During the second day of infamy—in ways more infamous than Pearl—Japanese airmen caught MacArthur’s air force on the ground in the Philippines, facing page, and destroyed three quarters of the fighters and half the bombers, thus sending up in smoke a disastrous deterrent diplomacy which failed because it made a preemptive strike an attractive option to the Japanese.
The less quoted of the philosopher George Santayana's axioms about learning from the past, "History is always written wrong, and so always needs to be rewritten," is peculiarly relevant to an analysis of the events of 1941.1 Japan's preemptive strikes of 7 December provide a chilling contemporary reminder of the risks inherent in deterrent diplomacy, but this vital lesson is still obscured in the fog of a 40-year battle over who was to blame for the Pearl Harbor disaster.
At Dawn We Slept (McGraw Hill, 1981) and Infamy (Doubleday, 1982), the two most recent attempts to reexamine "a date which will live in infamy," succeed mainly in fueling the flames of the old controversy without shedding any new light on the underlying causes of the disaster.2 Professor Gordon Prange and John bland, the respective authors, relied far too heavily on the evidence of eight wartime inquiries and the partisan testimony of nine months of congressional hearings. Not surprisingly, they reach opposing verdicts on President Franklin Roosevelt's burden of blame. Neither book takes account of the recently declassified U. S. intelligence records.
The very title At Dawn We Slept is symptomatic of the myths of the controversy focused on the sinking of the Pacific Fleet battleships instead of on the misconceived bomber deterrent based in the Philippines. Prange's overemphasis on reconstructing verbal minutiae of Japanese planning neglects the U. S. diplomatic and strategic miscalculation that opened the door to the surprise attack on Hawaii. The most cursory riffle through the wartime intelligence record would have shown that neither Washington nor the Pacific bases were physically or metaphorically asleep when the Japanese struck.
Popular though this myth has proved, it is too facile an explanation of how the mighty United States came to be humiliated by tiny Japan and is also a dangerous distortion of history. The trauma of 7 December 1941 left a deep scar on the national psyche, so that “Remember Pearl Harbor” became not only a war cry for national vengeance, but an emotive reminder for Americans that their country was no longer invulnerable to a surprise attack. The specter of a “nuclear Pearl Harbor” has haunted U. S. postwar defense policy with a preoccupation for maintaining a global military superiority. It is a nightmare that currently magnifies the threat of Soviet missiles, and President Ronald Reagan frequently alludes to Pearl Harbor to rally public and congressional support for a larger nuclear arsenal.
Today, the United States is again in confrontation—this time with the Soviet Union. Churchmen and congressmen debate the moral and military imperatives of the fragile balance of deterrence. As a new round of the strategic arms race begins, it is urgently appropriate to understand why the U. S. policy of deterrence in 1941 failed to prevent a confrontation from sliding into war.
Concessions to Japan: Recently declassified U. S. wartime intelligence files provide day-by-day decrypts of intercepted Japanese diplomatic communication in Purple code, radio intelligence data, and hitherto unavailable signal traffic of Japan’s naval and military attaches, and newly uncovered White House documentation that put the events of 1941 in a new light.3 Tokyo’s exchanges with its naval and military attaches—in cyphers that were not cracked until 1943 although the traffic was being intercepted from mid-1940—provide significant evidence that the Soviets may have played a central role in driving Japan down the road to Pearl Harbor.
Most significant is the Japanese naval attaché’s 12 December 1940 report from Berlin that the German Navy had “that afternoon” passed on “the minutes of the British War Cabinet meeting held on 15 August this year dealing with operations against Japan.”4 The summary proves identical with the wording and contents of a top secret report by the British Chiefs of Staff warning Prime Minister Winston Churchill that Hong Kong, Malaya, and the East Indies were indefensible.5 Unless the United States could be persuaded to intervene, Britain’s Far Eastern possessions were so vulnerable that the grim conclusion of the Chiefs of Staff was to make a “general settlement, including concessions to Japan.”
Absence of any other British Cabinet documents in the German records suggests that the leak must have come from the Soviet “mole” in the Foreign Office, the late and unlamented Donald Maclean. Moreover, the document’s appearance in Berlin followed the November visit of Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov during which the Soviets declined Adolph Hitler’s invitation to sign the Axis pact which Japan had joined that September. This coincidence is still more significant because the Kremlin was then looking for a way to influence the outcome of Tokyo's strategic debate to favor the Imperial Navy's call for a southward advance instead of the Japanese Army’s plan to launch another attack on Siberia.
Whatever route this prize piece of intelligence took to Berlin, its arrival in Tokyo initiated a clandestine diplomatic effort by Japan to drive a wedge between Britain and the United States. Diplomatic blackmail had already forced the British to close the Burma Road overland supply line to the Nationalist Chinese Army in July 1940. was reopened in September only after assurances of U. S. support had been endorsed by Roosevelt's agreement to finally trade 50 over-age U. S. Navy destroyers for British Atlantic island bases. By offering Singapore as an advance base for the Pacific Fleet, Churchill hoped to cement an Anglo-American alliance in the Far East. But Roosevelt ignored an overture that would have whipped up a bury cane of isolationist fury on the eve of his reelection.
The proposal was to be revived during the round of inter-allied staff talks that began with the secret February 1941 "ABC-1 Staff Agreement" in Washington. U.S. naval planners rejected Churchill's call for U. S. warships in Singapore to head off "Japanese intentions to make war on us."' At the same time, the U. S. Army was resisting General Douglas MacArthur's pleas to reinforce the Philippines; General George Marshall was convinced that to reverse the 20-year-old U. S. policy not to make major defense commitments west of Hawaii would be "a strategic error of the first magnitude."7 British alarms that Japan was about to move into the East Indies to invade Australia went unheeded because Roosevelt was advised that their loss, together with that of the Philippines, could be "absorbed without leading to final disaster."
John Doe Associates: It was not until late April, well the British began operating a Purple decoding machine that had been sent across the Atlantic instead of to Pearl Harbor, that their eavesdropping on Tokyo's diplomatic traffic revealed an unsuspected obstacle to Churchill’s scheme to maneuver the United States into a Far Eastern alliance. Roosevelt had been careful not to reveal that clandestine discussions had been taking place with the new Japanese ambassador in Washington. These talks were the culmination of an unorthodox diplomatic move initiated by Japan's Prime Minister Prince Fumimaro Konoye. It began in December 1940, when the receipt of the British War Cabinet report coincided with the arrival in Tokyo of two American Catholic priests. Only now, from the Magic intercepts of Japan's Washington attaché, is it possible to see the extent to which Bishop James E. Walsh and Father James M. Drought of the Maryknoll Mission were manipulated by Colonel Takeo Iwakuro and the Tokyo banker Tadeo Ikawa in a plot that also embraced Postmaster General Frank C. Walker, the ranking Catholic in Roosevelt's cabinet.
"We decided therefore first to feel our way from behind the scenes," the Japanese attaché reported on 16 April: "In this respect Iwakuro and Ikawa were assigned to sounding out the contacts we made in December [i.e., Walsh, Drought, and Walker] and then have the Ambassador confirm the results obtained.8 A "Draft Understanding" was drawn up by "John Doe Associates" (as the State Department dubbed the pair) in preparation for the April arrival of the new ambassador, Admiral Kichisaburo Nomura. Konoye demanded extreme secrecy, because his pro-German Foreign Minister Yosuke Matsuoka was en route to Berlin to assure Hitler that Japan would attack Singapore as soon as a non-aggression pact was signed with the Soviet Union. The admiral smuggled himself into and out of Secretary of State Cordell Hull's hotel via the service entrance. This visit apparently inspired Nomura's belief that an accord was imminent. The ambassador's optimism was reflected in the attaché's report which claimed that Roosevelt was bowing to the public pressure generated by Charles Lindbergh and the isolationist lobby, which the intercepts make clear the Japanese and Germans were manipulating through intermediaries.9
Konoye's secret bid to drive a diplomatic wedge between Britain and the United States backfired when the foreign minister returned from Moscow with Stalin's signature on the neutrality treaty. Yosuke Matsuoka protested that Japan's relations with its Axis partners were jeopardized by Konoye's efforts to secure an accommodation with the United States. He refused to reopen the negotiations that had already stalled because of Tokyo's insistence on keeping an army in China. So Japan's schizophrenic foreign policy had succeeded only in convincing both Berlin and Washington of Japanese duplicity. Konoye’s determination to continue trying to trade off Japan's Axis commitment for an accommodation with the United States was to bring down his cabinet and within six months to deliver Japan's government to control of the hard-line militarists.
Ironically, Hitler's attack on the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941 set the events in motion that brought Britain and the United States into the very alliance that Konoye had tried to prevent. Matsuoka seized the opportunity to sabotage further discussions with the United States and to press for an immediate attack on the Soviet Union, but Japan's military leadership had decided to advance south "no matter what obstacles are encountered."10 On 2 July, the fiery foreign minister who had attracted the fatal tag of "Hitler's lackey" was forced to resign and the new cabinet ordered "preparations for war with Great Britain and the United States" should diplomacy fail to establish their "Greater South East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere."
In July 1941, Japanese troops began marching into Northern Indochina. Magic intercepts confirmed Japan's plan to use the Vichy French air and the naval bases of Saigon and Cam Ranh Bay as the "springboard" for the "liberation of South East Asia." The threat of such overt aggression steeled Roosevelt's decision to force a showdown with Tokyo, and On 26 July the United States announced the freezing of all Axis trade and assets. The hardliners in his administration decided that this meant choking off the Japanese oil supplies, although Roosevelt had at first been "unwilling to draw the noose tight."11 Noting that the embargo announcement was made on the same day that MacArthur was made Commander in Chief of U. S. Forces in the Far East, The New York Times called the move "the most drastic blow short of war."
This was certainly Tokyo’s reaction to news of a dramatic reversal of U. S. Pacific strategy. Clearly, the massive reinforcements were to be directed to the Philippines to threaten Japan and block any move to break the embargo by seizing alternative oil supplies in the Dutch East Indies. This 5,000-mile westward shift of the front line of defenses invited all the risks of a military buildup on Japan’s front doorstep. Manila, moreover, did not have adequate facilities or fuel reserves to serve as the forward base for the Pacific Fleet, so MacArthur faced defending the Philippines with untrained troops and an exposed Pacific supply line. Within two weeks, Roosevelt’s military advisers who had so fiercely resisted making even a token defense commitment to Britain, Australia, and the Dutch, sailed with Roosevelt on the cruiser Augusta (CA-31). Their destination was a mist-shrouded Newfoundland Bay where a secret summit conference was to take place that resulted in the “Atlantic Charter” and a joint strategy to defend mutual interests in the Far East against Japan.
The Deterrent Gamble: “We are now trying to build up the defense of the Philippines as a direct defense to the Indian Ocean and Singapore,” Admiral Harold Stark, Chief of Naval Operations, announced at the opening session of the conference on board the battleship Prince of Wales on 11 August 1941.12 The British Chiefs of Staff unhesitatingly endorsed Stark’s proposals to “rearrange” lend-lease arms shipments so that the stream of four-engined B-17 bombers could be redirected across the Pacific to reinforce MacArthur. The “Flying Fortress” bombers, which the U. S. Army now regarded as the answer to its 20-year-old problem of defending the Philippines, had performed so miserably with the Royal Air Force over Germany that Joseph Goebbels was derisively calling the wonder bombers “Flying Coffins.” Any doubts about the B-17s’ capability for threatening Japan with terror-bombing were put aside when it was agreed that within six months MacArthur could be reinforced with air power and troops to repel a Japanese invasion. Britain was to begin preparing a network of airfields and fuel dumps as well as mustering at Singapore as many capital ships as the hard-pressed Royal Navy could spare from the battles raging in the Atlantic and Mediterranean.
The most tangible result of this first Allied summit was not the much-trumpeted but insubstantial “Atlantic Charter” but, as is confirmed by newly uncovered documents, a de facto Anglo-American alliance born out of Churchill’s desperate need to defend the British Empire’s Far Eastern outposts and Roosevelt’s decision for a military face-off with Japan. The charter was unsoundly based on a “scratch” deterrent force and a policy to “baby them [the Japanese] along”13—a task that Churchill was happy to leave to Roosevelt because he shrewdly calculated that if diplomacy failed, the Americans could not then duck the commitment to fight. The President and Prime Minister had both embarked on a colossal strategic gamble based on a fatal underestimation of Japan’s military capability and the belief that an Anglo-American deterrent bluff could delay the Japanese advance long enough for a force with real punch to be assembled.
Imperfect Threats: After 35 B-17s had been safely flown to the Philippines via the Pacific islands by the end of October without apparently arousing Japanese suspicions, Secretary of War Henry Stimson wrote enthusiastically to the President about how “a strategic opportunity of the utmost importance has suddenly arisen in the southwestern Pacific.”14 The penciled red-and-blue circles radiating out from Manila to embrace Tokyo on an attached map made plain how ‘‘our whole strategic possibilities of the past twenty years have been revolutionized” because the U. S. Army was now planning for a strategic bombing offensive against Japan. MacArthur soon cabled from Manila to speed up the supply of 500 target maps for his growing fleet of bombers that he had already reported “had changed the whole picture in the Asiatic area.” The President was left “a bit bewildered” by such stratospheric enthusiasm for the strategic bombing offensive whose principal supporter was the normally level-headed Marshall. Indeed, Marshall was to brief trusted newsmen that MacArthur would have “the greatest concentration of heavy bombers in the world,”15 hinting at the plan for “general incendiary attacks to burn up the wood and paper structures of the densely populated Japanese cities.”16
While the Americans were congratulating themselves on the “great effective power” of the bomber deterrent, the Japanese already knew it to be a hollow threat. Their military attaché in Berlin had assiduously collected German data on the poor performance of the Royal Air Force’s “Flying Fortress” missions. Even Marshall, it now turns out, received a salutary warning from his own staff that 250 bombers hardly constituted a serious strategic threat. Moreover, the B-17s’ limited range meant that they could shuttle bomb Japan only by using Soviet airfields in Vladivostok. But Stalin had refused to cooperate. The Siberian Red Army divisions were being rushed to Moscow’s defense, and there were fears that Tokyo might retaliate to a bombing by making another attack across the Manchurian border.
If Japan did not take the airborne threat seriously, then the Anglo-American deterrent’s seaborne arm had even less credibility. Churchill had promised that Britain would send a “formidable, fast, high class squadron” to Singapore.17 But Admiralty objections reduced this to a single battleship task force. “There is nothing like having something that can catch and kill anything” the Prime Minister cabled Roosevelt on 2 November. “The firmer your attitude and ours, the less chance of their taking the plunge.”18 Next day came the news that the aircraft carrier assigned to the squadron had run aground on a Bermuda reef. Yet neither Admiral Tom Phillips, flying his flag in the Prince of Wales as task force commander, nor Churchill reconsidered the risks even after a cabled warning from the South African Prime Minister: “If the Japanese are real nippy, there is an opening here for a first class disaster.”19
If Roosevelt had hoped that the U. S. “carrot and stick” diplomacy founded on an inadequate deterrent would bite as Japan ran out of oil, it was a fatal error. So too were the miscalculations, despite the advantage of Magic, that Japan’s military leadership would wait for the buildup of the Anglo-American forces and not be forced into an accelerated timetable of action by vanishing fuel reserves. The Department of State was blind to clear signals that the confrontation with Japan was rushing to a military showdown after the Konoye Government fell in October and General Tojo became Prime Minister at the head of a cabinet dominated by the militarists. The Japanese ambassador was given an "immovable" deadline for resumption of oil supplies by 28 November, otherwise "things are automatically going to happen."20 Such ominous indications that Japan was moving toward belligerency failed to impress Hull. He stubbornly pressed on with Roosevelt's instructions to "spin out" the negotiations because three more months were necessary to bring the Philippine bomber force up to full strength.
Diplomatic Volte-face: A final effort to "baby along" the increasingly impatient Japanese was agreed upon at a meeting of Roosevelt's inner cabinet on 25 November. Hull was authorized to parlay for a modus vivendi along the lines proposed by a Magic intercept that revealed Tokyo's final diplomatic bid to avert war. A partial restoration of oil supplies was to be offered to Japan, in return for a troop withdrawal from South Indochina. Despite strong Nationalist Chinese protests, Stimson and Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox agreed that the scheme" adequately, protected all our interests.”21 Concern about the lack of carrier aircover for the Prince of Wales en route to Singapore no doubt accounted for Churchill's approving minute: "I should feel pleased if I read that an American Japanese agreement had been made by which we were able to be no worse off three months hence in the Far East than we are now.”22
While the records reveal that Roosevelt and Hull were "not very hopeful” that the modus vivendi would be approved by Tokyo, on 25 November they were prepared to clutch at any straw to keep negotiations going. Astonishingly, the next day the agreed-upon plan was abandoned. In one of the most momentous reversals in U. S. diplomatic history, Hull announced next morning that he had decided to "kick the whole thing over" and present the Japanese envoys, who were anticipating the compromise, with an uncompromising ten-point restatement of the U. S. demands for Japan to withdraw its troops from China before oil supplies could be resumed. 23 That Hull was aware that Tokyo would take such a volte-face as an ultimatum is evident from his remark to Stimson that he had "washed my hands of it" and that it was now in the hands of "the Army and the Navy." Declassified British confidential Foreign Office assessments also confirm that "the President and Mr. Hull were . . . fully conscious of what they were doing." Significantly, Churchill tried to suppress Britain's repatriated Tokyo ambassador's 1943 report that it "was a pretty sweeping indictment of U. S. policy" since war with Japan might have been prevented by the modus vivendi.24
Whether war could have been averted if the modus vivendi had been presented is less important than the U. S. unilateral decision to abandon it—an overnight policy reversal that the President must have anticipated would precipitate the breakdown of negotiations and the slide into war. The official explanation, in the diaries and testimony of those involved, records that on the morning of 26 November Roosevelt received news of a Japanese convoy of "30, 40, or 50 ships" sighted "south of Formosa." The report arrived from military intelligence the previous afternoon, but it supposedly failed to reach the White House. Roosevelt, according to Stimson's account, "fairly blew up” when he heard about the convoy by telephone the next morning "and said that he hadn't seen it and that it changed the whole situation because it was evidence of bad faith on the part of the Japanese.”25
It is puzzling that a top secret Magic report failed to reach the White House—and that the Secretary of State did not react as dramatically when Stimson telephoned the report to him the previous afternoon. Not only did Hull evidently not regard it as evidence of Japanese “treachery,” but that same evening he bluntly told the Chinese ambassador that the United States would go ahead with the modus vivendi despite Chiang Kai-shek’s “hysterical” protests.
Stimson’s report would seem not to have been the explosive evidence of Japanese treachery, because, after 41 years, the “missing letter” has been found squirreled away in the Secretary of War’s “Safe File.” Attached to it is a cryptic note, dated 27 November from Roosevelt’s aide, Major General Edwin M. “Pa” Watson, recording that it did reach the White House on the afternoon of Tuesday, 25 November!26 Comparison with the “duplicate” sent the next day shows that Stimson inflated the urgency of his follow-up report. The original communication contained nothing more alarming than a routine report of “a more or less normal movement” of “ten to thirty” troopships “in the Yangtse River below Shanghai.” The convoy’s arrival had been disclosed by a month-old Magic intercept. Enclosed with it was the latest British intelligence summary predicting that Japan might move troops into Thailand if negotiations broke down.
The Missing War Warning: Apparently, the convoy report cannot have been the fatal instrument that prompted Roosevelt to effectively terminate negotiations with Japan. Yet there can be no doubt that some warning of the imminence of war was received by the President on the morning of 26 November. Since there is no trace in the U. S. naval or military intelligence archives, it can be assumed that the White House received it directly from London. Indications are that it came via Sir William “Intrepid” Stephenson’s British Security Coordination Organization because Major James Roosevelt, the President’s son, was dispatched to New York that afternoon with what appears to be his father’s confidential reply: “Negotiations off. Services expect action within two weeks.”27
Possibly British or Dutch agents had gained access to a copy of Japan’s war plans, since at least 145 copies of the Imperial Navy’s “Operation Order No. 1” were widely circulated, along with the army plan of attack.28 But if Allied agents had been responsible, the story would surely be public knowledge by now. The continued effort to camouflage the source of the war warning indicates that it may have originated with the Soviets. Soviet agents had tapped the highest levels in Tokyo, and although their master spy Sorge had been arrested a month earlier, most of his ring was still undetected. The Soviets are also known to have penetrated Japan’s Moscow and Bangkok embassies. So with the German Army about to launch Hitler’s “final offensive” on the Soviet capital, it was very much in the Soviet interests to ensure that a potential Axis foe became embroiled in a war to preempt an attack on Siberia. Stalin certainly betrayed a remarkable certainty about the timing of Japan’s imminent attack on Malaya to General Wladyslaw Sikorski during the Polish military mission's visit to the Kremlin on 4 December. In an oblique reference, Marshall also testified that the British had acquired some important intelligence from Soviet sources. So the Soviets might have obtained a copy of a Japanese war plan, and the British might have obtained their information about it from a penetration of Soviet cipher traffic.
There has been no public release detailing the extent to which the Allied intelligence services might have penetrated Soviet codes. But so far, the British have refused to release any of their Japanese Ultra intelligence. Key Japanese intelligence reports in Churchill's confidential files are "closed for 75 years." Recent requests for their release, or even for privileged access, have been rejected at cabinet level "because it would not be in the national interest at this time."29
Documents in the Australian archives that are apparently related also remain classified, suggesting a possible connection between the war warning and the disappearance of HMAS Sydney a week earlier. How this celebrated fighting ship, which had outgunned and sunk an Italian, cruiser in the Mediterranean, vanished with all hands without a trace in an encounter with the German commerce raider Kormoran off the coast of western Australia, still has to be satisfactorily explained.30 Not only did most of the Germans survive, but there have also been reports of an unidentified plane, thus raising the suspicion that one of the aircraft-carrying Japanese submarines might have assisted in the Sydney's destruction. If Japan was indeed implicated in the sinking, this could have been the evidence of Japan's treachery. But Churchill would have been reluctant to make the sinking of a cruiser a casus belli while the U. S. commitment was still in doubt. Therefore, it suited all sides' designs, including Japan's, to hush up the affair.
Strategic Checkmate: Yet there can be no mistaking the signs that a war warning galvanized the top echelons of the U. S. military command on the morning of 26 November. Roosevelt dispatched such a blunt alert to the U. S. High Commissioner, the Honorable Francis B. Sayre, in the Philippines that Admiral Thomas C. Hart, commanding the U. S. Asiatic Fleet, certainly took it as a war warning because its source was "straight from the horse's mouth."31 Marshall's morning staff briefing had a new urgency that the Japanese "will soon cut loose" with "an assault on the Philippines;” and he made the highly significant statement that “we are familiar with their plans.”32 Mac Arthur was to be sent a very plain “war warning” which authorized him to “attack threatening convoys” and make immediate flights over Japanese territory, at the risk of provoking a shooting match. Two Marine fighter squadrons from Hawaii were to be ferried to Wake and Midway by the Pacific Fleet’s two aircraft carriers to protect the flight of 48 more B-17 bombers flying to the Philippines. Marshall’s readiness to accept that “there will be nothing left at Hawaii until replacements arrive,” confirming that the continued stripping of the islands’ air defenses, must indicate that intelligence had been received that Japan’s attack plan included Pearl Harbor.
The Cover-Up: When the “war warning” signals were flashed across the Pacific to alert all U. S. commands that negotiations with the Japanese were at the breaking point, “the Philippines Thai or Kra Peninsula or possibly Borneo” were specifically designated as being in danger of imminent attack.33 It was no longer a question of if, but when, Japan would attack the exposed western basin of the U. S. Pacific defense line.
The Anglo-American deterrent strategy was in ruins. On 26 November 1941, Roosevelt and Churchill realized that Japan had called the bluff on their gamble. The British could do little but instruct Admiral Phillips to proceed to Manila for joint staff talks with MacArthur. The Americans were caught in an inescapable checkmate. With troop convoys in mid-Pacific, only aerial reinforcements could reach the Philippines in time.
Early morning visitors to the White House noted that the President had left his coffee and kipper breakfast untouched as he wrestled with a terrible dilemma.34 He dared not risk making the preemptive attack Stimson urged since the isolationist opposition in Congress would accuse him of engineering the war. But to proceed with the modus vivendi would expose him to charges of appeasement when Japan attacked. Yet to do nothing except wait for the blow to fall on the Philippines put him in danger of dereliction of his duty as commander in chief—if the true extent of the warning ever became known. Weighing the “difficult proposition” offered by these unpleasant alternatives, Stimson’s diary notes: “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 one to do this so that there should remain no doubt in anyone’s mind as to who were the aggressors.”35
Once the painful decision for “letting the Japanese fire the first shot” had been reached by Roosevelt, his inner-circle had to take unprecedented steps to cover up the war warning’s true nature. Hence the charade over Stimson’s “missing” report and the doctored duplicate preserved in the presidential records. The necessity for concealing any clue that the White House received specific intelligence of the Japanese attack was to be intensified by Pearl Harbor’s political aftermath.
Evidence of this conspiracy has been misinterpreted by revisionists hoping to prove that the President had also been forewarned of the attack on Hawaii. In the face of the accelerating crisis, it is curious that both the President and the U. S. Army Chief chose to leave Washington the next day. There is more than a whiff of conspiracy about the vagueness of Marshall’s and Stark’s testimony about their movements on the eve of Pearl Harbor, when the President apparently did not contact them about the receipt of the Magic intercepts of the final 13-part Japanese messages. Still more conspiratorial is the President’s order of 1 December that Filipinos dressed in U. S. Navy uniforms were to man a flotilla of small craft to be sailed out of Manila, flying the American flag and patrolling precise locations in the South China Sea.36 This “fishbait mission” can only be explained as setting a “tripwire” for the Japanese Malayan invasion convoy to provide Congress with a cast-iron casus belli. That same evening, the President summoned the British, Australian, and Dutch ambassadors to assure them “we should all be in the same boat” in the event of a Japanese attack.37
Revisionists have been correct in discerning evidence of a White House conspiracy, but its purpose has been grossly misinterpreted. Toland, the most recent convert to revisionism, produces no shred of new evidence in Infamy that stands up to support his fantastic conclusion that the President was forewarned of the attack on Hawaii. The spoor he trails so assiduously leads not to Pearl Harbor, but to the Philippines. There is a remarkable—and revealing—consistency about the spontaneous astonishment when the news reached Washington that Pearl Harbor was being bombed. Roosevelt and his close aides all echoed Knox’s astonished: “This can’t be true, this must mean the Philippines.”38
Missed Clues: Washington’s diplomatic and military attention had become so locked into the anticipation that Japan would strike against a deterrent force in the Philippines, that they were blind to any less logical target. Too much, rather than too little, intelligence resulted in a blinkering effect, because attention was given only to data that confirmed this conviction. It can now be understood, if not excused, how Army and Navy intelligence officers in Washington missed the significance of the messages that Tokyo was exchanging with its Honolulu consulate. This traffic was encoded in a low-grade cypher for which Hawaii was not provided a key. Intelligence officers on the spot might have paid more attention to messages like the “bomb plot” signal setting out a grid-map of Pearl Harbor, which Washington erroneously interpreted as a sabotage scheme.39
Compared with these clues indicating so precisely the target and date of the raid on Oahu, the whole “East Winds Rain” controversy that developed as a result of Captain Laurence F. Safford’s attempt to “blow the whistle” on efforts by senior naval staff to cover up their apparent failure to keep Pearl Harbor fully informed is a “red herring.” If the Hawaiian command had received this alert on 4 December, it might not have influenced the march of events because its importance had been superseded by a Magic intercept of 3 December ordering all Japanese embassies, except Washington, to destroy their Purple code machines.40 This clear alert that Japan was preparing for imminent war was relayed to Admiral Husband E. Kimmel.
Despite the recent confused testimony of a former U. S. Navy radio operator that he picked up an "East Winds Rain" alert, evidence that a genuine "East Winds Rain message was actually transmitted and received in Washington, probably vanished in the extensive "house-cleaning" that preceded the 1944 Boards of Inquiry.41 By accident, or possibly by design, the "East Winds Rain" red herring has lured two generations of Pearl Harbor investigators down a dead-end trail. It is therefore not surprising to find so much of Toland's so-called tenth investigation devoted to "proving" that such an alert was received. But his citations reveal that his "proof" is as ill-founded as his resurrection of claims that radio signals were picked up from the Japanese task force, bolstered by an astonishing mistranslation of the Dutch naval attaché's diary. Senior surviving Japanese officers recently again insisted that the Pearl Harbor Strike Force did not break strict orders for radio silence. Toland's infamous charge that the U. S. Navy was actually tracking the approach of the Japanese carriers has been exposed by the expurgation of the mistranslated diary entries from the paperback edition.42
In light of the new documentation, the whole issue of Pearl Harbor has to be interpreted in the context of the strategic bomber deterrent based in the Philippines. However, there is intriguing evidence to suggest that Britain's Combined Services Intelligence Center in Singapore might have detected the Japanese strike uncoiling toward Hawaii. The British and Dutch are now known to have been more adept than the Americans in penetrating the Japanese JN-25 Fleet Code in which the main operational traffic was transmitted.43 A revised version of the cypher had been introduced on 1 December, but we know from U. S. intercepts that this was not the radical change that had been anticipated. Two years' familiarity with the cypher could have facilitated the Singapore center's speedy repenetration of the Fleet Code. A series of Japanese messages, captured copies of which are now available in the archives, reveal that they do contain last-minute indications of an attack developing against Hawaii.44 The British have yet to release any Japanese Ultra, so the key to unlocking the final secret of Pearl Harbor is probably gathering dust among the top-secret intelligence records in England. It is, however, inconceivable that such important intelligence would not have been relayed to Churchill. But there is no evidence that it was passed on to Roosevelt. Had there been any last-minute warning flashed from London, it is unlikely that the round-the-compass air reconnaissance, as laid down in the Hawaiian command's War orders, would not have been implemented.
Churchill might have chosen to withhold eleventh-hour intelligence to ensure "the blessing in disguise" as he later characterized Japan's sneak attack. The impact of bombing Hawaii certainly had immeasurably greater impact than an attack on the Philippines in "bringing America so wholeheartedly into the war."45
The Philippine Factor: The new documentation establishes the pivotal role played in the disaster of 7 December 1941 by the U. S. decision to defend the Philippines, and it was the foundation for the deterrent diplomacy against Japan. The time has come to change the Pearl Harbor debate's focus by calling MacArthur to the bar of history to account for his part in calamitous events. To read the verbatim transcript of MacArthur's 5 December Manila conference with Britain's Admiral Phillips is to comprehend how far Anglo-American strategy planning in the Far East had become divorced from reality." MacArthur confidently predicted that his "ace units" of B-17 bombers, together with his Filipino militia and a dozen light tanks, were going to hurl a Japanese invasion back "on the beaches." The British fleet was to steam from Singapore to Manila Bay, which was to become the "Scapa Flow of the Far East," for offensive sorties against the Imperial Navy covered by a powerful umbrella of U. S. fighters.
Yet 48 hours later, and a full nine hours after MacArthur had been warned that Pearl Harbor was under attack and that he "would be next," Japanese fighters and bombers caught his "ace units" like sitting ducks on the ground. Three quarters of the fighter strength and half the bombers vital to the Anglo-American defense plan for the Far East were wiped out in a 30-minute raid that proved a far greater military and strategic success for Japan than Pearl Harbor. Within three months, it had cost the United States the Philippines, Britain the loss of Malaya and Burma, and the Dutch the whole East Indies. The source of Japan's greatest victory—and the most cataclysmic Allied defeat of World War II—derived from the tactical surprise achieved by that first air raid on the Philippines.
There were to be nine inquiries and a 40-year debate over who was to blame for the Pearl Harbor disaster, but not a single investigation went into the inexcusable debacle in the Philippines. Evidently, the Roosevelt Administration was reluctant to lay any blame on MacArthur for fear of exposing its own responsibility for initiating a disastrous deterrent diplomacy. The new archival documentation makes it clear, for the first time, how the catastrophes that overtook the Philippines and Hawaii were invited by a strategic and diplomatic miscalculation that must rank among the greatest Allied blunders of World War II.
When Japan’s aggressive drive into South East Asia resulted in confrontation with the United States and Britain, neither potential ally could muster the military strength for an effective deterrent force. Japan was therefore confronted with a choice, either to abandon the southward drive or to break through the Singapore-Manila defense line to seize alternative fuel supplies from the Dutch East Indies. Churchill and Roosevelt gambled that bluff and bluster could make a joint Anglo-American sea and air force appear as a credible deterrent by threatening a strategic bombing offensive to set ablaze the Japanese homeland. However, Washington’s timetable for providing MacArthur with a “big stick” strategic bomber force took no account that the oil embargo would accelerate Tokyo’s diplomacy. The Japanese were therefore forced to choose between launching their attack before their fuel supplies were exhausted—and before the deterrent became effective—or negotiating until 1942, while their option to attack vanished with their oil reserves and the threat of being dictated to by a U. S. bombing offensive became a reality.
On 1 December 1941, the Japanese Government decided that their advantage was to take out the American, British, and Dutch bases with a series of simultaneous attacks intended to secure Japan’s strategic position for the protracted peace negotiations that Tokyo anticipated would follow the German victory in the Soviet Union. The U. S. “deterrent” of 1941 failed because it made a preemptive strike an attractive option, which is precisely what a policy based on deterrence must not invite.
When President Theodore Roosevelt sent the Great White Fleet into the first U. S. confrontation with Japan in 1907, he characterized his diplomacy as “to speak softly and carry a ‘big stick.’ ”47 When his cousin steered the United States into its second face-off with the Japanese, the lessons of history had been forgotten.
Today, as the United States confronts the Soviet Union across the nuclear brink, we should pray that our politicians and the military strategists are more successful than recent historians in interpreting the contemporary relevance of “Remember Pearl Harbor.”
1 Treasury of Quotations, ed. H. V. Prochnow (Harper & Row, 1969).
2 Congressional Record, 8 December 1941.
3 National Security Agency (NSA) Cryptologic Documents. National Archives Record Group 457. individually classified.
4 National Archives (NA)/Record Group (RG) 457, SRNA 0020.
5 Public Records Office (PRO), London. Cab 66/10: C.O.S (40) 592.
6 Roosevelt-Churchill Correspondence, 15 February 1941, FDR Library, Hyde Park, NY.
7 Maurice Matloff and Edward M. Snell, Strategic Planning for Coalition Warfare, 1941—(Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1959), p. 75.
8 NA/RG 457 SRA 16401.
9 NA/RG 457 Intercepts 1941 JD No: 4038, 25 July; 6293, 1 November, SRDJ # 16,337, 6 November.
10 Nobutake Ike, Decision For War—Records of 1941 Foreign Policy Conferences (Stanford, 1967), p. 77-90.
11 Harold L. Ickes, The Secret Diary of Harold L. Ickes (Simon & Schuster, 195) p. 558.
12 NA/RG 18, Records of the Army Air Force, Classified Central Decimal Files 1939-42, 337 B "Conferences" Entry 293.
13 "Papers Relating to the Foreign Relations of the United States—Japan 1941, Vol. II (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1949), p. 355.
14 FDR Library, PSF File [Secretary of War to President, 21 October 1941 and 25 October Memo to Harry Hopkins: "Please read and speak to me about this. I am a bit bewildered. FDR"]
15 Louis Morton, The Fall of the Philippines, (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1953), D. 69.
16 NA Record Group 165, War Department Chief of Staff, Army 1941-43, Philippines Project (Memo from Brigadier General Laurence S. Kuter, dated 21 November 1941).
17 PRO Prem3 183/2, Memo to First Sea Lord, 29 August 1941.
18 Roosevelt-Churchill Correspondence, 2 November 1941, FDR Library.
19 PRO Prem3 163/3.
20 NA/RG #457 SRDJ 016816.
21 NA/RG 80 Pearl Harbor Liaison Office (PHLO), Stimson Diary and Testimony.
22 PRO, Prem3, 156/6 Churchill to Eden Minute.
23 Stimson Diary.
24 PRO FO 371 File 35957, Report of Ambassador Craigie, 1943.
25 Stimson Diary, pp. 48-50.
26 NA/RG 107, Secretary of War "Safe File," Philippines Sector.
27 H. Montgomery Hyde, Room 3603 (Random House, 1962), p. 235, and author's communication with Sir William Stephenson.
28 NA/RG 80 Pearl Harbor Liaison Office, Box 36.
29 PRO Prem3, 252/6B and WO 208 2062 and application to Minister of States for Defence, February 1982.
30 For detailed investigation see Michael D. Montgomery, Who Sank The Sydney? (Cassell, Australia, 1981).
31 Private diary of Admiral Hart, 26 November 1941. Hart Papers in the Operational Archives, U. S. Navy Historical Section, Navy Yard, Washington, D.C.
32 NA/RG 165 WDCSA/38I, Philippines Project.
33 NA/RG 80 Pearl Harbor Liaison Office Signal #272337, OPNAV to CINCAF/CINCPAC, 27 November 1941.
34 Diary of Treasury Secretary Henry Morganthau, p. 1024.
35 Stimson Diary, p. 15. 2
36 NA/RG 80 PHLO "The President directs . . . "Signal OPNAV to CINCAF.2 December 1941, #012356CR0313.
37 PRO FO 800, Diary of Lord Halifax, 2 December 1941.
38 Robert Sherwood, "Roosevelt and Hopkins: An Intimate History." (Harper Bros., 1948).
39 Bomb Plot Message" evidence and testimony in "Hearings Before Committee on the Investigation of the Pearl Harbor Attack," Part 12, p.261.
40 NA/RG 80 Pearl Harbor Liaison Office JD-1 7340, Honolulu to Tokyo, 3 December 1941.
41 NA/RG 457 SRDJ 017184.
42 NA/RG 457 SRDJ 017025.
43 See Infamy, Toland, p. 272-4. ("BeW.Honolulu = "BeWestemHonolulu" "to the west of Honolulu" not "just northwest (sic) of Honolulu")
44 British Intelligence in World War II"—Professor F.H. Hinsley, HMSO 1979 (See Vol. 1, pp. 24, 53, 40; and Vol. II pp. 27-28). Dutch source on JN 25 unpublished mss and research by Robert D. Haslach.
45 NA/RG 457 SRN 129616.
46 PRO FO 371, File 3597.
47 Hart Papers, OA, U.S. Navy Historical Sections.
48 Speech at Minnesota State Fair, September 1901.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: I would like to thank Rear Admiral Edwin T. Layton, U. S. Navy (Retired), Captain Roger, Pineau, U. S. Naval Reserve (Retired), Captain Raymond Schmidt, U. S. Naval Reserve, and John Taylor of the U. S. National Archives for their comments and assistance. I am also indebted to Rear Admiral P. W. Dilligham, Jr., U. S. Navy, for his encouragement in preparing this article.
John Costello is a British historian who was graduated from Cambridge University before producing World War II documentaries for BBC television and assisting with the preservation of the museum ships HMS. Belfast and Cavalier. He is coauthor of the best-seller D-Day (MacMillan; 1974), as well as Jutland 1916 (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1976) and Battle of the Atlantic (Dial Press, 1977), and author of The Pacific War (Rawson, Wade Publishers, 1981).