Backdoor to War and Infamy

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Did FDR bear
any responsibility for the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor? Historiographical
verdicts range all the way from proclaiming his complete innocence,
to concluding that he was guilty of negligence, to charging him
with deliberate treason. Those who would completely exonerate FDR
claim that he never expected an attack on Hawaii, but only one on
the Philippines. [1]
But these same historians then never explain why FDR and Congress
punished Admiral Kimmel and General Short in 1942 for failing to
expect an attack on Hawaii. [2] Moreover, they do not explain
why the Congress and the Presidents continually refused to exonerate
Kimmel and Short, until the 1990s.

But the U.S.
government finally did exonerate Kimmel and Short mainly because
few historians could proclaim FDR's complete innocence after the
1946 Congressional investigation. [4] Ever since the revelations produced there, the historiographical
consensus has been forced by that evidence to concede that FDR was
indeed guilty, of gross negligence that is, for his failing to provide
Kimmel and Short with the vital intelligence they needed to defend
Hawaii. That vital intelligence is known as the u201CMagicu201D and u201CBomb
Plotsu201D decrypts. These intercepted Japanese messages pinpointed
the Philippines and Hawaii as the most likely targets for attack
by the Japanese navy and its air forces. [5]

The U.S. decoded
this series of messages in October, November, and December 1941,
but FDR chose not to warn Pearl Harbor about them and the fact that
it was being targeted for attack by Japanese naval air forces. Instead,
FDR informed Pearl Harbor that it was not in such danger, whereupon
he ordered Pearl Harbor to disperse its defenses across the Pacific
in readiness for a Japanese attack on the Philippines.
The Philippine commander, MacArthur, had been given access
to the secret u201CMagicu201D and u201CBomb Plotsu201D intelligence, while Kimmel
and Short had been denied it.

In so doing,
FDR blinded and weakened Pearl Harbor, laying it open to attack.
So the historiographical debate has therefore centered on the question
of FDR's motivation, namely, why did he deny Kimmel and Short the
vital intelligence that they were being targeted for attack, and
so weaken Pearl Harbor's defenses? The historiographical consensus,
led by the pre-eminent authority on Pearl Harbor, Gordon Prange,
argues that FDR was guilty of gross negligence in making such a
monumental blunder. But as for any comprehensible reason for the
negligence, the consensus is seemingly unable to offer one. The
gist of this explanation, apparently, is that FDR simply did not
know what he was doing. [8]

That is how
the consensus disputes the charges of the revisionists who argue
that FDR actually did know what he was doing when he deliberately
laid Pearl Harbor open to a Japanese attack because he wanted to
plunge the U.S. into war. [9] Prange and the consensus have
successfully rebutted these revisionist charges, however, by correctly
arguing that FDR did not want a war with Japan, but rather, that
he wanted a war with Germany. The consensus supports this by further
arguing that FDR believed any war with Japan would necessarily detract
from a U.S. war against Germany, the one war he really did want.
Therefore, Prange and the consensus have relied upon the argument
that FDR's undisputed motives clearly indicate he would never have
deliberately plunged the U.S. into war with Japan. This then enables
them to conclude that FDR would never have deliberately laid Pearl
Harbor open to attack in order to facilitate a Japanese raid there. [10] The gravity of this consensus rebuttal seems to suggest that
if FDR had indeed deliberately done so, it would make him one of
the greatest traitors of all time.

So, it is the
consensus reliance upon FDR's undisputed and contrasting motives
regarding Japan and Germany that allows the consensus to charge
FDR with no more than negligence. And the consensus is indeed correct,
about part of FDR's motive, that is. They are correct that FDR wanted
a war with Germany and not Japan. However, the consensus is wrong
when they further argue that FDR was also mainly motivated by the
calculation that any U.S. war with Japan would necessarily detract
from one with Germany.

The traditional
consensus historiography is wrong about that in regard to the Pearl
Harbor controversy, just as they are also wrong about the much larger
issue, namely, the actual but long forgotten reason why the U.S.
decided to go to war with Germany in December 1941. This real reason
is recalled for the first time since World War II in a new book
from Lynne Rienner Publishers entitled Hitler Attacks Pearl Harbor:
Why the U.S. Declared War on Germany, written by Richard F.
Hill. The long forgotten real U.S. motivation is summed up in the
title of Hill's book, it being that the U.S. blamed Germany for
the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, because the U.S. and FDR charged
that Germany was the imperial overlord of Japan and thus its co-conspirator.

So what does
this larger U.S. motivation tell us about FDR's more focused motivation
towards Pearl Harbor itself? To answer that, one needs only to recount
the history as told by the historiographical consensus. They correctly
recall that as the U.S. naval war with Germany ground on in late
1941, FDR was finding it impossible to convert that into an all-out
war in Europe. [11] But as FDR and his more belligerent
and prominent cabinet members became increasingly frustrated about
this, they began to record in their diaries suggestions about how
the U.S. might be jolted into total war with Germany.

Secretary Ickes
confided to his diary in October 1941, u201CFor a long time I have believed
that our best entrance into the war would be by way of Japan…. And,
of course, if we go to war against Japan, it will inevitably lead
us to war against Germany.u201D That was why Secretary Stimson thereafter
confided to his diary that, regarding U.S. policy and strategy,
u201CThe question was how we should maneuver them [Japan] into the position
of firing the first shotu201D on the U.S. [12] These were the ideas of officials
who, like FDR, were far more concerned about Germany than Japan.
And then, on December 7, Stimson requested that FDR immediately
exploit the Pearl Harbor attack by tying Germany to Japan, and declaring
war on both. [13] This was exactly the course FDR followed
in the days and weeks thereafter.

when the historiographical consensus argues that FDR had no motivation
to provoke war with Japan because it would detract from a war against
Germany, the consensus has FDR's actual motivations and calculations
completely backward. His real motivations and calculations can be
seen in the only public justification he ever proclaimed for entering
into a total war with Germany, namely, its guilt of association
with Japan regarding Pearl Harbor. Or in other words, blaming Germany
for Pearl Harbor was the only way FDR ever did, or could, convince
a majority of Americans to go to war against Germany.

Does this mean
that FDR deliberately denied Pearl Harbor the knowledge of the Magic
and Bomb Plots intelligence intercepts in order to facilitate a
Japanese attack there? The historiographical consensus has answered
no, relying mainly upon FDR's motivation. But they can no longer
rely on this motivation argument in the wake of Hill's book. Historians
can no longer claim that FDR's overriding motivation and calculation
was that a U.S. war with Japan would detract from a U.S. war with
Germany. It is, in fact, the opposite that was true. The actual
overriding fact was that a war with Japan was the only way FDR ever
did or could secure his war with Germany. But because that simple
fact has been forgotten, historians are similarly ignorant about
why FDR might have wanted to facilitate a Japanese attack on Pearl

Part 2

The traditional
consensus historiography has also marshaled other seemingly common
sense arguments regarding FDR's presumed motivations to counter
revisionist charges that he would have deliberately sacrificed Pearl
Harbor to the massacre and devastation it suffered. The consensus
argues that FDR did not need to have Hawaii attacked in order to
plunge the U.S. into war with Japan, because he could have simply
waited for the inevitable attack on the Philippines to achieve the
same result.

The consensus
has a good point that, consequent to a Japanese attack on the U.S.
territory of the Philippines, the probability was quite high that
the U.S. Congress would vote for war against Japan. That vote, however,
would probably not have been as lopsided as was the vote after the
attack on the strategically more important Hawaii. The history of
close votes on the war had hampered FDR's policies, and that consideration
may have given him pause.

But this consensus
point about the consequences of a Japanese attack limited to the
Philippines misses the larger point. And that point was that war
with Japan was not the ultimate objective of FDR's policy, but rather,
war with Germany was. So the question was, would that ultimate objective
have been served by a Japanese attack that was limited to the Philippines?

This question
might be answered by recalling a crucial distinction that American
public opinion made between the Philippines and Pearl Harbor. This
crucial distinction was that, while contemporary Americans understood
the distant Philippines to be weakly defended, they understood Hawaii
to be strongly defended. The U.S. had only begun to arm the Philippines
in October 1941, while Pearl Harbor was long considered to be the
impregnable u201CGibraltar of the Pacificu201D — the home of the U.S. Pacific
Fleet. [14]

After December
7, stunned Americans became persuaded that Germany had to be ultimately
responsible for the amazing and utter defeat of the u201Cimpregnableu201D
Pearl Harbor, simply because the u201Clowlyu201D Japanese were considered
incapable of such a powerful feat without the help and guidance
of a real Great Power. Consensus historians have explained that,
during this historical period, Americans overwhelmingly viewed Japan
as militarily incompetent, racially inferior, and thus incapable
of any great victory over the U.S. military. This persistent American
perception contributed greatly to the post-Pearl Harbor belief that
Germany must have been responsible for an Axis victory of such magnitude. [15]

If, on the
other hand, the Japanese had attacked only the weakly defended Philippines,
Americans would have been far less likely to blame the Germans,
simply because the Philippines were considered to be a pushover,
compared to the incomparable Pearl Harbor. This is much like how,
during and after World War II, Pearl Harbor took precedence over
the Philippines in the American public consciousness and memory.
This crucial distinction needs to be understood in conjunction with
that other crucial distinction, namely, that U.S. policy and strategy
before and during World War II was always focused on Germany, in
that it always took precedence over Japan.
FDR would have seemingly understood all these crucial
distinctions and their implications if he contemplated a Japanese
attack limited just to the Philippines.

But the consensus
then offers yet another reason why there was no need for FDR to
have blinded and stripped Pearl Harbor's defenses in order to plunge
the U.S. into war with Japan. The consensus argues that FDR could
have gotten his Japanese war all the same even if Kimmel and Short
had been given the Bomb Plots intelligence and Pearl had been alert
and bristling with defenses. The consensus argues that a successful
repulse of the Japanese by alerted and strong Pearl defenders would
have similarly aroused the U.S. to war with Japan, an outcome that
would have been no different from the actual history of December
7 and after.

What the consensus
argues may indeed be true, but it assumes at least one thing that
had can hardly be reconciled with military common sense. It assumes
that if Pearl had indeed been on full alert and bristling with defenses,
that the Japanese would not have cancelled or aborted any plan to
attack it. The Bomb Plots messages had told the Japanese that Pearl
was not alert or ready for any attacker. It was this vital intelligence
that provided the Japanese with a quite reasonable expectation of
victory, as opposed to suicide, regarding a potential attack on
Pearl Harbor. [17] FDR also knew the contents of the Bomb Plots messages and
what they implied to any potential attacker.

Their obvious
inference was that if the Japanese did not believe it was possible
to achieve surprise and victory at Pearl Harbor, they might well
cancel any plan to commit suicide by sacrificing their Pacific fleet
there. The obvious inference was that, lacking any great opportunity
at Hawaii, the Japanese could simply entrench themselves in the
Philippines awaiting the arrival of the U.S. Navy. Such a Japanese-occupied
Philippines could have been alert and bristling with defenses making
it a formidable trap for any potential attacker, similar to how
Pearl Harbor might have been, as envisioned by the consensus. [18] The obvious inference is that,
if FDR did want the Japanese to attack Pearl Harbor, then he would
hardly have taken the risk of scaring them away by turning Pearl
Harbor into an alerted, strengthened, and thus formidable trap for
any Japanese attacker. [19]

If, on the
other hand, Japan were nevertheless to have risked an attack on
an alert and strong Pearl Harbor, which was then successfully repulsed,
the actual history indicates that Americans would have been far
less likely to have needed to blame Germany. Just as Prange himself
notes, Americans needed to blame Germany for Pearl Harbor in order
to rationalize the unbelievable U.S. defeat there by the presumably
militarily and racially inferior Japanese. [20] It is hard to believe that
FDR did not understand American racial prejudices as he suppressed
the Bomb Plots intelligence in the months before Pearl Harbor.

The consensus
assumptions about a fully alerted and strengthened Pearl Harbor
betray an even further ignorance of the actual situation at the
time. The consensus seems to assume that a fully alerted and strengthened
Pearl Harbor would have simply sat behind its island defenses, securely
awaiting the first Zeros to appear on Hawaiian radar screens. But
nothing could have been further from the truth. FDR knew that if
Pearl believed it was being targeted for attack, it would never
simply sit on the island waiting for the attack. On the contrary,
the standard U.S. policy was to send out massive long-range reconnaissance
and then to ambush and attack any potential invaders very far away
from Hawaii.

FDR knew that
his military commanders would never sit still for a passive defense
if they believed they were in imminent and immediate danger. The
actual policy and strategy was to ambush and attack any Japanese
task force detected anywhere within a radius of about 750 miles
of Hawaii, Wake, Midway, Johnston, Palmyra, or any other U.S. military
base in that general area of the Pacific.
This was the policy long before FDR alerted the Philippines
and Guam that they had been targeted for imminent attack by Japan. [22] If and when those U.S. territories
were in imminent danger from Japanese task forces in the vicinity,
then the likelihood was the same for any other U.S. Pacific base.
That was why Pearl Harbor had been drilled in the tactics of assaulting
and repelling a potential Japanese invasion.

While that
was the strategic imperative, there was yet another and competing
imperative of which FDR would have seemingly also been aware, namely,
domestic politics. It is hard to believe that FDR would have not
speculated on what the Congressional isolationist reaction would
be if the U.S. Navy ambushed and attacked the Japanese Navy 750
miles from Hawaii in international waters. Perhaps FDR remembered
that Congressional isolationists had repeatedly accused him of aggression
in the naval battles between the U.S. Navy and Germany in the Atlantic.
A Congressional majority coalition of isolationists and moderates
had thus far prevented any possibility of an all out war with Germany
because of the lack of any clear-cut or unilateral aggression on
the part of the German Navy against the U.S. Navy. [24] Congress was even less likely to launch an all out war against
Japan in the similar absence of any clear-cut or unilateral aggression
against the U.S., because Japan was seen as a threat far inferior
compared to Germany, as consensus historians have noted. [25]

Even the dullest
U.S. politician understood in late 1941 that the U.S. would not
embark on any total war in the absence of clear-cut or unilateral
aggression by an enemy. FDR certainly understood this when he emphasized
on December 8 that Japan's aggression against the U.S. on the previous
day had been completely u201Cunprovoked.u201D FDR knew then, and certainly
for some time beforehand as well, that there must be no congressional
questions as to who was the clear-cut or absolute aggressor if the
vast majority of Americans and their congressmen would be persuaded
to launch a total war.

And the necessity
of launching such a total war against Germany, at least, was indeed
FDR's premier goal, as the consensus historiography has repeatedly
asserted. But the consensus has curiously ignored the devilish details,
namely, that the only way FDR ever achieved such a u201Cnobleu201D end was
by denying the Bomb Plots intelligence to Kimmel and Short. The
only way FDR ever got his total war on Japan, and more importantly
on Germany, was via the sacrifice of thousands of U.S. servicemen
at Pearl Harbor.

Does this knowledge
of the real history surrounding Pearl Harbor mean that FDR was a
patriot for maneuvering the U.S. into the u201Cgood war,u201D or does it
mean that FDR was a traitor for aiding and abetting a devastating
enemy attack on a U.S. military base? One possible answer to that
may depend on just how much credence one puts into the notion that
U.S. participation in World War II was indeed necessary, beneficial,
and thus u201Cgood.u201D Another possible answer would involve a determination
of whether the end justifies the means.


[1] Thomas Bailey and David Kennedy, The
American Pageant
, 10th edition (Lexington:
DC Heath and Co., 1994) p. 843.

[2] Gordon Prange, At
Dawn We Slept: the Untold Story of Pearl Harbor
(New York:
McGraw-Hill, 1981), pp.594–600, 606.

[3] Los Angeles Times, October 13, 2000, p.

[4] Hearings Before the Joint Committee on the
Investigation of the Pearl Harbor Attack, Congress of the United
States. Seventy-ninth Congress, Government Printing Office,
Washington, D.C., 1946.

[5] Gordon W. Prange, with Donald M. Goldstein, Katherine
V. Dillon, Pearl
Harbor: The Verdict of History
, (New York: McGraw-Hill
Book Co., 1986) pp. 34–104. Prange, At Dawn We Slept, pp.

[6] Prange, At Dawn We Slept, pp. 289, 290,
456, 460, 461, 627. Husband E. Kimmel, Admiral
Kimmel's Story
, (Chicago: Henry Regnery Co., 1955).

[7] Prange, At Dawn We Slept, pp. 86–88, 252,
370, 705–707, 710.

[8] Prange, Pearl Harbor: The Verdict of History,
pp. 34–104,

[9] Harry Elmer Barnes, ed., Perpetual
War for Perpetual Peace
, (Caldwell, Ida. Caxton Printers
Ltd., 1953). Charles A. Beard, President
Roosevelt and the Coming of the War, 1941
, (New Haven:
Yale University Press, 1948). Charles C. Tansill, Back
Door to War
, (Chicago: Henry Regnery Co., 1952).

[10] Prange, Pearl Harbor: The Verdict of History,
pp. 69, 72. Robert Dallek, Franklin D. Roosevelt and American
Foreign Policy, 1932–1945, 1979. Thomas Bailey and Paul Ryan,
Hitler vs. Roosevelt: The Undeclared Naval War (New York:
Free Press, 1979).

[11] Bailey and Ryan, Hitler vs. Roosevelt.

[12] Harold Ickes, The Secret Diary of Harold
Ickes, vol. 3: The Lowering Clouds, 1939–1941 (New York: Simon
and Schuster, 1954) October 18, 1941, p. 630. Prange, At
Dawn We Slept
, p. 371, from the Stimson Diary of
November 25, 1941. See also The
Diaries of Henry L. Stimson
(Washington, D.C.: Library
of Congress, Manuscript Reading Room).

[13] Robert Sherwood, Roosevelt
and Hopkins: An Intimate History
(New York: Harper and
Bros., 1948), p. 441. Prange, At Dawn We Slept, pp. 557–8.
Henry L. Stimson and McGeorge Bundy, On
Active Service in Peace and War
(New York: Harper and
Bros., 1947), pp. 364–400.

[14] Prange, At Dawn We Slept, pp. 122, 239–240.
Bailey and Ryan, Hitler vs. Roosevelt, p. 234.

[15] John Dower, War Without Mercy: Race and Power
in the Pacific War (New York: Pantheon, 1986), p. 71. Prange,
At Dawn We Slept, p. 583.

[16] Prange, At Dawn We Slept, p. 123. Dower,
War Without Mercy.

[17] Prange, At Dawn We Slept, p. 443, 472,

[18] Prange, At Dawn We Slept, p. 424. Bailey
and Kennedy, The American Pageant, p. 859.

[19] Harry Elmer Barnes, Pearl
Harbor After a Quarter of a Century
(New York: Arno Press
and the New York Times, 1972).

[20] Prange, At Dawn We Slept, p. 583.

[21] Prange, At Dawn We Slept, pp. 122–6,
253, 407–8.

[22] Prange, At Dawn We Slept, p.370, 406,

[23] Prange, At Dawn We Slept, pp. 41–7, 57–66,
124–5, 178, 189, 470.

[24] Wayne Cole, Roosevelt
and the Isolationists, 1932–45
(Lincoln: University of
Nebraska Press, 1983), Bailey and Ryan, Hitler vs. Roosevelt.

[25] William Langer and S. Everett Gleason, The
Challenge to Isolation: The World Crisis of 1937–1940 and American
Foreign Policy
(New York: Harper, 1952); and The Undeclared
War, 1940–1941 (New York: Published for the Council on Foreign
Relations by Harper, 1953).

16, 2006

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