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THE MOTHER OF ALL CONSPIRACIES, PART 2

 

Pearl Harbor. Depending on your point of view it is either “the mother of all conspiracies” or “the mother of all conspiracy theories”. Last year’s 75th anniversary of the attack was rightly marked by solemn remembrance for the dead. The 76th anniversary we mark today should be a time for setting the historical record straight.

Sunday, December 7, 1941. The hour after dawn. An armada of more than 350 Japanese planes begins a bombardment that has been planned for a year. The attack’s purpose is to cripple the Fleet. Four battleships are sunk, others badly damaged. By the time the sun goes down, 2403 Americans are dead, the nation’s leadership in turmoil.

In the days after the attack recriminations flew. Fingers were pointed at the FDR, his Secretaries of State, War, and Navy, military intelligence but most vigorously at Admiral Husband Kimmel, Commander in Chief of America’s Pacific fleet and the Army’s Hawaiian commander, Lieutenant General Walter Short. The stream of blame and denial, accusation and rebuttal, claim and counterclaim, flows on still.

The effluent from the stream, which has become central to it, is the suspicion of a greater evil. Book after book, article after article, has entertained the notion that President Roosevelt and some of those around him knew in advance that Pearl Harbor would be attacked, that they allowed it to happen.

The speculations include the notion, covered in Part 1, that Prime Minister Winston Churchill had sent America advance warning. The theories, though, spread well beyond that. They include suspicion that U.S. code-breakers had intercepted a message signaling the coming break in relations hidden in a Japanese weather bulletin; that senior officials in Washington knew that Japanese warships were steaming towards Hawaii; that President Roosevelt and members of his government concealed a meeting they held, on the eve of the onslaught, at which FDR ordered that no timely warning be sent.

During the research for A Matter of Honor, our book about Pearl Harbor, we yanked hard at the threads of the loosely woven tapestry of conspiracy to see if it would tighten the weave. Instead the fabric unravelled.

An October 1940 Navy intelligence memorandum, unearthed in the 1990s, was said to lay out the steps by which Japan could be lured into firing the first shot, thus propelling the US into war not just in Asia but through the backdoor into the war in Europe. Responses to the memo found by us in 2015, however, show that of three officers known to have seen the report none suggested following such a course. One senior officer explicitly recommended against “precipitating anything in the Orient”.

Then there is the so-called “Winds” message, a code that told Japanese diplomats that they would learn of an impending rupture in relations with any of three possible countries – the U.S., Britain, or the Soviet Union – in a broadcast coded to appear like an ordinary weather forecast.

Captain Laurance Safford, the U.S. Navy’s respected codebreaking chief, testified that a Winds message signifying a break with the United States was intercepted and known in Washington on December 4th. Safford’s version of the broadcast, however, was inconsistent with the prescribed format. A code that doesn’t follow the code is no code at all.

In 1977, in an oral history interview, former navy radioman Ralph Briggs claimed to have intercepted the “Winds” message on December 4th. What he said seemed at first to corroborate Safford, but falls apart on scrutiny. Years after the war, Briggs said, he had searched in official files for a record of the message but it was missing. He had noted that fact, he said, in the file. The file in the National Archives does include a note by Briggs. It relates, however, not to December 4th as he claimed, but to December 2nd. Moreover, a superior whom Briggs claimed could corroborate his story, instead said he had never handled or observed a Winds message.

In what would have been a superfluous and costly exercise had the broadcast been picked up on December 4 as alleged, a host of Army and Navy personnel continued to make searching the ether for Winds a priority long after December 4. “We were continuing to look,” one naval intelligence officer would recall, until “after the bombs had started falling on the Fleet.”

As reported in Part 1, meanwhile, a history of Britain’s code-breaking unit in the Far East, refers to a “priority message from Hong Kong” reporting “that the broadcast mentioning “East” and “West” winds had been heard.” “EAST WIND RAIN,” if that is what was indeed heard, was the coded language for an imminent break in relations with the United States. If the British history is accurate, it represents the only known record of the receipt anywhere of a “Winds” message referring to a break with the United States. It was intercepted two hours after the attack on Pearl.

One of the most seemingly credible suggestions of foreknowledge appeared in the book Infamy by the Pulitzer Prize winning historian John Toland. Toland published the recollection of a Dutch Naval officer, Johann Meijer Ranneft, that on a visit to U.S. Navy Headquarters on December 6, he had been shown a map on which two Japanese carriers were positioned at a point “just north of Honolulu.” In support Toland reprinted a portion of Ranneft’s wartime diary. A position to the north would have been significant, as the Japanese attack force approached Hawaii from that direction. Toland’s translation of the diary entry, though, is seriously inaccurate – the relevant passage places the two carriers simply “to the West of Honolulu”.

Two memos written by Ranneft in the 1940s, and located by us in the Dutch National Archives, meanwhile, specify that the position of the two carriers was “at the Easterly border of the Mandate area [Marshall Islands], at a distance of several hundred miles of Honolulu.” The area specified is to the southwest of Hawaii, not the north. Ranneft wrote, moreover, that “neither any of the intelligence officers present nor I spoke of a possible attack by the carriers on Honolulu.”

Finally, there is the allegation of a late-night meeting at the White House on December 6, at which FDR and a coterie of advisors – supposedly with some of intelligence of the attack in hand – gathered to plot. The notion was encouraged by two letters written in the 1970s by publisher James Stahlman. In one letter, in 1973, Stahlman quoted former Navy Secretary Knox as having told him that he and “[Secretary of War] Stimson, [Chief of Staff ]Marshall, [Chief of Naval Operations] Stark, and [presidential adviser] Harry Hopkins had spent the night before [Pearl Harbor] at the White House with FDR, all waiting for what they knew was coming…” In a second letter, in 1975, Stahlman’s list of supposed participants in the late-night meeting expanded to include Knox’s aide Frank Beatty and Stark’s aide John McCrea. Stark and Marshall denied under oath to official investigators that they had been at any White House meeting on the night of December 6th. Told of Stahlman’s claim McCrea, too, categorically denied attending such a meeting.

While there is no reliable evidence that U.S. officials conspired to allow the attack to happen, in the aftermath many of them certainly conspired to cover up the full facts. That conspiracy took place to hide the U.S. code-breaking program known as “Magic”.

Through Magic US intelligence had decoded the Winds message and hundreds of other valuable Japanese messages. So secret was Magic, that its existence was known to only a handful of men, so valuable, that its exposure was deemed too critical to be exposed. Officers who had sworn an oath to never reveal what they knew were cautioned not to speak of it even to official investigators. That major lie, as such lies often do, spawned myriad other lies – lies that covered a multitude of sins. Mistakes, incompetence, lost opportunities, petty ass-covering,

There were, too, egregious errors that the lies about Magic obscured. Two long suppressed “after action” reports made clear how poorly Magic had been used in the months before Pearl Harbor. One, for the Army, concluded that the coded information from Magic had “clearly foreshadowed” the attack. ”The traffic,” the Army’s report concluded, “had not been given sufficiently close attention.”

The decoded messages, the Navy’s report opined, showed the Japanese “had determined to attack Pearl Harbor as early as September 24…evidence for this last statement comes from…the minute attention paid to every inch of Pearl Harbor in the instructions from Tokyo.” None of the decoded messages, though, were shared with the two men who most needed them – Hawaiian commanders Kimmel and Short.

Admiral Kimmel and General Short had been, the Navy’s analyst later said, “scapegoats… for the failures of many.” That is the conspiracy at the heart of years of myth-making and propaganda about Pearl Harbor.

The brave young Americans who faced the Japanese onslaught in 1941, Admiral Kimmel later wrote, “showed themselves fearless, resourceful and self-sacrificing.” The lesson for history is that those young men died not as the result of a vast perfidious conspiracy, but because of tragic human fallibility.

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THE MOTHER OF ALL CONSPIRACIES, PART 1

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.

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On Nixon’s Sanity…or Otherwise

August 18, 2011

I’ve  been hearing a lot about Nassir Ghaemi’s new book A First Rate Madness. Ghaemi, an academic psychiatrist with a string of prestigious teaching posts to his name.  He’s also the director of the Mood Disorders Clinic at Tufts University Medical Center.  Using the lives of such notable leaders as Lincoln, Churchill and Gandhi, Ghaemi argues that one “should accept, even celebrate” the possibility that our decision-makers have dealt with mental illnesses —  all of which he says foster in those who have them the qualities of “realism, resilience, empathy and creativity.”

It’s an intriguing and counter-intuitive theory – which should rise or fall on the strength of Ghaemi’s grasp of the personalities he’s chosen as his subjects. I cannot claim any special knowledge of Lincoln, Churchill or Gandhi. As one of the late President’s biographer’s, however, and the only one to have spent considerable time with his psychotherapist – I’ll be intrigued to see the case he makes for Richard Nixon. According to Newsweek, Ghaemi concludes, that Nixon’s failing was that he was “too sane” for the times he lived in, his handling of the Watergate crisis too much like that of an ordinary person. Continue reading

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