Why the Drumbeat Decision?
Vice Admiral Robert F. Dunn, USN (Ret.)
Ed Offley charges that in face of the arrival of German U-boats off the East Coast in early 1942, the U.S. Navy chose to do nothing (“The Drumbeat Mystery”). As good, thorough, well written, and professional as Offley’s article is, he has it wrong. It’s not that the Navy chose to do nothing; it’s that the politics of the day made it hard for the politicians to allow much to be done.
In early 1942, just weeks after Pearl Harbor, a large segment of the citizens of the United States could not understand why all this fuss about Germany. It was the Japanese who carried out a sneak attack against Pearl Harbor. Why don’t we go after them and catch up with the Germans later? The politicians, including the President, couldn’t afford to ignore that popular sentiment. Even President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s announcement that it would be “Germany first, Japan later” didn’t alter that sentiment. Holding off for a bit on chasing the German U-boat threat might ease up that popular sentiment.
Why do I say this? As a newspaper-reading youth in Chicago, even though only 13 years old, I knew the Japanese were the foe. The Germans could wait. The British could hold them off until we were through with the Japanese. Such sentiments were underscored in the Chicago Tribune, and newspapers throughout the Midwest, West, and Pacific Coast spread the same gospel. Roosevelt and his advisers just could not ignore that. That well more than half the country had the votes to upset any Roosevelt plan, then and in the elections of 1942 and ’44, was a crucial fact as far as they were concerned. Politics demanded a low-profile campaign against the German U-boats, at least for the short run.
Once again, the armed forces are blamed for politicians’ shenanigans.
Mr. Offley replies:
I must respectfully disagree with Admiral Dunn’s response to my article. As I documented in the work, it was actually a “Germany First” decision by the Anglo-American conference of President Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and their military commanders that stripped the East Coast of its last combat-ready destroyers. By assigning top priority to the immediate sailing of the heavily escorted troopship Convoy AT-10 (carrying the first contingent of U.S. soldiers overseas), Admiral Ernest J. King was following the dictates of the Arcadia Conference, and not the pressures of American public opinion regarding Japan.
Captain Sam J. Tangredi, USN (Ret.)
As a former commanding officer as well as historical researcher, I remain amazed and, quite frankly, disheartened by the misplaced sympathy for Admiral Husband Kimmel on the part of fellow historians. John Prados states that “the new consensus” is that Kimmel was mistreated and might even “be accorded a more exalted place in the pantheon of U.S. naval officers” (“Pearl Harbor at 80,” December 2021). This view is in accord with today’s dominant historical narrative of the heroic individual betrayed by the nefarious, self-preserving “system.” The problem is that—as concerns operational readiness of the U.S. Pacific Fleet—Admiral Kimmel was the “system.”
No one—including President Roosevelt—knew there would be a Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. However, naval leaders were well aware that a war with Japan was imminent. Kimmel himself knew so, which is why he dispatched Admiral William F. Halsey Jr. and the aircraft carriers to sea.
Despite receiving a “war warning” from Washington, Kimmel did not order adequate long-range air patrols. He did not ensure that the recently developed Army Air Information Center (to be jointly manned) was operational. His command and communication watch teams were poorly trained. Most egregiously, he did not transmit any sense of urgency to the captains and crews of his moored and anchored ships, and they remained at a lower level of material conditions of readiness.
Under naval regulation and custom, a commanding officer is absolutely responsible for those under his or her command, which Prados acknowledges as “command responsibility.” Kimmel was not only responsible for the fleet, he was aware of the potential for disaster.
He was not a heroic individual betrayed by the system but was—in today’s vernacular—a “privileged” admiral expected to take appropriate actions even in the absence of direction by his superiors.
The sympathy of the historians should be with the 2,403 Americans killed in the Pearl Harbor attack, not with Admiral Kimmel.
Dr. Prados responds:
Captain Tangredi and I actually agree on the importance of command responsibility. The question in Kimmel’s case is whether an officer is entitled to a hearing by a jury of his/her peers (i.e., a court-martial), which Kimmel asked for and believed would exonerate him but which he was denied.
The reluctance of Admiral Ernest J. King to review findings of boards that had examined particulars in the case of Pearl Harbor (some of which did recommend Kimmel be given his say) raises red flags. I do not view Admiral Kimmel as a heroic naval officer so much as one trapped between circumstances and a political leadership with certain vulnerabilities.
Captain Tangredi does not mention that the available aircraft could not sustain a long-range patrol regime, so that the question of what moment to activate patrols assumes major operational importance. A related point is that the aircraft assets were limited due to production rates set by Washington authorities—outside Kimmel’s command scope.