Pearl Harbor attack: Who was really to blame?
The Pearl Harbor attack launched many official investigations. Blame has been spread from on-scene military commanders to President Roosevelt himself.
Days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox arrived in Hawaii. He'd been sent by President Roosevelt himself, with simple instructions: find out what happened, and how.Skip to next paragraph
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On December 16, Secretary Knox – a former journalist – issued a report that was full of vivid tales of US heroism to a still-grieving nation. He talked about the battleship captain who had refused to be evacuated from the burning bridge of his ship; the motor launch skipper who pulled those blown overboard from the flames of the burning harbor; and the mechanics who pulled machine guns from burning planes, and fired back.
Knox's secret report to FDR was more bracing. It counted up US losses and noted that US forces had been taken completely by surprise.
"Neither the Army nor the Navy Commandant in Oahu regarded an air attack on the Army air fields or the Navy Stations as at all likely," Knox wrote privately.
Investigations began immediately
In the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, investigations began immediately. In some ways, they continue today, as historians, journalists, and ordinary citizens debate the meaning and causes of what remains, despite September 11, the most shocking surprise attack in the nation's history.
Knox's trip was the first official probe. His public comments minimized the damage, so as not to give information away to the Japanese. His secret findings emphasized, among other things, the "meticulous detail" of the Japanese military's plans of attack, and "their courage, ability, and resourcefulness".
Knox's report caused FDR to order a commission, headed by Supreme Court Justice Owen Roberts, to carry out a more thorough look at the attack's circumstances.
The Roberts Commission report, issued in December, 1942, exonerated major political figures in Washington, and laid much of the blame for ill-preparedness on the top commanders on scene in Hawaii: Army General Walter Short and Admiral Husband Kimmel. Both were demoted, and both retired from the military within months.
Subsequent investigations began to spread blame for the debacle more widely. Six more probes were held during the war years, counting separate efforts from the Army and Navy, and associated spin-offs.
For instance, a Naval Board of Inquiry held in 1944 blamed Admiral Harold Stark, chief of naval operations at the time of Pearl Harbor, for not adequately advising Kimmel of the critical situation between the US and Japan in the weeks prior to the attack.
Wartime secrecy needed
All these investigations were hampered in some manner by the need to maintain wartime secrecy, particularly in regards to US code-breaking efforts.