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The Roots of Infamy at Pearl Harbor

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Pearl Harbor: The Seeds and Fruits of Infamy by Percy L. Greaves Jr., edited by Bettina Bien Greaves
(Auburn, Ala., Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2010).

December 7, 1941 — a day that will live in infamy.

Franklin D. Roosevelt was right about that. The attack by the Japanese Navy on the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor certainly was infamous. Unfortunately, very few Americans know anything beyond the standard narrative that the sneaky, diabolical Japanese militarists pulled off a successful surprise attack against the peaceful American nation. A few may have heard that the fault lay with the two commanders at Pearl Harbor, who failed to take adequate precautions, thus allowing the aerial bombardment to succeed.

Like so much of the stock knowledge about our history, the Pearl Harbor tale has been crafted to support what Jeff Riggenbach calls the “saintliness” view of the U.S. government — i.e., that our leaders do only benevolent things. (See Anthony Gregory’s review of Riggenbach’s book Why American History Is Not What They Say in the July 2010 Freedom Daily.) The truth is far, far different from the approved, politically sanitized story.

Other books have dug into the details of Pearl Harbor before, but none as thoroughly as this one. Percy L. Greaves Jr. served as counsel to the Republican senators on the Joint Congressional Committee established to investigate the disaster following the end of the war and he amassed an enormous amount of information about it. Greaves worked on the manuscript for years until his sudden death in 1984. He read everything that had any relevance to Pearl Harbor and, thanks to a monetary grant arranged by the great historian Harry Elmer Barnes, was able to travel the country to interview people who had knowledge about the events surrounding the disaster. Now his widow has completed the editing of his work and our understanding of history is much richer for it.

How does the book challenge the standard, pro-Roosevelt account?

Provoking Japan

We should begin with American-Japanese trade relations prior to the Pearl Harbor attack. While Roosevelt had campaigned for reelection in 1940 by telling voters that he had kept the nation out of war and would not send American soldiers to fight in foreign wars, he was eager to aid Britain in its struggle with Nazi Germany. He longed for a reason to enter the war and one of his schemes was to provoke Japan (Germany’s ally) into firing the first shot. The crucial part of that strategy was the use of trade restrictions to tighten “an economic noose around Japan’s neck bit by bit, forcing her to look elsewhere for the supplies and materials she had been accustomed to buying from the U.S.,” Greaves writes.

The most significant part of that tightening was the declaration of an oil embargo against Japan. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Harold Stark warned Roosevelt that shutting off oil shipments would probably provoke Japan to go to war. But that was exactly what Roosevelt had in mind. When his wife, Eleanor, asked about the consequences of the embargo, he replied to her,

The real answer, which you cannot use, is that if we forbid oil shipments to Japan, Japan will increase her purchases of Mexican oil and furthermore, may be driven by actual necessity to a descent on the Dutch East Indies. At this writing, we all regard such action on our part as an encouragement to the spread of war in the Far East.

Thus, Roosevelt’s policy was provocative. He knew it was apt to lead to war.

Roosevelt’s military moves were similarly aggressive. The repositioning of the Pacific Fleet was also meant to increase the likelihood of war with Japan. Pearl Harbor had never been the primary base for the fleet. In late 1940, Roosevelt ordered that it leave its base at San Diego and steam to Hawaii. Adm. James Richardson protested that the fleet would be dangerously exposed there, but for speaking out on that, he was relieved of his command.

Another indication that Roosevelt was looking forward to war was that in February 1941, he ordered the Navy to start planning for offensive raids against “the inflammable Japanese cities.”

On the diplomatic front also, Roosevelt was trying to push the Japanese to the breaking point. In 1941, the Japanese prime minister was Prince Fuminaro Konoye, who favored peace with the United States. The economic “noose” Roosevelt’s administration had put around Japan was putting enormous strain on Konoye’s government and he sought to alleviate that through negotiations. Throughout the year, Roosevelt brushed aside his overtures. Finally, on August 28, Konoye requested a personal meeting with Roosevelt in Hawaii. The administration dithered until October 2, at which point Roosevelt, through Secretary of State Cordell Hull, turned Konoye down. The result was that on October 6, Konoye was forced to resign and he was replaced by the militarist Gen. Hideki Tojo. At that point, war was almost inevitable.

The broken codes

Another key aspect of the Pearl Harbor story is the amazing success that American cryptographers had enjoyed in breaking the top Japanese codes. By the fall of 1941, U.S. officials in the administration and the military were reading Japanese communications almost as quickly as the Japanese themselves. Some of the information gleaned was sent to the commanders in Hawaii, Adm. Husband Kimmel and Gen. Walter Short, leading them to assume that everything of importance that the United States learned about Japanese plans was being shared with them. But that was not the case. Some very revealing transmissions were not forwarded to them, especially information indicating that Japanese agents on Oahu were being asked to send details concerning the precise locations of American ships in the harbor. That would have clearly alerted them to the prospect of a Japanese aerial attack, but for some reason never made clear, the top officials in Washington did not see fit to inform Kimmel and Short.

That brings us to the crucial days just before the attack. Owing to the U.S. government’s code-breaking, U.S. officials knew that the Japanese were on the verge of breaking off diplomatic relations in late November. Further intercepts in early December showed that hostilities were probably imminent, especially an order to Japanese diplomats in the United States to destroy their code machines and records, a step that a nation would hardly take unless it was planning war. On December 6, American intelligence intercepted the final transmission from Japan to its embassy in Washington, specifying that its two top officials were to meet with Secretary Hull at exactly 1 p.m. on December 7 (8 a.m. in Hawaii).

The American military officers who read that understood how extremely critical the information was and hurried to distribute it to President Roosevelt and the top military personnel, including Chief of Staff Gen. George Marshall. The clear import of the message, combined with others previously decoded, was that war was imminent, with a strong likelihood that Pearl Harbor would be a target. It is astounding, however, that not until noon on December 7 did General Marshall decide to notify Short and Kimmel of the situation, and he chose to use a relatively slow means of communication (a coded cable) rather than the scrambler telephone to speak directly with the commanders.

Just after dawn, the Japanese struck from aircraft carriers that had sailed undetected to within 200 miles of Pearl Harbor. (Another puzzle piece is that in early December, American intelligence had lost track of the Japanese carriers, key naval assets they had been monitoring. That also should have indicated the possibility that an attack was in the offing.) The attack achieved complete surprise and did enormous damage to American ships and planes, causing more than 2,600 casualties. The cabled warning was decoded and presented to Kimmel and Short hours too late.

Roosevelt now had his war. It was the ideal political distraction. Without war and the vast amount of military production it would entail, “the New Deal … would have been revealed as an illusion and the economic catastrophe it really was,” Greaves writes.

The investigations

What if Americans started asking about how this military disaster had come about, though? Roosevelt’s administration did not want to risk scrutiny of its actions (and lack of action) leading up to Pearl Harbor; making scapegoats out of Admiral Kimmel and General Short was the apparent solution. On December 16, both officers were peremptorily relieved of command. That same day, Roosevelt named a five-man board to investigate the calamity, headed by Supreme Court Justice Owen Roberts. The board was carefully chosen to ensure that it would reach the right conclusion — that Kimmel and Short were responsible.

The Roberts Commission worked quickly and had its report finished on January 23, 1942. Its key finding was that Kimmel and Short were guilty of dereliction of duty for having “failed properly to evaluate the seriousness of the situation.” The administration hoped that would be the end of the matter, but it wasn’t. Both men knew that they were being made scapegoats and wanted to restore their good names. Kimmel in particular wanted a court-martial where he thought he would have a true opportunity to demonstrate that he had not been derelict in his duty.

In 1944, events began unfolding in a way favorable to Kimmel and Short. First, the Navy appointed Adm. Thomas Hart to conduct an investigation. From March through June, he interviewed witnesses and examined documentary evidence. The picture that emerged from Hart’s investigation did not fit at all well with that of the Roberts Commission, particularly regarding the efforts of both commanders to prepare for the possibility of an attack.

Hart also heard testimony from Capt. Laurence Safford, who had seen the key decoded Japanese intercepts in the days just before the attack. When Hart asked about the whereabouts of the evidence, Safford had to admit that when he had looked for it, the intercepts had disappeared. The file where they ought to have been was empty. Therefore, all he could do was testify about his recollections.

Safford did not give up his search for the intercepts. Months later, another officer mentioned to him that he had seen a packet of papers labeled “P.H.” stowed in a Navy safe. Those were the missing documents. Greaves writes,

No one has ever been able to explain how the four original copies of each intercept … and held under tight security had been lost or destroyed. Apparently this one set of intercepts survived because of a series of coincidences.

It is at this point that we begin to see that a cover-up was under way.

Shortly after the close of the Hart investigation, both the Army and Navy began new ones. Beginning in July, the Army Pearl Harbor Board and the Navy Court of Inquiry (NCI) investigated the events surrounding the attack. Their reports proved to be very embarrassing to the Roosevelt administration, particularly the NCI’s finding that Kimmel had not been at fault and that culpability instead rested in Washington with Chief of Naval Operations Stark. When Roosevelt read the reports, he denounced them as “wicked.” He and his top advisors contrived to block release of the reports and appointed other officers to “reassess” the conclusions of the two boards. Those officers reliably found that the two boards had been in error and that is what was released to the public.

The cover-up was gathering steam.

After the close of the war with Japan, Congress, responding to public pressure for a thorough investigation of Pearl Harbor, authorized the Joint Congressional Committee. The JCC consisted of five members of the Senate and five from the House, six Democrats, and four Republicans. (This is where Percy Greaves entered the story, hired with private funds to assist the Republican members of the committee.)

One remarkable aspect of the JCC investigation was the number of officers who had previously testified about Pearl Harbor in a way that was helpful to Kimmel and Short or harmful to the administration who now had memory lapses. It is hard to resist the conclusion that those officers were threatened with ruined careers unless they did as they were told, but of course there was no evidence to prove that.

As the “investigation” proceeded, it appeared more and more likely that the administration’s conspiracy to portray itself as having been completely surprised by the Japanese attack and therefore blameless would succeed. Greaves, however, discovered one witness who was willing to testify truthfully, Navy Cdr. Lester Schulz, who had been on duty in the White House on the night of December 6. He had received at 9:30 p.m. from Capt. A.D. Kramer a pouch containing top secret intercepts — the decoded messages indicating that the Japanese were about to break off diplomatic relations and that the time 1 p.m. on December 7 was crucial. (Kramer was among those who suffered from a memory lapse regarding the events of that day.) Schulz obtained permission to deliver the pouch to President Roosevelt in his study.

Roosevelt was seated at his desk and his top advisor, Harry Hopkins, was also in the room. Schulz testified as follows:

The president read the papers, which took perhaps 10 minutes. Then he handed them to Mr. Hopkins. Mr. Hopkins read the papers and handed them back to the president. The president then turned toward Mr. Hopkins and said in substance, “This means war.” Mr. Hopkins agreed and they discussed then for perhaps 5 minutes, the situation of the Japanese forces, that is, their deployment.

The impact of Schulz’s testimony was devastating. It demolished the administration’s claim that the Japanese attack the next day had come as a complete surprise. The Democratic members of the JCC, Greaves writes, “were stunned” and made no effort at rebutting Commander Schulz’s testimony.

Schulz, a junior officer, was dismissed from the president’s study after the exchange between Roosevelt and Hopkins. We do not know what took place next, but Greaves believes that Roosevelt summoned his top military officers to discuss the situation. When questioned about the possibility of such a meeting, General Marshall stated that no such meeting took place, but did so in an evasive manner.

Evidence that there was such a meeting surfaced many years later. Navy Secretary Frank Knox had stated to a longtime friend, James Stahlman, that he had spent the night of December 6–7 in a meeting in the White House with Roosevelt and his top advisors, including General Marshall. Stahlman disclosed that in a letter to Adm. Kemp Tolley in 1973. Knowing that war with Japan was about to begin, why did Roosevelt and his inner circle take no action until Marshall’s too-late cable? Alas, that’s a mystery that will probably never be solved.

To sum up, Roosevelt and his associates tried desperately to project an utterly false view of history to the American people. They wanted to preserve the fairy tale that Roosevelt was trying to keep the peace with Japan and they wanted scapegoats to take the blame for their own failure to warn Kimmel and Short of the likelihood of imminent attack. It was despicable conduct, but perfectly consistent with the primary objective of politics — making voters think well of you no matter what you’ve done.

Americans owe a huge debt of gratitude to Percy Greaves, Bettina Greaves, and those brave men about whom they write who refused to go along with the conspiracy to hide the truth about Pearl Harbor.

This article originally appeared in the June 2011 edition of Freedom Daily. Subscribe to the print or email version of Freedom Daily.

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    George C. Leef is the research director of the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in Raleigh, North Carolina. He was previously the president of Patrick Henry Associates, East Lansing, Michigan, an adjunct professor of law and economics, Northwood University, and a scholar with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.