Pearl Harbor Historiography: A Lesson in Academic Housecleaning

Robert Stinnett closes his excellent summary article on Pearl Harbor historiography with these words: “Though the Freedom of Information Act freed the foreknowledge documents from the secretive vaults to the sunlight of the National Archives in 1995, a cottage industry continues to cover up America’s foreknowledge of Pearl Harbor.” Cottage industry, indeed! This cottage industry is the entire professional guild of salaried historians.

Pearl Harbor’s Establishment historiography remains as secure in its tenured cocoon as it was when I began college in 1959. American history textbooks are as free from the truth about Roosevelt’s deliberate provocation of Japan, and his advance knowledge of Pearl Harbor, as they were in 1943. Mr. Stinnett does not have a Ph.D., nor is he employed as a history instructor. He was therefore in a position to tell the truth. This was equally true of journalist George Morgenstern, whose 1947 book on Pearl Harbor was the first to put the story together in one detailed volume. The historical guild paid no attention to Morgenstern. We shall see if it pays attention to Stinnett. I strongly doubt that the reception will be either favorable or widespread.

A week ago, I sent a letter to a group of my subscribers. It provided background on the issues raised by Mr. Stinnett. I made this point, in the context of how intellectual guilds operate. They adopt a three-phase position on a controversial new idea.

The story isn’t true.The story is true, but so what?We always knew it was true.

I then illustrated this with the historiography of Pearl Harbor. Here is what I wrote.

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Consider the conservatives’ account of Roosevelt’s advance warning of the Japanese attack in late 1941. When George Morgenstern wrote Pearl Harbor: The Story of a Secret War, only right-wing Devin-Adair would publish it (1947). The book was ridiculed by academic historians as being a pack of unsubstantiated opinions written by a mere journalist — and a Chicago Tribune journalist at that. When the premier liberal historian, Charles A. Beard, said much the same thing the next year in President Roosevelt and the Coming of the War (Yale University Press), he was dismissed by his colleagues as senile, and he permanently lost his reputation. When the premier American diplomatic historian, Charles C. Tansill, said it again in 1952 in his Back Door to War (Regnery), he, too, was shoved down the liberals’ memory hole.

Today, the revisionist account of Pearl Harbor is more widely accepted, and is gaining ground fast. Another journalist, Robert B. Stinnett, recently found the “smoking gun” — an 8-page 1940 memo by a lieutenant commander in the navy on how to get Japan to attack us, a memo that Roosevelt adopted, point by point. His book is titled, Day of Deceit: The Truth About FDR and Pearl Harbor (Free Press, 1999). Stinnett served under a young George Bush during World War II. His book is the capstone to his career.

The liberals are now moving to stage 2: “The story is true, but so what?” Stinnett’s book argues that Roosevelt basically did the right thing in luring the Japanese to attack Pearl Harbor. This attack overcame America’s anti-interventionists, who had 88% of the people behind them in 1940. Pearl Harbor got us into the War in Europe.

It didn’t, of course. Hitler’s suicidal declaration of war on the United States on the following Thursday is what got us into the European war.

It will be a long time before liberal historians get to stage 3: “We always knew it was true.” They will not admit how they smeared the reputations of first-rate historians who told the truth early, and then for the next fifty years used their power over graduate schools and professional academic journals to screen out the truth. The issue was power, and liberals respect it and use it.

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What happened to Beard sent a warning to any aspiring young grad student who might have been tempted to follow in Beard’s revisionist path. Beard was at the end of a long and distinguished career. He was the only scholar ever to be elected as president of both the American Historical Association and the American Political Science Association. But his academic achievements gained him no mercy when he broke ranks on Pearl Harbor. James J. Martin, the premier revisionist historian after Harry Elmer Barnes died in 1968, in 1981 provided an account of what happened.

Beard not only infuriated the influential supporters of Roosevelt by his insistence that the continuous deception by the President in making his steady moves toward war while endlessly talking about his peacefulness (few were allowed to forget his pre-election promise in 1940 never to send Americans off to a war outside U.S. borders) was in essentials, as Leighton described it, “completely to undermine constitutional government and set the stage for a Caesar” (Beard’s famed peroration on pp. 582-584 of his Epilogue to President Roosevelt is required reading in this context.) He had opened up another sore while writing his book with a famed article in the Saturday Evening Post for October 4, 1947, “Who’s to Write the History of the War?,” in which he revealed that the Rockefeller Foundation, working with its alter ego, the Council on Foreign Relations, had provided $139,000 for the latter to spend in underwriting an official-line history of how the war had come about, in an effort to defeat at the start the same kind of “debunking” historical campaign which had immediately followed the end of World War I. Beard complained of inaccessibility of various documents, which he was sure would be fully available to anyone doing an Establishment version of the wartime past, convinced that these would be sat on as ‘classified’ for a generation or more. . . .

So it was understandable that the following February, two months before the publication of President Roosevelt, when the National Institute of Arts and Letters awarded Beard their gold medal for the best historical work published in the preceding decade, that his erstwhile liberal admirers would reach the end of their tolerance. The highlight of their protest was the resignation in rage from the Institute by one of its most influential members, Lewis Mumford, accompanied by abuse of Beard so extreme that it led to a memorable chiding to Mumford from Harry Elmer Barnes in a 11/2 column letter to the editors of the Chicago Tribune, published 11 February 1948. But the attack on Beard had barely begun.

With the publication of President Roosevelt two months later, in April, the denunciation of Beard became a veritable industry, and the most eminent of the Roosevelt academic defenders were recruited to contribute to the character assassination. Probably the most outrageous was that of Harvard’s Samuel Eliot Morison, Roosevelt’s handpicked choice to write a history of American naval operations in World War II, and even elevated to the rank of Admiral in recognition of his labors. But the outline of the total campaign aimed at Beard is substantial, extensively documented in the later editions of Barnes’s booklet The Struggle Against the Historical Blackout (especially 6th thru. 9th).

Beard died in 1949. His book on Roosevelt was allowed — a mild word, given the circumstances — to go out of print almost immediately, and it was never reprinted. Maybe the Web will resurrect it. I hope so.

The final product of the Council on Foreign Relations’ investment of $139,000 in 1946 — a lot of money in 1946 — was the standard Establishment history of the coming of the war, written by William L. Langer and S. Everett Gleason, The Challenge to Isolation: The World Crisis of 1937-1940 and American Foreign Policy (1952). It was still the standard account two decades later. Its perspective remains dominant on campus today. Langer was a professor of history at Harvard. So was Gleason — medieval history — until he moved to Washington after Pearl Harbor, to join the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor of the CIA. He later became the official historian of the State Department. Establishment enough for you? (The other standard book was Herbert Feis’s Road to Pearl Harbor (1950). He had served as the State Department’s Advisor for International Economic Affairs.) Yes, the victors always write the history books, but when the historians are actually policy-setting participants in the war, the words “court history” take on new meaning.

I read Admiral Kimmel’s Story (Regnery, 1955) in 1958. That same year, I read anti-Roosevelt journalist John T. Flynn’s The Roosevelt Myth (Devin-Adair, 1948). At age 16, I became a World War II revisionist.

In 1963, I had a conversation with Thomas Thalken, who later became the librarian of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library. We were then both employed by a short-lived think tank, the Center for American Studies. He was its librarian. I was a summer intern, fresh out of college. He had earned a master’s degree in history under Tansill a decade earlier. He told me that Tansill had advised him not to earn a Ph.D. in history. Tansill had said that anyone who taught the truth about America’s entry into World War II would see his career end before it even began. Thalken took his advice.

This is why there are no tenured World War II revisionists who write in this still-taboo and well-policed field. The guild screened them out, beginning in the early 1950’s. Beard and Tansill by 1960 were remembered only for their non-WWII revisionist writings. Barnes was forgotten. Martin — in my view, the most accomplished American revisionist historian — never became known on campus. Anthony Kubek spent his career on the academic fringes. What the guild did to Barnes, Beard, Tansill at the end of their careers, and to Martin at the beginning of his, posted a warning sign: Dead End.

I went on to earn a Ph.D. in American history, but I never did teach in my field. Neither did Bruce Bartlett, who wrote The Pearl Harbor Cover-Up (Arlington House, 1978). (Our paths crossed briefly in 1976: we were both on Congressman Ron Paul’s Washington staff.) Bartlett did not earn a Ph.D. Instead, as a supply-sider on Jack Kemp’s Congressional staff, he wrote his way into economic policy-making.

This is typical of the handful of WWII revisionists in the post-Tansill era. Most of them never made it onto a campus, and of the few who did, they did not teach WWII revisionism. The WWII revisionist books of 1947-55 were out of print by 1960. They remain out of print.

In 1966, an aged Barnes wrote a brief introduction to an article that appeared in a small-circulation journal published by libertarian pioneer Robert Lefevre, Rampart Journal. At the end of his introduction, Barnes wrote: “We should be able to look foreword to something more honest and dependable in the quarter of a century between now and the fiftieth anniversary of Pearl Harbor.” Nice dream; no fulfillment. World War II revisionism remains a fringe movement of non-certified, non-subsidized historians.


In 1958, the only book critical of Franklin Roosevelt’s domestic policies and his foreign policies was Flynn’s book. In 1958, it was out of print. In the Year of Our Lord, 2000, it remains the only book critical of Roosevelt’s domestic and foreign policies.

We haven’t come a long way, baby.

Things are beginning to change for the better. The Web has begun to chip away at every academic guild’s monopoly. What is taught in college classrooms no longer has the same authority that it possessed in 1960. But until the subsidizing of higher education by the state ends, and until the state-licensed accreditation oligopoly ends or is overcome by new, “price-competitive technologies,” it will remain an uphill battle for Pearl Harbor revisionists in academia.

December 12, 2000

Gary North is the author of a ten-volume series, An Economic Commentary on the Bible. The latest volume is Sacrifice and Dominion: An Economic Commentary on Acts. The series can be downloaded free of charge at