Dec. 7, 1941—The surprise Japanese early-morning attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii left 2,400 dead, the American Pacific fleet in tatters, and an entire generation of young men now in danger of dying in a far-off land. The worst day in the history of the U.S. Navy also left an angry citizenry—and politicians looking to assign or deflect blame.
A blue-ribbon panel, appointed by President Franklin Roosevelt and headed by Associate Supreme Court Justice Owen Roberts, concluded that the attack represented “a complete surprise to the commanders.” The Roberts Commission Report, delivered a month after the attack, was extremely critical of the on-the-ground commanders.
In the immediate aftermath of this, those commanders, Admiral Husband Kimmel and General Walter Short, were relieved of command and replaced. Though they never went through court-martials, they were charged with dereliction of duty, demoted and forced into retirement. Two generations of descendants have fought to clear their names, with mixed results.
But the Roberts investigation was only the first of nine into the attack. That number reflects a disbelief that this catastrophe could be the result of a perfect storm of circumstances, as well as a dark suspicion that a single person acted with either gross incompetence or gross malevolence.
Conspiracy theories are as American as apple pie. More than a thin thread runs between the Pearl Harbor conspiracy advocates and the 9/11 "truthers." The only difference between now and 75 years ago is that social media can propagate these theories more quickly and sustain them for far longer.
In the early 1940s, the isolationist movement was strong enough that suspicions lingered that FDR had known in advance that the attacks would occur, but that he allowed them to take place so that the United States would be drawn into the war. Among many Republicans, the hope existed that he would be weakened by investigations into the attack—enough so that the GOP would gain seats in the midterm elections in 1942, and, beyond to 1944, that the President would lose his reelection bid, should he decide to run again.
The Republicans were able to achieve only one of their achievements: gains in the midterm elections. But Senate Democrats managed to postpone the investigations a couple of times, then limited their scope so that sensitive intelligence information would not be disclosed while the country was still at war.
In 1999, a later Senate investigation, backed by Democrats such as Joe Biden, concluded that Himmel and Short were not guilty, after all, of dereliction of duty. Critics of the nine investigations also make a good point that General Douglas MacArthur, with more time to prepare than Kimmel, had not been relieved of command, despite his own heavy losses.
Even so, there seems little doubt that Kimmel and Short were guilty of errors in judgment and lack of imagination.
Consider this notable exception, for instance: Harold Stark, the chief of naval operations in Washington, sent a dispatch on November 27 to all U.S. Navy outposts in the Pacific that raised alarms among the military commanders in Hawaii but not enough questions:
This dispatch is to be considered a war warning. Negotiations with Japan looking toward the stabilization of conditions in the Pacific have ceased and an aggressive move by Japan is expected within the next few days. The number and equipment of Japanese troops and the organization of naval task forces indicates an amphibious expedition against either the Philippines Thai or Kra Peninsula or possibly Borneo. Execute an appropriate defensive deployment preparatory to carrying out the tasks assigned in WPL46.
For most of the year, Kimmel had been receiving what future legend Admiral William F. “Bull” Halsey would call “wolf” dispatches about possible Japanese aggression. Yet this was different. Kimmel had never, in his entire professional experience, seen the phrase “war warning,” and later admitted as much.
The problem was that neither Kimmel nor Short thought the message could apply to them. A Japanese attack against Pearl Harbor would have to cover an enormous distance. The far more likely targets were mentioned in the dispatch: the Philippines, or in Southeast Asia.
And so, on the morning of December 7, when Kimmel behold the Japanese planes appearing out of the sky, he appeared, as a friend later noted, as white as his uniform.