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Book Review: Scapegoats

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Scapegoats: A Defense of Kimmel and Short at Pearl Harbor
by Edward L. Beach (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1995); 212 pages; $24.95.

At 7:48 on the morning of December 7, 1941, the first Japanese planes reached the northern shore of Oahu. This first wave of attack planes had taken off from their carriers almost two hours earlier, from their positions about 200 miles north of the Hawaiian Islands. They were now only seven minutes away from the beginning of their attack run on the U.S. naval ships located at Pearl Harbor. As the Japanese planes began to prepare for their assault, Commander Mitsuo Fuchida radioed to the Japanese fleet: Tora, Tora, Tora. This indicated they had succeeded in a surprise attack. At 7:55, the Japanese torpedo bombers began diving on Battleship Row, and disaster began to rain down on the U.S. Pacific Fleet.

By the time the two waves of enemy planes finished their work at 9:45 that morning and had headed back to their carriers for the return trip to Japan, the Japanese had succeeded in sinking or damaging 18 U.S. ships (including 8 battleships), along with the destruction of 188 planes and the damaging of 159 more. Over 2,400 U.S. military servicemen were dead, and 2,000 more were wounded. Days later, smoke still billowed from the sunken Arizona , its smokestacks visible above the water line.

The next day — December 8 — President Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke before a joint session of Congress. In perhaps the most famous presidential address in this century, FDR declared:

Yesterday, December 7, 1941 — a date which will live in infamy — the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by the naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan. The United States was at peace with that nation and . . . looking toward the maintenance of peace in the Pacific.. . . Japan has . . . undertaken a surprise offensive extending across the Pacific area. . . . I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December 7th, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese Empire.

The shock of the Pearl Harbor attack — both its apparent unprovoked nature and its destructive effect on America’s military might in the Pacific Ocean — resulted in an outcry that the guilty parties be brought to justice. The defeat of Japan would see to it that the perpetrators would be made to pay for this infamous day.

But were the Japanese the only ones guilty? Why was the Pacific Fleet caught by surprise? Who was responsible for America’s lack of defensive preparedness? Why hadn’t anyone seen the likelihood of a Japanese attack? These questions have come up over and over again, both during the war and over the last half century since the end of the war. Edward L. Beach, a retired U. S. naval captain and noted historian and novelist (he is the author of the novel Run Silent, Run Deep , which was made into a movie starring Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster), has written one of the best summaries of the debate over responsibility for the Pearl Harbor fiasco. His book is entitled Scapegoats: A Defense of Kimmel and Short at Pearl Harbor .

Captain Beach argues that Admiral Kimmel, as commander of the Pacific Fleet, and Lt. General Walter Short, commander of the Hawaiian department of the U.S. Army, were made the scapegoats for the Pearl Harbor disaster. In reaching this conclusion, he undertakes three analyses: First, were Kimmel and Short derelict in their duty in not being more fully prepared for a possible Japanese attack? To answer this, Captain Beach presents an overview of the nine formal investigations of the Pearl Harbor attack by the army, navy, the executive branch, and the Congress between 1941 and 1946.

Second, Captain Beach asks, who was responsible higher up the chain of command for information about diplomatic negotiations and military dangers being sent to Kimmel and Short? And if all the relevant information was not, in fact, passed on to them, who was at fault and why?

And third, was it true that the attack on Pearl Harbor was unprovoked and unexpected? And if the attack was not completely unprovoked and unexpected, who in Washington was responsible for creating the conditions likely to create a war in the Pacific? And how much did the people in the White House and the executive branch know about the likely time and place of an attack by Japan on the U.S.?

The first serious inquiry was the Roberts Commission in December 1941 — January 1942. The commission concluded that Kimmel and Short were guilty of having failed in their duty — a court-martial offense. FDR ordered the report released immediately. This resulted in the two Hawaiian commanders being tainted for life. But they were never court-martialed.

Except for one, all the other commissions, while saying that Kimmel and Short should have been more alert to the danger of possible hostilities with Japan, concluded that the two men had acted appropriately, given the information at their disposal. What became clear in these inquiries was that the two had not been told a lot!

During the naval inquiry in 1944, Captain Laurence Safford, the leading cryptologist responsible for decoding intercepted Japanese messages, testified that from May 1941 on, it was clear that Japan was planning hostilities in southeast Asia. On December 1 and 4, 1941, Safford said there had been “definite information . . . 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. . . . Finally at 10:15 A.M. (Washington time), December 7, 1941 [about 5:00 A.M. Hawaiian time], we recorded 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, had gone to the president and other selected civilian and military members of the government in rapid time. Yet, both Kimmel and Short were kept in the dark about practically all these clear indications of imminent hostilities — signs that would have lead them to institute more vigilant precautions against possible attack.

The responsibility for failing to provide this information to the Hawaiian commanders belonged to Admiral Harold Stark, General George Marshall, and Vice Admiral Richmond Turner, who were the ones higher in the chain of command who should have seen that the appropriate warnings were sent to Pearl Harbor.

Why was Pearl Harbor not warned? Captain Beach calls himself a “second-class revisionist.” He does not believe that FDR knew that Pearl Harbor was going to be the sight of the attack and consciously allowed the Naval forces to be destroyed to arouse the anger and indignation of the American people. Instead, he argues that it is beyond any doubt that FDR wanted war and created the conditions under which the Japanese would attack the U.S. somewhere:

It is clear today that, among those responsible for the Japanese attack, first must be President Roosevelt himself. . . . The reconstruction of events confirms the supposition that Roosevelt had determined on war with Japan. . . . Second ranking in the compilation of failure and responsibility for Pearl Harbor goes to General Marshall and Admiral Stark, chiefs of the army and the navy, for . . . failure to send adequate warning to their subordinates in the field. . . . The national leadership which had the obligation of keeping our military commanders current with matters of their concern, utterly failed our commanders at Pearl Harbor and then blamed them for their own lack of alertness. . . . Giant of stature though he was, [FDR] was sometimes small enough to destroy other men to give himself protection.

Franklin Roosevelt’s actions in pressuring Japan — FDR also was insistent that Japan fire the first shot, so noninterventionists could not accuse him of starting the conflict — made war almost inevitable. But the Pearl Harbor fiasco did more than just destroy the careers of Kimmel and Short; it set the United States on a course of global war that resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of young 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).