Pearl Harbor Hype


Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox visited Franklin D. Roosevelt in the afternoon of Dec. 7, just after the president had learned about our devastating losses at Pearl Harbor. Knox later told his naval aide,"FDR was as white as a sheet. He expected to get hit but not hurt."

Several months later, Admiral Thomas Hart, commander of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet, returned to Washington D.C. and visited Roosevelt in the White House. By this time, Hart's small fleet was at the bottom of the Java Sea, overwhelmed by Japan's vastly superior navy. FDR told Hart that the army had misinformed him about its ability to defend the Philippines. If he had known the truth, he would have"stalled off the Japs" for another year.

Stop for a moment and ponder the meaning of these two statements. They reveal some startling facts about Pearl Harbor that you will not find in the movie or in the hype that is gushing from the TV screen. The first reveals that FDR knew the Japanese were going to attack the United States somewhere. But he did not think they would inflict serious damage. The second makes it clear that Franklin D. Roosevelt could have averted or at least delayed a war with Japan.

Perhaps more disturbing, what the president told Admiral Hart was a lie. In November 1941, the top commanders of the U.S. Army and Navy had begged FDR to keep negotiating with the Japanese for at least another three months to give them time to complete a buildup of air and ground forces in the Philippines. He chose to ignore these pleas, which were couched in unmistakably serious language.

Until November 26, 1941, Roosevelt had been negotiating with two Japanese diplomats who had come to Washington to try to resolve a crisis with the United States which began in August 1941. At that time, with no warning, the United States embargoed all shipments of oil to Japan. The Japanese were baffled and infuriated by this decision. For three previous years, the United States had supplied fifty percent of Japan's oil, while her army conquered much of China. Why had Roosevelt chosen this moment to cut off the oil?

The answer, it is now apparent, was FDR's desperate desire to start a war with Japan that would get America into the war he wanted to fight -- with Nazi Germany. Roosevelt had tried hard to start a war with Germany. He had flaunted documents fabricated by British intelligence, supposedly proving Berlin was planning to invade South America. He ordered the Navy to attack German U-boats on sight, in effect fighting an undeclared war in the Atlantic.

A U-boat put a torpedo into the magazine of the USS Reuben James. One hundred and fifteen American sailors died in the freezing Atlantic. The public reaction? Robert Sherwood, FDR's speechwriter, summed it up: people were more interested in who was going to win the Army-Notre Dame football game.

Until the day before Pearl Harbor, polls showed eighty percent of the American people did not want to fight either Germany or Japan. They approved Roosevelt's policy of all aid short of war to the nations fighting the Axis powers. But they trusted FDR's 1940 promise that he would not send their sons to fight in a foreign war. That promise was another lie -- whereby the president had painted himself into an agonizing political corner.

Instead of negotiating seriously with the Japanese, Roosevelt let Secretary of State Cordell Hull present the Tokyo diplomats with a ten point ultimatum that included a demand for an immediate withdrawal from China and Japan's repudiation of her alliance with Germany. The Secretary of State went to the White House on the morning of November 26, 1941 and read this document to the president who"promptly agreed" with it.

Roosevelt permitted Hull to deliver this intransigent message to the dismayed Japanese without any further consultation with the secretaries of the army or navy or the service's military leaders, who had begged him for more time. Even historians who attempt to defend the president describe his conduct on this day of decision as"extraordinary."

The Japanese diplomats were stunned and dismayed. They had offered a 90 day cooling off period in which neither Japan nor the United States would move troops or warships anywhere in the Far East while the two nations discussed their differences.

The historians' judgment of FDR's performance connects to something else we now know. American cryptographers had broken the Japanese diplomatic"Purple" code. The president was aware that Tokyo had set November 29 as a deadline for a settlement. After that the Japanese negotiators were told that war would become inevitable.

In the White House, Roosevelt met with Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Harold Stark, Army chief of staff General George Marshall, Secretary of War Henry Stimson and Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox. The chief topic they discussed was how to make sure, in Stimson's words, Japan"fired the first shot."

On November 27, war warnings were sent to American commands throughout the Pacific, with a special emphasis on the Philippines. The Army message contained a sentence missing from the Navy warning: IF HOSTILITIES CANNOT, REPEAT, CANNOT BE AVOIDED, THE UNITED STATES DESIRES THAT JAPAN COMMIT THE FIRST OVERT ACT. Obviously, Roosevelt assumed the war would begin there.

Why did FDR think he would get hit but not hurt in this war? Because the president and many others in the U.S. Navy and Army were convinced the Japanese were inept pilots and mediocre sailors. This racist superiority complex gave Roosevelt and his aides an incredible sense of complacency. On Dec. 4, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox told a group of big businessmen that we would be at war with Japan in three or four days. But he said not to worry. It would not last more than six months.

This ignorance of Japan's fighting ability meant the president exposed thousands of American servicemen in the Pacific to a conflict they could not win. Along with the destruction of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet, the Philippines were invaded and swiftly conquered. The 20,000 soldiers stationed there were killed or captured. Similar fates befell smaller garrisons on other islands.

Toward the end of the losing fight in the Philippines, General William E. Brougher, commander of the 11th Division, angrily asked:"Who had the right to say that 20,000 Americans should be sentenced without their consent and for no fault of their own to an enterprise that would involve them in endless suffering, cruel handicaps, death or a hopeless future?"

After the war, Admiral James O. Richardson, who had warned Roosevelt not to keep the fleet at Pearl Harbor --and had been fired for his unwelcome advice -- said:"I believe the President's responsibility for our initial defeats in the Pacific was direct, real and personal."

A final irony: if Roosevelt had stalled the Japanese for another three months, almost certainly we would never have gone to war with Tokyo. During those ninety days, the Russians counterattacked and threw the German Army into stunned retreat before Moscow. Suddenly Germany no longer looked like the winner of a two front war. Japan would have been much more amenable to abandoning what one historian has called their"hollow alliance" with Hitler and ending their stalemated war with China.

Merlo Pusey, editorial writer for the Washington Post and later a distinguished biographer, had this to say about Franklin D. Roosevelt's performance in the months before Pearl Harbor."Inevitably, we had to get into it [the war]. I just wish we had done it honestly and openly in our constitutional way of doing things instead of...by the back door. I think Roosevelt had a moral responsibility for leadership. If he had been less of a politician and more of a statesman, he would have taken a stand instead of trying to do it covertly."

Why had Franklin Roosevelt found himself forced to resort to this immensely risky, morally dubious pattern of deceit? Why was he unable to tell the American people the truth about one of the most important political decisions in the history of the country -- for that matter one of the turning points in the history of the world?

It is time for Americans to find an answer to this question. It is a crucial first step to seeing Pearl Harbor and the rest of World War II as history rather than a vainglorious mixture of memory and myth. That in turn may enable us to look at other wars -- notably Vietnam -- with adult eyes.

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Robert L Bryant - 8/13/2010

Can you direct me to the source for this information? I have been unable to locate it. Who was the "naval aide?"

"Knox later told his naval aide, 'FDR was as white as a sheet. He expected to get hit but not hurt.'"


skipper steely - 7/14/2005

I am not so sure we were pledged to defend the Philippines. Check the War Plan Orange of 1938, which Adm. Richarsdson co-wrote, and all the Rainbow plans thereafter. You may find that there was no army plan to go out and "rescue" MacArthur, and very little plans on the part of the Navy. The U.S. just did not have that kind of manpower or equipment then.

Skipper Steely

Och's favorite student - 12/1/2003

Correct you are sir!

Och's Student - 12/1/2003

This sounds very similar to the conlict we are now facing with Bush in Iraq. Hopefully he will be more of a statesmen than Roosevelt.

Jerry Sitner - 2/8/2003

After Pearl Harbor, date Germany declared war on the United States and date the United States declared war on Germany?

Thank you,

Paige - 11/7/2002

I agree with everytyhing you are saying. I do believe that FDR could have avoided the entire situation at Pearl Harbor easily. He was even begged, confronted, and had discussions with several navy commanders that wanted to move the fleet from Pearl Harboy due to concerns about safety.

phill jones - 8/27/2002

david: though i dont believe there was any deceit involved i would be interested in reading or hearing what you have to say on the subject...thanks..

David Smallwood - 8/23/2002

My father was one of those deceived by FDR and the senior leadership of the United States Navy. He fought the Japanese in the Alutian Islands.

The 1177 men who are on the Arizona that currently resides at the bottom of Pearl Harbor were set up for the kill by their own Navy leaders.

I will never forget this and I will work the rest of my life to make sure America knows the truth of history. I am researching it now.

David Smallwood Jr.
Tokyo, Japan

Phill Jones - 8/16/2002

An interesting piece but full of holes..1. Roosevelt did not need a war with Japan so he could declare war with Germany 2. The Japanese had been planning the Pearl Harbor attack for years, if not in actual preparations, then as contingency plans. 3. Stalling in late November would have accomplished nothing; the Japanese war machine was sailing Eastward. 4. Germany was hardly the "dead duck" after its push back from Moscow (1942). That we would then probably not gone to war with Japan is pure nonsense, and reeks of revionist history; the one that blames a racist, imperialistic America for all the worlds problems. There are historians who now claim that ir we (the West) had just left Hitler alone that he would soon have died and a more affable cabal would have turned Germany around..Right!

HNN Staff - 6/15/2001


Bernard Weisberger - 6/15/2001

I am sorry to see my friend Tom Fleming betrayed by his Roosevelt-o-phobia into an inaccurate set of statements that detract from his record as an historian and writer. First of all, the quotation from Frank Knox’s diaries that FDR expected to be "hit but not hurt" prove merely that he was anticipating a war with Japan, as was nearly everyone with any sense in November of 1941. In no way does it furnish incontestable evidence of an invited attack.

Secondly, Fleming wonders why there was a seemingly abrupt cut-off of oil to Japan in August of 1941, and he even seems to suggest that somehow this justified the Imperial Government in feeling threatened. In fact, Japan was in firm control of China’s coast, had moved into Indochina after the fall of France, and was clearly poised to attack British and Dutch possessions in south-east Asia, easy targets with The Netherlands occupied and Britain still under aerial and sea siege. What was more, the USSR looked to be on the verge of being overwhelmed by the 3-month-old blitzkrieg, and the prospect of an Axis about to seize control of the combined resources of Asia and Europe was a real one. To continue fueling Japan’s war machine for another year in order to "stall off Japan" would have been a reckless and foolish course for any President. A restraining move had to be made—and if the U.S. forces in the Pacific weren’t ready to handle the results, some of the blame might be laid at the feet of a Congress that had starved the Army (but not the Navy) for years prior to the Roosevelt-initiated buildup of 1940.

True, Roosevelt was clandestinely waging a naval war with Germany in order to keep Britain’s lifelines open. But that is all the more reason why FDR might not have wanted to bring on a war with Japan. There was no guarantee that Hitler would honor his pact with Tokyo and if he had not, the chances of getting the U.S. Congress to declare war against him while we were actively fighting Japan would have been slim. Moreover, whatever polls showed, the isolationists of 1941 appealed to the concept of staying out of Europe’s, not Asia’s fights. A possible war with Japan (especially after the 1937 sinking of the U.S.S. Panay while on patrol in the Yangtze River) was a frequent topic of discussion and would not necessarily have been unpopular or considered a "foreign war" comparable to that between Britain and Germany.

And what government with a concern for public opinion wouldn’t find useful to have the enemy fire the first shot? Who would have anticipated a blow by stealth before a declaration of war? And on Hawaii, a U.S. Territory thousands of miles from Japan, and thousands of miles closer to the Philippines which we were pledged to defend—so much for Admiral Richardson’s idea of basing the Pacific fleet at San Diego? How could the State Department’s supposedly "intransigent" response to Japan’s November proposals be responsible for the Japanese attack when the Japanese strike force was already en route?

And finally, since a "war warning" based on our reading of the Japanese diplomatic code was in fact issued on November 27th, why weren’t defensive precautions immediately taken by the commanders on the ground at Pearl? The answer goes to the only accurate part of Fleming’s assessment, namely that everyone grossly underestimated Japan’s capabilities. If we forgive Admiral Kimmel and General Short for that, why condemn Roosevelt as his haters have been doing for sixty years?

Fleming’s piece has a new twist. It fits into the entire revisionist fantasy of right-wingers like Pat Buchanan that the United States really could have avoided war with the Axis powers and perhaps combined with them to eliminate the USSR. (And then what, one wonders?) The idea that Japan would suddenly have compromised its imperial aspirations in the Pacific if war had been delayed until Tokyo saw Hitler bogged down in Russia is completely conjectural. Fleming’s recent writings suggest a further drift towards the notion that evil politicians subverted the good advice of honorable military officers on both sides of World War II.

Let it go, Tom. Yes, it’s true that World War II wasn’t entirely "the Good War" that propaganda painted, or that unconditional surrender isn’t necessarily the best policy for a wartime government to follow. And you’re right that it’s time to deconstruct many of the myths that surround the conflict But the biggest and most mean-minded of them is that Franklin D. Roosevelt, in order to get us into a war with Hitler, created and welcomed an American military disaster in the Pacific.

Tristan Traviolia - 6/8/2001

It should not suprise any serious student of World War II that FDR "knew" the Japanese would attack the United States somewhere. In fact most educated men in the state department knew an attack was imminent after September 1941. The United States had frozen Japaneses assets in America, and cut off shipments of scrap metal and oil that Japan depended on. The Japanese either had to capitulate to American demands, evacuate French Indochina and end their war in China, or see its economy collapse without crucial shipments of resources from America. Did FDR think the Japanese would take the bold step of sending six aircraft carriers across the northern Pacific for a surpirse attack on Pearl Harbor? Of couse not. FDR was a student of history, but not of contemporary naval aviation. Even after Taranto this former Secretary of the Navy had no more insight into advanced naval tactics than many career officers in the United States Navy in 1941.

War with Japan did not mean war with Germany. Congress declared war on Japan and not Germany after Pearl Harbor. The author forgets to mention the Japanese ultimatum in September of 1941 where Japan demanded the United States resume exports, release Japanese assets in America, and quit interfering with Japan's occupation of French Indochina and war in China. The Japanese would not tolerate any interference whatsoever in East Asia. The occupation of French Indochina triggered Pearl Harbor. If the United States stood by idly while Japan occupied colonies of defeated European countries then what could the United States do if Japan, after occupying French Indochina, occupied the Dutch East Indies and made herself independent of United States oil exports? FDR took the proper steps that diplomacy dicatated, not what conspiracy theorists see as motivations. Did FDR want the United States to enter the war on the side of Great Britain against fascist dictatorships? Thank God he did. Very few American politicians in 1940-41 had the same foresight as FDR. Churchill and FDR recognized Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo for the naked aggessors they were. Neville Chamberlin and Joseph Kennedy characterized the pacifist/isolationist side of the coin that led to Poland.

The Japanese showed they were capable of the most extreme and prejudiced attacks to start a war in 1904. The Japanese are the true and just villains of Pearl Harbor. The focus on FDR is a case of misguided scholarship and conspiracy theory fixation.
Any student of Pearl Harbor should consult the wonderful narrative by Gordon Prange, "At Dawn We Slept" to get a true picture of the Japanese motivations for their attack. The Japanese were not puppets that FDR controlled with conspiratorial strings.