Fdr: Not Guilty I Don’t Buy It

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Admiral Stark did call General Marshall, at 11:25 A.M. on December 7, and apparently discussed with him whether he should send a new warning out to Navy bases everywhere. He thought that “we had sent them so much already” that he “hesitated to send more.” In the end, he decided to let Marshall send out the warnings, with instructions that the Army pass them on to their Navy counterparts.

Admiral Richardson also makes much of Stark’s and Marshall’s “unbelievable claims that they couldn’t remember where they were that night of the sixth.…” He neglects to mention that both men were first asked about their whereabouts in the summer of 1944—nearly three years later, and still in the midst of a war in which they had staggering daily responsibilities. Several witnesses put Stark at a play in Washington that night—one he did remember seeing, if not necessarily that night. Marshall could not swear to where he had been, but Army records showed that someone was in his quarters to answer the phone, at least. These were some conspirators: able to engineer a war but so unsure about their alibis three years later, even with copious records and witnesses to back them up.

Ultimately, most conspiracy theories fall apart over their own internal logic. The supposed Pearl Harbor plots are no exception. If FDR was in fact colluding with Marshall and Stark, why, in the wake of Pearl Harbor, would he angrily demote Stark and pack him off to a lesser job in Europe, while honoring Marshall with a position of supreme importance?

If FDR and his alleged coconspirators really wanted the garrison at Pearl to be caught completely by surprise, why would they send on the numerous war warnings they did? If they wished to use Pearl Harbor to bring the United States into the Second World War—the usual motive, according to the conspiracists—why not give the base a last-minute warning? This not only would have achieved the same goal but might also have saved some American men and ships and made their Commander-in-Chief look much better.

Admiral Richardson quotes my assertion that any last-minute warning to Pearl Harbor would have caught the Japanese fleet “flat-footed” and interprets this as a claim that the United States would have won the resulting battle. No. The result of any such engagement between the Japanese task force and an alerted Pearl Harbor is, of course, unknowable. By flat-footed , I mean that the Japanese fleet would still, whatever happened, have been exposed as the aggressor it was.

Perhaps red-handed would have been a better word, but in any case the whole question of Japan’s aggression leads us to some of Admiral Richardson’s more disturbing allegations. According to his Captain Smedburg—a low-level naval aide somehow privy to the highest councils of state—Admiral Stark and General Marshall went to see the President shortly before Pearl Harbor and “told Roosevelt that under no circumstances could the United States accept a war in the near future.” This must have been a remarkable interview. War was unmistakably imminent by then, in the Pacific or in Europe, and for Marshall or Stark to have said that the United States could not “accept” it would have been ludicrous. Clearly, whether or not war came was no longer in our control.

Or was it? Admiral Richardson implies that the war in the Pacific was something that we thrust on the Japanese Empire. He refers to the “virtual ultimatum” we handed to Japan on November 26,1941, and suggests that some nefarious influence was used on both Roosevelt and Hull to make this ultimatum as stringent as possible.

In fact, our note of November 26 was not an ultimatum. It contained no threat of war. All it said was that we would continue our embargo of war matériel against Japan unless it ceased its policy of conquest in East Asia, recognized Chiang Kai-shek’s Chinese government, and terminated its odious pact with Hitler and Mussolini. This position was widely supported by Americans across the political spectrum, appalled as they were by the atrocities the Japanese Empire had already committed in waging almost continuous war against its Asian neighbors for a decade.

Nor did this note come out of thin air. The United States had proposed much more lenient terms to contain hostilities in the Far East. Then, on the morning of the twenty-sixth, President Roosevelt learned that the Japanese, while supposedly in the middle of serious negotiations, were surreptitiously moving five divisions toward Southeast Asia and the bases and colonies the United States, Britain, and the Netherlands held there. On hearing of the troop movement, Secretary of War Henry Stimson recorded, Roosevelt “fairly blew up, jumped up into the air, so to speak.”

Negotiations between Japan and the United States in the months leading up to Pearl Harbor were often characterized by mistrust, misunderstandings, and miscommunications that sometimes bordered on the comic. Yet throughout, the policy of the Roosevelt administration was clearly to try to keep Japan quiescent in the Far East through an alternating carrot-and-stick approach of negotiations and embargoes.