- Historic Sites
Fdr: Not Guilty I Don’t Buy It
July/August 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 5
Admiral Richardson distorts both the events surrounding the attack on Pearl Harbor and what I have written about them. Far from being “preoccupied with blame fixing,” I wrote that Adm. Husband Kimmel and Gen. Walter Short, the Navy and Army commanders at Pearl Harbor, “were dedicated, patriotic men who served their country to the best of their ability and should not be singled out for censure” and that “I, for one, would have nothing against restoring them to their full ranks. . .”
My objection was and is to a congressional resolution that not only urged the President to exculpate both men but added that they “were not provided necessary and critical intelligence ... that would have alerted them to prepare for the attack.” I believe this to be simply wrong. Worse, it was disingenuous—a way to slip the crux of a conspiracy theory past unwitting members of Congress and into the historical record. Admiral Richardson writes that this supposed plot is “peripheral” to his objectives, then proceeds to perpetuate the myth of a conspiracy with various insinuations.
As I wrote, there is plenty of blame to go around for what happened at Pearl Harbor. There was additional information that the Washington high command could and should have shared with the commanders at Pearl. The base was undermanned, and our general lack of military preparedness at the time was, as I termed it, “unforgivable.” Yet I cannot agree that Kimmel and Short should be absolved of all command responsibility—or that they were deprived of information that could have made any meaningful difference in the battle. On the face of it, I find the contention preposterous that a major American military base could not be defended against an enemy that had to travel over 3,000 miles to attack it.
Admiral Richardson seems to me to be arguing along two contradictory tracks. On the one hand, he claims that Pearl Harbor did not have the aircraft available to make an effective reconnaissance of the waters around Hawaii. On the other, he says the commanders at Pearl were stymied by not having the necessary intelligence to do so. Taking up the first point, were Kimmel and Short actually unable to make any effective reconnaissance by air? Certainly they could have benefited from more —and more modern—planes. Yet Gordon Prange, in his classic study At Dawn We Slept , cites several occasions during war crises earlier in 1941 when both Army and Navy forces at Pearl instituted more extensive surveillance. He concludes, “Obviously, Kimmel and Short could go all out when they believed the situation justified; therefore, it is difficult to understand why they did not take similar action upon receipt of the war warning [of November 27, 1941].”
Prange found the commanders most negligent in failing to make any attempt to cover the northwest sector of the approach to Hawaii. He quoted the judgment of Rear Adm. Patrick Bellinger that this area “was considered the most vital … because the prevailing winds were from the northeast, and enemy carriers could thus recover their planes while retiring from the Oahu area.” The northwest sector was also the most empty approach to Hawaii and thus the one through which any attacker would have the best chance for surprise.
Yes, as Admiral Richardson points out, the planes in question were not equipped with radar, and they could not have conducted a constant, efficient search of the area indefinitely. Yet it was still possible simply to see ships, even out in the middle of the Pacific; the Battle of Midway turned on one such lucky sighting. Nor does any of this explain why nearly all our aircraft were caught on the ground, without their ammunition readily available.
We must also examine what surveillance was being conducted by Pearl’s defenders on the morning of December 7. Pearl Harbor’s planes did not have radar, but its ground defenders did. They even picked up the first wave of Japanese planes coming in toward Honolulu. Unfortunately, the Army team assigned to work the radar reported its findings and were told by their superior officer that the attackers must actually be a (much smaller) number of American planes due in.
Defenders of General Short have argued that radar was a new weapon that was not yet fully understood. In fact, he had been given a powerful new surveillance capability that he did not adequately inform himself about and handed over to officers who were insufficiently trained or derelict in their duty. Surely this constitutes a failure of command responsibility.
Then there is the issue of the Japanese midget-submarine attacks on the morning of December 7. When American ships spotted and fired upon the submarines just outside the harbor, and this was promptly reported to Admiral Kimmel, his only response was to tell his staff to “keep him informed.” This despite the fact that the only way in which Kimmel actually feared the Japanese would assault Pearl was through submarine attacks.