On Dec. 3,1941 there is still hope that words can prevent war.


December 03, 1991|By Doug Struck

There are some who still believe words can prevent war. Japanese troops are steaming south toward Indochina. If they attack, the United States and Britain will be drawn inevitably into the conflict. But if the warlords in the Japanese government won't listen, maybe the emperor will.

Through private channels, President Franklin D. Roosevelt is urged to send a cable directly to the Japanese deity, bypassing the ponderous diplomats, going over the head of

the hawkish Tojo government. At a confidential meeting Dec. 3, the president agrees to give it a try.

The diplomatic route has been abuzz with the public appearance of purpose but with few results. Two weeks earlier, Japan sent special envoy Saburo Kurusu to Washington for a "final attempt at peace."But Roosevelt's blunt communications through the diplomats, including his demand yesterday to know their intentions in Indochina, have gone largely unanswered.

Roosevelt has little reason to expect much more. Unknown to all but a few in the government, the president is reading the Japanese diplomats' radio mail.*

IT STARTED in early 1939. A quiet but single-minded man, William Friedman, put his cryptography experts at the War Department to work on their biggest challenge: cracking the Japanese code. Japanese diplomats in the United States received messages through a fantastically complicated cipher system called "Purple." The Japanese never conceived it could be cracked and never changed it.

After 20 months of exhausting work -- so exhausting that Friedman had a nervous collapse -- his staff had solved the puzzle. By mid-1940, they were hand-delivering to Roosevelt locked briefcases containing translations of the Japanese messages, waiting while he read them, and then burning all but one copy. The top-secret intercept was, appropriately, named "Magic."

Roosevelt would not see any reference to an attack on Pearl Harbor in those messages. By all available evidence, the diplomats here were never told of those plans. The diplomats holding the last-minute talks -- talks that lulled the U.S. public -- know nothing of the Japanese fleet now steaming to attack Hawaii. Roosevelt is thus also in the dark. But the president saw enough to know the Japanese negotiations are largely a charade. And the traffic is rife with other ominous hints.

The intercept Dec. 2 ordering the Japanese diplomats to burn their papers had startled some of the analysts. This could only mean Japan expected war in the next few days. The Navy's chief cryptographer, Laurence F. Safford, contacts a counterpart on Dec. 3. "Are you people in Naval Intelligence doing anything to get a warning out to the Pacific Fleet?" he demands.

The message has gone out, he is assured. But it is a muddled message. When Adm. Husband E. Kimmel, in charge of

the fleet in Hawaii, gets the information, it sounds like just another in the flurry of pessimistic reports about Japan's moves in Indochina.

There had been so many warnings from Washington. Just a week ago, the Navy Department began one communique: "This dispatch is considered to be a war warning. . . . An aggressive move by Japan is expected within the next few days."

Kimmel believes the warnings. He is preparing his ships to sail toward Thailand or the Philippines or Borneo, where everyone knows the war will be.

He never dreams the war will come to him.*

EVERY MONDAY, the bulk of Kimmel's Pacific Fleet steams out of Pearl Harbor for war games. They track other ships, dodge in and out of mock air attacks, and train anti-aircraft guns on imaginary marauders.

On weekends, the ships return to the docks. Most of the crews are let loose from duties, set free to find what entertainment they can in the honky-tonk bars and hot-sheet hotels on a seaman's pay of $21 a month.

It is a relaxed schedule, convenient for officers whose families are with them in Hawaii and lulling for sailors on ships.

To be sure, the office admirals in charge of planning dutifully consider the remote possibility of an attack on Pearl Harbor. The Navy and Army officers jointly in charge of Hawaii's safety file the expectable pleas for more men, more guns, more airplanes. No one would be able to say they had not asked for better defenses. But even they did not believe they would need them.


DAYS LATER, Roosevelt would finally get around to his message to the emperor. Polite and gracious, the letter appealed to him to "give thought in this definite emergency to ways of dispelling the dark clouds . . . and prevent further death and destruction in the world."

But on this Dec. 3 in Tokyo, Emperor Hirohito is seeing the deliveryman of death and destruction. Isoroku Yamamoto, who conceived the Pearl Harbor attack and pushed the plan past the skepticism of his cautious colleagues, bows to the emperor. In a stiff ritual, he receives the formal orders to begin the war.

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