FDR: Guilty Short & Kimmel Were Scapegoats

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President Roosevelt, Secretary of State Hull, the service secretaries Knox and Stimson, Admiral Stark, and General Marshall all were highly competent, assiduous, responsible individuals. We must assume that their actions were logical in light of what they knew. They were functioning at a time of great military danger. Their belief in late November that Borneo, the Kra Peninsula, and the Philippines were the threatened targets underwent a major change that culminated on December 6. Recent deciphered messages and the 14-part message and its delivery instructions together had indicated Pearl Harbor as the initial target. If Kimmel sortied, an already out-of-control situation would likely become much worse. In some way not recorded, the administration made the decision not to notify Hawaii for fear Kimmel would sortie the fleet. (Secretary Knox thought Kimmel had been informed. When he arrived at Pearl four days after the attack, he asked, “Didn’t you get the warning we sent Saturday?” When Kimmel replied in the negative, Knox asked others and got the same answer. No warning had been sent. About 10:30 A.M. on Sunday, Stark’s briefer urged him to call Kimmel. Stark picked up his phone, then slowly put it down, saying he would call the President instead. The President? For permission to discuss even the possibility of an attack with his fleet CinC? If not that, what? He did call the President but was told he could not then be put through. In a series of recorded comments dated May 4, 1961, Gen. Carter Clarke, an expert on codes who had been serving on Marshall’s staff the morning of December 7, tells of that staff’s frustration at its inability to persuade Marshall to call Short. Both Army and Navy staffs fully understood the threat to Oahu. The reluctance of Stark and Marshall to alert their subordinates in Hawaii and their unbelievable claims that they couldn’t remember where they were that night of the sixth make sense when viewed as postulated above.

The historical record shows that Kimmel’s prescribed defense preparations functioned as planned. Thirty-nine Japanese attacking aircraft were shot down during the attacks. Kimmel’s standing orders, when in port, required battleships to man half their antiaircraft batteries with ammo at the ready, smaller ships one-fourth. In those days before air conditioning, battleships were steel boxes in a hot sun, cooled mainly by wind scoops in portholes to trap the northeast trades. General quarters would not be routinely set without information of a specific, imminent threat. And setting GQ was Kimmel’s sole sensible remaining course of action that awful morning.

We know that Short had two options: have armed pursuit aircraft ready for launch and implement a flyaway of all other military and civilian aircraft. The latter required elaborate advance planning that would have violated his war warning not to alarm civilians—including just under 200,000 of Japanese descent—or to reveal his intent. Short notified Washington of his plan to protect his forces only against sabotage. Marshall knew that and failed to advise Short otherwise. Thus, Short’s failure to implement these essentially last-day and last-hours readiness measures is directly attributable to Washington’s intelligence support failure, just as the information held in Washington would have allowed Kimmel the opportunity to set general quarters. It would have permitted Short to ready his pursuit aircraft, to plan for and execute a flyaway of all other aircraft. And, indeed, Kimmel might have sortied.

Finally, I quote Adm. Raymond Spruance: “I have always felt that Kimmel and Short were held responsible for Pearl Harbor in order that the American people might have no reason to lose confidence in their government in Washington. This was probably justifiable under the circumstances at that time, but it does not justify forever damning these two fine officers.” Admiral Spruance, the victor at the Battle of Midway, the turning point of the Pacific war that began that morning, was the top combat commander of naval forces throughout most of its remaining years, a position he alternated with Adm. William Halsey. Others who held similar views were Admiral Kimmel’s predecessor, Adm. J. O. Richardson (no kin), Adm. Chester Nimitz, Kimmel’s relief as Pacific Fleet commander, Admiral Halsey, and Adm. W. H. Standley, the last a member of the Roberts Commission. Predominant among latter-day military professionals who support the restoration of the commanders in Hawaii are two former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—Adm. Thomas Moorer and Adm. William Crowe; three former chiefs of naval operations —Adm. Jim Holloway, Adm. Elmo Zumwalt, and Adm. Carlisle Trost; and former NATO supreme Allied commander, Europe, the Army general Andrew Goodpaster.

For succinctness, no defense of Admiral Kimmel and General Short tops that of Admiral Moorer: “I have always maintained that had Nelson and Napoleon been in command in Pearl, the results would have been the same.”