“Yesterday, December 7, 1941 — a date which will live in infamy — the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by the naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan. The United States was at peace with that nation and … looking toward the maintenance of peace in the Pacific.… Japan has … undertaken a surprise offensive extending across the Pacific area.… I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December 7th, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese Empire.”
Such were the words of US president Franklin Delano Roosevelt on December 8, 1941, the day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. As dates go in US history, December 7 certainly ranks among the most broadly remembered; a most infamous day, indeed, of a much more infamous war. And perhaps no more definitive event is offered when considering the history of American involvement in any war in the 20th century, considered to be one of the most clear cut examples of unprovoked aggression and resulting defensive actions. Indeed, even the America First Committee, the longstanding bastion of non-interventionism in America, just four days afterward on December 11, voted to disband their organization once war, in their mind, had entered the realm of necessity.
But in the spirit of testing and questioning all things, we should consider the accuracy of FDR’s words. Is it true that there existed a peaceful relationship between the United States and Japan? That they sought peace in the Pacific? That the attack on the Hawaiian islands was truly unprovoked? And that it was one of a surprise nature with no warning or build up? Was Congress and the American people told the truth about Pearl Harbor? Or is there more to the story than meets the eye?
It Was Most Certainly NOT Unprovoked
One of the aspects of the Pearl Harbor attack that is most powerful in the minds of the American citizen is that of its allegedly unprovoked nature. The impression held by most is one akin to someone simply walking up to a friend and punching them in the nose with no warning. However, if you were to see such a thing in the real world the most reasonable assumption would naturally be that there must be some justification, in the eyes of the assaulter at the very least. So to the principled American mind, the question ought to be posed: was there actually some provocation in this case, some reasoning for Japanese aggression?
As it turns out, there is. Germany and Japan had been allied as part of the Tripartite Pact more than a year earlier, in September of 1940. For the sake of argument, if we extend our record of American relations with Japan to the overarching German-Japanese alliance, we will already find much evidence pointing to anything but a lack of provocation. Beginning from 1941 onward, the US participated in the Lend-Lease program, a policy of providing war materiel, free of charge to Britain in exchange for land leases, and eventually the Soviet Union, China, and others. Not only was the budget for the program hidden and obscured within the overall military budget during the war but it placed American ships and personnel at risk. Most of all, this action alone represented a break from any pretense of non-intervention in World War II proper.
But Lend-Lease was just the beginning. Roosevelt went on to make it explicitly clear that American ships and military convoys were supplying the British and even went so far as to instruct American ships to report German submarine positions to the British. Even after the famous destruction of the USS Greer while performing said assistance, Congress still did not declare war on Germany or, by extension, Japan, nor did Germany do likewise. It would be reasonable to see these actions as provocative not only to Germany but to its allies but it could be argued that these activities did not occur with or directly involve the Japanese directly and may not constitute as powerful a case.
We also history of US intervention and provocation of a more direct nature with Japan herself. Beginning in the early ’30s, the Japanese had been busy waging a series of invasions and ongoing conflict on the eastern Asian mainland, beginning in Manchuria and eventually extending into China proper. The second Sino-Japanese war is noted for its brutality and length but for much of that time the US did not intervene. But beginning in 1940, the US posture changed, with Roosevelt approving funding of Chinese war materiel and the application of sanctions and other restrictions against Japan on trade like iron and scrap steel. The following summer of 1941 oil shipments were restricted and soon after Japanese assets were frozen. These actions were accompanied by an increase in Chinese military assistance. For the libertarian, not only were each of these actions tantamount to threats of aggression, with Japan being rather natural resource poor and requiring heavy imports, but they also restricted the rights of free trade of US citizens and directly betrayed the non-belligerence that the vast majority of American citizens supported.
These myriad actions certainly show that there was no obvious policy of peace pursued in the Pacific. For those citizens not aware of the tension that existed between the two states, Pearl Harbor probably did seem like wanton aggression out of the blue. But, as is so often the case, one person’s surprise is, to the informed, a logical conclusion.
It Was Welcomed by FDR (And Churchill)
This gradual and blatant ramp-up of tensions with Japan should seem a bit strange within the context the period at large. Throughout the ’30s, while Japan conducted its expansionist actions throughout eastern Asia, Americans remained staunchly non-interventionist and Roosevelt continuously campaigned under the premise that, “your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars.” And yet, curiously, no sanctions or aggressive actions were taken against Japan until much later, around the turn of the decade, and only after repeated provocations were ignored by Hitler in the Atlantic. Could it be that Japan offered Roosevelt a back door to war?
As Sheldon Richman tells us, “As early as 1938, Roosevelt quietly explored with the British the possibility of war with Japan.” In 1940, with the approval and cooperation of Roosevelt and federal agencies, the British agent William Stephenson, aka “Intrepid”, was allowed to set up shop in New York City to actively intercept public messages and orchestrate smear campaigns against isolationist figures in the US. Churchill also, after hearing that the British ambassador to Japan Robert Craigie was attempting to maintain a peaceful relationship with Japan, ensured that, “[Craigie] should surely be told forthwith that the entry of the United States into war either with Germany and Italy or with Japan, is fully conformable with British interests. Nothing in the munitions sphere can compare with the importance of the British Empire and the United States being co-belligerent.”
But, though Churchill was certainly intent on using any means possible to encourage Roosevelt to aid him in Europe, he had no shortage of homegrown help. In October of 1940, Lieutenant Commander Arthur McCollum issued a memorandum, forwarded to two of FDR’s closest military advisors, which contained eight steps specifically intended, as Secretary of War Henry Stimson would later phrase it, “to maneuver them [Japan] into the position of firing the first shot.” Those steps were as follows:
- Make an arrangement with Britain for the use of British bases in the Pacific, particularly Singapore.
- Make an arrangement with Holland for the use of base facilities and acquisition of supplies in the Dutch East Indies [now Indonesia].
- Give all possible aid to the Chinese government of Chiang Kai-shek.
- Send a division of long-range heavy cruisers to the Orient, Philippines, or Singapore.
- Send two divisions of submarines to the Orient.
- Keep the main strength of the US Fleet, now in the Pacific, in the vicinity of the Hawaiian Islands.
- Insist that the Dutch refuse to grant Japanese demands for undue economic concessions, particularly oil.
- Completely embargo all trade with Japan, in collaboration with a similar embargo imposed by the British Empire.
It is unclear from the first-hand evidence of the paper trail of the original memo whether FDR himself saw the memo with his own eyes but the circumstantial case seems clear especially since, as Robert Stinnett states, “beginning the very next day, with FDR’s involvement, McCollum’s proposals were systematically put into effect.”
Take, just for instance, Action D. Regarding the presence of US cruisers and naval power in the Orient, Roosevelt himself, in words that should chill any trusting American’s bones, commanded that “I just want them to keep popping up here and there and keep the Japs guessing. I don’t mind losing one or two cruisers, but do not take a chance on losing five or six.” The Navy Pacific fleet commander, Admiral Husband Kimmel, objected, making it blatantly clear that, “It is ill-advised and will result in war if we make this move.” And this is just one of the proposed 8 actions. Despite Kimmel’s objections and against international law, naval “pop-up cruises” were indeed launched in March through July of 1941.
On October 8, 1940, one day after the memo was issued, the US State Department dispatched instructions for Americans to evacuate the Far East as soon as possible. As well, the very same day, Roosevelt began the execution of plans to move and keep the Pacific fleet stationed in Hawaii during a presidential luncheon. Admiral James Richardson, present at the luncheon, quoted the president as saying “Sooner or later the Japanese would commit an overt act against the United States and the nation would be willing to enter the war.” Admirably, Richardson opposed Roosevelt’s actions and intentions but, unsurprisingly, he was also relieved of his command on February 1, 1941. It seems that FDR’s experience stacking judicial and executive branch positions with “yes men” during the New Deal era would continue to be of use.
Despite the long list of provocative actions, there were still many opportunities to reduce this tension. The US and the Japanese came to a number of possible settlements during the years leading up to 1941 that could have offered a deescalation from their trajectory of war. The Japanese made an offer in 1940 that included their leaving China and the Tripartite pact but that offer was not taken. Even as late as November 20, 1941, Japan offered to withdraw troops from Indochina and restore peace with China in exchange for the lifting of trade restrictions against them but then Secretary of State Cordell Hull considered the deal unacceptable. He instead issued an ultimatum on November 26 requiring complete withdrawal from China and Indochina which he could be confident would be rejected. And Japan did, indeed, reject the ultimatum, at 1:00 pm, Eastern Standard Time, on December 7, 1941.
There Was Plenty of Warning
At this point, it may be difficult, in light of the evidence above, to believe that the eventual Japanese attack of Pearl Harbor could have possibly been a surprise to almost anyone close to Roosevelt or his military officials. While it is certainly possible that the complex plans and secretive actions and motives of Washington could have been kept hidden from the average American, it seems highly unlikely that those in the thick of the daily diplomatic and military proceedings with Japan could have been caught unaware. But, for the sake of being thorough, we may nevertheless ask ourselves, “did Roosevelt, or anyone else for that matter, know that Japan planned an overt attack on Pearl Harbor?”
The first obvious note is that so many of the Roosevelt administration’s actions leading up to late 1941 were engineered with the primary purpose of provoking an attack by Japan. Take, for instance, action F from McCollum’s 8 point plan which desired to keep the bulk of the Pacific fleet in the area of the Hawaiian islands. It could possibly be argued that Pearl Harbor could be rightfully considered a “surprise attack” of sorts in the sense that it was not known with accuracy beforehand exactly when or where the attack could occur. But it certainly would not be reasonable to consider it very surprising that such an attack would take place within the vicinity of the Pacific as a whole and, since the fleet was effectively used as bait, that it would occur against this obvious military target.
In the months and years after the attack, various investigations and reports were conducted to review the facts and attempt to understand where blame might be warranted. Details in those reports shed much useful light on just how much was known ahead of time. For instance, Captain Laurence Safford, who was in charge of much of the deciphering of Japanese messages during the early ’40s, testified that it was clear as early as May 1941 that the Japanese were preparing for some sort of military action in the Pacific. As well, between December 1 and 4, it was known that Japan intended to attack the US and Britain and on December 6 and 7 that Japan would formally declare war on the US. Yet this information was not forwarded to those on the ground in Hawaii or those responsible for its readiness.
A slew of others involved in cryptoanalytic and diplomatic activities at the time were also incredulous as to how the forces at Pearl Harbor could be caught so unawares. William Friedman, army cryptanalyst who assisted in breaking the Japanese “purple” diplomatic code was dumbfounded, having reportedly exclaimed to his wife, “But they knew, they knew, they knew.” Dusko Popov, a famed British double agent had disclosed the plans for the attack to the FBI in August and stated, prior to hearing the actual results of December 7, that “I was sure the American fleet had scored a great victory over the Japanese. I was very, very proud that I had been able to give the warning to the Americans four months in advance. What a reception the Japanese must have had!” And Tommy Wisden, a British Royal Navy codebreaker wondered, “With all the information we gave them. How could the Americans have been caught unprepared?”
A number of Japanese messages had been intercepted and decoded that pointed very obviously toward Pearl Harbor as the location, among them the “bomb plot” message of October 4, describing the plotting of Pearl Harbor into a supposed bombing grid, the “winds execute” message of December 4 which denoted an imminent Japanese attack, a December 6 message describing methods of signaling movements and positions of ships within the harbor, and the aforementioned message containing the precise timing of the Japanese rejection of the November 1941 ultimatum.
Ultimately, despite disagreements regarding exactly how much was known by whom and when, Sheldon Richman distills the points that are much more agreed upon: “(1) Franklin Roosevelt and his closest aides had seen Japanese messages that should have indicated to them (if they did not indeed do so) that Pearl Harbor would be attacked at dawn on December 7. (2) The commanders at Pearl Harbor, who were later made scapegoats, were inexcusably denied critical intelligence that would have likely caused them to take precautions that would have spoiled the Japanese surprise and probably prevented the attack.” These points alone should provide enough reason to doubt the incredulousness of Roosevelt and his leadership.
The Bottom Line
In America’s history, Pearl Harbor was not the first useful excuse for a politician’s entry into war and it was definitely not the last. It is my hope that, with this information in hand, the next similar situation that is destined to occur will be met with a healthy skepticism, one that it will most likely deserve and one that was unfortunately lacking in 1941. With any luck, when the time comes, that skepticism may save countless lives and further encroachments on American liberty.