Pearl Harbor Still Has No Peace

ERNEST B. FERGURSON

December 08, 1991|By ERNEST B. FURGURSON | ERNEST B. FURGURSON,Ernest B. Furgurson is associate editor of The Sun.

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- For weeks, I have half-expected to read that some assistant professor at East Central Weybelo State has discovered that Franklin D. Roosevelt actually commanded the Japanese aircraft carrier that launched the great Dec. 7 raid on the U.S. Pacific fleet.

At the rate revisionist historians have been going, that may be the next step in their efforts to discredit the Pearl Harbor record built up over half a century. No single event in the American saga has been examined more carefully, and not even Gettysburg or the Kennedy assassination has been subject to more second-guessing. From the beginning, the primary target has been Roosevelt.

During and soon after the war, those efforts were politically driven. Today, some are pushed by academics striving for professorial tenure, some by relatives of the men who bear official blame for the disaster. Last week, relatives of the two men in charge in Hawaii that Sunday morning, Rear Adm. Husband E. Kimmel and Lt. Gen. Walter C. Short, asked again for tombstone promotions of these officers. Once again, a president declined.

The sons' campaign to clear their fathers' names is understandable. The determination of some historians to blame Roosevelt -- or Churchill, or Marshall, or almost anybody except those already blamed -- asks for closer scrutiny.

Academic historians do not win notice by simply writing history better, with fresher color, insight and documentation, than what has been published before. As Gypsy Rose Lee said of strip-teasers, "Ya gotta have a gimmick." The historians' gimmick is revisionism -- and then revision of that revisionism, on unto absurdity.

The details of the extensive wartime investigations of Pearl Harbor were kept secret for the duration but disclosed after V-J Day. Like dozens of inquiries since, they found that U.S. officials in Washington knew the Japanese were about to act, but failed to guess what they would do.

Admirals and generals failed to put two and two together, and failed to pass on information that would have enabled their subordinates to do so. Out of ignorance and complacency, officers down to the level of lieutenant refused to believe real-time reports of the coming attack.

Starting from there, as documents have been declassified, some historian-detectives have tried to make the case that Roosevelt intentionally led us to war, that he consciously suppressed secretly decoded Japanese messages that would have prevented what happened, that he incredibly wanted it to happen. Others have maintained that Winston Churchill withheld vital deciphered Japanese radio traffic, to drag the United States into war.

David Kahn, whose best-known book is "The Codebreakers," has done a convincing job of debunking these conspiracy theorists in the current Foreign Affairs magazine.

"American intelligence had failed," he writes. "Evidence warning of an attack could have overcome American preconceptions, but intelligence -- which relied almost solely on [Japanese] diplomatic transmissions . . . had found no such evidence. Japan had sealed all possible leaks.

"Though war with Japan was indeed expected, that expectation did not -- could not -- imply knowledge of an attack on Pearl Harbor, for it is impossible in logic to leap from a general belief to a specific prediction. . . . Not one intercept, not one datum of intelligence ever said a thing about an attack on Pearl Harbor."

There were indeed general alarms, as when Washington sent a message November 27 to Kimmel and others, saying, "This dispatch is to be considered a war warning." Despite it, ten days later U.S. battleships were lined up gunwale to gunwale, aircraft wingtip to wingtip, making perfect targets.

Admiral Kimmel's defenders cite the fact that the night before the attack, Roosevelt got further intelligence and said, "This means war." But FDR meant war somewhere soon, not at Pearl Harbor the next morning, and it is impossible to imagine his issuing any warning more urgently worded than the November 27 dispatch.

True, a massively augmented code-breaking force solved the Japanese naval cipher and thusenabled the U.S. to win the battle of Midway and later shoot down Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, the strategist who planned the Pearl Harbor attack. But that breakthrough came in the months after Pearl Harbor.

As Mr. Kahn writes, the conspiracy theorists "are unable to accept that humans sometimes do things wrong or do not do them at all, that accidents happen -- that in the complex system that is the world, improbable events occur."

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