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George Morgenstern, 1906-1988

James J. Martin

George Morgenstern, the author of the first Revisionist book about the December 7,1941 Pearl Harbor attack and the complex history which preceded and followed it, died in Denver, Colorado on July 23, 1988, in his 83rd year. Morgenstern’s book, titled Pearl Harbor: The Story of the Secret War, published by Devin A. Garrity in New York in January, 1947, is in this writer’s opinion also still the best, despite a formidable volume of subsequent writing by many others on the subject. A work of 425 pages in small type, it sparked a volcano of both criticism and praise, and is probably the most widely commented upon and discussed book ever produced by the World War Two Revisionist impulse in this country, which latter those newly upon the scene should understand covers many aspects of that war, its antecedents and its consequences. Everyone writing on the subject of Pearl Harbor has either consciously or unconsciously followed the “scenario” first laid down by George Morgenstern.

Morgenstern, christened George Edward, was born May 26, 1906 and spent almost all of his first 75 years, excepting war service time, in the Chicago area. He began his career in journalism as a sports reporter with his older brother William, covering basketball and track while attending suburban Oak Park High School. He subsequently enrolled at the University of Chicago, and continued his sports reportage, covering Big Ten football and others sports for the Chicago Herald-Examiner. A member of Alpha Delta Phi fraternity, he graduated with highest honors from Chicago in 1930, and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. As an undergraduate he also served as editor of the UC campus magazine, The Phoenix. Actually he was not in continuous residence at Chicago, suspending studies for a time to take full time employment as a re-write editor on the Herald-Examiner and studying part time. He also took on other work with the paper, covering among other things the federal income tax evasion trial of the notorious Chicago area gangster Alphonse “Scarface Al” Capone.

In 1939 Morgenstern switched newspapers, going to work in the same capacities as had engaged him previously, this time on Col. Robert R. McCormick’s Tribune, one of the world’s most famed and influential daily journals. After two years of this he joined the Tribune’s editorial page staff in 1941, and except for his absence during American involvement in World War Two, served in this department for 30 years, retiring in 1971. In the period through the late 1960s the editorial pages of the Tribune became the joy of Revisionists and the despair of Revisionism’s adversaries, the most prominent and wide-reaching forum the former enterprise has ever known, although matched in part by the Tribune's sister papers in New York and Washington, the Daily News and the Times-Herald, respectively, with interlocking reportage and personnel on some assigments. From the outbreak of the Second World War onward the three papers were the most persistent and bothersome burr under the saddle of the war-bound Roosevelt regime, and brought the latter’s protagonists to impressive heights of fury on many occasions. But during the war Morgenstern was not part of the apparatus of any of these newspapers. He served as captain and later lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps, as a director of the work of Marine combat correspondents.

Morgenstern never discussed just when he started writing Pearl Harbor, but it must have been very soon after returning to civilian life and editorial duties at the Tribune in 1945, because the work was already printed at the end of 1946, a substantial opus going on to a quarter of a million words. He commented substantially on it prior to its review in a communication to the New York Times on January 15, 1947, anticipating that it would raise a howling storm of abuse, though his main purpose was to explain why he had written it. Pearl Harbor was not just a disaster, he declared; it was what got the U.S.A. into the Second World War. And it was not satisfactory or sufficient to explain it away as a result of Japanese perfidy,” which has dominated all discussion of it since Dec. 7, 1941. It has permitted the Roosevelt administration to “manage national policy as if it were a private show,” from that time on. As a war correspondent in a strategic spot he knew that Wartime censors closed in even more tightly about the field of public policy,” and FDR’s Decisions” were announced to the people after the event” routinely from entry into the war ever after. And, Morgenstern pointed out, increasing secrecy led to the invention of aa new category of hush-hush information which could only be described in the phrase Top Secret.'” “The conclusions stated in Pearl Harbor are those to which the author was led by the record,” Morgenstern insisted, going on to say:

“Those who object to historical skepticism may complain that my book is no contribution to the political canonization of its central figure. That is no concern of mine. As to the purpose my book is intended to serve, some observations from the minority report of the Joint Congressional Committee which investigated the Pearl Harbor attack are pertinent: 'In the future the people and their Congress must know how close American diplomacy is moving to war so that they may check in advance if imprudent and support its position if sound … How to avoid war and how to turn war — if it finally comes — to serve the cause of human progress is the challenge to diplomacy today as yesterday.'”

The first reviews of Pearl Harbor followed just a few days after publication, the featured ones being blockbuster attacks in the two New York flag-ship newspapers of the deep-foundation Establishment, which had already co-opted both liberals and conservatives. The assignments went to an ex-Revisionist, the expert and veteran writer Walter Millis, in the New York Herald-Tribune, and in the New York Times to a relatively unknown young academic, Gordon Craig of Princeton Universitys history department. The latter was not known for any expertise whatever on the subject of Pearl Harbor, but later was to become deeply entrenched in the academic groves for his critical tomes on modern Germany, noted for their polish and sophistication. Appearing simultaneously in the issues of the two papers for February 9, 1947, they gave the impression of being a coordinated offensive.

Neither contested a single fact presented by Morgenstern, but filled the function of what this writer calls the “how-dare-you?” challenge, the traditional initial affronted bellow of wounded Establishment paladins. It is not intended to undermine the author of their discomfort by demonstrating his perpetration of falsehoods, but to set the tone and stack the playing field for the future, trying to establish an out-of-bounds territory for such productions, and seeking to entrench the line that this form of approach is simply beyond the grounds of sustained civilized debate or intellectual intercourse, in Roman phraseology, infra dignitatem. Revisionists have encountered such ploys over and over in their tangles with Establishments in many fields. In the main this strategy is a failure, as it tends to stimulate rather than to suffocate curiosity. Repeated endeavors and adventures of the kind that stimulated the original Establishment retaliatory salvo, the latter essentially an ad hominem barrage intended to intimidate readers, investigators, the curious, and possible future involvees, invariably follow. It is a rare Establishment that does not suffer eventual defeat in this kind of confrontation, regardless of how long it takes (this writer has never forgotten the story of Lorenzo Valla, first encountered reading Harry Elmer Barnes’s History of Western Civilization in 1938.)

Prof. Craig mourned the effect Morgenstern’s book might have on the reputation of his hero, the deceased President Roosevelt, but could establish no cogent reason why any reader might not profit vastly from reading this substantial book. The review by Millis was more scurrilous, and sounded loudly on the horn of “respectability,” suggesting it was on to low a plane for the refined and aristocratic upholders of the wartime regime’s already deeply implanted legend on which to conduct future intellectual combat. Millis even had the brass to scold so eminent a figure in contemporary American historical scholarship as Charles A. Beard for his spirited endorsement of Morgenstern’s book, though Beard had obviously read immensely more about the subject than had Millis, including more that 10,000 pages of sworn testimony and official papers relating to the Pearl affair, which Beard had read even before he had seen the galleyproof sheets of Morgenstern’s book.

Pearl Harbor, though pilloried by these two reviewers and by several others as some kind of partisan broadside, actually was warmly received across the ideological spectrum, from Norman Thomas, many-times candidate for the presidency of the U.S.A. of the Socialist Party, through famed pre-war and anti-war liberals such as Profs. Beard and Barnes, on through others of many views, from liberal to conservative. It was received favorably in the religious press from the Catholic World to the Protestant journal of major status, the Christian Century, in which latter the reviewer concluded that it was “an orderly and carefully documented record of the events” of the Pearl Harbor incident, and that it left ano manner of doubt that the Administration was preparing for war when the public thought it was preparing for peace.”

It might be noted that the first wave of critics was appalled by what they interpreted as a grave slander of FDR for describing how he talked peace while steadily and forcefully leading the march to war, but the following cohort of defenders not only admitted this but frankly suggested that all should have been edified by the President’s skill at deceiving everyone, since it had been done for their own good.

Before moving on from this necessarily abbreviated look back at the early reviews, mention should be made of at least one reaction from the nation’s armed forces the leaders of the enthusiastic reception of Pearl Harbor by Admiral Harry E. Yarnell (1875-1959), active in the U.S. Navy service for many years, Commander of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet (1936-1939) and perhaps the inspiration for the Japanese attack of Dec. 7, 1941 on Oahu. In the Hawaii war games in 1932 Adm. Yarnell took on the role of chief of the attacking forces. A great exponent of air warfare waged from ships, still a “radical” stance among naval thinkers, Adm. Yarnell set all the fleet earmarked for participation aside except for two aircraft carriers and three destroyers. Moving his force to within 60 miles northeast of the island, on Sunday, Feb. 7, 1932, half an hour before sunrise, Adm. Yarnell launched 153 fighters, bombers and torpedo-bomber planes, which proceeded to Pearl Harbor, catching everyone by surprise, and in the opinion of the referees, theoretically destroyed both the Pearl Harbor land-based planes and installations and also “sank” every ship in the harbor. The sensational success of all this certainly impressed Japanese observers. Adm. Yarnell, repelled and gravely angered by the Administration’s tactic after the Pearl Harbor disaster nine years later of scapegoating the military and especially the naval commander for it all, had denounced this action as “a blot on our national history.” Writing of Morgenstern’s book in Far Eastern Survey, he forthrightly declared, “Mr. Morgenstern is to be congratulated on marshaling the available facts of this tragedy in such a manner as to make it clear to every reader where lies the responsibility.”

The immediate postwar years between “victory” in 1945 and the start of the doleful fiasco in Korea five years later saw the vast weight and impetus of the New Dispensation steadily block or wear down Revisionism in the mass public mind, despite a rising curve of critical literature. Establishment momentum nevertheless steadily mobilized hostility toward such efforts as were mounted by the growing body of critics. It was the combination of abuse and the silent treatment of Pearl Harbor, and in the following year, of Beard’s President Roosevelt and the Coming of the War, 1941 (Yale Univ. Press 1948), among other things, that played so large a part in Barnes deciding to produce his famed essay The Struggle Against the Historical Blackout, a work which went into nine editions (each larger than the previous one) between 1949 and 1961 and saw other service in various re-writes in a succession of periodical appearances. In the midst of this there appeared the hefty symposium edited by Barnes, Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace, in 1953, to which Morgenstern contributed a massive chapter of over 90 pages, and in which he further elaborated on his celebrated book of five years earlier. One could know of and use both seriatim to understand what he had to say of the Pearl Harbor attack and its consequences, though this may now be difficult in view of the situation. When the Institute for Historical Review reprinted Perpetual War in 1982 in an edition which included a previously-suppressed chapter by Barnes, this writer, reviewing it in the Spring 1983 issue of The Journal of Historical Review, in an effort aimed mainly at an audience born after 1941, declared that Pearl Harbor should never have been allowed to go out of print. Unfortunately this remarkable new and unexpurgated edition of Perpetual War was subjected to a new suppression in the form of the malicious arson fire which swept the IHR premises early on July 4, 1984, a great testimonial to the sanctimonious super-hypocrites who sit around sniveling and tearing their garments over the horrid crime of book-burning, but only when it involves things they approve of. (This writer lost his set of the original galleys of the suppressed chapter in this blaze, though it is now part of the published record in such copies of the new edition as were already distributed.)

In his capacity on the Tribune’s editorial board, which eventually led to his appointment as editor of the editorial page, George Morgenstern lent his energies and influence to many other appearances of material of important Revisionist substance, though maybe favoring the Pearl Harbor theme more than others. Another Tribune outlet for Revisionist material of great value was its remarkable book review section, edited by Frederic Babcock. It took care to report in kindly and sympathetic ways Revisionist books of several kinds which were beginning to get, elsewhere, not malicious and venomous reviews, but, in the new “blackout” strategy, no reviews at all, the Establishment’s approach to smothering the whole subject, when it could not be met very effectively.

Morgenstern won two coveted internal Tribune prizes, the Edward Scott Beck Awards, for two of his feature pieces on the Pearl Harbor subject in 1956 and 1966, the latter a stunning special section of 12 full newspaper pages. But he shoud have received a third one for his efforts the following year (1967), also published on the Dec. 7 anniversary. This was the sensational almost-fifteen column essay by Barnes titled “U.S. Entered World War II 4 Days Prior to Dec. 7.” It was based on the work of Navy Commander (ret.) Charles C. Hiles, on what we have come to refer to as the “Merle-Smith Message.” The gist of this was that the USA was already in the war in the Pacific as of Dec. 2, 1941 East Asian time, as a result of the invoking by the Dutch of part of the secret diplomatic agreement made in Singapore early in 1941. This committed those involved, which included the U.S.A., to come to the aid of any participant subjected to a Japanese attack or invasion (the signatories all had colonial possessions in the Pacific). This occurred Dec. 2, 1941, when Japanese planes started landing in Holland’s Dutch East Indies.

Commander Hiles’s remarkable and still unpublished work on this subject; the furor and commotion it caused in Australia, where the American liaison chief, Col. Van S. Merle-Smith, engaged for four days in talks with Australian and Dutch leaders over it all, and the suppression of his report, which allegedly took four days to reach Washington, and according to conventional claims surfaced a convenient almost seven hours after the attack on Hawaii had begun, were all treated by Barnes in his long piece. It was given front- page placement by Morgenstern, and obviously enjoyed wide circulation among the many hundreds of thousands of Tribune readers and subscribers. It is a testament to our short memories that this has almost entirely disappeared from the record. And, in view of what has happened to Tribune ownership, management and editorial policy changes in recent years, it is almost impossible to imagine it would ever be recalled again, or even mentioned.

George Morgenstern was a dynamo in his thirty years on the editorial staff of the Chicago Tribune. He wrote almost daily, and sometimes prepared five different editorials on five different subjects for the same issue of the paper. On the occasion of political conventions he was known to “write the whole editorial page,” according to his admiring superior, Clayton Kirkpatrick, the president and editor-in-chief of the Tribune in that time, virtually “a whole editorial staff in himself” Kirkpatrick hailed him as “a superb craftsman” in the writing of the English language, able to write with “onsiderable force” and who “could handle any subject.”

Upon retirement in 1971, Morgenstern remained at the long-time family home in Lake Forest (his wife, Marcia Winn, a formidable Tribune columnist in her own right, had died at age 50 on August 15, 1961), and in 1981 moved to Denver to live with one of his two daughters, Nora, a medical doctor.

What has happened to the Tribune, the one-time chief journalistic standard-bearer of Revisionism in the entire land (veteran Revisionists know of what it did in this sphere through the work of many other writers, including Walter Trohan and Donald Day, as well as featuring the output of many other writers not in its employ) is perhaps best understood by contemplating what has happened to Chicago, and perhaps the whole country for that matter. But it may be said in closing that George Morgenstern, whom this writer has always considered a vastly skilled journalist and historian, and a great man, might be memorialized some day by a scholar who could assemble a generous-sized tome incorporating his superb talents as displayed in a generation of published production in the pages of what was once a formidable newspaper.

About the author

JAMES J. MARTIN graduated from the University of New Hampshire in 1942 and received his M.A. (1945) and Ph.D. (1949) degrees in History from the University of Michigan. His teaching career has spanned twenty-five years and involved residence at educational institutions from coast to coast Dr. Marffn has contributed some of the outstanding books of Revisionism related to the Second World War: the two-volume classic American Liberalism and World Politics, 1931-1941, Beyond Pearl Harbor, and collected essays Revisionist Viewpoints and The Saga of Hog Island and Other Essays in Inconvenient History, and his most recent work, The Man Who Invented 'Genocide': The Public Career and Consequences of Raphael Lemkin. He is a three-time contributor to the Dictionary of American Biography and has as well contributed to recent editions of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Dr. Martin’s latest book, An American Adventure in Bookburning in the Style of 1918, will soon be available through IHR.

Bibliographic information
Author: Martin, James J.
Title: George Morgenstern, 1906-1988
Source: The Journal for Historical Review
Date: Summer 1989
Issue: Volume 9 number 2
Location: Page 247
ISSN: 0195-6752
Attribution: “Reprinted from The Journal of Historical Review, PO Box 2739, Newport Beach, CA 92659, USA.”
Please send a copy of all reprints to the Editor.