Few like my step-father who fought in the Pacific during World War II have ever forgotten Japan’s sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. It was more than a day of horrible death and destruction. It was a blow to American’s belief our oceans had somehow insulated us from having any war brought to our shores. So it is understandable, after the atrocities meted out on American troops during the Pacific conflict that many like my step-father have never totally forgiven the Japanese for such a long bloody conflict.
When Franklin D. Roosevelt uttered those fateful words, “a date that will live in infamy” on December 7, 1941, there was no question who had perpetrated such an attack on American soil. But if there is one thing Americans love almost as much as the the Red, White and Blue, that is a good conspiracy theory. As a result, there are those to this day who suspect Roosevelt had more of hand in the infamy than most imagined at the time.
Few question that America entering into conflict with Japan was inevitable. Every diplomatic effort at halting Japan’s hostile expansion in Asia had failed. Tensions could have been no higher and records show Japan’s leaders had already decided there was no option for them except engaging the United States.
So what was the conspiracy? More than a few revisionists believe that Roosevelt was not surprised at all by the attack and, in fact, made sure nothing got in the way of it occurring. They claim the President knew the attack was coming and purposefully withheld vital information from U.S commanders. Why? Because, they claim, Roosevelt was frustrated by isolationists standing in the way of what he believed to be inevitable.
The first to suggest such a cover up were the commanders at Pearl Harbor. Admiral Husband Kimmel and Lieutenant General Walter Short both had good reason to point a finger of blame at Washington. Neither lay much blame on themselves, but the presidential committee that investigated the attack was quick to find both men guilty of dereliction of duty.
In spite of the finding, the military leaders didn’t lay down quietly. Their first line of defense was the hardest for Roosevelt to explain. From August 1940 on, the United States was in possession of Japan’s most secret codes and had successfully read almost every one of Japan’s diplomatic messages. One such message intercepted on September 24, 1941, should have raised immediate red flags. The message called for the Japanese consulate in Hawaii to gather specific information about U.S. warships and aircraft carriers. In specific, the secret communiqué asked for a report on ships anchored or berthed at Pearl Harbor.
Why was this information not passed on to commanders in Hawaii? The thirty-nine volumes of testimony gathered by a congressional committee of the time offer no real answer. The majority report of the committee blamed Army and Navy intelligence for failing to pass the information along, but a minority report implicated Roosevelt as well.
In time most Americans came to accept the majority report. It was, after all, a just war, and Democrats and Republicans alike were more focused on winning that casting blame. In recent years it has come be accepted that while Roosevelt may not have withheld information, he probably was complicit in provoking a quicker entry into the war than might have occurred otherwise.
The odds are President Roosevelt really had no choice. Isolationists, had they had their way, could have easily prevented the U.S. from entering the conflict until it was too late to stem the tide of Japanese aggression. At the least, Australia would have surely fallen to the Rising Sun. Like so many chapters in history, there are no easy answers. Roosevelt seems to have known a war was bound to happen, and it was better to fight one that could be won than one that could not be.