and USS Missouri -- where the killing finally ended.
Pearl Harbor, Hawaii
Copyright © 1991 by Ralph F. Couey
"Yesterday, December 7th, 1941, a date which will live in infamy,
the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately
attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan”
With those evocative words, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt committed a deeply shocked and angry America to war with Japan. The surprise attack at Pearl Harbor, coupled with other assaults throughout the western Pacific united a bitterly divided government and galvanized the citizenry. Even with the newfound unity, many pointed questions were raised, not the least of which was “how could this happen?”
Today, over 65 years later it is even more difficult for present generations to comprehend how a military, a government, and a nation of free people could have been the victim of such a terrible surprise attack. It is that still pointed question that leaves some unsure whether the attack was facilitated by a numbing complacency on the part of America towards blatant Japanese aggression, or the result of a dark conspiracy originating within the highest levels of government to involve the United States in global war.
As with any disaster, the inevitable witch hunt to locate the person or persons responsible ensued with nine official investigations by the executive branch, the congress, and the military. In addition, historians have delved deeply into this subject publishing countless books, articles, and essays. It is safe to say that no other event in American history has been subjected to the level of scrutiny as the attack on Pearl Harbor. Yet even after six and a half decades, the search for the smoking gun - and the hand that held it - remains alive.
This paper will follow that search, looking for those elements that created the opportunity for Japan as well as look closely at the American participants and explore their culpability, if any in fact existed. This journey will also involve a look at the influence of the times. The world of 1941 was a vastly different one than today. And accordingly, the people who were the children of Wilson’s Fourteen Points and who later struggled with issues of basic survival during the Depression were shaped by that historical environment, as were the current generations shaped by the Cold War, Vietnam, and the loss of spirit engendered by prosperity. The process of intelligence collection, analysis, and dissemination will be examined in light of how the strong desire for secrecy kept vital information compartmented and isolated from decision-makers.
A breed of historians, known as “revisionists,” approach historical events from a different perspective. They utilize either new evidence or a fresh look at old facts, seeking to change, or revise, traditional accounts and conclusions. Unfortunately, sometimes this approach is tainted. A few revisionists use incomplete or non-contextual information in order to use historical events as a vehicle for a political or social agenda, or perhaps simply to focus on certain historical figures and “take them down a notch or two.” In attempting to revise traditional conclusions about Pearl Harbor revisionists have adopted a theory called “The Back Door Conspiracy.” The basic tenet of this belief is that Roosevelt, struggling to restore an economy still shaky after the Great Depression, sought to bring the United States into war with Japan and Germany. A wartime economy meant full employment and rapid full-scale development of America’s latent industrial potential. Also, Americans were at that time deeply divided over the issues of intervention in the rapidly expanding conflict in Europe (Prange At Dawn 16-17). An attack on any sovereign territory of the United States would have the effect of galvanizing the country against the outside threat and providing the President with an unprecedented national consensus (Prange At Dawn 840-842). However, a close look at Japan’s situation prior to 1941 clearly shows the road that Japan traveled to war had its beginnings long before Roosevelt’s administration.
UNDERSTANDING JAPANESE MOTIVATIONS
To fully appreciate the decision process that led to the attack, it is necessary to examine the factors that influenced the Japanese government.
Japan, an emerging military and economic power in the Far East, sought to ensure the steady flow of vital natural resources necessary for industrial expansion and economic growth. An island nation, Japan had very little in the way of natural resources. These were available in Southeast Asia, Malaysia, Sumatra, Java, Borneo, Manchuria, and the Celebes. It would have been hard for a comparatively resource-rich America to relate to Japan’s dilemma. It is perhaps a common failing of Americans to blindly measure the problems and accomplishments of othernations solely by our own yardstick. This failure to “walk a mile in another’s shoes” led to a complete miscalculation of Japan’s capabilities and intentions. Adding to this, the Japanesegovernment, although officially a constitutional monarchy, was under the control of aggressive members of the military. Many of them were veterans of Japan’s shocking victory over Czarist Russia in the Russo-Japanese War of 1905 and as a result were, perhaps, feeling a little invincible, albeit with good cause. In the thousand years until World War II, the Japanese military had never known defeat at the hands of a foreign power.
The Japanese knew that if they embarked on any plan of conquest in the Pacific they would eventually run afoul of the United States. Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, who conceived the attack, wrote in 1940 to a friend, “The probability is great that the launching of our operation against The Netherlands Indies will lead to an early commencement of war with America…” (Prange At Dawn 11). Accordingly, the decision of the Japanese military was to deal the American forces a severe blow at the outset of hostilities, hopefully forcing a deal which would leave Japan the unchallenged masters of the Pacific.
Revisionists believe President Roosevelt, through his policies, dragged Japan, kicking and screaming, into conflict with the United States. However to really understand the tensions between the two nations, it is necessary to examine the erosion of relations between Japan and America.
Japanese enmity towards the west in general and the United States in particular, can be traced initially to the enactment of the Anti-Japanese Immigration Bill in California in 1913. While European immigrants streamed into the United States in record numbers, Japanese immigrants seeking the same opportunities were barred from entry. This move, blatantly racist in intent, deeply insulted the Japanese people.
Japan, however, did become nominal allies with the United States, Britain, and France in World War I, committing no troops and expending little of her resources, but gaining pieces of Imperial Germany’s colonial empire in the Pacific, islands the Allies would pay dearly to conquer. In the flurry of disarmament and the general global revulsion to war after the armistice was signed, naval limitation treaties imposed in 1922, 1928, and 1930 held Japan’s naval forces at a level inferior to Britain and the U.S, the infamous 5:5:3 ratio. That the two western powers had global economic interests versus Japan’s limited interests in the western Pacific was held to be irrelevant by Japan, who saw the treaties as a tool to suppress Japanese attempts at regional hegemony in a part of the world where European and American colonies still existed. This infuriated the Japanese. Captain Tameichi Hara, a famous naval officer, wrote, “Naval opinion in Japan regarded (the treaties) as a case of pure power Politics, which resulted in a terrible defeat for Japan.” (Hara 20)
In April 1928 Japanese troops were rushed from Japan and Korea to Manchuria to protect Japanese economic interests from Chinese troops. After the League of Nations accused Japan of
aggression in this incident, Japan responded by withdrawing from the League in 1933, simultaneously abrogating the Naval Limitation Treaties. The American foreign policy towards China, influenced by the paternal attitude of Americans towards the Asian giant, established an adversarial position. The passage of time only added bitterness to the discourse between the two governments. Captain Hara writes, "It was in this mental climate that Japan first came to consider the United States as a potential enemy." (Hara 20)
These events demonstrate that the seeds of conflict between Japan and America were sown early and deep, too early for the Roosevelt administration. In any study of this period, it is absolutely essential to recognized the historical context of the events leading up to December 7th. Japanese motives and American attitudes over the preceding two decades put the two governments on a collision course, a course that could have only one outcome.
READING THE MAIL
The bitterest pill to be swallowed in regards to Pearl Harbor concerns not the paucity of intelligence available, but the literal avalanche of information in the hands of American Intelligence prior to December 7th. U.S. Intellegence had been reading Japanese diplomatic codes since 1922 through a system code-named "Magic." As war drew closer in 1940-41, American cryptanalysts in Washington and Pearl Harbor were intercepting upwards of several hundred messages per day. Of course, there was no way of determining the relative importance of individual messages until the process of decoding and translating was complete. In the pre-war military, intelligence units were notoriously understaffed. The analysts were good, but swamped. The information was coming faster than it could be processed. Samuel Eliot Morison noted:
"Army and Navy Intelligence Officers in Washington were somewhat in the position of a woman with a sick child trying to take instructions from a doctor over the telephone while the neighbors are shouting contrary advice in her ears, children screaming, and trucks roaring by the house. The noise overwhelmed the message." (Morison 71)
The system of distribution for the decoded messages, devised for security, in fact did more to blunt their impact. Those who were on the list for access could only see what messages translators deemed as significant, and then only one at a time. No one was allowed to make notes or given the opportunity to analyze the direction the information was leading. As Morison puts it, "...nobody got anything but excerpts and driblets." (Morison 72) Ronald Lewin notes taht the most compelling intercepts were not decoded until after the attack, simply because they were deep down in the growing stacks of undecoded and untranslated intercepts. (Lewin 96) This had nothing to do with any conspiracy, only workload.
Among military personnel who handle classified information, there is a wry description of the classification levels as Confidential, Secret, Top Secret, and Shred Before Reading, The latter "classification" comes perilously close to describing how the Magic intercepts were handled. Those intercepts, like all intelligence data, form the individual pieces of a much large puzzle. Without a person or a team to assemble the pieces the larger picture remained undiscovered, despite the presence of all the pieces. It was a bitter lesson that should have been permanently seared into the memory of the entire Intelligence Community. The events of September 11, 2001 demonstrate that even the harshest of lessons can be unlearned, or forgotten.
The most controversial series of messages to come out of Magic were the “Winds” messages.
On November 19, 1941, Tokyo sent the following message to its overseas embassies:
REGARDING THE BROADCASTS OF A SPECIAL MESSAGE IN AN EMERGENCY.
IN CASE OF EMERGENCY (DANGER OF CUTTING OFF OUR DIPLOMATIC RELATIONS),
AND THE CUTTING OFF OF INTERNATIONAL COMMUNICATIONS, THE FOLLOWING WARNING WILL BE ADDED IN THE MIDDLE OF THE DAILY JAPANESE LANGUAGE SHORTWAVE NEWS BROADCAST.
(1) IN CASE OF JAPAN-U.S. RELATIONS IN DANGER:
EAST WIND RAIN
(2) JAPAN-U.S.S.R. RELATIONS:
NORTH WIND CLOUDY
(3) JAPAN-BRITISH RELATIONS:
WEST WIND CLEAR.
THE SIGNAL WILL BE GIVEN IN THE MIDDLE AND AT THE END AS A WEATHER FORECAST AND EACH SENTENCE WILL BE REPEATED TWICE. WHEN THIS IS HEARD,
PLEASE DESTROY ALL CODE PAPERS, ETC. THIS IS YET TO BE A COMPLETELY SECRET ARRANGEMENT.(Lewin 70; Prange At Dawn 360)
Revisionists, when examining the Magic intercepts, invariably fasten on this message as a definite indication that the Japanese fleet was on its way to Hawaii. Captain Lawrence Safford, head of the Navy cryptology organization, maintained that a “winds execute” had to have been intercepted on either December 3 or 4. Commander Alwyn D. Kramer, the head translator, at first agreed with Safford, but later retracted. A careful review of Safford’s testimony before the investigating commission headed by Chief Justice Roberts and the congressional committee under Carl Vinson reveals his statements regarding the receipt of a “winds execute” message as “There must have been one.” (Prange At Dawn 714, 596). He was also asked, “…was there ever received one single word, line, phrase, or sentence that would lead you to believe that Pearl Harbor was going to be struck?” To which Kramer firmly replied, “There never was, sir.” (Prange At Dawn 715)
The veracity of the alleged “winds execute” message is further obscured by the complete lack of evidence. No copy of the intercept has ever been found (Toland Infamy 138). Revisionists allege the message was destroyed (Toland Infamy 203); traditionalists maintain the message never existed in the first place. Neither side withstanding, it is difficult to say what difference the receipt of such a message would have made at Pearl Harbor. A careful analysis of the message content indicates only that Japanese-American relations were in danger. The situation as it existed in November 1941 was so critical as to make such an assertion superfluous, at best.
Even if one could read a threat of impending action into the “Winds” message, the focus of attention was on the Philippines and the Netherlands East Indies. Here, the preconceptions of those senior military commanders in Washington, whose responsibility it was to evaluate the threat, blocked the opportunity for real analysis of the data available and a full appreciation of the deteriorating situation. Those commanders, in particular Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner, head of Naval War Plans, made the grievous error in deciding in advance what enemy intentions would be, rather than allowing the abundant information to guide conclusions. Admiral Stark, the Chief of Naval Operation, in the November 27th “war warning” told Admiral Kimmel in Hawaii to expect “…an aggressive move by Japan within the next few days…against either the Philippines, Thailand, Kra Peninsula, or possibly Borneo.” (Morison III 76; Prange December 7 4-5). This made sense in that it was common knowledge that Japan desperately needed access to raw materials, especially oil, in order to feed the hungry maw of industry and the military. In short, the “winds” message said nothing about Japanese intentions that would have forced a reassessment of American conclusions.
In Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision, Roberta Wohlstetter, writing about the hazards of analysis commented:
“What these examples illustrate is rather the very human tendency to pay attention to the signals that support current expectations about enemy behavior.” (392)
The most valuable lesson that can be learned from the role of intelligence at Pearl Harbor is the absolute necessity of approaching information with an open mind, always being aware that the intentions of a potential enemy can be obscured by the analyst’s dogmatic preconceptions.
THE SMOKING GUN
In the sixty years since the Pearl Harbor disaster the search has persisted for the one person on whom the responsibility for the deaths and destruction can be levied. Most revisionists focus on President Roosevelt and his close circle of advisors, accusing them of deliberately withholding vital intelligence information from the Hawaii commanders, Admiral Kimmel and General Walter C. Short. (Toland 318) The Roberts board accused the two flag officers of “dereliction of duty,” the most onerous and shameful of charges that could be leveled at professional military officers, short of treason (Prange At Dawn 600-603). The Army and Navy investigative boards, while not excusing Short and Kimmel completely, nevertheless found fault with the ability of the command structure in Washington to promptly pass pertinent and vital information to the field commanders, which could have affected the readiness posture of the forces in Hawaii. (Prange 652-653) There are even allegations that Army Chief of Staff and future Secretary of State George C. Marshall deliberately falsified information in order to keep himself clear of suspicion (Toland Infamy 101). Yet, within all the allegations, charges and counter-charges remains the important question of how the United States government and military establishment with the assets and strength available to them could have been so completely surprised. The answer to this question lies neither in Washington or Pearl Harbor. To really identify this root cause, we must again examine the issue of historical context.
When the United States entered World War I, it was with a great deal of excitement and patriotic fervor. Politicians promised it would be “the war to end all wars,” otherwise it is doubtful that a reluctant public would have supported such a commitment. Once the war ended in 1918, there ensued over two decades of peace. In those years, Americans, feeling disconnected and insulated by the Atlantic from the troubles in Europe, tried as much a possible to draw into a shell of isolationism. This period was profoundly marked by a dizzying era of prosperity and frivolity, euphemistically called “The Roaring Twenties,” followed by the onset of the Great Depression and the agricultural disaster of the Dust Bowl. Faced with economic and
social challenges and issues of survival, Americans directed almost all their energies and attentions inward even more. When parents were daily faced with the very real possibility
that their children could go hungry and homeless, the aggressive affairs of Germany, Italy, and Japan seemed irrelevant at best. Growing and learning within this shell-like environment Americans were unable and unwilling to face a new set of troubles from outside. Even as the country began to rebound economically, Americans, both public and private, lulled themselves into a false sense of security, reassured by statements like this one which appeared in the Chicago Tribune on Navy Day, 1941: “She (Japan) cannot attack us. That is a military impossibility. Even our base at Hawaii is beyond the effective striking power of her Fleet. And what has Japan that we want? Nothing.” (Prange Verdict 4)
Attitudes of self-indulgence, misplaced confidence, and a stark unwillingness to assume leadership in a world that so desperately needed it was every bit as responsible for the surprise of the attack. In this respect, the blood of the dead stained the hands of all Americans.
It is hard for us today to understand such attitudes unless our historical context is considered.
In the decades after World War II, Americans, like all humans on this planet, lived under the threat of global destruction. Teetering on this precipice of nuclear war became our natural posture. We became jaded by conflict and inured to bloodshed. In his novel of nuclear war, Alas, Babylon, Pat Frank discussed the effect on children growing up in such an environment:
“All their lives, ever since they’ve known anything, they’ve lived under the shadow of war -- nuclear war. For them, the abnormal has become normal. All their lives they have heard nothing else, and they expect it; they’re conditioned. A child (of the past) would quickly go mad with fear in the world of today.” (Frank 85)
This became our world; children raised on violence and prosperity. For the children of the 30’s, their world was peace and poverty. Is it any wonder that between those generations there existed a gap of monumental misunderstanding?
The attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 was, on the surface, a brilliant tactical stroke and a bitter defeat inflicted by an enemy previously perceived to be of almost cartoonlike ineptness. The outstanding lesson to be learned is that we cannot afford complacency. If the government and military of the pre-war days were possessed of unimaginative routine, then the people of a freely elected representational government are then partially responsible for not demanding a more alert posture. There is simply no substitute for a well informed and participating electorate.
America, a nation that actively hid from global power and responsibility, was drawn into conflict by two governments, Germany and Japan, who badly wanted both.
There was no conspiracy present in 1941. The allegations, however compelling, of collusion between the Roosevelt administration and the military commanders in Washington are unsupportable by any hard facts available anywhere. There was, however, a great deal of complacency present. In a democracy, the citizenry must take an active role and hold government’s allegorical feet to the fire, particularly on issues of national security. And as the tragic events of September 11th proved, if America tries to hide from the world, the world will still come looking for America.
In this, the 6th decade since the attack on Pearl Harbor, the world is still a dangerous place. The United States has been thrust by the events of history into the role of the sole remaining hegemon on the planet. Now, as then, this is not a responsibility Americans can avoid or deny. The world looks to America for leadership and justice. No reluctance, wishful thinking or false modesty on our part can to the slightest degree ameliorate that burden; For it is our burden whether we want it or not. America must remain awake, alert, and willing to entertain the darkest fears about potential foes. In conclusion, it is vital for us as a nation to consider the inherent lesson of Pearl Harbor. In the words of Thomas Jefferson:
“The price of Freedom is eternal vigilance.”
The Record of the United States Congress, December
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