Time's Tapestry after Pearl Harbor

December 03, 1991

On the day before Thanksgiving, Capt. Thomas K. Kimmel, U.S.N. Ret., of Annapolis, received a letter from Richard G. Trefry, the military assistant to President Bush. It said the president would not posthumously promote Mr. Kimmel's father from rear admiral to admiral. Admiral was the rank the late Husband E. Kimmel held on a temporary commission on Dec. 7, 1941. He was then commander in chief of the Pacific Fleet, stationed at Pearl Harbor. He and Lt. Gen. Walter C. Short, the Army commander there, were blamed for the infamous tragedy of that day. In a rush to judgment, a special commission headed by the chief justice of the United States said in January 1942 that the two officers had been guilty of "dereliction of duty" for not thwarting the Japanese attack. Next to treason and cowardice, no charge could be worse. They were relieved of command and retired.

Several subsequent official investigations of the attack on Pearl Harbor in the next few years were almost as damning. But in the years since then, cooler, soberer students of World War II have looked into what happened at Pearl Harbor, aided by archival material not available to investigators during the war. A consensus has emerged to the effect that Admiral Kimmel and General Short were made scapegoats for a nation shocked and humiliated by the Japanese success. Despite this emerging consensus, Admiral Kimmel and General Short remain the only World War II officers who were never subsequently promoted to the grades they served in during the war.

Posthumous promotion, which would require action by the president and the U.S. Senate, would be a fitting symbolic gesture. Fifty years after the fact, it would signify that the "fault" for Pearl Harbor was shared by too many high ranking officials -- military, diplomatic and political -- to penalize and stigmatize just an admiral and a general.

Mr. Trefry wrote to Captain Kimmel that posthumous promotion would "reverse the course of history as adjudged by contemporary superiors of Admiral Kimmel." He said it "might very well tear the tapestry that time and history have so thoughtfully woven." But if contemporary judgments were wrong unfair, and if the judgment of disinterested historians is more credible, the tapestry would be mended, not torn, by such an act.

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