The Holocaust Historiography Project


Exonerating Pearl Harbor’s Scapegoats

  • Scapegoats: A Defense of Kimmel and Short at Pearl Harbor, by Edward L. Beach. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1995. Hardcover. 225 pages. Eleven photographs. Bibliographical references essay. Index.

Reviewed by John Weir (bio)

Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor on Sunday morning, December 7, 1941, inflicted one of the worst blows ever endured by American military forces. During the two-hour raid, Japanese warplanes sunk or seriously damaged 16 major US naval vessels, including six battleships, and killed 2,400 American servicemen. The next day, in an often-quoted address that reflected the national mood, President Franklin Roosevelt spoke of “a date which will live in infamy.”

Angry Americans wanted to know why their Pacific fleet was caught by surprise, and who was responsible for the woeful lack of preparedness. In the rush to fix blame, attention naturally turned to the two men who were responsible for Pearl Harbor base security: Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, the ranking US Navy commander in Hawaii, and his Army counterpart, Lt. General Walter C. Short.

Formal investigations found that Kimmel and Short had been seriously derelict in their duties, and responsible for the lack of preparedness. The two were stripped of their commands, and sent into the wilderness of an early retirement at lower rank.

Until his death in 1968, Kimmel worked hard to clear his name, an effort that others, including his son and grandson, have carried on to this day. For example, in October 1990, the officers and trustees of the US Naval Academy Alumni Association at Annapolis unanimously adopted a resolution calling on the Navy to posthumously restore Kimmel’s rank as four-star Admiral. This rehabilitation effort also includes this book, written by retired US Navy Captain Edward Beach.

A scapegoat, the book of Leviticus tells us, is a goat upon whom the sins of the people are placed before being driven into the wilderness. In an interview shortly before his death, Kimmel said: “They made me the scapegoat. They wanted to get the United States into the war.” Asked just whom he meant by “they,” he named President Roosevelt, US Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall, and “others in the Washington high command.” Kimmel continued:

FDR was the architect of the whole business. He gave orders — and I can’t prove this categorically — that no word about Japanese fleet movements was to be sent to Pearl Harbor except by Marshall, and then he told Marshall not to send anything.

Meanwhile, others have continued to defend the official line. In a much-discussed work published in 1992, Pearl Harbor: Final Judgement, Henry C. Clausen (with co-author Bruce Lee) acknowledged that Washington had ample warning of an imminent Japanese attack, but contends that the information passed on to Kimmel and Short should have sufficed to motivate them to take defensive measures. [Dr. James J. Martin reviewed this book in the Jan.-Feb. 1995 Journal.] “The debacle at Pearl Harbor was the result of Short’s and Kimmel’s being asleep at the switch,” concludes Clausen.

As its title indicates, Scapegoats was written with the goal of exonerating Kimmel and Short. Author Edward Beach tries to show why the Pearl Harbor naval base was unprepared for the Japanese attack, and who was to blame for the Pacific Fleet’s lack of readiness. More specifically, Beach presents strong evidence to show that Kimmel and Short were unjustly blamed for the misdeeds of Roosevelt, Marshall and other higher-ups in the US military command.

Little of this book is really new. Most of the facts and arguments laid out here have already been presented, often more clearly and persuasively, in works — often cited by Beach — by earlier revisionist historians. (See, for example, Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace, an outstanding anthology edited by Harry Elmer Barnes [softcover IHR edition available from the IHR for $11.75 postpaid].)

Indeed, Beach openly acknowledges his debt to such works as The Pacific War, by British historian John Costello, and Pearl Harbor: The Story of the Secret War, the still unsurpassed study by George Morgenstern. [A handsome IHR softcover edition, with a special introduction by James J. Martin, is available for $11.45 postpaid.]

Much of the ground covered by Beach has also been covered in issues of this Journal. These include the special Winter 1983-84 “Pearl Harbor” issue, which contains seven essays by Percy L. Greaves, Jr., chief of the minority research staff of the 1945-46 Congressional investigation of the Pearl Harbor attack, along with an essay by James J. Martin, “Where Was General Marshall?” Three of the most important books on this subject — Infamy: Pearl Harbor and Its Aftermath by John Toland, The Pacific War by John Costello, and At Dawn We Slept by Gordon W. Prange — are reviewed by Greaves in the Fall 1982 issue of this Journal. Charles Lutton provided a lucid, detailed overview of the debate in “Pearl Harbor: Fifty Years of Controversy,” in the Winter 1991-92 Journal. Also noteworthy is Roger Stolley’s essay, “Pearl Harbor No Surprise,” in the Spring 1992 Journal.

Inadequate Defense

As Beach explains in this book, Roosevelt decided in 1940 that American forces in the Philippines, and not at Pearl Harbor, were the most likely target of a possible Japanese attack. As a result, Washington neglected to supply the Hawaii base with the requisite new, long-range patrol aircraft and spare parts. This failure adequately to supply Pearl Harbor is a very important factor in considering the single most important accusation leveled against Kimmel and Short: that having been informed that north was the most likely direction of a possible Japanese attack, they nevertheless failed to set up a sustained air patrol to spot any approaching enemy strike force.

A detailed article in the December 1994 issue of the Proceedings of the US Naval Institute (cited by Beach) authoritatively exonerates Kimmel of this specific charge. Entitled “Reopen the Kimmel Case,” it is written by Dr. Michael Gannon, professor of history at the University of Florida. Gannon also points out that an effective reconnaissance patrol over a protracted period, with a complete, 360-degree surveillance sweep, would have required a fleet of 250 operational aircraft. But during the first week of December 1941, only 49 such patrol aircraft were available. Adequate crews, spare parts, and experienced aviation machinists were likewise not available. Although Kimmel had been promised delivery of 100 new PBY-5 Catalina aircraft for surveillance, these were never delivered, and Hawaii was left without the means to sustain an effective air patrol.

'Magic' Intercepts

Washington’s most egregious failure with regard to the forces in Hawaii was in neglecting to pass on vital intelligence information to Kimmel and Short. Because the Washington high command no longer gave the highest priority to Pearl Harbor as a possible Japanese target, and (according to Beach) because Washington feared compromising the source of its intelligence intercepts, known as “Magic,” Washington failed to supply the Hawaii commanders with the intelligence that would have sufficiently alerted them to the strong likelihood of an impending attack.

For some time prior to December 1941, US cryptographers had broken Japan’s diplomatic code, and high-level administration officials were routinely reading all confidential communications between Tokyo and Japanese embassies in Washington and elsewhere. During the weeks prior to the Pearl Harbor attack, US officials decrypted several Japanese messages that indicated an imminent outbreak of war with the United States and Britain.

These included a secret message sent by Tokyo to the Japanese ambassador in Berlin on November 30, 1941. He was told to meet immediately with Hitler and Foreign Minister von Ribbentrop, and in confidence to inform them:

Say to them [Hitler and Ribbentrop] that lately England the United States have taken a provocative attitude, both of them. Say that they are planning to move military forces into various places in East Asia and that we will inevitably have to counter by also moving troops. Say very secretly to them that there is extreme danger that war may suddenly break out between the Anglo-Saxon nations and Japan through some clash of arms and add that the time of the breaking out of this war may come quicker than anyone dreams.

On the evening of December 3, the US Navy Department in Washington intercepted Tokyo’s coded “winds execute” message, which informed its embassies that Japan would soon be at war against the United States and Britain.

By December 6th at the latest, US officials had enough information to indicate Pearl Harbor was the likely target of an impending Japanese attack. For one thing, Washington knew on the 6th that Japan’s envoy in Washington was ordered to deliver his final message to US Secretary of State Hull at 1:00 p.m., Washington time — which coincided with dawn in Hawaii.

During a 1944 naval inquiry, Captain Laurance Safford, the leading cryptologist responsible for decoding intercepted Japanese messages, courageously testified on what he and his office knew:

On December 1, we had definite information from three independent sources that Japan was going to attack Britain and the United States …

On December 4, 1941, we received definite information from two more independent sources that Japan would attack the United States and Britain, but would maintain peace with Russia. At 9:00 p.m. (Washington time), December 6, 1941, we received positive information that Japan would declare war against the United States, at a time to be specified thereafter. This information was positive and unmistakable and was made available to Military [US Army] Intelligence at this same time. Finally at 10:15 a.m. (Washington time), December 7, 1941 [about 5:00 a.m. Hawaii time], we received positive information … that the Japanese declaration of war would be presented to the Secretary of State at 1:00 p.m. (Washington time) that date.

All decoded messages, Safford explained, were promptly passed on to the President and other key civilian and military personnel. Yet both Kimmel and Short were kept in the dark about the most pertinent of these messages. The responsibility for failing to pass along this critically important information to the Hawaii commanders, Beach writes, belonged to Admiral Harold Stack, General George Marshall, and Vice Admiral Richmond Turner.

As Beach points out, the real value of intelligence is measured only by its utility. Paralysis based on fear of losing a valuable source of information only makes the data derived therefrom worthless.

Beach and other historians believe that at a secret, late-night White House meeting on the evening before the Pearl Harbor attack, President Roosevelt was informed of the most recently intercepted Japanese communication. A Navy officer who was present later testified that upon reading it, Roosevelt exclaimed “This means war!” Beach contends that it was fear of exposing “Magic” that explains Roosevelt’s failure to immediately alert Kimmel, Short and other appropriate officials, and even to deny that this late-night White House meeting ever took place.

Just one hour and seven minutes before Japanese bombs began falling on Pearl Harbor, an important telegram by General Marshall was dispatched to General Short in Hawaii. It read:

japanese are presenting at one pm eastern standard time today what amounts to an ultimatum also they are under orders to destroy their code machine immediately stop just what significance the hour set may have we do not know but be on alert accordingly stop inform naval authorities of this communication marshall

Marshall could have used a trans-Pacific telephone to make sure that Hawaii learned instantly of this momentous news, but this was not done. Instead, this message was sent by regular commercial radio telegraph, and was not received by Short and Kimmel until after the Japanese attack.

In his 1955 book, Admiral Kimmel’s Story, Husband Kimmel summed up his view of the situation:

The deficiencies of Pearl Harbor as a fleet base were well known in the Navy Department. In an interview with Mr. Roosevelt in June 1941, in Washington, I outlined the weaknesses and concluded with the remark that the only answer was to have the fleet at sea if the Japs ever attacked.

I accepted the decision to base the fleet at Pearl Harbor in the firm belief that the Navy Department would supply me promptly with all pertinent information available and in particular with all information that indicated an attack on the fleet at Pearl Harbor.

… The Navy Department thus engaged in a course of conduct which definitely gave me the impression that intelligence from important intercepted Japanese messages ["Magic"] was being furnished to me. Under these circumstances a failure to send me important information of this character was not merely a withholding of intelligence. It amounted to an affirmative misrepresentation.

… Yet, in fact, the most vital information from the intercepted Japanese messages was withheld from me. This failure not only deprived me of essential facts. It misled me.

I was not supplied with any information of the intercepted messages showing that the Japanese government had divided Pearl Harbor into five areas and was seeking minute berthing information as to the berthing of ships of the fleet in those areas, which was vitally significant.

'Second Class Revisionist'

In a much discussed, and much criticized, 1982 study, Infamy: Pearl Harbor and Its Aftermath [softcover edition available from the IHR for $10.00 postpaid], historian John Toland laid out evidence for his thesis that President Roosevelt fully anticipated Japan’s attack, and intentionally withheld this vital information from Kimmel and Short in the expectation that a devastating Japanese attack in Hawaii would bring the United States decisively and irrevocably into war. This is also the view that Kimmel himself came to hold. In a 1958 interview (published in the Winter 1991-92 Journal), he stated:

My belief is that General Short and I were not given the information available in Washington and were not informed of the impending attack because it was feared that action in Hawaii might deter the Japanese from making the attack. Our president had repeatedly assured the American people that the United States would not enter the war unless we were attacked. The Japanese attack on the fleet would put the United States in the war with the full support of the American public.

Oddly, Beach does not accept the view of the man he seeks to exonerate, and even dismisses Toland’s thesis as “off the wall.”

Discussing the current state of the debate about Pearl Harbor and its background, Beach writes:

There is today a great need for historical reappraisal, even at the risk of being labeled a “revisionist.” This word is so often used as a pejorative that some historians have developed knee-jerk reactions whenever they hear it, and any suggestion of revisionist thinking causes those advocating a thoughtful approach to become defensive.

To be a “revisionist” these days means that one believes Roosevelt deliberately exposed our fleet at Pearl Harbor to “lure the Japanese to attack,” had full knowledge of the approach of the six-carrier task force across the north Pacific for that purpose, and refrained from alerting our forces in Hawaii in order that Japan’s “first blow” would be so devastating that it would coalesce our entire national political spectrum into support for entry into the war. While this approximates the facts of what happened, there is no proof that it was intentional or deliberate on his part.

The author of these pages will admit to being what might be called a “second-class revisionist” in that he feels that Roosevelt was convinced by mid-1941 of the necessity of our entry into the war and did all he could to bring it about …

Roosevelt’s Push for War

Perhaps reluctant to confront the issue of Roosevelt’s role and responsibility, Beach keeps his book focused on the responsibility of Kimmel and Short for the Pearl Harbor debacle, and therefore does not dwell on the larger issue of Roosevelt’s campaign to involve the United States in war with Japan and Germany. This is regrettable, because US policy toward Japan in the period before prior to Pearl Harbor attack must be considered in determining the culpability of these two commanders.

Prior to the Pearl Harbor attack, popular sentiment against American involvement in the European and Asian wars was so strong that Roosevelt resorted to deceit and outright lies in his campaign from mid-1939 to December 1941 to bring the US into war.

Against Japan, he applied increasingly severe pressure. In September 1940 Roosevelt imposed an embargo on all US exports of scrap iron and steel to the country. On July 26, 1941, he ordered a freeze on all Japanese assets in the United States, which ended trade between the two countries. This was a severe blow to Japan, which depended heavily on the US for its scrap steel, and oil and petroleum products. Roosevelt’s order, which amounted to an economic declaration of war, threatened Japan’s survival as a developed, industrialized nation.

Also in July 1941, the President secretly authorized devastating American bombing raids against Japanese cities. Roosevelt and his top military advisers approved a daring plan to use American pilots and American war planes, deceitfully flying under the Chinese flag, to bomb Japan’s major cities. (See “Roosevelt’s Secret Prewar Plan to Bomb Japan,” Winter 1991-92 Journal.)

On November 26, 1941, Secretary of State Hull handed the Japanese ambassador in Washington a ten-point memorandum that bluntly spelled out the US government’s stern policy toward Japan. The core of this virtual ultimatum was a demand that Japan “withdraw all military, naval, air and police forces from China and from Indochina.”

It was this paper that convinced the Tokyo leadership that further discussions with the US were pointless, and that Japan now had no choice but resort to arms. With the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the “back door to war,” Roosevelt attained the goal for which he had been striving so ardently for more than two years. (For an authoritative summary of Japan’s view of the background to Pearl Harbor, see “Hideki Tojo’s Prison Diary,” in the Spring 1992 Journal. See also A Time for War: Franklin Roosevelt and the Path to Pearl Harbor, by Robert Smith Thompson, reviewed by Joseph Bishop in the March-April 1996 Journal.)

Beach expresses approval of, or at least understanding for, Roosevelt’s artful campaign to maneuver Japan into striking the first blow. At the same time, though, he derides the President for his failure to fully prepare for this conflict, thus leaving US forces in the Pacific unprepared. That is, Roosevelt was guilty of not letting his military hand know what his diplomatic hand was doing. If he worked for and anticipated war with Japan, he should simultaneously have fortified US forces in Hawaii and the Philippines to make them fully prepared for attack. This lack of consistency or coordination resulted in the unforgivable sacrifice of thousands of men in the initial Japanese onslaught. It is only within this context that one can fairly assess the guilt of Kimmel and Short, if any.

Beach makes an interesting comparison between the ignominious post-1941 fates of Kimmel and Short, and the celebrated post-1941 career of Douglas MacArthur, who commanded American forces in the Philippines in December 1941. Although Washington provided MacArthur with warnings of a possible Japanese attack that were at least as clear as those given the commanders in Hawaii, he was no better prepared for a Japanese assault. MacArthur’s forces were devastated by Japanese raids much as those under the command of Kimmel and Short.

But instead of ignominy and early forced retirement, MacArthur — in contrast to Kimmel and Short — was promoted, and went on to an acclaimed wartime career that secured a legendary place in history. So blame was not only misdirected, it was also (as Beach points out) inconsistently assigned. A factor that may have contributed to protecting MacArthur’s reputation, Beach notes parenthetically, is the fact that MacArthur, along with his boss, General Marshall, were both 32nd degree Freemasons.

Confronting a Powerful Myth

In trying explain why Kimmel and Short still remain scapegoats, even after more than half a century, Beach writes:

Were the awesome personalities of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Gen. George C. Marshall not involved, it is my conviction that the events leading to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor would long since have been seen in their true light. The blame leveled, in the heat of that tragic day, upon our two unfortunate commanders there would no longer be part of the historical record.

But this assessment misses the mark. What’s at stake here is much greater than these two “awesome personalities.” Roosevelt and Marshall are regarded as “awesome” above all because of the roles they played during World War II — the conflict by which America attained its superpower status. An important pillar of America’s mythical self-image as a righteous superpower is the Pearl Harbor legend that the United States was minding its own business until the mad Japanese launched their unprovoked attack, dragging reluctant Americans into a terrible world war, and thereby obliging the United States to shoulder “international responsibilities” as world judge, philanthropist and policeman.

A broader understanding of the background to the Pearl Harbor attack, and especially President Roosevelt’s secretive and unlawful efforts to provoke war, would go far toward shattering this popular legend — an issue that, regrettably, Beach does not adequately address. For as long as the myth of the United States as the reluctant geopolitical messiah endures, Americans will resist viewing this century’s history with candor, and Kimmel and Short will remain scapegoats.

Author bio

John Weir is a computer programer/analyst who lives with his wife and three children in a suburb of Kansas City. Born in Missouri in 1958, he received a B. S. degree in computer science and technology from the University of Missouri in Kansas City.