A Speech To Remember

On December 8, 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt spoke before a joint session of Congress. His opening words have become part of America’s political heritage: “Yesterday, December 7, 1941 — a date which will live in infamy — the United States was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the empire of Japan.”

Roosevelt added, “The facts of yesterday speak for themselves.” But facts never speak for themselves. They are assembled, sifted, discarded, and interpreted by those who come later.

As proof, let me offer this example. In replaying the recording of Roosevelt’s speech at Disney World’s “The American Adventure” presentation in the USA pavilion at Epcot, the rest of the sentence after “infamy” is cut off. We see ships burning in a harbor, but we are not told where or why. Odd, until you recall where people see this presentation. When you think ” history,” think “tourism.” The Empire of Japan is long gone. The yen isn’t.

On Sunday, December 5, I interviewed a veteran who had been at Pearl Harbor that day. He had been a Marine who was on land, assigned to defend the docks, close to Hickam Field. He told me that he fired a 50-caliber machine gun at overhead planes. The ammo building had been locked, and the officer with the key was missing, so a truck knocked in the door.

I asked him how old he had been at the time. “I had just turned 18.” He had joined the previous June, gone through boot camp, and had been scheduled to be shipped to China. He said the Marines had been stationed in Peking. I presume that this was guard duty for the Embassy. His unit had been reassigned to Pearl Harbor.

And so this young man was in the middle of the day of infamy.


The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was among the most stupid events of all time, although shortly eclipsed by the even more stupid decision by Adolf Hitler on December 11 to declare war on the United States, which the Axis’s Tripartite Defensive Pact did not require of him, since Japan had initiated the attack.

When we watch Tora, Tora, Tora, we learn of the careful attention to details in the planning phase. The Navy was forced into the attack by Tojo and the Army, but once assigned the task, the Navy did its job painstakingly. The planners did neglect one thing. They forgot what the objective was. This is a characteristic feature of all bureaucracies, but especially government bureaucracies, which possess a monopoly.

What was the objective of the attack? Obviously, to put the U.S. Pacific Fleet out of commission for a period of time. Admiral Yamamoto estimated this to be about 18 months. He estimated wrong. Within six months, the U.S. had sunk the four major aircraft carriers of Japan at the Battle of Midway (June 4—6), which was the decisive turning point of the Pacific war. The Japanese government never told the Japanese people about this naval defeat until after the war had ended.

What went wrong? Several things. First and foremost, the Japanese Navy was influenced by a military code of honor. Wars are supposed to be won by courage and dedication by warriors. A military tactical plan had to conform to this requirement — a decidedly pre-World War II outlook. Mass bombing of civilians pretty much ended that outlook. Japan’s rape of Nanking in 1937 was a prelude of things to come.

So, the Naval planners focused on military targets: ships and planes. They devoted attention to such matters as harbor depth, torpedo depth, bomb angles, and the shape of the targeted ships.

Nobody assessed the overall importance of what should have been obvious: the fact in 1941 that ships ran on oil. If the first wave of the attack had been aimed initially at the oil storage facilities, with attacks on the ships only after the oil storage facilities were smashed, the attack would have been far more successful militarily. But what glory is there in blowing up oil tanks?

After Roosevelt replaced Admiral Kimmel with Admiral Nimitz as Fleet Admiral, Nimitz admitted that “as bad as our losses at Pearl Harbor on 7 December, 1941 — they could have been devastatingly worse — had the Japanese returned for more strikes against our naval installations, surface oil storage, and our submarine base installations.” But Admiral Nagumo sailed away after two waves of attacking planes returned.

Anther fatal flaw in the plan was the absence of America’s aircraft carriers at Pearl on December 7. The battleship by 1941 was basically obsolete as a primary offensive naval weapon. Despite the fact that Japanese naval planners used the aircraft carrier as the primary weapon at both Pearl and Midway, the reality of the strategic transformation was not yet clear to the senior planners in December. After Midway, everyone knew.

The aircraft carrier was superior. Billy Mitchell sacrificed his career in the Army’s Air Service by a series of highly critical attacks on military leaders in the mid-1920s. They were ignoring air power’s potential, he said. He was court-martialed for insubordination in December, 1925. It was therefore no accident that the B-25 airplane, 16 of which were launched from the USS Hornet in April, 1942, against Tokyo, was called “the Mitchell.” It was also fitting that Admiral Spruance, who designed the Midway campaign, did so from his ship, the Hornet, in June.

The planners surely did not understand the implications of the IBM computer in the underground facility at Pearl Harbor, where Joe Rochefort and his decryption staff would break enough of Japan’s JN-25 naval code to identify the timing and the location of the attack on Midway six months later. They also did not foresee Admiral Spruance’s defensive strategy: to hide the three carriers on the eastern side of the island, and wait.

But the most fatal flaw of all was the planners’ inability to foresee the immense productivity of the American industrial system. They did not foresee the revolution in mass production that American capitalism would soon produce. New management techniques, new techniques for reporting and assessing information, and the power of machines to enable civilian women to match the output of men: none of this was foreseen by Japan on December 7 and Hitler on December 11.


The Japanese imported their oil. Japan’s military leaders ran the country. They were convinced that it would take military force to ensure the supply of raw materials, especially oil, for Japan. And so, year by year in the 1930s, Japan extended its rule by violence. Japan attempted to create its “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere” by force of arms.

This created military resistance from China, which was ineffectual but constant, and diplomatic resistance by Western powers, who saw their own trade arrangements threatened.

In October, 1940, Lieutenant Commander Arthur McCollum, an Annapolis graduate who was fluent in Japanese, wrote a 5-page memorandum. He was with the Office of Naval Intelligence. He outlined an 8-point strategy on how to get Japan to attack the United States, thereby enabling the United States to defeat Japan. He believed this conflict was inevitable. The final two points were these: (1) persuade the Dutch to block increases in shipments of resources, especially oil, to Japan from the Dutch East Indies; (2) put a U.S. embargo on Japan. His memo was sent to a pair of Roosevelt’s naval advisors on October 7. One of them was the Director of the Office of Naval Intelligence.

Over the next year, seven of the eight points were followed by the President. The sixth was already in place: keeping the Pacific Fleet in Hawaii, which the Fleet’s commander, Admiral Richardson, strongly opposed. The day after McCollum wrote his memo, Roosevelt informed Richardson that the fleet would remain at Pearl. Richardson vocally opposed the plan one more time. He was replaced by Kimmel the following February, which is covered briefly in Tora, Tora, Tora. The scene in the airplane is the key scene for the entire movie, where Richardson tells Kimmel that Pearl is not easy to defend.

You can read more about McCollum and FDR’s policies here: Chapter 2 of Robert Stinnett’s 1999 book, Day of Deceit. Or you can read Stinnett’s own summary of his findings here. There is additional information here.

McCollum understood the Japanese mindset. He had grown up as the son of a missionary to Japan. He understood that the preference for empire rather than voluntary trade was basic to the mindset of the nation’s leaders. Their faith was in power, not voluntarism. Today, the suggestion that Japan would be wise to go to war in order to gain access to imported oil would be seen as ludicrous. Only an empire would do this.

The problem with empires is that there is always some version of McCollum out there, someone capable of manipulating the foreign empire’s leaders, luring them into offensive military adventures that can only weaken the empire in the long run.


Pearl Harbor was a shattering event. Only one person in Congress voted against declaring war on Japan, Jeanette Rankin of Montana, who had also voted against the declaration of war in World War I. She had been the first woman to be elected to Congress.

Today, Congress is not asked by Presidents to declare war, although a Congressional declaration is required by the Constitution. So, what we have are not wars, but police actions or other activities.

Note: Jane Fonda was never a traitor, because Congress never declared war against North Vietnam. This is also technically why our POWs in Korea and Vietnam did not gain protection under the Geneva Convention.

Congressman Ron Paul, who employed me in 1976 as his research assistant, has identified our military problem today: the abdication by Congress of its Constitutional responsibilities.

The last time Congress declared war was on December 11, 1941, against Germany in response to its formal declaration of war against the United States. This was accomplished with wording that took less than one-third of a page, without any nitpicking arguments over precise language, yet it was a clear declaration of who the enemy was and what had to be done. And in three-and-a-half years, this was accomplished. A similar resolve came from the declaration of war against Japan three days earlier. Likewise, a clear-cut victory was achieved against Japan.

Many Americans have been forced into war since that time on numerous occasions, with no congressional declaration of war and with essentially no victories. Today’s world political condition is as chaotic as ever. We’re still in Korea and we’re still fighting the Persian Gulf War that started in 1990.

The process by which we’ve entered wars over the past 57 years, and the inconclusive results of each war since that time, are obviously related to Congress’ abdication of its responsibility regarding war, given to it by Article I Section 8 of the Constitution.

Congress has either ignored its responsibility entirely over these years, or transferred the war power to the executive branch by a near majority vote of its Members, without consideration of it by the states as an amendment required by the Constitution. . . .

Transferring authority to wage war, calling it permission to use force to fight for peace in order to satisfy the UN Charter, which replaces the Article I, Section 8 war power provision, is about as close to 1984 “newspeak” that we will ever get in the real world.

Not only is it sad that we have gone so far astray from our Constitution, but it’s also dangerous for world peace and threatens our liberties here at home.


Empires are easily manipulated by enemies. Japan learned that lesson, 1941—45.

Empires substitute war for peace in gaining their objectives. Days of infamy are then guaranteed.

Then, one by one, each day of infamy is forgotten. But the federal debts that are issued to retaliate against each one roll on forever.

December 8, 2004

Gary North [send him mail] is the author of Mises on Money. Visit http://www.freebooks.com.

Copyright © 2004 LewRockwell.com