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Book Review: Days of Infamy

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Days of Infamy: MacArthur, Roosevelt, Churchill — The Shocking Truth Revealed
by John Costello (New York: Pocket Books, 1994); 448 pages; $24.

John Costello is a distinguished historian who has uncovered fascinating new evidence on a wide number of topics. Two of his previous works, Mask of Treachery: Spies, Lies, Buggery & Betrayal (1988) and Deadly Illusions (1993), unearthed previously unknown information about Soviet espionage in Britain and the United States. In his recent book, Days of Infamy , Mr. Costello turns his historian’s eye to the events leading up to the disaster at Pearl Harbor.

An essential key for understanding the disaster on December 7, 1941, he argues, is the change in U.S. Pacific military strategy during that year. Before 1941, the first line of defense had been viewed as the Hawaiian Islands, with the Philippine Islands considered an indefensible military burden. But in the early fall of 1941, the secretary of war, Henry Stimson, convinced Roosevelt that the Philippines could be turned into a successful first line of attack. If the Japanese were to be stopped from any further aggression in East Asia, the U. S. would have to have a deterrent that made Japan think twice before pushing on any further.

The new strategy was to send a large number of long-range B-17 and B-24 bombers for permanent stationing in the Philippines. These bombers would have the capability of firebombing Tokyo; the fear that their cities would be set ablaze if they acted in ways not wanted by Washington would keep the Japanese in line. On November 15, 1941, Army General George Marshall held an “off-the-record” press conference in which he told the reporters that Japan would soon know that this was no American bluff. “Flying Fortresses will be dispatched immediately to set the paper cities of Japan on fire, in the event of war,” Marshall insisted. “There won’t be any hesitation about bombing civilians — it will be all-out.”

But in November, the number of long-range bombers in the Philippines was still too few to create a credible threat or to hold off a Japanese attack, if one was initiated. The U.S. military needed an additional three to six months to be ready for offensive action against Japan. Peace in the Pacific was essential, therefore, for at least several months. Furthermore, the bombers could reach Japan, but could not carry enough fuel for the return flight to the Philippines; it was necessary to get permission from Stalin for American planes to land in Soviet Siberia for refueling, and Stalin seemed completely unwilling to grant this request.

From the coded Japanese diplomatic messages that U. S. military intelligence could intercept and read, the Roosevelt administration knew that the end of November was the deadline for a negotiated settlement for the Japanese. After that, Tokyo had informed its negotiators in Washington, “Things would automatically happen.”

To “buy time,” FDR decided to make temporary concessions to “baby the Japanese along” until the U. S. was ready for a fight with its offensive bomber force. But at the last minute, on November 26, the administration suddenly took a hard line, insisting that the Japanese concede everything demanded by the U.S. — a complete Japanese withdrawal from China and Indochina. The negotiations were over. On December 2, Admiral Yamamoto sent the fateful message to the Japanese fleet steaming across the north Pacific: “This dispatch is Top Secret. . . . Climb Niitakayama 1208, repeat 1208.” The order had been given for the attack on Pearl Harbor.

What made FDR reverse his decision to “baby along” Japan with limited concessions and present the Japanese, instead, with demands that could only mean the end of negotiations? The answer lay in London. Churchill informed Roosevelt that British intelligence in Southeast Asia had clear evidence that the Japanese were poised for an attack against Thailand and perhaps British Malaya, as well. If this was true, and if the Japanese did not simultaneously attack the Philippines, bringing the U. S. into the war, the British would be left to fight alone. The British ambassador in Washington, Lord Halifax, was able to pin Roosevelt down after several White House meetings to promise that if Japanese transport ships were found heading for various points in Southeast Asia, “we [the U.S.] should obviously attack them, since they must either be going for Thailand or Malaya. . . . [T]he United States will regard it as a hostile act if the Japanese invade Thailand, Malaya, Burma, or the East Indies.”

Costello says that this meant that “Roosevelt therefore appears to have committed a technical breach of the Constitution by giving such clear, although unwritten, indications to the British, which he knew Churchill wanted to interpret as a guarantee of American armed support, in advance of having the approval of the U. S. legislature.” To make sure that the U. S. was in the fight from the beginning, Roosevelt ordered that American ships be placed in harm’s way in the South China Sea. “Filipino crews were to don U.S. Navy uniforms and in expendable crafts head out to specific locations that were calculated to put them in harm’s way of a Japanese invasion force steaming toward Malaya,” Costello explains. This was done on December 3. But the Japanese would not take the bait, and the ship returned to Philippine waters unharmed, four days later.

But the attack on the U. S. finally did come on December 7, saving FDR from the embarrassment of fulfilling a military commitment to the British without congressional consent. Costello devotes a large portion of his book to analyzing why Pearl Harbor was such a military disaster. And in the end he presents a convincing case that exonerates Admiral Husband Kimmel and General Walter Short, the U. S. military commanders in Hawaii who were made the scapegoats for the Pearl Harbor debacle. Costello demonstrates that both Kimmel and Short were denied essential intelligence information and were given ambiguous warnings from Washington concerning the likelihood and possible location of any Japanese attack. They were, instead, the fall guys to cover up the primary responsibility for the disaster that should have fallen on the shoulders of FDR and the senior military personnel in Washington.

Costello also devotes a great deal of attention to the equal disaster that befell U.S. forces in the Philippines. Here the guilty party was General Douglas MacArthur. MacArthur had exaggerated the strength and fighting capability of his ground and air forces in his dispatches to Washington. Immediately after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, MacArthur was ordered to initiate offensive bombing actions against the Japanese naval and air force installations on the island of Formosa, just north of the Philippines. He did not. He even delayed permitting reconnaissance flights to determine Japanese strength on Formosa. Nor did he order the immediate dispersal of military aircraft from exposed air fields. As a result, the Japanese destroyed most of the military bomber planes that were meant to be America’s first line of offense against Japan.

Why? Costello’s explanation, while it at first sounds hard to believe, is that MacArthur’s inaction may have been due to a bribe paid to MacArthur by the president of the Philippines, Manuel Quezon. There were some leading Philippine political figures who hoped that war might pass by their country, and that if no military actions against Japan were initiated from the Philippines, the Japanese might allow their country to remain neutral. MacArthur did not initiate any military action against the Japanese when ordered to by Washington so as not to antagonize Japan. When the Japanese did bomb and invade the Philippines shortly after the Pearl Harbor attack, there was no alternative but to fight back.

What is the evidence for MacArthur’s failure to act and the reason for such failure? Costello admits that it is indirect. After MacArthur had withdrawn his command to Corregidor, Quezon authorized the transfer of $500,000 ($5 million in 1990 dollars) to a New York bank account in MacArthur’s name for “distinguished service” and, at the same time, another $35,000 dollars in stock certificates at a New York bank. Shortly after this “reward” for service, MacArthur sent a message to Washington suggesting that FDR declare the Philippines “neutral” territory and surrender the country to the Japanese. Roosevelt angrily refused.

Who, therefore, is to blame for Pearl Harbor and what followed? “The chain of defeats that overwhelmed the United States in the Pacific on the days of infamy in December 1941 were the direct consequence of a major failure in military strategy and foreign policy by the Roosevelt Administration,” Costello concludes. And what ever the errors and miscalculations of other military commanders of American forces in those early days of the war, “their command shortcomings pale into relative insignificance before the far more egregious dereliction of MacArthur.”

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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).