- 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.
Then there is Admiral Richardson’s second track. Despite his contention that the defenses of Pearl were fatally underequipped, he also insists that further warnings from Washington might have made a real difference. Yet the commanders at Pearl Harbor had been warned repeatedly by Washington, throughout the fall of 1941, that war with Japan appeared imminent. These warnings included the November 27 message that began, “This dispatch is to be considered a war warning,” and ended by ordering Admiral Kimmel to “execute appropriate defensive deployment…” Admiral Kimmel’s commander of submarines at the time, Rear Adm. Thomas Withers, later told a Navy court of inquiry that on being shown the dispatch, he told Kimmel, “I think it means war.”
It is true that most of the warnings that autumn emphasized the likelihood of Japanese actions in the South Seas, including the Philippines. That is, after all, where most of the American military establishment, including Kimmel and Short, expected the first blow to fall. It is also true that Washington generally warned area commanders against firing the first shot. This did not mean that Washington would object to the forces at Pearl Harbor firing on a Japanese task force that was about to attack it, and these instructions did not significantly alter their behavior. As Admiral Kimmel himself later testified at the same Navy court of inquiry,”… if we had sighted anything 700 miles from Oahu, I think I would have found some means to handle the situation, insofar as the forces I had available would have permitted me.”
EVEN IF THE “EAST WIND RAIN” MESSAGE HAD BEEN SENT, WOULD IT HAVE MATTERED?
Admiral Richardson refers to several warnings that he claims the commanders at Pearl were not given. The first of these is known as the “bomb plot” warning. This was a message sent from the Japanese Foreign Ministry to the Japanese consulate in Honolulu, ordering that the consulate divide the waters of Pearl Harbor into a grid and report on all American ship movements within the grid blocks. It reads: “With regard to warships and aircraft carriers, we would like to have you report on those at anchor (these are not so important), tied up at wharves, buoys and in docks. (Designate types and classes briefly. If possible we would like to have you make mention of the fact when there are two or more vessels alongside the same wharf.)”
The message was sent on September 24, 1941, intercepted, and translated by U.S. Army intelligence on October 9. It never did get to Kimmel and Short. The general interpretation of it was that the Japanese were most interested in seeing what American ships sortied, and how fast, in order to get a heads-up report if the American fleet left Pearl Harbor. Of course, this message should have been forwarded to Pearl Harbor, and both Short and Kimmel were understandably bitter about not receiving it. Yet, in light of their inaction after the warnings they did receive, it is not at all clear that it would have made a difference.
The same can be said for the “East wind rain” message that Admiral Richardson mentions—one of the best-known bits of conspiracy-theory lore. On November 29, 1941, the Japanese Foreign Ministry sent out a message informing Admiral Nomura, its ambassador in Washington, that in case diplomatic relations were about to be terminated— and if communications were cut off —a message would be added to the standard daily Japanese-language shortwave radio broadcast. The message was: for Japanese-U.S. relations, “East wind rain"; for Japanese-Soviet relations, “North wind cloudy"; and “West wind clear” for Japanese-British relations.
Consulates and ministries around the world were to respond by burning their codes and other papers. Washington took this directive to heart upon intercepting it and immediately assigned four language officers to monitor all relevant broadcasts from Tokyo around the clock.
Cmdr. Laurence Safford did tell both a Navy 1944 board of inquiry and a 1945 congressional investigation that an “East wind rain” message had indeed been received; at the time, no other officer could recall ever picking up such a message. Nor could Safford remember much of anything about when he had heard “East wind rain” or how his superiors had reacted when he had told them about it. Other listeners testified that there had been a number of false alarms, but none remembered intercepting anything like “East wind rain.”
And why would they? It would have meant all communications between Japan’s Foreign Ministry and its diplomats in the United States had been cut off, but in fact they were never terminated until after the attack on Pearl Harbor. There was no need to send such a message, and there is no credible evidence that Japan ever did. But even if the “East wind rain” message had been received on December 4, 1941 (and if every officer who saw it, save for Commander Safford and General Clarke, either lied about it to both a Navy board and the U.S. Congress or somehow forgot), would it have made any difference to Kimmel and Short?
On December 3, 1941, Kimmel was informed by his chief intelligence officer, Lt. Cmdr. Edward T. Layton, that Japanese embassies and consulates around the world were destroying their code machines. Kimmel never denied this; in fact, he later testified that he hadn’t thought the widespread destruction of the Japanese codes to be “of any vital importance.. . . .”
Instead, Admiral Kimmel went on to say that “Japan would naturally take precautions to prevent the compromise of her communication system in the event that her action in Southeast Asia caused Britain and the United States to declare war, and take over her diplomatic residences.”
This testimony provides an invaluable window to Kimmel’s thinking on the eve of the war. Like everyone else, he was convinced that any conflict would start in Southeast Asia. Even more important, he found nothing significant in the Japanese destroying their code machines. Admiral Richardson wants us to believe that Kimmel would have been alarmed by an order to Japanese consulates and embassies around the world to burn their codes and wreck their code machines—when in fact, Kimmel was not alarmed by a report from his own intelligence officer that the Japanese were doing just that.
Nor was Kimmel alone in his complacence. On December 6, 1941, General Short was advised by his assistant intelligence officer, Lt. Col. George Bicknell, that the Japanese consulate in Hawaii was burning its papers, something Bicknell thought was “very significant, in view of the present situation.” Short later admitted that he did not consider this “a matter of importance.”
Finally, Admiral Richardson refers to the famous 14-point Japanese reply to the latest U.S. proposals. The first 13 parts were intercepted by U.S. code-breakers before they could be officially presented to Secretary of State Cordell Hull. They were translated and delivered to the White House sometime after 9:00 P.M. on December 6. There is no credible account of President Roosevelt’s telling his family or anyone else that the United States would definitely be at war the next day, but never mind. FDR clearly indicated to Harry Hopkins that he expected war in the Pacific. Yet he still did not believe it to be absolutely inevitable. That very day he had fired off an eloquent, personal appeal to Emperor Hirohito, in a last-ditch attempt to preserve the peace. There is also no record that Roosevelt indicated in any way that he thought war would come first to Pearl Harbor.
Moreover, the Japanese note was not a declaration of war. Not even the fourteenth part, which was not intercepted and decoded until some time between 8:30 and 9:00 A.M. on December 7, Washington time, or between 3:00 and 3:30 A.M. Hawaiian time. In fact, the Japanese note did not even break diplomatic relations; it merely broke off negotiations.
Around the same time, early on the morning of December 7, another Japanese message was intercepted. It requested their ambassador to submit a reply to the United States government (to the Secretary of State, if possible) at 1:00 P.M. on the seventh, his time.
ULTIMATELY, MOST CONSPIRACY THEORIES FALL APART OVER THEIR OWN INTERNAL LOGIC.
This specified time immediately raised all sorts of suspicions among both Army and Navy intelligence officers, and they scrambled to get copies of it to Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall, and the Navy chief, Harold Stark. This took a little time on a Sunday morning, but the messages were passed on. Thereafter followed a well-documented fiasco, in which atmospheric conditions blocked the sending of the Army’s message directly to Hawaii. The communications officer in charge decided to send the message by Western Union, and it arrived only after the attack was already in progress.
Was this, then, the necessary and critical piece of information withheld from Pearl, albeit only by accident? It’s plausible enough—until one considers that at approximately the very time the Army was trying to send its message—6:30 A.M. , Hawaiian time—U.S. ships were busy engaging and sinking a Japanese submarine just outside Pearl Harbor. Is it likely that Kimmel would have been jolted into action by word that negotiations had broken off when he was not especially alarmed by the actual start of the Japanese attack?
It is in discussing the failure to pass on this final warning that Admiral Richardson again moves into the territory of conspiracy theorizing. He writes: “In some way not recorded, the administration made the decision not to notify Hawaii for fear Kimmel would sortie the fleet.” For evidence, Admiral Richardson claims that Admiral Stark’s “briefer” urged him to call Admiral Kimmel after receiving the fourteenth part of the Japanese message. At the time, Stark was conferring with Cmdr. Arthur H. McCollum and Cmdr. Theodore S. Wilkinson. Both men testified before Congress and the Navy court, and neither said that they urged Stark to call Hawaii. Indeed, Commander Wilkinson stated that it “never occurred” to him “it would be appropriate or advisable” to warn Pearl Harbor, chiefly because he thought “that an approaching force would be detected before it could get into attack range.”
Nor is there any record that Admiral Stark tried, as Admiral Richardson writes, to call President Roosevelt but was not put through. This does not even make sense as part of a conspiracy. Why would Roosevelt refuse to speak to his coconspirator—and the Navy chief of staff—without knowing what he had to say? What if something had gone wrong with their conspiracy?
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.
That this policy was unsuccessful is certainly beyond question, but neither the embargo nor any other U.S. action made war inevitable. The brutal military clique that controlled Japan in 1941 had convinced itself that the nation could not survive unless it conquered Manchuria, vast chunks of China, Indochina, Burma, Thailand, the Dutch East Indies, the Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia, most of the Pacific Ocean, and—presumably after that—India, Australia, and New Zealand. In short, about a good half of the physical world. Such a policy was bound to bring grief upon the Japanese people, no matter what the United States did.
To suggest that we had no right to apply sanctions against a ruthless, paranoid dictatorship is to abridge our rights as a sovereign nation. It is also the sort of thinking that has been characterized as “Blame America first.”
Admiral Richardson writes that when he is asked whom to blame for the disaster at Pearl Harbor, he replies, “The Japanese.” I agree. Yet the admiral, like so many other conspiracy theorists, goes on to find other, American culprits, and I think his allegations are worth replying to at such length because I fear this sort of theorizing is threatening our national sense of reality. Recently, the Fox television network ran a documentary “exploring” whether or not the first moon landing really took place. An otherwise reputable publisher put out a book a few years ago that claimed General Eisenhower had deliberately starved hundreds of thousands of German prisoners to death in 1945. Millions of Americans now firmly believe in the most outlandish conspiracies concerning space aliens, devil worshipers, child molesters, and every major assassination in our history.
In order to continue as a mature and rational people—in order to continue as a democracy —we cannot continue to believe that our destiny, that our every course of action, is orchestrated by dark and mysterious forces beyond our control. This sort of fantasizing promises us enlightenment, but, in fact, it can bring us only apathy, paralysis, and submission.