On Dec. 4, 1941, Washington keeps war fears private.


December 04, 1991|By Doug Struck

The Chicago Sun is born this day, Dec. 4, 1941, but its competitor, the Tribune, grabs the headlines. The Trib and two other papers print the government's plans for war in Europe, merrily code-named "Victory Parade."

The White House must have groaned. Disclosure that the government has a war blueprint is bound to cause President Roosevelt more problems with the isolationists. They have hammered on his administration as trigger-happy, often maneuvering him into an awkward defensive posture.

The public may expect war, but they don't want it. Respectable voices -- one of them a true American hero, Charles A. Lindbergh -- argue that quarrelsome Europe and distant Asia are tar babies best left alone. Groups like the America First Committee, studded with celebrities and business giants, draw large anti-war rallies.

Roosevelt is more pragmatic than he can publicly appear. He believes this country must rescue Britain and help stop Hitler. He thinks war with Japan is coming, too.

At a War Council meeting nine days earlier, Roosevelt acknowledges that the Japanese are likely to attack, and he wonders "how we should maneuver them into the position of firing the first shot without allowing too much danger to ourselves," according to the later recollections of Henry L. Stimson, then secretary of war, repeated to historian Gordon W. Prange.

Such reports will fuel decades of debate about whether Roosevelt knowingly allowed the Japanese to attack Pearl Harbor in order to stir the public outrage necessary to commit to war. It is a doubtful premise. He would prefer a peaceful Pacific while he faces Hitler across the Atlantic. And even if he expects a Japanese attack, his eyes, like those of his commanders, are trained on the Philippines, Wake Island and other far-flung posts.

The Japanese would never be so bold as to strike at Pearl Harbor, bristling with battleships.

... TOKYO ON THIS DAY debates a different problem. What about the formalities? As a signatory to the Third Hague Convention, Japan has promised not to initiate combat without first declaring war. The ministers haggle over how much advance notice to give the United States. They settle on a half-hour. They begin drafting a "Final Communication" to the United States, which their diplomats will be told to deliver at 1 p.m. Washington time, Dec. 7.

In the unforgiving North Pacific, 32 ships of the Japanese strike force plunge ahead in heavy seas toward Pearl Harbor. They travel under strict radio silence, still undetected. Several sailors are washed overboard, but the fleet cannot stop.

This venture is so improbable, it is understandable that American planners dismiss the notion of such an attack. For success, the Japanese will need to cross the Pacific without being spotted. They will need good weather in a season of storms. They will need to refuel at sea, a new technique for the Japanese ships.

Furthermore, Pearl Harbor is too cramped for its planes to maneuver well, and too shallow for aerial torpedoes. No American intelligence learned that the Japanese pilots had relentlessly trained on a similar small bay, and that Japanese engineers had designed a shallow-running torpedo.

Still, the whims of luck will write this history.

... AT HOME, labor unions mimic the rumble of war. A Detroit lumberman, aligned with the CIO, blames the feuding AFL for a bomb that rocked his home the night before. In Flint, Mich., a hotel worker on a CIO-backed picket line is stabbed to death in an argument with a chef who belongs to the AFL.

Roosevelt's mediation this week barely averts a rail strike, and the House of Representatives passes a tough anti-strike measure for defense industries. Satisfied its services will no longer be needed, Congress adjourns Thursday, Dec. 4.

THE OVERWORKED analysts of the War Department do not adjourn. They keep at their task of interception, decoding and interpretation of Japanese diplomatic messages. The order to diplomats to burn their secret papers worries the experts. Arthur McCollum, a Navy commander who was born in Japan to missionary parents and who personally knows Emperor Hirohito, drafts a stiff warning to the Pacific Fleet.

It is not sent. The intelligence chiefs are cautious in what they say even to the Navy's own commanders, for fear that a report too precise will alert the Japanese their code has been broken. So Commander McCollum's superiors balk; there

have been plenty of war warnings sent out already, they tell him. Certainly, the fleet is already on the alert.

Convinced, Commander McCollum reports back to another analyst also anxious that the Pearl Harbor ships not be caught by a Japanese sneak attack. "Oh yes," Commander McCollum '' tells him, "the fleet has gone . . . to sea."

No one checks with Pearl Harbor to see if that is true.

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