FDR: Guilty Short & Kimmel Were Scapegoats

PrintPrintEmailEmail“Another day of infamy.” By that choice of title in April’s issue, Kevin Baker expresses outrage at recent congressional action designed to restore the reputations of Rear Adm. Husband E. Kimmel and Maj. Gen. Walter C. Short, the commanders in Hawaii at the time of the Pearl Harbor disaster. Baker states that this action sneaks “a conspiracy theory through the back door of the people’s house,” and in so doing “it sets a sorry precedent.” That theory alleges that President Roosevelt was forewarned of the coming attack. Baker asks: “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?” Excellent questions, but surprising, especially in light of his earlier comment that “all Washington had to do was to give Pearl Harbor an explicit last-minute warning and Japan’s fleet would have been caught flat-footed, thousands of miles from its home waters.” If Kevin Baker’s history asserts that the commanders in Hawaii could somehow have caught the Japanese flat-footed, then his version of truth sorely needs getting knocked apart.

Let me assure readers at the outset that for every assertion I present as fact, I hold written evidence for those who need to inquire more thoroughly into both the facts and the mystery of what then occurred.

Since Mr. Baker’s column expresses such strong objection to the recent congressional initiative, and the author himself seems preoccupied with blame fixing, I think it would be useful to explain my purpose. My name was mentioned in the congressional amendment; my presentation of the operational realities that bore on what happened on December 7, 1941, was a factor in the congressional decision. Thirty-five years ago, in 1966, I commanded our carrier task forces in the Gulf of Tonkin. I quickly learned that timely intelligence helped accomplish missions and saved lives. I applied that knowledge and preached that gospel while on active duty in three subsequent assignments. In 1982, quite by chance, I had occasion to inquire into events surrounding the Pearl Harbor calamity. It quickly became clear to me that this was the perfect parable to help register in top-level administrative and military minds the fact that high-quality, timely information is essential. My purpose was to teach lessons from past mistakes so as to avoid repeating them; the theory that Roosevelt had been forewarned about the attack was peripheral to this objective.

The date of November 26, 1941, is enormously significant. On that day, over strong objections from Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Harold R. Stark and Army Chief of Staff Gen. George C. Marshall, the administration issued a virtual ultimatum setting forth conditions that Japan would have to satisfy for the two nations to coexist peacefully. Predominant among the 10 demands for lifting the oil embargo America had imposed were that “the government of Japan will withdraw all military, naval, air and police forces from China and from Indochina” and that neither government would support any Chinese regime other than the Nationalist Government of the Republic of China in Chungking, with which Japan was then at war. This set of demands cemented Japan’s decision to initiate war. We only know what the administration did; why the ultimatum was issued and how it came about are for historians to resolve. But none of these crucial developments was reported to either Admiral Kimmel or General Short.

There is no factual basis for Mr. Baker’s assertion that Kimmel’s fleet or Short’s defensive capabilities could have caught the Japanese force “flat-footed.” On the morning of the attack and during the preceding day, Admiral Kimmel had seven operable battleships and no aircraft carriers. His eighth battleship, his flagship, was in dry dock, his ninth in overhaul. Battleships’ speeds were 16 knots; their weapons range was 15 miles. The Japanese used six aircraft carriers with speeds greater than 30 knots, and their weapons range was 300 miles. The Japanese deployed 29 submarines, which were every bit as dangerous as their aircraft carriers. In short, by midmorning on December 6, the Japanese commander had achieved full control over subsequent events. If Kimmel tried to escape, what Japanese submarines missed the Japanese aircraft could then seek out and sink. He had no viable operational means either to defeat the attack or to save himself. The only remaining issue was the extent of damages the American fleet would suffer and the cost to the Japanese in lost aircraft for their effort.

Three of Kimmel’s task forces were away from Pearl Harbor during the attack. On November 27, the carrier Enterprise task group departed Pearl with Marine fighter aircraft bound for Wake Island. On December 5, the carrier Lexington task group left with fighters for Midway (the carrier Saratoga was on the West Coast for repairs). Ordered by Washington to transfer 50 Army pursuit planes to reinforce Wake and Midway, Kimmel substituted Marine fighters because there was no way to offload the Army aircraft. A third task force, an amphibious one, was en route to Johnson Island. It is hard to reconcile an order to transfer half the Army pursuit-aircraft strength to reinforce outer islands with the notion that Washington thought on November 26 that Pearl Harbor was a likely target.