The sacrifices of those who served in the American military in December, 1941 should be recounted often for us all to ponder and appreciate and the 3000 Americans who died at Pearl Harbor should not have perished in vain. The sincerest memorial to those who fought and died in this tragedy (and others) is to analyze and discuss the multitude of reasons why it happened, and how do we ensure that American servicemen are not knowingly put in harm’s way for political purposes ever again. As there is far too much information available today for the surprise attack myth to survive scrutiny, and thanks to the Freedom of Information Act and declassification of hundreds of thousands of decoded Japanese messages, we can now get a more clear picture of how events unfolded in 1941.
The myth reported by court historians and the media is that the US was minding its own business until the Japanese launched an unprovoked attack at Pearl Harbor, thereby dragging a reluctant US into a world struggle. In reality, the US under FDR had been deeply involved in Far Eastern affairs for some time, and those policies actually provoked the Japanese attack.
As Oliver Lyttleton, British Minister of Production stated in 1944….”Japan was provoked into attacking America at Pearl Harbor. It is a travesty to say that America was forced into the War.”
After FDR’s numerous provocations toward Germany without retaliation (while the US was neutral) he switched his focus to Japan and had assistance with Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, who stated in October 1941 that “for a long time I have believed that our best entrance into the war would be by way of Japan”. And as early as January 27th, 1941, US Ambassador to Japan in Tokyo, Joseph C. Grew noted in his diary that…”there is a lot of talk around town to the effect that the Japanese, in case of a break with the US, are planning to go all out in a surprise mass attack on Pearl Harbor. Of course, I informed our government.”
Even Admiral Ernest J. King wrote a prescient report on 31 March 1941 that predicted a surprise Japanese dawn air attack on Hawaii as the opening of hostilities. The US had prepared for a Japanese-American conflict since 1906 with “War Plan Orange” which predicted the Philippines as the expected target, attacked by surprise as the Japanese were notorious for. By early 1940 Claire Chennault, the American airman hired by the Chinese, was urging General Hap Arnold and Roosevelt to provide bombers with which to firebomb Japanese cities in retaliation for their attacks on China.
While we cannot excuse Japan’s aggressiveness in Asia in the 1930’s, our government continually provoked the Japanese by freezing assets in the US, closing the Panama Canal to her shipping and progressively reducing exports to Japan until it became an all-out embargo along with Britain’s. The Philippines, by 1941 were reinforced to the point of being the strongest US overseas base with 120,000 troops and the Philippine Army had been called into service by FDR. General MacArthur had 74 medium and heavy bombers along with 175 fighters that included the new B-17’s and P-40E’s with which to attack or defend with. The mobilization of troops and munitions has always been recognized as preparation for attack and we thus assumed this posture to the Japanese.
We then implied military threats to Tokyo if it did not alter its Asian policies and on 26 November 1941, FDR issued an ultimatum that Japan withdraw all military forces from China and Indochina as well as break its treaty with Germany and Italy. The day before the 26 November ultimatum was sent , Secretary of War Stimson wrote in his Diary that “the question was how we should maneuver them (the Japanese) into the position of firing the first shot”. The bait offered was our Pacific fleet.
In 1940, Admiral J.O. Richardson, the commander of the Pacific Fleet flew to Washington to protest FDR’s decision to base the fleet in Hawaii instead of its normal berthing on the US west coast. His concern was that Pearl Harbor was vulnerable to attack, was difficult to defend against torpedo planes, lacked fuel supplies and dry docks. Richardson came away from his meeting with FDR “with the impression that, despite his spoken word, the President was fully determined to put the US into the war if Great Britain could hold out until he was reelected.”
Richardson was summarily relieved of command and replaced with Admiral Kimmel, who was still concerned about Pearl Harbor’s vulnerability, but did not challenge FDR.
Also to be considered was the April, 1941 ABD Agreement FDR concluded with the British and Dutch in Indochina that committed US troops to war if the Dutch East Indies were invaded by the Japanese. Add to this the 1940 $25 million loan and Lend-Lease aid provided to China. The Dutch and British were of course eager for US forces to protect their Far Eastern colonial empires from the Japanese while their military was busy in a European war. And FDR’s dilemma was his 1940 election pledge of non-intervention (unless attacked) to the American people and the US Constitution, which allowed only Congress authority to declare war.
One of the most revealing elements in FDR’s beforehand knowledge of Japan’s intentions was our breaking of the Japanese diplomatic and naval operations codes as early as mid-1939. Copies of all deciphered Japanese messages were delivered to Roosevelt and the Secretaries of War, State and Navy, as well as Army Chief of Staff Marshall and Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Harold Stark. With no deciphering machines in Pearl Harbor, although 3 machines went to Britain, the commanders in Pearl Harbor were left completely dependent upon Washington for information. It must be understood that with this deciphered information, our government officials could not have been better informed had they had seats in the Japanese war council.
It is in this bare political light that Pearl Harbor should be examined and judged for historical perspective. Our military should not be a pawn used by presidents to initiate war and this is the basic reason the Founders deliberated extensively on the establishment of a standing army which might be used as such. As nothing happens in a vacuum and the post-World War One US Neutrality Acts were in place to avoid the political machinations that dragged us into that conflict, FDR’s very steady erosion of US neutrality and secret agreements led to that unnecessary loss of brave American servicemen. We hopefully have learned from this.
Bernhard Thuersam is the Executive Director of the Cape Fear Historical Institute in Wilmington. A native of the Niagara Falls, New York area, he has been a devoted student of world history since 1958, and is a former Chairman of the Cape Fear Museum Board of Trustees. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.