Another Day Of Infamy

PrintPrintEmailEmailWhat is history? Is it something we decide on the best available evidence, weighing and culling the many varied accounts of the past? Or is it, instead, something to be decreed and imposed on us, decided by what some politicians say or maybe a judge somewhere? These questions may seem banal or obvious, but they have become very real —ever since the U.S. Congress recently decided to write the main tenet of a conspiracy theory into an official bill.

The amendment in question was tacked onto a defense bill and passed by both houses of Congress last October. It calls on the President to restore Rear Adm. Husband E. Kimmel and Maj. Gen. Walter C. Short posthumously to the highest ranks they held at the onset of World War II.

Kimmel and Short were, respectively, the Navy and Army commanders at Pearl Harbor at the time of the Japanese sneak attack there; they were demoted upon their subsequent forced retirements. Asking to restore their ranks is the most, legally, that our national legislature can do. The final decision will rest with the President. Congress would like him to exculpate both men, because they “were not provided necessary and critical intelligence . .. that would have alerted them to prepare for the attack.”

This last line is the rub. It passes the buck for the fiasco at Pearl Harbor to the high command in Washington at the time, most prominently President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Army Chief of Staff Gen. George C. Marshall. In so doing, it gives credence to the very ur-conspiracy theory of American history, the notion that Roosevelt or Marshall or both knew the Japanese attack was coming but deliberately kept the Pearl Harbor garrison in the dark, in order to maneuver America into World War II.

The backers of the bill have insisted that they are not passing on blame to any particular person or persons. Former Delaware senator William V. Roth, Jr., the amendment’s main sponsor, claims that what happened at Pearl Harbor “was a systemic failure in which the gravest mistakes were made by the Washington authorities.” But this is disingenuous, at best—a clever political maneuver that makes for bad history. If “critical intelligence” was indeed withheld in Washington, intentionally or not, wasn’t someone to blame for the loss of 2,403 American lives on December 7,1941, the “date that will live in infamy”?

A series of military and congressional investigations in the 1940s sought to answer this very question. Their general conclusions were the same as those of a 1995 Pentagon review, which determined that responsibility for the defense of Pearl Harbor that terrible day “should be broadly shared” but that “the intelligence available to Adm. Kimmel and Gen. Short was sufficient to justify a higher level of vigilance than they chose to maintain.”

The vast majority of historians concur, and they are supported by the facts. There was plenty of infamy to go around for Pearl Harbor. The high command in Washington did blunder in not sharing every last scrap of information it had with Kimmel and Short. For that matter, even a garrison that knew the very moment of the Japanese attack would have had trouble resisting it, what with our unforgivable lack of preparedness more than two years after the rest of the world had marched off to war.

Yet Washington did pass on ample warnings that war might be imminent. On October 16, 1941, the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations (OPNAV) sent a message to Kimmel advising him that a new cabinet in Japan was likely to be “strongly nationalistic and antiAmerican.” It advised that “hostilities between Japan and Russia are a strong possibility” and went on to warn, “Since the US and Britain are held responsible by Japan for her present desperate situation there is also a possibility that Japan may attack these two powers. In view of these possibilities you will take due precautions. …”

A further Navy Department message, received by Kimmel on November 27, was even more explicit, beginning: “This despatch is to be considered a war warning. Negotiations with Japan looking toward stabilization of conditions in the Pacific have ceased and an aggressive move by Japan is expected within the next few days.” This message stated that the most likely target of a Japanese attack would be “either the Philippines Thai or Kra Peninsula or possibly Borneo” but ordered Kimmel to “execute an appropriate defensive deployment preparatory to carrying out the tasks assigned in WPL [War Plan] 46. Inform district and army authorities. A similar warning is being sent by War Department. …”

Finally, on December 3, 1941, the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations warned Kimmel that Japanese diplomats in London, Hong Kong, Singapore, Manila, and Washington had been instructed to destroy their top code machines “and all secret documents.” Remarkably, Kimmel would later testify that he did not consider the destruction of the code machines to be “of any vital importance.” Indeed, no warnings of any sort, from either Washington or their own intelligence officers, moved Short and Kimmel to take any special precautions.