Japanese Threat Is Greeted With Bluster, Contempt DECEMBER 6, 1941

ON DEC. 6, 1941, U.S. STAYS LULLED ON EVE OF WAR

December 06, 1991|By Doug Struck

America sees but will not believe. The evidence is there, screaming at them every morning in the newspaper headlines: Japanese Forces Move on Thailand; Negotiations Falter; War with Japan Looms. In the war rooms and the White House, smart men read the secret diplomatic mail from Japan, messages that order important papers burned, seek detailed whereabouts of U.S. warships and talk of impending deadlines.

They read, but they do not react. Even those who expect the worst are lulled by the talk on the street, the scoff of Everyman, the bluster of Joe at the shop and neighbor Sally: "The Japanese would never be crazy enough to attack us."

Japanese are held in contempt in the United States, portrayed in insulting caricature as goofy, inept little men with buck teeth, Coke-bottle glasses and sprouting hair. Newspapers routinely call them "Japs." Military officers dismiss their fliers as inept. Politicians laugh at their country and call it third-rate.

"The Japanese are not going to risk a fight with a first-class nation. They are unprepared to do so, and no one knows that better than they do," a Pennsylvania congressman, Charles I. Faddis, had said earlier in 1941. Even this week, the Honolulu Advertiser proclaims Japan "the most vulnerable nation in the world. . . . She is without natural resources. . . . She has a navy, but no air arm to support it."

There are misperceptions on both sides. The Japanese, according to historian Gordon W. Prange, believe the United States is a hollow shell, its people divided politically, softened by luxurious living and decadence. They will be no match for the tough, disciplined men of Japan.

Both sides soon will be surprised.

*

IN WASHINGTON, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson broods about the latest reports of Japanese movements. Japan's troops are headed for Thailand, where they can threaten the Burma Road, China's lifeline. Two large Japanese convoys are sighted on the southern point of Indochina. They can move down the Malay Peninsula, attack the British base at Singapore and grasp the rich raw materials of the Dutch East Indies. Stimson decides to stay in the capital this weekend.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt is finishing his personal cable to Emperor Hirohito. Late in the evening, he will be given an intercepted document sent from Tokyo to its embassy in Washington. The document, a "Final Communication to the United States," does not proclaim war or even break off diplomatic relations. But the courier, Lt. Lester R. Schulz, recalls Roosevelt's saying, "This means war."

Harry Hopkins, the president's adviser, is in the room. He says it is too bad that the United States could not strike first to prevent a surprise. The lieutenant remembers that Roosevelt nodded and answered, "No. We can't do that. We are a democracy and a peaceful people."

If the document is a war call, no alarms are sounded. The Japanese message announces no attack, reveals no time or place for conflict. It seems like just another dismal chord to accompany the Japanese move to the south.

*

IN HAWAII, Adm. Husband E. Kimmel, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, also ponders the latest news this day. War may soon come, he concludes. Should he order the fleet out of Pearl Harbor?

His decision to leave the ships there will seem sensible until about 8 a.m. tomorrow. Kimmel still thinks Pearl Harbor a far-fetched target. He does not think Japanese carriers can master such a long range and believes the harbor is too shallow for submarines. Putting his ships to sea might make them more vulnerable. It also would sharply deplete his precious fuel.

So he leaves his battleships in a row, ready to steam out to war. He believes they are safest there.

*

FIVE HUNDRED MILES north, Adm. Chuichi Nagumo swings his task force of six carriers and their escorts due south, toward Pearl Harbor. At 11:30 a.m., the crews of his

ships stand at sharp attention.

The battle flag of the Rising Sun is hoisted on the flagship Akagi. The war decree by the emperor is read. Then comes a message from Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto: "The rise and fall of the empire depends upon this battle. Everyone will do his duty."

The crews reply with a shout: "Banzai!"

It is a dangerous time for the Japanese fleet. If the Americans have their long-range reconnaissance planes on duty, the Japanese ships might be spotted too far out to launch an attack and too close to retreat. But despite Admiral Kimmel's worries of war, he has failed to order the aerial patrols.

The ships plow toward their destination. Matome Ugaki, an officer on Yamamoto's staff, writes in his diary: "Hawaii, you will be caught like a rat in a trap."

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