Misallocated Infamy

For the past 67 years America has commemorated over 2,400 sailors, soldiers and airmen who were killed in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Every such anniversary reminds us that all history is to some extent contemporary history: Almost seven decades after the event, the myth of FDR’s goodness and greatness—revived for current political purposes during and after this year’s election campaign—makes it less “appropriate” than ever to ask if he knew about the attack; and, more importantly, whether he willed it. This date “will live in infamy,” for a few more decades at least, until it succumbs to this country’s collective amnesia. We may be running out of time for its infamy to be allocated more equitably.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt was eager to enter the war in Europe. He wanted this strongly following the fall of France (June 1940)—when he came to believe that without American intervention the Nazis would conquer the Old Continent—and desperately after Germany attacked the Soviet Union a year later. In this desire he was supported by the old East Coast elite which was traditionally Anglophile, by the increasingly influential Jewish lobby, and—after June 22, 1941—by Moscow’s sympathizers within his entourage and in the country at large.

After meeting the President at the Atlantic Conference (August 14, 1941) Churchill noted the “astonishing depth of Roosevelt’s intense desire for war.” But there was a problem: FDR could not overcome the isolationist resistance to “Europe’s war” felt by most Americans and their elected representatives. The mood of the country was anti-war and, according to the revisionists’ key claim, Roosevelt therefore provoked the Japanese into attacking the United States – while his real target was Hitler. It is further claimed that, even though Roosevelt was aware of the impending attack on Pearl Harbor, he let it happen, and was relieved when it did happen.

The evidence on FDR maneuvering Japan into war, available for decades, was semi-definitively presented in Robert Stinnett’s “Day of Deceit” (1999). The evidence of his foreknowledge of the attack itself appears equally convincing in three respects: denial of intelligence to the Navy; misleading its commanders, in the final two weeks before the attack, into thinking negotiations with Japan were continuing; and keeping them misinformed about the location of the Japanese carrier fleet.

Chronologically the important elements of the scenario proceeded as follows:

On September 27, 1940, the Tripartite Pact – the mutual assistance treaty between Germany, Italy, and Japan—was signed in Berlin. It implied the possibility that Germany would declare war on America if America were to get into war with Japan, which greatly impacted FDR’s policy towards Japan from that moment on.

On October 7, 1940, only a week after the signing of the Tripartite Pact, Lieutenant Commander Arthur McCollum, a U.S. Naval officer in the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI), suggested a strategy for provoking Japan into attacking the U.S., triggering the mutual assistance provisions of the Tripartite Pact, and bringing America into World War II. Summarized in McCollum’s memo the ONI proposal called for height specific steps aimed at provoking Japan. Its centerpiece was keeping the might of the U.S. Fleet based in Hawaii as a lure for a Japanese attack, and imposing an American oil embargo against Japan. “If by these means Japan could be led to commit an overt act of war, so much the better,” the memo concluded.

Also in October 1940, Commander of the Pacific Fleet, Admiral J.O. Richardson, protested President Roosevelt’s decision to move the fleet from the protected waters of the West Coast to the vulnerable base at Hawaii. Richardson was relieved of his command four months after his meeting with FDR and was replaced by Rear Admiral Kimmel.

On 23 June 1941—one day after Hitler’s attack on Russia—Secretary of the Interior and FDR’s advisor Harold Ickes wrote a memo for the President in which he pointed out that

there might develop from the embargoing of oil to Japan such a situation as would make it not only possible but easy to get into this war in an effective way. And if we should thus indirectly be brought in, we would avoid the criticism that we had gone in as an ally of communistic Russia.

On July 22, Admiral Richmond Turner stated in a report,

It is generally believed that shutting off the American supply of petroleum will lead promptly to the invasion of Netherland East Indies… [I]t seems certain [Japan] would also include military action against the Philippine Islands, which would immediately involve us in a Pacific war.

On July 24 Roosevelt told the Volunteer Participation Committee, “If we had cut off the oil, they probably would have gone down to the Dutch East Indies a year ago, and you would have had war.”

On July 25 Roosevelt froze all Japanese assets in the United States and imposed an oil embargo. From that moment on Japan faced an existential threat from the United States, a threat that could not be averted by peaceful means short of abdicating its status as a great power and visibly losing face – an utter impossibility.

On 24 September 1941 Washington deciphered a message from the Naval Intelligence Headquarters in Tokyo to Japan’s consul-general in Honolulu, requesting grid of exact locations of U.S. Navy ships in the harbor. Commanders in Hawaii were not warned. U.S. naval intelligence had cracked the Japanese naval codes one year earlier, enabling FDR to receive translations of all key messages.

On 18 October Harold Ickes noted in his diary: “For a long time I have believed that our best entrance into the war would be by way of Japan.” Yet Japan had to be made to fire first: on October 22 opinion polls revealed that 74 percent of Americans opposed war with Japan, and only 13 percent supported it.

On November 25, 1941, Secretary of War Stimson wrote in his diary that FDR said an attack was likely within days, and wondered “how we should maneuver them into the position of firing the first shot without too much danger to ourselves”:

In spite of the risk involved, however, in letting the Japanese fire the first shot, we realized that in order to have the full support of the American people it was desirable to make sure that the Japanese be the ones to do this so that there should remain no doubt in anyone’s mind as to who were the aggressors.

On November 26 Secretary of State Hull issued a provocatively worded note – an ultimatum, really – demanding the complete withdrawal of all Japanese troops not only from French Indochina but also from China. According to the Army Investigating Board’s Pearl Harbor report (1945), U.S. Ambassador to Japan Grew called this “The document that touched the button that started the war.” The Japanese reacted on cue: On December 1, final authorization was given by the emperor, after a majority of Japanese leaders advised him the Hull Note would “destroy the fruits of the China incident, endanger Manchukuo and undermine Japanese control of Korea.”

Also on November 26 Washington ordered both US aircraft carriers, the Enterprise and the Lexington, out of Pearl Harbor “as soon as possible.” This order entailed stripping Pearl Harbo of 50 planes, or 40 percent of its already inadequate fighter protection. On the same day Cordell Hull issued his ultimatum demanding full Japanese withdrawal from Indochina and all China.

On December 1, Office of Naval Intelligence, ONI, 12th Naval District in San Francisco found the Japanese fleet by correlating reports from the four wireless news services and several shipping companies that they were getting signals west of Hawaii. As we now know, the ships of the Japanese carrier fleet engaged in daily radio communication with the high command in Japan, military commands in the Central Pacific, and with each other—as Robert Stinnett conclusively established by reading U.S. naval intelligence radio intercepts of the Japanese transmissions. U.S. Navy did not “lose” the carriers.

On 5 December FDR wrote to the Australian Prime Minister that “the next four or five days will decide the matters” with Japan. Later that same day, at a Cabinet meeting, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox said, “Well, you know Mr. President, we know where the Japanese fleet is?” “Yes, I know … Well, you tell them what it is Frank,” replied Roosevelt. Just as Knox was about to speak Roosevelt appeared to have second thoughts and interrupted him, saying: “We haven’t got anything like perfect information as to their apparent destination.” (Toland, p. 294).”

On 6 December 1941 at a White House dinner Roosevelt was given the first thirteen parts of a fifteen part decoded Japanese diplomatic declaration of war and said, “This means war!” he said to Harry Hopkins, but did not interrupt the soiree.

No less revealing is Roosevelt’s behavior on the day of the attack itself and in its aftermath.

Harry Hopkins, who was alone with FDR when he received the news, wrote that the President was unsurprised and expressed “great relief.” Later in the afternoon Hopkins wrote that the war cabinet conference “met in not too tense an atmosphere because I think that all of us believed that in the last analysis the enemy was Hitler… and that Japan had given us an opportunity.”

That same evening FDR said to his cabinet, “We have reason to believe that the Germans have told the Japanese that if Japan declares war, they will too. In other words, a declaration of war by Japan automatically brings…”—at which point he was interrupted, but his expectations were perfectly clear.

CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow met Roosevelt at midnight and was surprised at FDR’s calm reaction. The following morning Roosevelt stressed to his speechwriter Rosenman that “Hitler was still the first target, but he feared that a great many Americans would insist that we make the war in the Pacific at least equally important with the war against Hitler.” Jonathan Daniels, administrative assistant and press secretary to FDR, later said “the blow was heavier than he had hoped it would necessarily be… But the risks paid off; even the loss was worth the price.”

Roosevelt confirmed this to Stalin at Tehran on November 30, 1943, by saying that “if the Japanese had not attacked the US he doubted very much if it would have been possible to send any American forces to Europe.”

Historian John Toland concluded in his book Infamy: Pearl Harbor and its Aftermath,

Was it possible to imagine a President who remarked, ‘This means war,’ after reading the [thirteen-part 6 December] message, not instantly summoning to the White House his Army and Navy commanders as well as his Secretaries of War and Navy? … Stimson, Marshall, Stark and Harry Hopkins had spent most of the night of December 6 at the White House with the President. All were waiting for what they knew was coming: an attack on Pearl Harbor. The comedy of errors on the sixth and seventh appears incredible. It only makes sense if it was a charade, and Roosevelt and the inner circle had known about the attack.

Churchill later wrote that FDR and his top advisors “knew the full and immediate purpose of their enemy”:

A Japanese attack upon the U.S. was a vast simplification of their problems and their duty. How can we wonder that they regarded the actual form of the attack, or even its scale, as incomparably less important than the fact that the whole American nation would be united?

The real target, Adolf Hitler, declared war on the United States on December 10, 1941, thus ensuring Germany’s defeat. The rest, as they say, is history.

The late Murray Rothbard is said to have often argued that, far from being evidence of a “paranoid” strain in the American mind, belief in conspiracies as a factor in American history was usually not taken far enough. The truth behind most conspiracies, he alleged, was far more heinous and diabolical than even the most diehard conspiracy theorist suspected. The events leading up to the Day of Infamy in 1941 prove him right, no less than those preceding U.S. wars against Mexico, the Confederacy, Spain (1898), Serbia (1999), or Iraq (2003). In all of those cases diplomacy did not “fail” because it was not used to avert war, but to make certain its coming.

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