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FDR: Guilty Short & Kimmel Were Scapegoats
July/August 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 5
Some historians hold that the plethora of incoming information made it possible to see the importance of the foregoing messages only in retrospect. If so, that fog was cleared by a most unusual initiative by Ambassador Nomura, who one day in November sent a young naval officer to contact Capt. William R. Smedburg III, an aide to Admiral Stark, to arrange a secret meeting with our chief of naval operations (CNO). Captain Smedburg picked up the ambassador on Massachusetts Avenue, drove him to Stark’s quarters, then after the meeting returned Nomura to the Massachusetts Avenue drop-off for his walk back to his embassy. According to Smedburg, Nomura told Stark, “Admiral, if the United States doesn’t ease up on these sanctions against Japan, the military men in my country are going to be driven to doing something desperate—.” The virtual ultimatum issued by Secretary of State Cordell Hull on November 26 was harsh and did, indeed, play into the hands of Tokyo’s militarists. “When they came out [after the meeting], Admiral Nomura had tears in his eyes. I then dropped him off on Massachusetts Avenue,” records Smedburg. Stark told Smedburg that Nomura had said that “the Japanese Army, which headed the Japanese war party, didn’t understand the power and potential of the United States. He said he had tried in vain to tell them that Japan could never win in a war against the United States.” Stark and General Marshall then went to see the President with Nomura’s comments. Both of them “told Roosevelt that under no circumstances could the United States accept a war in the near future.”
Equally strange is what then followed. According to Smedburg, Roosevelt told Hull to modify his (Hull’s) very vigorous resistance to any easing of sanctions. But shortly thereafter “Navy people” learned that Hull’s strong reply had gone out without any modification whatsoever. Stark and Marshall then “got the President to admit that after Hull got back to the State Department all his advisers had impressed on him the fact that the Japanese respected firmness, and if he gave in, he would lose face—” Hull called the President. Roosevelt agreed. None of the information about these crucial developments was provided to Kimmel or Short.
This was just the sort of information Kimmel had clearly been seeking in a formal letter he personally delivered to Admiral Stark in June 1941. In it, Kimmel referred to his distance from the seat of government “in complex and rapidly changing situations,” and to his belief that there perhaps was confusion regarding who in the CNO’s office was responsible for keeping him informed, and concluded: “It is suggested that it be made a cardinal principle that the Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Fleet, be immediately informed of all important developments as they occur and by the quickest secure means possible.”
In a recent exchange of correspondence with me, the distinguished senior military commander Army Gen. Andrew Goodpaster underscored the importance of timely information: “You speak of the aggressor choosing time, place and circumstances of the attack. This caught my eye because it is exactly the point I repeatedly made to NATO and US authority when I served as SACEUR [supreme Allied commander, Europe]. I emphasize that because they, the Russians, could have the initiative. The Soviets could choose the time, and place and mode of attack. Powerful advantages which meant that I should be furnished and be free to act upon the best possible intelligence to provide warning. This is exactly what was not provided to Admiral Kimmel and General Short.” Military officers who supported the recent congressional initiative cite a failure of information support as the reason Kimmel and Short were surprised.
Some historians find Kimmel and Short negligent in not using available aircraft for long-range search. But consider the nature of the problem. At sunset the evening before the attack, the Japanese were about 550 miles away. Search aircraft should fly no farther than 20 miles apart. There were no airborne radars. At 550 miles out and with 20 miles’ separation, 45 aircraft would be needed each day to search a semicircle. Of the 49 PBYs ready for assignment at Pearl, 36 would have been at top availability for search at the outset, fewer two or three days later. PBYs flew at about 100 knots. Of each 14-hour flight, 11 hours would have been spent outside the search area. Ask your airline pilot about the reasonableness of a nine-day search by 36 of 49 aircrews in flight 14 hours each day.
When I am asked, “Then if not Kimmel and Short, who is to blame for the disaster?” I respond, “The Japanese.” Our President saw Hitler as a threat to Western civilization. Even though his body politic opposed an involvement in a European war, he believed helping Britain was paramount. He assumed risks for valid strategic purposes, and his transfer of the Yorktown to the Atlantic that April was a great risk. For those who play the blame game, there is this question: What might have been the consequences had the President not shifted major naval forces away from Hawaii to buttress aid to Britain?