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Pearl Harbor: The Controversy Continues


At 7:53 am. on Sunday, December 7, 1941, a Japanese force of 183 fighters, bombers, and torpedo planes struck the United States Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Some 4,500 Americans were killed or wounded. As news of the surprise attack spread, William F. Friedman, an Army cryptanalyst who had helped to break the Japanese diplomatic “Purple” code, said to his wife repeatedly, “But they knew, they knew, they knew.”

Meanwhile, the British doubleagent Dusko Popov got an incomplete account of the attack while aboard a tramp steamer. He assumed the Americans had been ready for the Japanese attack — it was he who had given the FBI the Japanese plans for the air raid. Popov would recall, “I was sure the American fleet had scored a great victory over the Japanese. I was very, very proud that I had been able to give the warning to the Americans four months in advance. What a reception the Japanese must have had!”

In Singapore the day after the attack, Royal Navy codebreaker Tommy Wisden asked incredulously, “With all the information we gave them. How could the Americans have been caught unprepared?”

Fifty years after that “day of infamy,” the attack on Pearl Harbor remains a matter of the hottest controversy. Every few years, a new telling of the story stokes the fire. For example, in 1982, John Toland, a dean of American war historians, wrote in his book Infamy: Pearl Harbor and Its Aftermath (from which the first two anecdotes are taken), “The comedy of errors on the sixth and seventh [of December] appears incredible. It only makes sense if it was a charade, and Roosevelt and the inner circle had known about the attack. A massive cover-up followed Pearl Harbor a few days later, according to an officer close to [General George C.) Marshall, when the Chief of Staff ordered a lid put on the affair. ‘Gentlemen,’ he [Marshall] told half a dozen officers, ‘this goes to the grave with us.”‘

Pearl Harbor is actually a bundle of controversial questions. In order of descending controversy, they consist of: * whether Roosevelt and his closest aides knew there would be an attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7; * whether they knew there would be an attack against American or British targets somewhere in the Pacific; and, finally, * whether Roosevelt’s policies toward the Japanese were intended to provoke the Japanese into sulking at American interests, thereby providing a “back door to war” and grounds for full public Support for the war effort.

The first and second questions come down to how much FDR knew and when did he know it. No one has found a document signed by FDR saying, “Pearl Harbor will be attacked on December 7.” But Toland believes that Roosevelt knew that Pearl Harbor would be the target. Earlier revisionist historians were convinced that by late November, Roosevelt knew that there would be an attack on American or British possessions in the Pacific, with Pearl Harbor a likely location. (Roosevelt secretly had pledged to enter the war if Japan attacked Britain or crossed an undisclosed line in the Pacific.)

Despite differences among various historians, many of them agree on these damning points: (1) Franklin Roosevelt and his closest aides had secret Japanese messages that should have indicated to them (if they did not indeed do so) that Pearl Harbor would be attacked at dawn on December 7. (2) The commanders at Pearl Harbor, who were later made scapegoats, were inexcusably denied critical intelligence that would have likely caused them to take precautions that would have spoiled the Japanese surprise and probably prevented the attack. The United States kept abreast of Japan’s thinking by decoding Japanese diplomatic and military messages. The key messages included the dividing of Pearl Harbor into a grid, apparently for plotting an attack (the “bomb plot” message read on October 9); notice of an impending Japanese attack on the U.S. (the “winds execute” message of December 4); a scheme for signaling the movement and position of U.S. ships at Pearl Harbor (December 6); and the text and time of Japan’s rejection of the U.S. ultimatum (December 6 and 7). (On reading this rejection on the evening of December 6. Roosevelt said to his chief advisor, Harry Hopkins, “This means war.’)

None of these messages were relayed to the Pearl Harbor commanders — except for the last one. And it was not sent by Marshall until the last minute, and then by Western Union, rather than by faster means. By the time the telegram was received in Hawaii, the attack was underway.

The final question — about the provocations — is less controversial. Even adulators of Roosevelt now concede that he lied the nation into war. He had to, they say, because the American people were too shortsighted to support intervention. Hitler had refused to attack the United States, despite provocation. So, the President had no choice but as Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson wrote in his diary on November 25, “to maneuver them [Japan] into the position of firing the first shot.”

By then there had already been much maneuvering. It consisted of the systematic strangulation of Japan. For a nation like Japan, with no natural resources and a desperate need to import its necessities, this had to lead to war.

Some American policy-makers had long disliked Japan partly because of racism, partly because of economic rivalry. Like today, some were disturbed by the presence of Japanese products on American shelves. And although the U.S.-Japanese trade was much larger than the U.S.-Chinese trade, many people thought that someday China would provide a huge market for American manufacturers, if Japan didn’t get there first. Thus, when Japan began hostilities against China in the 1930s, there was concern.

As early as 1938, Roosevelt quietly explored with the British the possibility of war with Japan. Japanese overtures, including an offer in 1940 to leave China and the Axis Pact, were rebuffed. In July 1940, Roosevelt began his program of economic warfare by embargoing strategic goods. In September, he prohibited exports of iron and scrap steel to Japan. In June 1941, he restricted oil shipments. About a month later, Roosevelt froze Japan’s funds in the United States. This was followed by a warning that a continuation of Japan’s expansionist policies would compel the U.S. to protect its security. Roosevelt also refused to meet with Japanese Prime Minister Konoye. Soon afterwards, the Japanese government fell and General Tojo became prime minister.

During negotiations with Japan, Secretary of State Cordell Hull demanded that Japan withdraw from China and Indochina, leave other countries alone (including the sacrosanct colonies which the U.S., Britain, and Holland had bagged though their previous imperialistic campaigns), and scrap the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity sphere. Japan offered concessions, but the American response suggested to the Japanese that the U.S. wanted no agreement. Caught in an economic vise, the Japanese began to speak of war if no settlement were reached by November. The American officials were aware of this, thanks to the breaking of the Japanese codes and the interception of diplomatic messages.

On November 20, Japan made an offer that included restoration of peace between it and China and withdrawal of troops from Indochina in return for commercial normalization. (Meanwhile, Japanese forces were moving toward American, British, and Dutch colonies, just in case the offer was refused.) Hull called the offer “utterly unacceptable.” Although the U.S. military wanted additional time to prepare, and Roosevelt initially wanted a six-month delay, Hull issued an ultimatum on November 26 demanding total Japanese withdrawal from China and Indochina. Recognizing that compliance would humiliate the Japanese, Hull knew that the ultimatum would not be accepted. And Hull was right — the Japanese government refused to accept the ultimatum. The next day Hull told Secretary of War Stimson, “It is now in the hands of you and [Naval Secretary] Knox — the Army and Navy.” Weak, vague “war warnings” which implied a danger of sabotage were sent to Hawaii. Intercepted Japanese messages in the following days predicted a rupturing of negotiations and ordered the destruction of embassy code machines.

On the 26th, the Japanese attack force set sail from the Kurile Islands. On December 2, final approval for the attack was given, with the proviso that it could be cancelled if negotiations resumed. In Washington, on the morning of December 7, Roosevelt learned that Japan would turn down the Hull ultimatum at exactly 1 p.m. Washington time. It would be dawn at that hour in only one place in the Pacific: Hawaii.

Was this the end result of an intentional policy or “only” monumental incompetence? Perhaps the opening of the American and British archives — still hidden from the American and British people — will someday resolve the mystery — that is, if all of the relevant documents have not been burned, shredded, or otherwise tampered with.

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    Sheldon Richman is former vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.