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.
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At war's end the US Congress launched a final, thorough investigation of Pearl Harbor that included a review of all relevant classified documents, including translations of intercepted and decoded Japanese messages. This Joint Congressional Committee effort issued a 40-volume report in mid-1946.Skip to next paragraph
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Blame all around
In this report, blame for the disaster was laid at the feet of everyone from Secretary of War Henry Stimson to commanders on scene. A minority annex censured the behavior of President Roosevelt, as well.
In sum, the Congressional committee found that Washington-based officials failed to give proper notice to a series of intercepted messages from Tokyo to its consulate in Honolulu that indicated keen interest in the harbor berthing plan and other dispositions of the US fleet.
Nor did Washington react quickly enough to the "one o'clock message" – the last of a 14-part message series sent from Tokyo to Japanese diplomats in Washington – the congressional probe found. This message ordered the destruction of code books and indicated that hostilities of some sort would begin at 1 pm, Eastern Standard Time.
"If properly appreciated, this intelligence should have suggested a dispatch to all Pacific outpost commanders supplying this information," concluded the Joint Committee report.
In the decades since the war's end, family members and proponents of Gen. Short and Adm. Kimmel have pushed to overturn the general conclusion that the two on-scene commanders should shoulder the burden of the blame.
In 1999, the Senate passed a non-binding resolution exonerating both Kimmel and Short, and asking President Clinton to posthumously restore their ranks. Clinton did not respond. President Bush similarly declined to take such an action.
Revisionists blame FDR
Revisionists have long pushed the notion that a true examination of the evidence would show the FDR knew the attack was to occur and that he allowed it in order to rouse the nation for participation in the war.
For instance, the 1999 book "Day of Deceit", by Robert Stinnett, held that FDR's effort to provoke Japan into war was a principal policy of his administration throughout 1941. FDR must have known that war was imminent from intercepted messages, according to Stinnett. Nor did the Japanese fleet maintain strict radio silence as it steamed towards Hawaii.
But the mere existence of such information does not indicate that it was speedily understood and used, noted the New York Times in its 1999 review of Stinnett's book.
It may be disturbing in hindsight to see that commanders in Hawaii weren't told of all that was contained in the intercepted messages, but "that failure by itself does not prove Mr. Stinnett's contention of a conspiracy to deprive commanders of the information they needed," wrote reviewer Richard Bernstein.