The Holocaust Historiography Project

The Mystery of Pearl Harbor


After the Pearl Harbor attack, Americans were told that it had come without any warning. The official story has been that it was a surprise attack that forced us into war against our wishes.

For years the charges that Roosevelt lied and cajoled us into war were vehemently denied. In 1948 the great historian Charles A. Beard presented a preliminary case for the truth in President Roosevelt and the Coming of the War, 1941: A Study in Appearances and Realities. He was immediately reviled.

In an article in the August issue of the Atlantic, he was accused of being “the darling of the McCormick-Patterson Axis … The most indecent of Beard’s numerous innuendoes in his book are those respecting the Roberts Commission. Mr. Stimson suggested justice Roberts to head the Pearl Harbor Commission … Beard insinuates that Justice Roberts' appointment was part of a triple play to put Kimmel and Short 'out' and conceal the iniquities of FDR and Stimson in a cloud of dust.”

These were the words of the court historian, Samuel Eliot Morison. In 1942, Professor Morison of Harvard was drafted by President Roosevelt and placed on the public payroll as a Navy officer with orders to write the official History of United States Naval Operations in World War II (fifteen vols.).

Beard, searching for the truth, was not permitted to see the papers he considered pertinent. Morison, writing the official line, had no such problems. In the words of the Secretary of the Navy, “All naval activities, afloat and ashore, were directed to make available to Captain Morison such records as he might desire to consult.”

Even so, the facts confirm Beard’s “innuendo.” They bear out that Mr. Stimson had a heavy responsibility not only for the Pearl Harbor disaster, but also for the Roberts Report which made Admiral Kimmel and General Short the scapegoats for blame that rightly rested on high officials in Washington, notably Mr. Stimson himself.

Mr. Stimson not only nominated justice Roberts, a pre-Pearl Harbor advocate of “Aiding the Allies,” as top investigator, he also nominated the two Army members. This gave him a majority of the five-man Presidential Commission. In writing his suggestion to FDR he added: “Marshall and I united on all the foregoing suggestions after very careful consideration by each of us.”

One of Mr. Stimson’s nominees was Joseph T. McNarney, a recently promoted brigadier general and right hand of Chief of Staff George C. Marshall. Officially, the appointment was suggested in order to give the Commission an air expert. It was also hinted that the General was not personally suspect as he had been out of Washington at the time of the attack.

In fact General McNarney, as a colonel, had acted as General Marshall’s junior representative when signing the March 27, 1941 secret military agreements with the British. Two of his superiors, the Chiefs of War Plans and Military Intelligence, as aides of Marshall, were heavily involved with Pearl Harbor responsibilities. At the time of the attack, General McNarney was actually in London participating in further secret negotiations.

The other Stimson nominee was Major General Frank R. McCoy, an aide, friend and co-conspirator of Mr. Stimson’s for more than thirty years. Back in 1911-1912 Mr. Stimson, as President Taft’s Secretary of War, became involved in a controversy with congressional leaders. Major McCoy, then his aide, helped him draft a Presidential veto which divided his party but helped Mr. Stimson defeat the congressional leaders.

In 1931-1932 Mr. Stimson, as Secretary of State, failed to sell his anti-Japanese ideas to President Hoover. He then turned to the League of Nations, of which we were not a member, and persuaded the League to investigate Japan’s activities in Manchuria and to appoint General McCoy to the investigating committee. General McCoy sold Mr. Stimson’s ideas to the committee and the League-with the result that Japan withdrew from the League.

Before the members of the Roberts Commission left for Pearl Harbor Mr. Stimson invited General McCoy to spend an evening at his home. The invitation was repeated upon the Commission’s return. It should also be noted that another prot6gg of Mr. Stimson's, Felix Frankfurter, his assistant years before (1906), invited both justice Roberts and Secretary Stimson to his home for a private dinner and quiet evening during the period the Roberts Report was being drafted. Mr. Stimson duly wrote in his diary that he had informed Marshall that he thought the Roberts Report took both of them off the hook.

A well done for Messrs. Roberts, McNarney and McCoy.

One of the Commission’s Navy members, Admiral Standley, later publicly rebuked Justice Roberts and the War Department. Among other things, he wrote: “I knew from firsthand experience the shortcomings of our base at Pearl Harbor, for which Short and Kimmel were in no way responsible. From the beginning of our investigation, I held a firm belief that the real responsibility … was lodged thousands of miles from the Territory of Hawaii.”

In his latest paean to his patron, The Two-Ocean War, the now retired Rear Admiral Morison praises FDR’s foresight in leading this country into World War II by secret steps taken ahead of the public opinion he later led so skilfully to the goal he publicly denied — war.

Morison presents the events preceding Pearl Harbor in abbreviated and tendentious form, now the official one: that Japan invaded Manchuria and China and the American people had a duty to prevent any Nipponese expansion in Asia, whether the American people wanted to or not. His chapter, “Disaster at Pearl Harbor,” presents self-serving sections on the “Last Days of 'Peace' in the Pacific” and “The Unsuspecting Victim.” The fourth and final section, “Who Was Responsible?” gives a grotesque glimmering of the facts that were available to the historian.

Not satisfied with his own travesties, the retired Admiral tells us: “The best book by far on the question of why we were surprised at Pearl Harbor” is Roberta Wohlstetter’s Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision. A first reading of this book revealed more than one hundred factual errors. It raised other questions which, if properly researched, would undoubtedly unearth still more errors, not to mention child-like acceptance of Administration releases in preference to the obscured realities.

Some of Mrs. Wohlstetter’s errors are trivial (such as footnotes that do not check). Others are ridiculous (such as her “Note on Rank.” She wrongly accuses the Navy of having a monopoly on the double standard of “temporary” and “permanent” ranks. She evidently does not know that both General Short and Admiral Kimmel had higher “temporary” ranks on December 7, 1941 than the “permanent” two-star ones on which their later retirement pay was based).

As the student probably more familiar with the Pearl Harbor record than any other living person, the writer appreciates the tremendous task that Mrs. Woh1stetter faced. The record is voluminous. The printed works of the joint Congressional Committee ran to 44 volumes. Like many others, she overlooks four volumes-three State Department tomes and Ambassador Grew’s Ten Years in Japan, which were part of the Committee’s official record. In addition, there are the Departmental documents and histories, the official papers of other countries, including those of the defeated nations, the books written by participants and other authors, and the myriad magazine articles, newspaper stories and personal interviews which have added a tremendous amount to the information about Pearl Harbor. There is still more, much of it suppressed for political reasons even now, 25 years after the great tragedy.

Mrs. WohIstetter completely ignores the revisionists, those historians who have sought to reveal the truths the political powers prefer to keep hidden. Nevertheless, her well-subsidized volume won rave reviews across the nation and even in the American Historical Review. Columbia University awarded her the $4,000 Bancroft prize, apparently accepting Admiral Morison’s accolade that “she is cognizant of all the intricate details of the codes, has made a thorough study of all extant sources, and uses them with the perception of a well-trained mind. Her book ought finally to dispose of some of the nonsense about Pearl Harbor that has been written.”

In fact, the book contains as much nonsense about Pearl Harbor as any that has been written.

Mrs. Wohlstetter concentrated on the Intelligence phase of the episode. She accordingly devoted considerable attention to the messages of the two services and the information Washington gained from reading Japanese codes. These messages played a major role in the last months, days, hours and minutes preceding the disaster. If she had done a thorough and objective job, her book would have been a very valuable contribution. Unfortunately, she joined the union of court historians.

In a volume dealing with communications, particularly Naval communications, you would expect accuracy in reporting the filing time mentioned in each such message. This is particularly so since the top official Naval historian gave the book such a boost. Unfortunately, Mrs. Wohlstetter never learned the Navy’s time system.

Every Navy message states its date and time in six digits-the first two represent the day of the month, the second two the hour of the day, and the last two the minute of the hour. For example, one of the key messages was number 242005. Mrs. Wohlstetter writes, “The digits 242005 mean November 24, 20:05, which is 8:05 P.M. Washington time.”

If she had read the congressional hearings through Volume 33 to page 1150, she would have noted, “For communication within the Navy, Greenwich civil time (GCT) is used in headings of messages.,, If she had read the hearings at all thoroughly she would have learned that Washington’s time is Plus 5, i.e., five hours earlier than Greenwich time. So that this crucial message was actually sent at 3:05 in the afternoon, Washington time.

How valuable is a book on pre-attack intelligence that is five hours off on the timing of all Naval communications coming out of Washington? How dependable is a Naval historian who acclaims such a book the best on the subject?

Whose Responsibility?

Another serious error is Mrs. Wohlstetter’s statement, “No one knew who possessed the final command responsibility for defense of the Hawaiian Islands in the event of an enemy attack.” It was clearly understood by all concerned at the time, as revealed in all the investigations, that Pearl Harbor was the responsibility of the Army in general and of the Chief of Staff, General George C. Marshall, in particular. His agent on the scene was Lt. Gen. Walter C. Short. General Short took orders from and reported to no one else but George C. Marshall. What he lacked in mat6riel, orders, intelligence (information) and proper alert status was the responsibility of none other than General George C. Marshall.

Mrs. Wohlstetter also states, “The [Japanese] Pearl Harbor task force was under orders to return up to 24 hours before D-Day if anything favorable developed in the U.S.-Japanese negotiations.” Actually, while this Task Force had orders to return to Japan if detected by any foreign forces up to 24 hours before D-Day, it could have been recalled up to the moment the planes left the decks, if anything favorable had developed in the United States-Japanese negotiations.

One could go on and on for a hundred more blunders. The facts were just too much for Mrs. Wohlstetter. Someday, someone, or some foundation, should underwrite an objective study of the Pearl Harbor disaster. Until that day comes, Americans who want to know the truth must rely on the writing of revisionists hacking away at the well-financed, well-reviewed writings of the court historians and official publications.

Like Mrs. Wohlstetter, Admiral Morison in his own book ignores the contributions of revisionists, while finding the writings of the Administration’s apologists “especially valuable.” He does, however, mention The Great Sea War by the late Admiral Chester W. Nimitz and E.B. Potter of the U.S. Naval Academy staff. Perhaps he did not notice that this semi-official volume states:

By December 6 it was known in Washington that the Japanese were sending their Washington embassy a message for the U.S. State Department breaking off diplomatic relations, the sort of message that in times past had been followed up with a surprise attack on the opposing fleet. It was known too that Japanese diplomats in London, Hong Kong, Singapore, Batavia, Manila, and Washington were burning their secret documents and codes-usually done only when war is imminent.

Thus by Saturday afternoon there was every reason to believe that war with Japan was only hours away. Then between 0400 and 0600 on Sunday, December 7, the U.S. Navy Department deciphered instructions to the Japanese ambassadors to deliver their message at 1 P.M. One o'clock in the afternoon in Washington would be 7:30 at Pearl Harbor.

However, Admiral Morison does admit that FDR’s “'short of war' was not so very short for the Atlantic Fleet … These officers and men were enduring all the danger and hardship of war; yet it was not called war. They were forbidden to talk of their experiences ashore, or even to tell where they had been or what they were doing.” He also admits that our economic measures against Japan were taken with the cooperation of the British and Dutch, and that “the fundamental reason for America’s going to war with Japan was our insistence on the integrity of China.”

Actually, of course, the contest for China, during more than a half century, had been between the Western ideas of Japan and the Communist ideas of the Soviet Union. We decided China’s future as early as June 1940-when we decided on war against Japan. Yet, the Admiral tells us, “the Administration and the head of the armed forces, as we have seen, were doing their best to prevent or postpone a war with Japan. Roosevelt even sent a personal appeal to Hirohito on the evening of 6 December.”

It is true that General Marshall and Admiral Stark did warn the President not to send Japan an ultimatum before we were ready. However, the President rejected their advice and sent an ultimatum on November 26. Roosevelt’s message to Hirohito was sent only after FDR had been alerted that the Japanese message which meant war was already on its way. The message to Hirohito was one for the record, after he knew there was no hope for peace.

Missing Files

Speaking of the decoded Japanese messages, the Admiral states: “The recipient, without taking notes, had to read these signals in the presence of the messenger who returned them to Army or Navy Intelligence office, where all copies but one were burned.” Actually, of course, there was nothing to prevent these officials from making notes. At least one did. The so-called “messenger” was a top Army or Navy Intelligence officer who stood ready to supply any background or further explanation requested. On this point, the Intelligence admiral in charge of these intercepts testified: “They might hold the book as long as they wished, or send for it to come back again, but in the interest of security, we did not like to send out individual copies for retention.” Any neglect of these important messages by any recipient was a sign of rank incompetency.

On at least one occasion, early in 1941, the State Department was permitted to retain a copy of a message. This was when Under Secretary Sumner Welles informed the Soviet Embassy of a decoded message indicating Germany’s intention to invade Russia. There are indications that a German spy in the Russian Embassy reported this information to Berlin. Shortly afterward, we decoded a message from Berlin to Tokyo indicating that we had read the Japanese message. Fortunately, the Japanese continued to use the PURPLE code all through the war and we continued to read Japanese messages right up to VJ Day.

When the Admiral states that “all copies but one were burned,” he is in serious error. Normally, four copies were kept -two in the Army files and two in the Navy files. In each case one set was filed by the Japanese serial number and another by the serial number assigned it by the Service filing it.

There are strong indications that copies of some of these intercepted messages were ordered to be destroyed shortly after December 7, 1941. They were missing from the files when sought in December 1943. Fortunately for the cause of truth a set was located and they were replaced in both the Navy and Army files.