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FDR: Guilty Short & Kimmel Were Scapegoats

June 2024
12min read

“Another day of infamy.” By that choice of title in April’s issue, Kevin Baker expresses outrage at recent congressional action designed to restore the reputations of Rear Adm. Husband E. Kimmel and Maj. Gen. Walter C. Short, the commanders in Hawaii at the time of the Pearl Harbor disaster. Baker states that this action sneaks “a conspiracy theory through the back door of the people’s house,” and in so doing “it sets a sorry precedent.” That theory alleges that President Roosevelt was forewarned of the coming attack. Baker asks: “What is history? It is all that we are now, and all that we believe ourselves to be. If we are to start now tearing ourselves down, knocking apart everything we know to be the truth, not on the basis of any new evidence or research but simply to serve some narrow purpose or ancient grudge, what will be left of us?” Excellent questions, but surprising, especially in light of his earlier comment that “all Washington had to do was to give Pearl Harbor an explicit last-minute warning and Japan’s fleet would have been caught flat-footed, thousands of miles from its home waters.” If Kevin Baker’s history asserts that the commanders in Hawaii could somehow have caught the Japanese flat-footed, then his version of truth sorely needs getting knocked apart.

Let me assure readers at the outset that for every assertion I present as fact, I hold written evidence for those who need to inquire more thoroughly into both the facts and the mystery of what then occurred.

Since Mr. Baker’s column expresses such strong objection to the recent congressional initiative, and the author himself seems preoccupied with blame fixing, I think it would be useful to explain my purpose. My name was mentioned in the congressional amendment; my presentation of the operational realities that bore on what happened on December 7, 1941, was a factor in the congressional decision. Thirty-five years ago, in 1966, I commanded our carrier task forces in the Gulf of Tonkin. I quickly learned that timely intelligence helped accomplish missions and saved lives. I applied that knowledge and preached that gospel while on active duty in three subsequent assignments. In 1982, quite by chance, I had occasion to inquire into events surrounding the Pearl Harbor calamity. It quickly became clear to me that this was the perfect parable to help register in top-level administrative and military minds the fact that high-quality, timely information is essential. My purpose was to teach lessons from past mistakes so as to avoid repeating them; the theory that Roosevelt had been forewarned about the attack was peripheral to this objective.

The date of November 26, 1941, is enormously significant. On that day, over strong objections from Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Harold R. Stark and Army Chief of Staff Gen. George C. Marshall, the administration issued a virtual ultimatum setting forth conditions that Japan would have to satisfy for the two nations to coexist peacefully. Predominant among the 10 demands for lifting the oil embargo America had imposed were that “the government of Japan will withdraw all military, naval, air and police forces from China and from Indochina” and that neither government would support any Chinese regime other than the Nationalist Government of the Republic of China in Chungking, with which Japan was then at war. This set of demands cemented Japan’s decision to initiate war. We only know what the administration did; why the ultimatum was issued and how it came about are for historians to resolve. But none of these crucial developments was reported to either Admiral Kimmel or General Short.

There is no factual basis for Mr. Baker’s assertion that Kimmel’s fleet or Short’s defensive capabilities could have caught the Japanese force “flat-footed.” On the morning of the attack and during the preceding day, Admiral Kimmel had seven operable battleships and no aircraft carriers. His eighth battleship, his flagship, was in dry dock, his ninth in overhaul. Battleships’ speeds were 16 knots; their weapons range was 15 miles. The Japanese used six aircraft carriers with speeds greater than 30 knots, and their weapons range was 300 miles. The Japanese deployed 29 submarines, which were every bit as dangerous as their aircraft carriers. In short, by midmorning on December 6, the Japanese commander had achieved full control over subsequent events. If Kimmel tried to escape, what Japanese submarines missed the Japanese aircraft could then seek out and sink. He had no viable operational means either to defeat the attack or to save himself. The only remaining issue was the extent of damages the American fleet would suffer and the cost to the Japanese in lost aircraft for their effort.

Three of Kimmel’s task forces were away from Pearl Harbor during the attack. On November 27, the carrier Enterprise task group departed Pearl with Marine fighter aircraft bound for Wake Island. On December 5, the carrier Lexington task group left with fighters for Midway (the carrier Saratoga was on the West Coast for repairs). Ordered by Washington to transfer 50 Army pursuit planes to reinforce Wake and Midway, Kimmel substituted Marine fighters because there was no way to offload the Army aircraft. A third task force, an amphibious one, was en route to Johnson Island. It is hard to reconcile an order to transfer half the Army pursuit-aircraft strength to reinforce outer islands with the notion that Washington thought on November 26 that Pearl Harbor was a likely target.

What might have happened had Kimmel been fully informed as events developed subsequent to the war warning he received on November 27 is purely conjectural. The message itself stated, “This dispatch is to be considered a war warning.” It went on to indicate an expected move by Japan against “either the Philippines, or Kra Peninsula, or possibly Borneo” and directed Admiral Kimmel to assume “an appropriate defensive deployment preparatory to carrying out the tasks assigned in WP [war plan] 46,” which called for an immediate raid against the Marshall Islands. Kimmel was known for his vigorous, aggressive leadership.

General Short also got a war warning, which stated, “The United States desires that Japan commit the first overt act.” This same desire was expressed to Kimmel in a message sent to him two days after he had received his war warning of the twentyseventh. We can only wonder what the commanders in Hawaii might have attempted offensively without that stricture or even what Washington had in mind. If Kimmel redeployed his two carrier task forces, the Japanese advantage still exceeded three to one. This we do know: If the Japanese messages that had been deciphered and distributed in Washington had been forwarded to Kimmel and Short, it would have entitled them to initiate whatever action they deemed necessary, from departing Pearl to employing a pre-emptive attack. When a senior commander assigns forces and a mission to a subordinate, then fails to provide pertinent information that he holds, he retains force control—and in so doing denies that subordinate the right to discharge a fundamental responsibility, which is to do whatever the subordinate deems necessary to preserve the integrity of his force.


The stage was set for the disaster in April 1941 by two actions. One was foolish: Adm. Kelly Turner, director of war plans, with the support of Admiral Stark, took control of intelligence distribution away from the director of naval intelligence, in hopes of preventing some unwanted initiative by a fleet commander on the basis of the intelligence he received. But the second action was taken for sound strategic reasons. The President transferred the carrier Yorktown and three battleships to the Atlantic to aid in getting supplies to Britain. This gave Japan a two to one advantage in naval strength.

So, what information was denied? Of course the aggressor in surprise attacks benefits from a full knowledge of the location and identity of potential targets, constraints imposed, and defensive measures in place. Tokyo planners divided Pearl Harbor into five sectors and on September 24, in J-19 code, directed their consul general to make periodic reports on the identity of warships in those areas. On November 15 and 18, Japan advised that relations with the United States were most critical and directed its spies on Oahu to report ship locations at least twice weekly. A fourth intercept, sent on November 29, directed, “Now, report even when ships not moving.” The response named the ships and also stated there were no protective balloons in use. This last message was deciphered and circulated on December 5, the others on December 3 and 6. Also on December 4, the Japanese plain text message “East wind rain,” which was known to mean war with the United States and Britain, was received and circulated in Washington. Long denied, receipt of “East wind rain” is now thoroughly corroborated.

The director of war plans also neglected to give Kimmel information learned from our decryption of diplomatic instructions sent to the Japanese ambassador, Adm. Kichisaburo Nomura, in the Purple Code—nor did Army staff tell General Short. Extracts from these messages reveal the flavor of their contents. Purple No. 736: “absolutely necessary agreement be reached by the 25th [November].” Another: “you see how short time is. Do not allow the United States to delay negotiations.” No. 812: “Very difficult to change date, but if you can achieve desired results, new deadline is w/in the next three or four days.” This message cites a reason “beyond your ability to guess” why the dates are critical. No. 985 informs Berlin of the gravity of the situation and says that “war may come quicker than anyone dreams.” No. 865, deciphered on December 4, states that to prevent the United States from being unduly suspicious, “we are advising press and others in Japan that negotiations are continuing.” No. 867 directed the destruction of specific codes. No. 901, deciphered and distributed on December 6, advised Nomura that an extremely sensitive message of 14 parts was coming, together with delivery instructions. No. 902, the first 13 parts, was read by Roosevelt and Harry Hopkins, who was with the President, early in the evening of the sixth. The President remarked that this meant war, then shortly thereafter told his family at dinner, “We will be at war tomorrow.”

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?

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.”

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