Tomorrow, December 7, is the 76th anniversary of Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. The onslaught in Hawaii killed more than two thousand Americans and sunk or badly damaged major U.S. warships. It triggered America’s entry into World War II, changed history. Americans everywhere remember December 7th 1941 as the date that “will live in infamy”.
They mourn, but they also argue. Was the attack really a surprise? Did their President, Franklin Roosevelt, have foreknowledge? If he did, and failed to warn his commanders in the Pacific, was he not guilty of unforgivable treachery? And Britain’s legendary leader, Winston Churchill, features large in such conspiracy theories. Was it he who had foreknowledge, shared it with Roosevelt but then – because both men wanted to see America enter the War – connived with the President to keep the explosive knowledge to themselves?
The facts as now investigated take us closer to the truth than ever before.
Churchill told in his memoirs of how, when he learned the attack had taken place – from a few words on the end of a BBC radio broadcast – he at once placed a call to the President in Washington. Roosevelt told him: “It’s quite true. They have attacked us…We are all in the same boat now.”
Churchill, by his own account, said that “certainly simplifies things.” The United States and Britain now had common cause – in the open. He wrote in his diary: “So we had won after all…the United States is like ‘a gigantic boiler. Once the fire is lighted under it there is no limit to the power it can generate.’…I went to bed and slept the sleep of the saved and thankful.”
That has long been the generally accepted version: An attack that took both men by surprise. A development, nevertheless, that happened to coincide with the desire of both men that America would now plunge openly into the fight against both Japan and Hitler.
But is the official account wallpaper that conceals a more complex, sinister truth? Was the attack really a surprise? Had the leaders received some form of advance warning, but concealed what they knew? Had they allowed the attack to go ahead – knowing that it would provoke America’s immediate entry into the war? That is one version of the conspiracy theorists’ scenario.
A recent find in British archives might seem at first glance to support the notion. It centres on a Japanese coded message that the intelligence services of several friendly nations had for days been tipped off to intercept. The words “EAST WIND RAIN”, hidden in what appeared otherwise to be a routine Japanese radio weather forecast, would warn Japan’s diplomats around the world of an imminent severing of relations with the United States. If relations with other nations were to be cut, that would be indicated by different coded weather references. “WEST WIND CLEAR” would mean relations with Britain were to be cut off. “NORTH WIND CLOUDY” would mean Tokyo was going to break with the Soviet Union.
Some were later to allege that such a Japanese message was indeed intercepted before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Historians, however, have long looked in vain for proof that the message was ever transmitted.
A secret report, prepared for Churchill after the war but not released by the British National Archives until 2004, shows that British code-breakers in South-East Asia did indeed intercept such a message. The report refers to a “priority message from Hong Kong” reporting that “the broadcast mentioning ‘EAST’ and ‘WEST’ winds had been heard.” If this is an accurate account, it reports the only known intercept anywhere in the world of the coded message indicating a Japanese break with the United States. An interception that was made by British intelligence.
Interesting though this is, though, the previously unknown report does not change history. Britain’s listening post in Southeast Asia had intercepted the message only “at 2010Z 7th” – military shorthand for “2010 Zulu” time – or 9.40 a.m. Hawaii time on the morning of the Pearl Harbor attack. The bombs had started to rain down on the Fleet nearly two hours earlier. By the time London received its report of the telltale Japanese weather broadcast, it was already too late.
Other information on supposed British foreknowledge turns out not to be reliable. In the 1970s, the wartime chairman of Britain’s Joint Intelligence Committee, Victor Cavendish-Bentinck, said he recalled a December 5th meeting of the Committee – two days before Pearl Harbor – that discussed information that “a Japanese fleet was sailing in the direction of
Hawaii.” Someone at the meeting , according to Cavendish-Bentinck – he did not name the person – stated that Washington had been informed.
There is no evidence, however, that any Intelligence Committee meeting was held on December 5th. Committee records now available at the National Archives reflect no meeting that day. There was a meeting on the 3rd, but Pearl Harbor was not discussed.
In a draft memoir written in the 1990s, Sir Julian Ridsdale, who in 1941 had served in the War Office’s Far Eastern Section, recalled a meeting of the Committee on November 27th. Those present, he wrote, had discussed the fact that both U.S. and British intelligence in the Pacific “had begun losing track of the movements” of the Japanese fleet. It was observing radio silence. “We concluded,” he wrote, that the Japanese force was “now in a position to be considered a major threat to the American Fleet in Pearl Harbor. It was agreed we should alert the President of the United States.” Years later, Ridsdale wrote, he was assured that the message had been passed on.
If there was indeed such a discussion in the Intelligence Committee, and if a message was passed to Washington, nothing about it has ever surfaced in American archives. The author of “British Intelligence in the Second World War”, official historian F.H. Hinsley, cited a paper the Committee produced on November 28th, ten days before Pearl Harbor. Written the day after the meeting at which an attack on Hawaii had supposedly been discussed, it “excluded the prospect of a direct Japanese attack on U.S. possessions.”
And then there is a startling comment reportedly made by the onetime confidential secretary who served Britain’s wartime intelligence chief in the United States, Sir William Stephenson. “We did know that they were going to attack on December 7,” secretary Grace Garner told a newspaper in her native Canada in 1998, “We told London. We told the Americans. We had quite some considerable warning. Days, days, days.” Given that Garner’s boss Sir William was had contact with both Roosevelt and Churchill, her assertion would seem to indicate that Britain did warn the President.
Is the former secretary’s claim reliable? Perhaps not. She was ninety years old when she spoke with the Canadian newspaper. When we interviewed Garner years earlier, on the phone and in person, and on four separate occasions, she made no such claim.
What then of the assertion, made before the Millennium, that vital information in British government archives was being suppressed? In his two books on Pearl Harbor, historian John Costello wrote that, days before Pearl Harbor, Churchill shared with Roosevelt intelligence that hardened the President’s attitude to Japan. Relevant information, Costello added, was still being kept secret. “A whole section of the Prime Minister’s secret office file relating to Japan,” he wrote in 1994, “is marked ‘closed for 75 years’.” The file in question, however, is in fact now open to researchers. It contains nothing that is remotely relevant.
Those who suspect skulduggery, meanwhile, have long suggested that British intelligence perhaps obtained information on Japanese plans from coded intercepts – but deliberately withheld it from the Americans. That might support the theory that the British held back from sending Washington a warning – hoping to ensure that America would enter the war. Another version of perfidy.
Research, however, has now produced evidence that – far from London having the potential to be ahead of Washington in cracking Japanese coded messages – there were great gaps in what was read by the British. In a detailed post-war analysis of the period just before Pearl Harbor, GCHQ Deputy Director Nigel de Grey concluded that “we did not have all the Americans had.”
Pearl Harbor spawned multiple conspiracy theories. The notion that Roosevelt and Churchill connived to let the attack happen shows no sign of going away. But it is unsupported by the evidence.