Another Day Of Infamy

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On December 6, the very eve of the Japanese attack, General Short was informed that the Japanese consulate in Honolulu was burning its papers, something his chief intelligence officer regarded as “very significant.” Short later recalled receiving the information but “did not consider it a matter of importance.”

On the morning of December 7, about an hour before the Japanese planes struck, Kimmel was informed that his ships had sunk a Japanese minisub trying to enter Pearl Harbor.

One is tempted to be flippant and ask, “Just what part of ‘This despatch is to be considered a war warning’ didn’t you understand?,” but that would be unfair. Few people can even begin to comprehend what it must be like to command a large base in time of war. The constant barrage of information received in such circumstances, most of it scurrilous or irrelevant, can obscure what seems, with the advantage of hindsight, to be the most direct of warnings. What these messages do make clear, however, is the weakness of the conspiracy theories surrounding Pearl Harbor. If Franklin Roosevelt or anyone else in Washington had wanted Pearl Harbor caught by surprise, why pass on such direct advisories to the base there? Why, for that matter, would any Commander in Chief want his forces caught napping in the first place? All Washington had to do was to give Pearl Harbor an explicit last-minute warning and Japan’s fleet would have been caught flatfooted, thousands of miles from its home waters and close to nothing but American possessions. A sneak attack in which Americans ably defended themselves and beat back the attackers would have looked far better for the President—and still got us into war.

Yet any objective look at the historical record shows that far from trying to provoke a war in the Pacific, the Roosevelt administration was doing its best to forestall one. FDR and his closest advisers had always viewed Hitler and Nazi Germany as the leading threat to the United States, and they feared that the country would be distracted from this menace by a war with Japan.

True, Germany was supposed to come to Japan’s aid under the terms of the Axis pact, but then, Hitler was hardly known for honoring his treaties. Roosevelt actually pursued what amounted to a stalling strategy in Asia for months, alternating economic embargoes with conciliatory negotiations. Obviously, the policy was a failure, but it was nevertheless one that FDR pursued right up to the end, sending a direct last-ditch appeal for peace to Emperor Hirohito on December 6.

Indeed, Roosevelt’s “date that will live in infamy” speech to Congress asks for a declaration of war only against Japan. Even with that there might have been some difficulty in getting us into the war in Europe had Hitler not been arrogant enough to beat us to the punch, declaring war on the United States on December 11.

It is, in the end, disturbing that one even has to debunk this sort of libel against men like Franklin Roosevelt and George Marshall. Certainly, history is an ongoing process of revision and debate, and mistrust of any received wisdom can be a good thing. Yet most of the promulgators of conspiracy theories are not engaging in anything like a serious historical debate. Rather they are using a whole series of other forums—shoddy television shows, sensational movies such as Oliver Stone’s ongoing chronicles of American paranoia, and now legal and political actions—to push their propaganda across without serious scrutiny.

In November and December 1999, to take another example, the family of the late Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., used a wrongful-death suit to press their belief that Dr. King was assassinated not by James Earl Ray but by a much wider government conspiracy, one possibly orchestrated by President Lyndon Johnson. The Kings’ lawyer, a. longtime conspiracy theorist, exploited the opportunity to fill an official court record with all sorts of innuendo and speculation about the civil rights leader’s death. He thereby pre-empted a thorough new Justice Department investigation, begun in 1998 and concluded last June, that found no evidence of a government conspiracy.