Michael Gaynor
Perhaps learning why the Pearl Harbor attack was a surprise in Hawaii but not in Washington can help us appreciate and learn from other federal government mistakes and move forward wisely
By Michael Gaynor
January 16, 2023

With the war in Ukraine, the Nordstrom pipeline sabotage, China's attempted intimidation of Taiwan and North Korea's missile testing, it behooves us to look back on the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941

Why should we study history and uncover the whole truth instead of simply accepting the official story?

Philosopher George Santayana opined that “[t]hose who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

The more well known revision is "[t]hose who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it."

Since being condemned or doomed is undesirable and even more so in this nuclear age, the price of not knowing the truth must not be paid.

Here in the United States in less than a year Special Counsels have been appointed by Attorney General Merrick Garland to investigate whether former President Donald Trump and current President Joseph Biden have mishandled classified documents. A president of the United States has the declassification power while president and President Trump says that he used it. A vice president, as President Biden was under President Barack Obama, is authorized to declassify only documents that he classified and it appears that there are at least some documents that he did not classify that have been discovered, both before and after Election Day 2022, in several places where they should not have been kept.

While hoping that the investigations will be conducted competently and fairly, proceed, let us look back to the investigation of the catastrophe known as the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor that brought the United States officially into World War II.

With the war in Ukraine, the Nordstrom pipeline sabotage, China's attempted intimidation of Taiwan and North Korea's missile testing, it behooves us to look back on the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 and at the report of the Joint Committee on the Pearl Harbor Attack released for publication and radio news broadcasts on July 20, 1946. (There was no television yet.)

Of particular value is the minority report of Senators Homer Ferguson and Owen Brewster, who explained that there were two areas of responsibility (the responsibilities of high authorities in Washington and the responsibilities of the commanders in the field in charge of the fleet and of the naval base) that "were inseparably essential to each other in the defense of Hawaii" and "[t]he commanders in the field could not have prepared or been ready to meet hostile attack at Hawaii without indispensable information, material, trained manpower and clear orders from Washington" and "Washington could not be certain that Hawaii was in readiness without the alert and active cooperation of the commanders on the spot."


The Senators concluded that the persons who failed "to perform the responsibilities indispensably essential to the defense of Pearl Harbor" included President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Secretary of War Henry Stimson, Secretary of the Navy Frank know, Chief of Staff of the Army George Marshall, Chief of Naval Operations Harold Stark, Assistant Chief of Staff of War Plans Division Leonard Gerow, Commanding General, Hawaiian Department Walter Short and Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet Husband Kimmel.

Those Senators also concluded that (1) "serious failures of men in the lower civil and military echelons to perform their duties and discharge their responsibilities....too numerous to be treated in detail and individually named" and (2) Secretary of State Cordell Hull did not have "duties as a relevant link in the military chain of responsibility stemming from the Commander in Chief to the Commanders in Hawaii for the defense at Pearl Harbor" and "the diplomatic phase was not completely explored, so they offered no conclusions with respect to him.

The majority report did not blame the then recently deceased President Roosevelt for the sneak attack, but its finding made it obvious that the disastrous attack on Pearl Harbor should have been expected and could have been prepared for.

The Senators found:

"On December 1, 1941, it was known to the Secretary of War and the President and his closest advisers that Japan had informed Hitler on December 1, that war was imminent. They knew this by intercepting the following message from Tokyo to Berlin:

"The conversations begun between Toyko and Washington last April during the administration of the former cabinet, in spite of the sincere efforts of the Imperial Government, now stand ruptured – broken. (I am sending you an outline of developments in separate message...) In the face of this, our Empire faces a grave situation and must act with determination. Will Your Honor, therefore, immediate interview Chancellor HITLER and Foreign Minister RIBBENTROP and confidentially communicate to them a summary of the developments. Say to them that lately England and the United States have taken a provocative attitude, both of them. Say that they are planning to move military forces into various places in East Asia and that we will inevitably have to counter by moving troops. Say very secretly to them that there is extreme danger that war may suddenly break out between the Anglo-Saxon nations and Japan through some clash of arms and that the time of the breaking out of this war may come quicker than anyone dreams."

Unsurprisingly, the Senators concluded that "[t]he Secretary of War, the President and his advisers...were fully aware that Japanese military movements were under way and that these movements would involve the United States in war" and noted that "[n]otwithstanding this intimate knowledge of the imminence of war, the Secretary of War told the American people as late as December 5 [1941] that the negotiations with Japan were still in progress" and "despite the extreme gravity of the situation, known fully to the 'War Cabinet," the President permitted the Senate and the House of Representatives to adjourn on December 4 and 5 respectively until noon of December 8 without having informed them of the impending danger to the country."

Had the Commanders in Hawaii been informed of whay Washington knew, surely they would have prepared for attack and it would have been less effective, but they they were not.

Set forth immediately below are three of those Senators' Conclusions in their Minority Views:

"11. The decision of the President, in view of the Constitution, to await the Japanese attack rather than ask for a declaration of war by Congress increased the responsibility of high authorities in Washington to use the utmost care in putting the commanders at Pearl Harbor on a full alert for defensive actions before the Japanese attack on December 7, 1941.

"12.Inasmuch as the knowledge respecting Japanese designs and operations which was in the possession of high authorities in Washington differed in nature and volume from that in possession of the Pearl Harbor commanders it was especially incumbent upon the former to formulate instructions to the latter in language not open to misinterpretation as to the obligations imposed on the commanded by the instructions.

"13. The messages sent to General Short and Admiral Kimmel by high authorities in Washington during November were couched in such conflicting and imprecise language that they failed to convey to the commanders definite information on the state of diplomatic relations with Japan and on Japanese war designs and positive orders respecting the particular actions to be taken – orders that were beyond all reasonable doubts as to the need for an all-out alert. In this regard the said high authorities failed to discharge their full duty."

Hindsight is 20-20, but Washington never told the commanders what they needed to know and so the Pacific fleet ships in the harbor were sitting ducks for Japanese pilots.

After another avoidable failure, the attempt to that oust Fidel Castro from power in Cuba referred to as the Bay of Pigs fiasco, in which either too much or too little was done depending upon whether his ouster was appropriate, President John F. Kennedy told a journalist that "victory has 100 fathers and defeat is an orphan." The historian Tacitus had opined that it "is an unfair thing about war: victory is claimed by all, failure to one alone.”

The Joint Committee on the Investigation of the Pearl Harbor Investigation did not pick a scapegoat, but considering how much information had been withheld from the Commanders in Hawaii by the authorities in Washington, it would have been understandable if they considered themselves scapegoats and victims of Washington politics and bungling.

© Michael Gaynor


The views expressed by RenewAmerica columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of RenewAmerica or its affiliates.
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Michael Gaynor

Michael J. Gaynor has been practicing law in New York since 1973. A former partner at Fulton, Duncombe & Rowe and Gaynor & Bass, he is a solo practitioner admitted to practice in New York state and federal courts and an Association of the Bar of the City of New York member... (more)


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