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.