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Book Review: Betrayal at Pearl Harbor

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Betrayal at Pearl Harbor: How Churchill Lured Roosevelt into World War II
by James Rusbridger and Eric Nave (New York: Summit Books, 1991); 302 pages; $19.95.

In the early morning of December 7,1941, Japanese bombers began their attack rim over Pearl Harbor. When the Japanese had finished their bombing runs, a large portion of the United States Pacific fleet had been destroyed, and thousands of American servicemen had been either killed or wounded. The next day, President Franklin Roosevelt went before a joint session of Congress and asked for a declaration of war against the Empire of Japan. December 7, the President said, would be recorded in history as a “day of infamy.” Unprovoked and without warning, the President declared, the United States had been attacked by an enemy set on a path of world conquest.

December 7 has gone down in history as a day of infamy. But unfortunately, all of the infamous qualities of the events leading up to that day have still not been fully admitted by either the American or British governments.

Between September 1939 and December 1941, Great Britain had been fighting the armed might of Nazi Germany almost singlehandedly. In the first half of 1940, Western Europe, including France, had been overrun by the Germans. In the first half of 1941, German forces, advancing through the Italian colony of Libya, were threatening the British Army guarding the Suez Canal in Egypt. After June 1941, the Soviet Union was in the war against the Nazis; and by December 5, the German Army was only five miles from the Kremlin in Moscow.

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill knew, from British intelligence, that Hitler had given up on his invasion plans for an amphibious assault on England. But he also knew that unless the United States came into the war, Great Britain would never be able to defeat Nazi Germany on its own. Either America came to the rescue or Britain would have to make a compromise peace with Germany. This Churchill was unwilling to do. America, Churchill had determined, had to be brought into the war.

In spite of an American population seventy-five to eighty percent opposed to American entry into the war, President Roosevelt was equally determined to drag the United States into the Second World War. Several attempts by Roosevelt to provoke military engagements between American and German naval vessels in the North Atlantic had failed. Hitler would not take the bait. Hitler was determined not to give Roosevelt an excuse for intervening into the war in Europe.

Both Roosevelt and Churchill turned their eyes to the Pacific, determined to use a conflict with Japan as a “back door to war.” The United States made uncompromising demands upon the Japanese to withdraw Japanese occupation forces from China and French Indochina. When the Japanese refused to submit, the U.S., in July 1941, froze all Japanese assets in America and persuaded the Dutch to stop selling Indonesian oil to Japan. (Indonesia at this time was a Dutch colony.) Rather than face economic strangulation, the Japanese chose to run the risk of a war with America for their national survival. And the plans for the attack on Pearl Harbor were set in motion.

Betrayal at Pearl Harbor by James Rusbridger and Eric Nave traces the history of the American and British breaking of the Japanese secret codes. They show how, from the 1920s on, both the British and Americans were able to intercept and translate most of the Japanese diplomatic and military messages. Therefore, Britain and the U.S. had direct and inside information about practically all the Japanese plans and strategies leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbor.

But the British had been able to break some codes that the Americans had not. As a result, the British were able to track both the departure of the Japanese fleet that had left the Kurile Islands for the attack on Pearl Harbor and its refueling point in the North Pacific half-way to Hawaii. It was clear to both the British intelligence agents reading the codes and to Winston Churchill (who received all the Japanese code information every day) that the Japanese were planning to attack, that the attack would be against Pearl Harbor, and that the attack would be on the weekend of December 7. This information was not passed on to either Roosevelt or U.S. military intelligence.

Passing on this information might very well have provided the time for the U.S. to prepare defensive measures — including a counterattack — against the Japanese. And if these defensive plans, in turn had been discovered by the Japanese, they might have precipitated a decision by the Japanese to call off the attack. War thereby would have been prevented or delayed in the Pacific, and the “back door” to America’s entering the war as Britain’s ally may have been closed shut.

Thus, the British kept the information to themselves; the Japanese attacked; and Winston Churchill got what he wanted — but at the cost of thousands of American lives.

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    Richard M. Ebeling is a professor of economics at Northwood University. He was formerly president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).