Countdown to Pearl Harbor: The Twelve Days to the Attack
Steve Twomey. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2016. 384 pp. Illus. Notes. Biblio. Index. $30.
A Matter of Honor—Pearl Harbor: Betrayal, Blame, and a Family’s Quest for Justice
Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan. New York: Harper Collins, 2016. 544 pp. Illus. Maps. Notes. Biblio. Index. $35.
Reviewed by Captain Craig C. Felker, U.S. Navy (Retired)
The increase in the number of popular histories published on the cusp of anniversaries of great historical events should surprise no one. Nor should it seem strange that journalists and not historians are the most prolific at such times. Historians by their nature are lousy planners. They methodically ply through archives, agonize over evidence, and wrack their brains tying evidence to arguments to make sense of the past. Journalists and popular historians are no less committed to evidence, but for them, it seems the story itself is what matters. Arguments can add color to a narrative, but historical context and deep analysis take a backseat to the story.
The 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor is certain to trigger a tsunami of popular narratives on the U.S. Navy’s war in the Pacific. Two of the first to emerge are Steve Twomey’s Countdown to Pearl Harbor and Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan’s A Matter of Honor. All three authors have enjoyed stellar careers in investigative journalism. Twomey won the Pulitzer Prize as a journalist with The Philadelphia Inquirer. Summers and Swan have several books to their credit, including The Eleventh Day: The Full Story of 9/11 and Osama bin Laden (Ballantine Books, 2011), which also was a finalist for a Pulitzer. On this occasion the authors have crafted thought-provoking chronicles on Pearl Harbor—not necessarily notable for their historical content, but rather for the style in which they present events.
The books could be taken together to form two parts of a complete account of the Pearl Harbor attack and of the subsequent pillorying of Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, who as Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Fleet was in command on 7 December 1941. Twomey’s book begins with Kimmel assuming command of the Pacific Fleet on 1 February of that year, but the narrative quickly jumps to the 12 days leading up to the Japanese attack. He portrays events during that period in the style of a thriller. The people are at the heart of the action: Kimmel and his staff, military and political leaders in Washington, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, Japanese diplomats in Washington and their spies in Hawaii, and U.S. Navy officers and sailors. Twomey successfully brings brilliant color to the players, and he then ties the strands together using evidence drawn from official investigations and personal papers. The crescendo of his narrative is the attack itself: the detailed yet fast-paced unfolding of events, both tragic and heroic, which concludes with the demise of the fleet commander who suffered through the carnage and lost his stars because of it.
Although Summers and Swan provide a similar background to Twomey’s, their focus is on the aftermath of the attack and in particular on Kimmel’s fall from grace and subsequent quest to repair his reputation. Like Countdown to Pearl Harbor, A Matter of Honor offers the reader a dramatic rendering of the investigations into the attack, which laid accountability squarely on Kimmel’s shoulders and which the authors argue ignored other players who they believe were complicit in the catastrophe.
Central to their case is the issue of intelligence. If Kimmel had had access to the same MAGIC cryptanalysis intercepts of Japanese diplomatic messages as did the White House and service leaders in Washington, he correctly would have surmised that Japanese negotiations with Washington were disingenuous, and he would have prepared more diligently for a possible attack. The authors argue that the subsequent conclusion by the first Roberts Commission—that Kimmel and Army Lieutenant General Walter Short were “derelict” in their duties—not only stained Kimmel’s career but, more important, distracted the American public from the responsibility equally borne by Kimmel’s superiors.
The appeal of popular histories is that they offer exciting renditions of the historical record. In this, both works succeed. The authors successfully blend characters and events into interesting dramatic narratives. There are, however, deficiencies to this method. The first is that the genre lacks contextual depth. What were the historical factors that shaped Yamamoto’s decision to use air power as a first-strike weapon? Conversely, how did the Navy’s version of war with Japan, planning for which began in 1906, develop over time? The second is the counterfactual nature of the narrative. It is easy to look back and conclude that the attack should have been prevented. Historians would point out that “what if” history may be interesting, but musing on what did not happen cannot ignore the facts and the obligation to explain them.
Arguments exonerating Kimmel because of his seniors’ unwillingness to share certain intelligence are not only counterfactual but also ignore the time-honored tradition of accountability in the U.S. Navy. All three authors present enough evidence to illustrate the confusing nature of events leading up to the attack. No one in a position of leadership, including Kimmel, could deny that war was at hand by late November 1941. But to take what were then disparate pieces of information (from the Navy and War Departments, State, the White House, and operational commanders) to be evidence of a Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor would have been at the time unrealistic.
The first Roberts Commission’s characterization of Kimmel and Short as “derelict” should have been softened before the report’s release to the public. To his credit, Kimmel never refused to acknowledge that, as commander-in-chief, he was accountable. Twomey’s sympathy for the admiral, and Summers and Swan’s contribution to efforts to reinstate his four-star rank, ignore what U.S. Navy officers have known since the establishment of the service: Responsibility may be held by many, but accountability rests only with the commanding officer.
In the larger sense, the drama surrounding the attack masks the more important narrative. The intelligence missteps, limited aerial reconnaissance, espionage, and shortcomings of U.S. political and military leaders certainly influenced events leading up to 7 December 1941. But to historians, the explanation for Pearl Harbor goes back nearly 100 years and ought not be ignored: that many political, cultural, technological, geographic, and social forces were integral to shaping the path that brought the two Pacific powers to war in 1941.
Captain Felker was a professor of military and naval history at the U.S. Naval Academy until his retirement in September 2016. He is the author of Testing American Sea Power: U.S. Navy Strategic Exercises, 1923–1940 (Texas A&M University Press, 2006).
Powerplay: The Origins of the American Alliance System in Asia
Victor D. Cha. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016. 352 pp. Illus. Notes. Biblio. Index. $35.
Reviewed by Captain Dale C. Rielage, U.S. Navy
U.S. Navy leaders moving from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans quickly learn that the mechanics of multilateral operations are different in Asia. While in both regions the U.S. Navy works with close and trusted partners, bringing together three or more navies in the Pacific poses practical operational challenges. Since the end of World War II, the Asian security architecture has been a “hub and spokes” system—a series of bilateral relationships with the United States as the common element. Asia lacks the overarching defense alliance found in Europe, and the absence of familiar NATO-style publications and standardized procedures for multilateral operations is but one minor result.
How Europe and Asia developed dissimilar alliance systems is the subject of Victor Cha’s excellent Powerplay: The Origins of the American Alliance System in Asia. Cha, a professor at Georgetown University and former director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council, proposes this difference sprang from a fundamental decision by the U.S. government. During the first ten years that followed World War II, U.S. leaders concluded that bilateral arrangements served U.S. interests in Asia. That choice, which Cha dubs a “powerplay,” was designed to maximize U.S. security in the region while asserting control over key allies, particularly Korea, Taiwan, and Japan.
The end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949 found the remains of the Republic of China, led by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, reduced to a last pocket of resistance on Taiwan. From there the Generalissimo steadfastly asserted his right to rule all of China and continued to plot his return to the mainland. Seeking to continue the civil war, Chiang bombed coastal cities, infiltrated saboteurs, harassed regional shipping, and sought U.S. aid for a force capable of an amphibious invasion of the mainland. In South Korea, President Syngman Rhee created a national narrative of “unification or death,” threatening to continue the Korean War unilaterally. Both Chiang and Rhee risked pulling the United States into major conflicts with China and the Soviet Union, which U.S. leaders desperately wanted to avoid.
Most political scientists assert that nations concerned with “entrapment”—being pulled into unwanted conflict by an ally—will distance themselves from the risky ally. In postwar Asia, the United States considered that option impossible. Troublesome though they were, both Korea and Taiwan were seen as essential to holding the maritime periphery of the Pacific against further communist encroachment. Instead, the United States managed risk by moving closer to both nations, negotiating bilateral security treaties that gave it an “unprecedented level of control” over its allies and “anointing [the United States] with the power to determine when another nation could exercise its sovereign right to use force.” In the case of Korea, this control extended to operational command of the Korean military.
Postwar Japan posed a similar but distinct challenge. Concluding that Japan would in time return to a dominant position in the region, U.S. leaders sought to ensure it would reemerge into a cocoon of comprehensive bilateral defense and economic arrangements with the United States. While Japan benefited, especially from its favored economic status, Cha argues that the U.S.-Japan powerplay unintentionally preserved wartime divisions in Asia. By providing Japan all it needed for both security and economic development, the United States removed incentives for Japan to pay the painful cost necessary for it to reconcile with its neighbors.
In perhaps his most intriguing chapter, Cha extends his powerplay argument to Asia today. In Cha’s analysis, the People’s Republic of China’s preference for bilateral arrangements in the region represents many of the same power dynamics that built the United States-led structure, raising the possibility of a complex, interlocking system of two hubs and multiple interconnected spokes in Asia.
Cha’s argument is not seamless. Even by his account, the alliance structure is not the result of a long-term U.S. approach but the product of leaders addressing a series of issues and crises and coming to what appears, in retrospect, to be a consistent conclusion. Further, the United States did dabble in multilateral arrangements in Asia during the period. Cha contends that the limited nature of these proposals and their eventual rejection betrays the United States’ overall powerplay approach. The most interesting case, however—the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO)—receives only a cursory treatment.
Powerplay is an academic work published by a respected university press and contains the obligatory discussion of political science theory with the dense footnoting that one would expect. Nonetheless, it is quite readable.
For U.S. Navy forces operating in the Pacific, the differences in the security architecture between Europe and Asia are a fundamental part of the operational landscape. Cha’s thoughtful look at how these differences came about offers naval professionals useful and interesting insights as they deal with their impact on the present.
Captain Rielage is Director for Intelligence and Information Operations for the U.S. Pacific Fleet and a frequent contributor to Proceedings.
New & Noteworthy Books
SEAL Operative’s Guide to Surviving in the Wild and Being Prepared for Any Disaster
Clint Emerson. New York: Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, 2016. 272 pp. Intro. Illus. Index. $19.99.
The author, a retired Navy SEAL, offers to civilian readers an essential guide to surviving emergencies, including disasters or extended periods in the wild. Emerson spent 20 years conducting special operations all over the world while attached to SEAL teams (including the elite SEAL Team Six) and with the National Security Agency. He presents 100 skills adapted for civilians from field experiences of special forces operations. This is a practical handbook for survival in multiple terrains and climate zones, for those faced with immediate or unfolding crises. It offers critical life-saving knowledge amid hostile environments or disasters.
Hunters and Killers: Volume 2: Anti-Submarine Warfare from 1943
Norman Polmar and Edward Whitman. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2016. 272 pp. Photos. Maps. $49.95.
Hunters and Killers: Volume 2 continues Norman Polmar and Edward Whitman’s comprehensive two-volume history of all aspects of antisubmarine warfare (ASW) from its beginnings in the late 18th century to the present role of systems and operations, and ends in early 1943. Volume 2 begins at the turning point of the Battle of the Atlantic, when Allied efforts forced the U-boats to withdraw from the North Atlantic. With cryptologic breakthroughs, growing numbers of escort and long-range patrol aircraft, and new weapons, the Allied antisubmarine advantage mounted quickly. In the Pacific theater, Polmar and Whitman consider the often-overlooked ASW advances that the Japanese made during World War II. Their detailed narrative includes extensive antisubmarine aspects of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Falklands Conflict and considers ASW developments into the early 21st century.
The Secret History of World War II: Spies, Code Breakers, and Covert Operations
Neil Kagan and Stephen G. Hyslop. Foreword by Kenneth W. Rendell. Washington, DC: National Geographic, 2016. 352 pp. Photos. Illus. Index. $40.
Neil Kagan and Stephen Hyslop illuminate their detailed account of covert operations during World War II with an enormous cache of rare photographs and artifacts, many previously unpublished. From spy missions to code breaking, this account renders visible that invisible war. Using eyewitness accounts, diaries, and recently declassified information, their narrative reveals the lives of the era’s spies and spymasters and the clandestine techniques they used, including psychological warfare and black propaganda. It includes 8 essays and more than 50 sidebars.
Training the Right Stuff: The Aircraft that Produced America’s Jet Pilots
Mark A. Frankel and Tommy H. Thomason. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing, 2016. 352 pp. Illus. Appends. Biblio. Gloss. Index. $69.99.
This is a thorough study of the training aircraft used to transition the U.S. military into the “jet age.” After World War II, unfamiliar high-performance jets began to replace propeller-driven aircraft; accidents soared. The book describes the introduction of the two-seat jet trainer, the T-33, developed in 1948 using private funds. The U.S. Air Force adopted it, and the Navy followed suit, enabling both services to start building modern air arms. Over time other new trainers were developed, and innovations such as high-fidelity simulators reduced costs and increased safety. The evolution continues today with the goal of producing high-quality newly winged aviators for assignment to operational squadrons.