- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 7, 2000

''Dec. 7, 1941 … a date that will live in infamy, predicted President Franklin Roosevelt a few days later in his message to Congress asking for a declaration of war on Japan. History has proven him right. The date and the Japanese attack became infamous overnight and remain so today. It was a turning point for America and the world.

As Adm. Yamamoto Isoroku feared, the attack "waked a sleeping giant and filled his heart with a terrible anger." All concerns over foreign entanglements were swept aside and the United States was projected onto the world stage as the global superpower it has remained.

But, from the beginning, this "infamy" was complex and nuanced. Congress and the American public quickly concluded the Japanese attack could not have succeeded without U.S. incompetence, and a special high-level commission reviewed the event and faulted the commanders in Hawaii, Maj. Gen. Walter Short and Rear Adm. Husband Kimmel. That did not end the matter and the question of who was guilty of what refused to go away.

In the years since World War II, a half-dozen official investigations, with thousands of pages of testimony and evidence, have still failed to settle the issue to everyone's satisfaction. Now, as more and more of the official records become available, questions continue to be raised. Conspiracies theories abound, centering around treachery in high places and cover-ups. Nearly everyone actually involved is dead so the questions have become quite pointed and specific.

Did Franklin Roosevelt, George Marshall and others have advance warning of the Pearl Harbor attack and fail to act? Were the commanders in Hawaii, Gen. Short and Adm. Kimmel, made scapegoats to cover the guilt of these others? Were the Japanese suckered into making the attack because it served the purpose of an American administration searching for an excuse to enter the war? Finally, could American involvement in World War II have been avoided altogether?

These are, to be sure, disturbing questions. They question the integrity and validity of the glorious national effort which was World War II. Could that all have been built on hoax and deception?

One is tempted to reject these notions like UFO theories and Kennedy assassination fantasies. But a lingering doubt persists and the literature shows no sign of abating. It is worth examining these questions briefly as on the anniversary of that infamous Sunday.

Who knew what and when did they know it? The root of the "treachery in high places" is the argument that U.S. intelligence had pinpointed the time and place of the Japanese attack long before Dec. 7. The famous Japanese "East Wind, Rain" message, the long diplomatic code message intercepted and decoded on the very eve of the Pearl Harbor attack, and Navy intelligence's apparent failure to locate the Japanese carrier fleet just before the attack are long since a part of the received popular version of events.

Conspiracy theorists have always alleged that much more detailed information on Japanese movements and plans actually was available from U.S. and British intercepts of Japanese radio transmissions and their subsequent decoding, but this had not been proven until the recent publication of a book by William Stinnett "Day of Deceit: The Truth about FDR and Pearl Harbor."

Mr. Stinnett is not an Oliver Stone-type paranoid (the inflammatory title notwithstanding) and, to his great credit, he has uncovered highly revealing new historical evidence which seems to show conclusively that, in fact, there was a joint British-American (with a minor Dutch input as well) effort to monitor all Japanese naval radio traffic for most of the last half of 1941, operating from stations in the Far East, Hawaii and the West Coast U.S. The analysis of this flow of traffic had become sophisticated enough to be able to identify particular Japanese ships and commanders and locate them geographically.

In short, American intelligence probably should have been able to locate the Japanese carrier force and may well have done so. The evidence is incomplete but highly suggestive.

The received version of the Pearl Harbor events also has it that the Japanese maintained radio silence on their journey across the Pacific so no intercept or pinpointing of their position was possible. But Mr. Stinnett finds evidence that, in fact, radio traffic occurred between the task force leader, Adm. Chuichi Nagumo, and Japan and also between ships in the attack fleet. These were apparently also intercepted by U.S. stations and task force's location plotted. He thus shows that the U.S. intelligence system had produced data and evidence which correctly interpreted would have led the U.S. to anticipate the Pearl Harbor attack.

But he also shows how complicated, fragmented and bureaucratic the intelligence community was in those early prewar days. Much depended on personal, informal networks and contacts. The military chiefs and Roosevelt and his advisers were receiving information and analysis from many sources and it was often contradictory. As Roberta Wohlsetter explained years ago, there was too much "noise" for the key persons to hear the one message they needed to hear.

Even this revisionist work by Mr. Stinnett fails to show that a clear evaluation and appraisal that the Japanese were likely to attack Pearl Harbor, much less when, ever reached the top level in Washington. (The title of his book in many ways admirable book outreaches his historical research.) Stephen Ambrose is still right. Pearl Harbor was an incredible intelligence failure.

Were Gen. Short and Adm. Kimmel scapegoats? We have known for a long time that the answer to this question is "yes." They had been given a "war warning" and it happened on their watch so they could not avoid the main responsibility. But, as Robert E. Lee said after Gettysburg, there was enough blame to go around.

Mr. Stinnett pushes the argument very hard but, in fact, has no new evidence that anyone deliberately withheld information from the commanders in Hawaii. On the other hand, their own intelligence chiefs were notably unhelpful. Adm. Ernest King insisted on relieving Adm. Short from duty and the Army felt it had to follow suit. The matter had to be settled quickly given the high emotional state of the country. A real investigation, with a full airing of all the events and communications leading up to Dec. 7, would have been unthinkable in wartime, and by the time the war was over an official version of events had been fashioned and put in place.

It would have been difficult to change this without serious harm to the reputations of many senior persons in Washington, civilian and military. Mr.Stinnett found evidence that files had been tampered with or even removed so a cover-up of sorts did occur. Governments do not like to admit that they have told lies, even in wartime. It was the guilt of the entire system which was being covered up, not any single individual.

Did Franklin Roosevelt deliberately provoke the Japanese into attacking Pearl Harbor to give the U.S. an excuse to enter the war and come to England's aid? In retrospect, it certainly seems that both Japan and America were looking for trouble in late 1941. The U.S. had imposed an oil embargo that was a direct public slap in the face and a potential threat to the Japanese economy. But, the Japanese had already decided on war. They saw the war in Europe as their golden opportunity to acquire an empire in the islands with most of the Western powers on the defensive and Russia busy with Germany.

Japan had decided to move south before the oil embargo was imposed. This simply provided an even better excuse for their military to act. The Philippines had to be taken to safeguard Japan's supply lines to Southeast Asia. Thus, a war with America was inescapable. Roosevelt and his advisers understood this very well but vastly underestimated the Japanese and probably never saw the Japanese as a really dangerous enemy. They thought Gen. Douglas MacArthur could hold Manila indefinitely while they prepared a counterstrike.

Had Roosevelt wanted a Japanese attack, on Pearl Harbor or anywhere else, as an excuse to fight Germany then his logic is hard to follow. Right after Pearl Harbor, America declared war only on Japan. Germany then declared war on the U.S. and then, and only then, did the U.S. declare war on Germany. (Winston Churchill was holding his breath and then, finally, as he said later, "went to bed to sleep the sleep of the saved and the victorious.") How could Roosevelt have been sure Adolf Hitler would be so foolish?

It must remain an open question whether the U.S. would have entered the European war at all without Germany throwing down the gauntlet.

Could the U.S. have avoided entering the second World War altogether? The distinguished historian Charles Beard, and many other after him, have argued that America should have looked after its own problems and stayed out of foreign wars. And we could have done this. We could have allowed the Japanese free rein in Southeast Asia and signed some agreement that gave us continued control of the Philippines (for at least a while). We could have watched Hitler defeat Russia and then consolidate his hold on most of the Eurasian land mass with the oil of the Middle East thrown in. The Japanese and the Germans would than have joined hands in South Asia.

Churchill promised that England would fight on "whatever else happens" and so it might have, for a while, but probably not very long since her fleet would have been vastly outnumbered. Facing invasion, she might have yielded. Sooner or later the new global axis would have turned to the U.S. for its resources and because they disliked what we stood for.

It would have been our turn and World War III, if that is what it would have been called, would have been a good deal harder for us to win than was World War II since we would have been fighting alone. And we might not really have deserved to win.

Franklin Roosevelt's domestic policies earned him many enemies and they believed him capable of any fraud and deception to get his way. That legacy persists, and many are still willing to believe that he engineered Pearl Harbor to foist a war on the country. He surely provided provocation to both the Germans and Japanese and was glad when the issue with the Axis powers was finally joined.

But he was on the right side. He acted as any American president should have acted in the face of the rising terror of German and Japanese imperialism.

Dec. 7 is the anniversary of America's coming of age to full global maturity. We should all be proud our country met the call and reflect on that remarkable era on Pearl Harbor Day.

Warren Robinson is a retired academic and a free-lance writer in Washington.

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