CONGRESS IS TRYING TO LEGISLATE THE HISTORY OF WHAT HAPPENED ON THE EVE OF PEARL HARBOR
What 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.
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.
“These are historical judgments rendered without evidence or meaning,” was how Ambassador William vanden Heuvel, chairman of the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute, characterized both the King “trial” and the congressional resolution for Kimmel and Short. Which also brings us back to our original question: What is history? It is all that we are now, and all that we believe ourselves to be. If we are to start now tearing ourselves down, knocking apart everything we know to be the truth, not on the basis of any new evidence or research but simply to serve some narrow purpose or ancient grudge, what will be left of us? Wouldn’t that reduce us to a nation of seething suspicion, bereft of a common reality? If the U.S. Congress were to pass a resolution claiming that Husband Kimmel and Walter Short were dedicated, patriotic men who served their country to their best of their ability and should not be singled out for censure- if it were to declare that they did no worse than, say, even such a commander as Douglas MacArthur, who was caught with his planes on the ground in the Philippines the day after Pearl Harbor- then I, for one, would have nothing against restoring them to their full ranks, and I suspect that nearly all Americans would feel the same way.
Or, if the Congress really does believe that “critical intelligence” was withheld from the garrison at Pearl Harbor, it ought to hold fair and balanced hearings on the matter and lay out all its findings to the public. To conduct its business as it has is to sneak a conspiracy theory through the back door of the people’s house. It sets a sorry precedent.