Backdoor to War and Infamy

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. [3]

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. [6] The Philippine commander, MacArthur, had been given access to the secret u201CMagicu201D and u201CBomb Plotsu201D intelligence, while Kimmel and Short had been denied it. [7]

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.

Therefore, 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 Harbor.

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. [16] 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. [21] 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. [23]

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. 17.

[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. 248–257.

[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, 484.

[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, 420.

[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).

May 16, 2006