The successful Japanese Navy attack on Pearl Harbor and the air bases on Oahu did more than gut America’s military might in the Pacific. Historian Forrest Pogue, in his book At Dawn We Slept, wrote, “The American people reeled with a mind-staggering mixture of surprise, awe, mystification, grief, humiliation, and, above all, cataclysmic fury.” The enormity of the Japanese success also caused many Americans to question how their own leaders could have been caught so short. Many people came to the conclusion that somehow, somewhere there must have been a villain within – an individual or a group who had either failed or who had deliberately aided and abetted in the attack. An inquiry conducted by Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox was authorized on the afternoon of December 7. A second and more formal Roberts Commission commenced ten days later. Ultimately ten official inquiries were conducted, the last occurring on April 1995 – fifty-four years after the event! Instead of settling matters, each inquiry’s findings only aroused new suspicions about a massive government cover-up.
“How did they catch us with our pants down, Mr. President?”
– Sen.Tom Connally (D-Texas)
And there was no more fertile ground for conspiracy theorists than the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. Given the humiliating enormity of the Japanese victory at Pearl Harbor, it became easy for administration foes of all stripes to believe that the sacrifice of more than 3,000 lives was the culmination of an elaborate and callous effort by President Franklin Roosevelt to bring America into the war on the side of Great Britain.
Secretary Knox’s inquiry and the controversial Roberts Commission set the tone. Both blamed Adm. Husband E. Kimmel and Lt. Gen. Walter Short, the respective U.S. Navy and Army commanders in Hawaii, for, in Secretary Knox’s words, “dereliction of duty prior to the attack” – a devastating accusation. But the list of missteps, miscues, acts of incompetence, inefficiency, ignorance, obstruction, communications failures, and inter-service rivalry was simply too long and widespread to make those two the sole culprits, especially when one added to the list President Roosevelt’s well-known Machiavellian administrative habits. To many – among them senior admirals including William Halsey – Kimmel and Short were scapegoats. To them, real responsibility resided with President Roosevelt. As John Toland, in his book Infamy: Pearl Harbor and Its Aftermath, wrote, “The comedy of errors on the sixth and seventh appears incredible. It only makes sense if it was a charade, and Roosevelt and the inner circle had known about the attack.”
There is a wealth of damning, if circumstantial, evidence. But the culpability claims, particularly of the sort made by Toland, have all been made after the fact. A review of all the conspiracy theorist charges either ignore or downplay one overriding truth: when the bombs and torpedoes started dropping, we were a nation at peace and mentally unprepared for war.
Coupled with that was the belief that Pearl Harbor was too strong and too remote to be attacked. In truth, the Imperial Japanese Navy had a wealth of targets closer to home available to them: the Philippines, Hong Kong, Singapore, the Dutch East Indies, Wake Island, even Alaska. Of all the likely targets, Pearl Harbor was regarded as the lowest on the threat board. And, it’s overlooked that war warnings had periodically been issued to Pearl Harbor and that repeated air patrols searching for the enemy had been made, all of which turned up nothing; thus contributing to a “false alarm” complacency.
Perhaps the best comparison to the perniciousness of such a disbelief – an “it can’t happen here” attitude – is 9/11. Post-mortem, there was a wealth of information, starting with the truck bomb attack on the World Trade Center in 1993. This and other subsequent incidents, attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and the attack on the USS Cole, as well as growing dossiers on al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations, should – in retrospect – have put United States officials on a heightened threat alert status. But, prior to 9/11, there was a universal belief that “terrorist attacks don’t happen here” so strong that not even that 1993 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center or the 1995 Timothy McVeigh Oklahoma City bombing could shake it.
Then 9/11 happened. And the post-attack review of information revealed what amounted to a straight line of incidents and events leading up to the attack.
At this stage, with all the principals long since dead, any attempt to solve the mystery of American military and government culpability for the Pearl Harbor attack, if indeed a mystery exists, is a matter for historians who may one day find in some musty corner a box containing such information. But, because Franklin Roosevelt refused to allow notes to be taken at meetings, the likelihood of anyone finding a “smoking gun” document from him on the matter is essentially nil.