Monthly Archives: December 2011

Pearl Harbor: Was There a Conspiracy?

US propaganda poster, circa 1942

American naval personnel stationed at Pearl Harbor in the Hawaiian Islands on Sunday morning December 7,1941, were startled by the sound of dozens of aircraft. They looked up and were stunned by what they saw: the aircraft was not American, it was Japanese. Seconds later bombs began falling and Americans began dying and for the 100 million people of the United States, the world changed.

In the weeks and months previous, trouble had been brewing with the empire of Japan, but the US was still shocked that the attack came when and, where it did. If trouble with Japan was to come, so many experts at the time believed, it would come in the Philippines, not in Hawaii. The Japanese would never get lucky enough to get that far undetected with a task force big enough to do any real damage. The logistics and dependence upon pure luck would keep them closer to home. All it would have taken was one PBY spotter plane to get a glimpse of the huge carrier fleet and the whole thing would have been in vain and Japan and the US would be at war with the US fleet at Pearl Harbor untouched. US experts were nearly all in agreement that the Japanese would never attempt such a thing. It was simply too risky. The fleet at Pearl Harbor was safe- for the time being.

They didn’t know Yamamoto. They should have. Admiral Isokoru Yamamoto, perhaps the most famous and respected military figure in Japan, had studied in the United States years before and had many American friends. When the Japanese warlords brought him orders in early 1941 instructing him to prepare for an attack upon the US base at Pearl Harbor he had no choice but to comply but warned them that a sustained war with the US was a bad idea.  He was reported to have said: “We can run wild for six months or so but after that I can make no promises.” In spite of any misgivings the brilliant Admiral  made careful, top-secret preparations for what was later called “the day of infamy,” a surprise attack that would cripple or destroy the US Pacific fleet and force Roosevelt and the Americans to sue for peace. Or so the Japanese warlords believed.

With the US out of the way, the Japanese would have a free hand in their part of the world to dictate terms to the various European colonial powers then in control of the rich resources of the Far East: China, Malaya, Indochina (Vietnam), Indonesia (Dutch East Indies), and much more. The Japanese warlords envisioned a new Japanese empire arising from the ashes of the old European colonial empire, one that the Japanese would call the “Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere.” But first, the US Pacific fleet, the major threat to Japanese aspirations, particularly the US aircraft carriers, had to be destroyed.

On Dec. 8, the day after, a stunned, angry President Franklin Roosevelt addressed a joint session of Congress and made his famous speech, calling the previous day, December 7, “a day which will live in infamy.”  For years most Americans have taken it for granted that he was as surprised as anyone else regarding what had happened. Others haven’t been so sure. For years it was whispered that FDR knew more than he let on. In more recent years a number of historians and researchers have gone far beyond that. They contend that FDR was fully aware of what the Japanese were up to and did not interfere. A few historians believe that FDR manipulated the Japanese into making the initial attack, that he, not the Japanese, was the primary instigator. His “day of infamy” speech? A colossal charade.

As the date of the 72nd anniversary of this famous attack approaches, it is useful to once again consider and evaluate what many Americans now (unfortunately) believe: that Franklin Roosevelt, the US president at the time, was somehow guilty and complicit in the whole terrible business. He simply looked the other way, we’re told, and failed to raise the alarm, dooming thousands of US servicemen to death. He knew the “Japs” were coming and didn’t tell anyone. It is an odd sort of “conspiracy” theory in that Roosevelt is mostly alone, that he somehow “conspired” not so much with any fellow Americans but with the enemy in an odd manner. Thus he was  not only a traitor, but a traitor of the worst kind.  This is believed by many Americans. The accusations made against George Bush by filmmaker Michael Moore seem to pale in comparison. What are we to make of it?

It is well known that FDR felt that the US needed to do something about German and Japanese expansionism. In this he was opposed by American isolationists, those who seriously objected to any US involvement in the war that by late 1941 had swallowed up Europe or to any attempt by the US to oppose Japanese military activities in China or the Far East. Ever the pragmatist, FDR was certain that the US would not be able to stay out of the spreading conflict and thus needed to start making preparations. He was mildly successful in 1939-1940. The draft was reinstituted. Additional funds for new and improved weapons were raised. A “lend-lease” program aided the beleaguered British. The Pentagon staff was increased. But, the US was not at war and many, perhaps most Americans, after the bitter lesson of the First World War, were determined that we would “sit this one out.” So FDR had to be cagey and careful if he wanted to keep his job in the election of 1940. Though FDR was a popular president, public opinion in this regard, was not really on his side. If the US entered the war, it was going to take something big, something drastic, unmistakable and irrefutable, to accomplish it and FDR would have to simply wait for that event to occur.

Conspiracy historians have maintained for years that Roosevelt was not simply waiting it out in ignorance of what the future held. They contend that he was well aware of what the Japanese were up to and that he deliberately withheld vital information from his colleagues and, in a sense, looked the other way and allowed the axe to fall at Pearl Harbor that fateful morning and was thus complicit in the deaths of over two-thousand Americans. It is a serious accusation. Who would make such a claim? And why? Have we been fed a load of rubbish in our history textbooks? Did FDR know far, far more than we’ve been led to believe?

The principal and most respected proponent of this school of thought was Pulitzer-prize winning author, the late John Toland who, in his book INFAMY: PEARL HARBOR AND IT’S AFTERMATH, articulated the belief that FDR, through his study of intercepted Japanese radio transmissions was well aware of what the Japanese planned for Pearl Harbor and feigned ignorance to his colleagues and to the American people. Furthermore, in order to support his supposed ignorance, he gave orders to send troops to the Philippines to pacify the chiefs of staff, and kept his public attention on developments in Europe, all the time knowing that the big blow would come in the other direction. It was an elaborate, sophisticated deception orchestrated by a brilliant politician. And it worked beautifully. Roosevelt got what he wanted, the US up to it’s eyeballs in the biggest war in its history since the Civil War, and was never caught. Others, such as Admiral Kimmel and General Short (on site in Hawaii), paid the price and took the blame for the Pearl Harbor disaster. Only in later years would a historian of the stature as John Toland suspect that it was our own President who was really to blame. FDR had pulled the wool over US eyes and accomplished perhaps the biggest deception in history- so the conspiracy theory goes. And so, like the conspiracy theories relating to the assassination of John Kennedy, it is widely believed by many Americans today.

Let me make an admission. First, though I did read Toland’s Pulitzer-prizewinning book THE RISING SUN, I have not read his INFAMY book, a highly controversial book written late in his career. Perhaps I should. His was not a new theory. This idea had been whispered among the corridors of disgruntled military personnel for years in one form or another, that FDR knew much more than he admitted, and that making Kimmel and Short bear the blame for the disaster was grossly unfair and hypocritical. Second, I have a deep-seated prejudice against historical conspiracy theories in general, the belief that some big events, even years later, are properly understood only by a group of enlightened elite, and I might add, usually amateur historians. I simply find the credibility of their alternative histories far more difficult to digest.

In this I am in agreement with most mainline historians. Gordon Prange, long considered the great authority on the Pearl Harbor attack, and the author whose work inspired one of the best and most credible historical movies ever made:TORA, TORA, TORA, never joined the conspiracy crowd. Of course, he admits, prior to the attack, serious mistakes were made, and important pieces of intelligence were disregarded or ignored and dots were not connected. And though Roosevelt just may have known more than he admitted, Prange saw no real evidence for American treachery and deliberate deception at the Presidential level. And, of course, since failure and disaster are “orphans”, many after the attack did all that they could to shift the blame to others, particularly toward the military leaders on site in Hawaii. This is merely human nature.

Author Winston Groom, cited in an earlier article, says:

“almost all the ‘revisionist theories’ cite Roosevelt’s instructions to “let Japan strike the first blow” as proof that he in fact wanted the Japanese to achieve a surprise attack on the US fleet at Pearl Harbor. But any sensible reading of the context of Roosevelt’s order reveals that what he was trying to convey to his Pacific commanders was that the US should not attack the Japanese first, before war was declared by either side…though he suspected that Japan MIGHT strike the first blow, he did not KNOW it.” Pp. 95-96 1942.

I agree. The revisionist theories seem to defy simple logic. How could Roosevelt have been precisely aware of something of this magnitude, a plan known to only a few of Japan’s top leaders? There is plenty of reason to believe that even Admiral Yamamoto himself would not have been aware of the exact time of the attack until a week or two before. In a surprise attack the element of surprise is everything, a top secret known only to a precious few. We know now that, in a sense, it really wasn’t supposed to be a surprise-sneak attack at all, that the Japanese emissaries in Washington botched the thing, and delivered the declaration of war after the attack had commenced and that US intelligence DID“connect the dots.” But they did so too late.

Groom continues: How could Roosevelt, himself a former assistant secretary of the Navy, simply look the other way, dooming so many American sailors to death?…The idea that he would willfully allow all those ships to be sunk and all those brave men to die, is a notion too monstrous to entertain seriously. Why would he want to go to war in the Pacific with his fleet destroyed? At the very least FDR would have made absolutely sure that the Pacific commanders were alerted in such a fashion that they would be ready and waiting for the Japanese when they arrived” (P.96-97) This final question in Groom’s rebuttal is the best of all. Why would a commander-in-chief want to enter a war handicapped in such a manner?

Historian Stanley Weintrub in a more recent book LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO WAR, reminds that among the thousands of coded transmissions intercepted by US code breakers and actually decoded prior to the attack (most were decoded later) none, not a single one identified Pearl Harbor as a target. It was all a confused mess: precisely as the Japanese planned it. Furthermore, a strict radio silence was imposed upon the task force the second it steamed away and headed for Pearl Harbor. It seems the Japanese wanted the thing to be a big secret until the moment that their first plane appeared over Pearl Harbor. Imagine that.

Weintrub goes on to state the obvious. If the US had had foreknowledge of the time and place of the attack, as the persistent conspiracy revisionists claim, there would have been no reason to allow the carrier task force to even get within range of Pearl Harbor and launch the first plane. The US would most certainly have attacked the force en route: “a raid repelled at great loss to the other side (Japanese) and little to our own would have done just as well to push a reluctant nation into war.” (p.670) There would have been no reason whatever for the US to have allowed the first Japanese bomb to fall.

I think one could take it a step further: the mere discovery of a Japanese carrier strike force within range of Pearl Harbor would have been reason enough for a declaration of war against Japan. Would the strike force have turned back upon knowing that they had  been discovered and that the element of surprise was lost? We’ll never know. Roosevelt would have had his war regardless.

The conspiracy theories simply make no sense. Groom and Weintraub’s rebuttals, and those of so many other mainline historians, make far more sense to me. Was Roosevelt was a vicious warmonger, a devil in disguise, so eager to get the US into the war that he would stoop to the withholding of vital information, that this terrible means, in his mind, had a justifiable end?  It seems highly unlikely. Did Roosevelt and George Marshall and the other top brass make mistakes and fail to sort out the clues and hints before 12/7? You bet they did. But that doesn’t mean that Roosevelt was up to something sinister and deceptive. The knew something was coming, they simply didn’t know when and where until it was too late. That’s the way the Japanese intended it.

Jim Hardaway           12/3/11




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