee, Pearl Harbor: Final Judgement (New York: Crown Publishing, 1992). Clausen was the independent investigator appointed by Secretary of War Stimson to investigate the root causes of the Pearl Harbor disaster. The book is essentially the conclusions drawn from Clausen's highly classified report years after the fact; thus, the title "Final Judgement."

Clausen concluded that the "proximate guilt for the disaster at Pearl Harbor was an unworkable system of military intelligence, including the fact that the Navy withheld from the Army vital intelligence information that called for Army action." (p. 300) Clausen follows that conclusion by placing the immediate guilt squarely on the shoulders of the two commanding officers in Hawaii -- General Short and Admiral Kimmel. These conclusions have not set well among certain naval officers of the period, and therein lies much of the controversy surrounding the book.

The points made in one review of Clausen's book seem to illuminate the controversy particularly well: No one has "been able to prove that anyone had real information warning of a Pearl Harbor attack.... [T]he behavior of the Washington authorities suggests that they believed that they had given field commanders enough warning of impending hostilities, and for the most part, the record backs them up.... Th[e] evidence ... suggests that General Short simply did not regard an attack upon Hawaii as a serious possibility.... To the unbiased, reflective historian, five decades after the event, the Pearl Harbor attack exemplifies the difficulty of anticipating surprise, the mistakes which individuals inevitably make, the ease with which governments fail to make use of available information, and the relative unimportance, in the long run, of winning the opening battle of a war." David Kaiser, "Review Article: Conspiracy or Cock-up? Pearl Harbor Revisited," Intelligence and National Security 9, no. 2 (Apr. 1994): 354-372.

In late 1995, the Department of Defense released what was meant to be (but will not be) the final word on the Kimmel-Short controversy: Memorandum for the Deputy Secretary of Defense: "Advancement of Rear Admiral Kimmel and Major General Short" (Washington, DC: Office of the Under Secretary of Defense, Personnel and Readiness, 1 Dec. 1995). The report, prepared under the guidance of Edwin Dorn, Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, concluded that advancement of Kimmel and Short on the retired list to their highest temporary grades of admiral and lieutenant general, respectively, was not warranted.

The findings of the Dorn study are summarized in five parts:

1. Responsibility for the Pearl Harbor disaster should not fall solely on the shoulders of Admiral Kimmel and General Short; it should be broadly shared.

2. To say that responsibility is broadly shared is not to absolve Admiral Kimmel and General Short of accountability.

3. The official treatment of Admiral Kimmel and General Short was substantially temperate and procedurally proper.

4. History has not been hostile to Admiral Kimmel and General Short.

5. There is not a compelling basis for advancing either officer to higher grade. [See review by Thomas B. Buell [CDR/USN (Ret.)], U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 122, no. 4 (Apr. 1996): 98-100.]

The debate was resumed in the U.S. Senate in May 1999, when an amendment to the defense spending bill brought a heated debate and a 52 to 47 vote "to exonerate [the] two American military commanders accused of dereliction of duty in the bombing of Pearl Harbor." Washington Post, "Senators Exonerate Pearl Harbor Chiefs," 26 May 1999.

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