Did Roosevelt lie about Pearl Harbor?

November 21, 1999|By Pia Nordlinger | Pia Nordlinger,Special to the Sun

"Day of Deceit: The Truth About FDR and Pearl Harbor," by Robert B. Stinnett. The Free Press. 380 pages. $26.

Conspiracy theorists, rejoice! Your new sacred text has arrived.

It is "Day of Deceit: The Truth about FDR and Pearl Harbor," a heavily researched, heavily opinionated interpretation of the events that precipitated Japan's surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. And its conclusion will delight anyone who believes that FDR was in on it.

The thesis of this glorified rant is that the attack was, in fact, no surprise: The government provoked it, the government knew it was coming and, more specifically, FDR kept Pacific fleet commanders out of the intelligence loop so that America would be a sitting duck.

Trouble is, to borrow a phrase, there's no there there. Literally. "Day of Deceit" is a bound volume of non-evidence. Author Robert B. Stinnett builds his argument largely on the basis of documents destroyed, lost, censored or otherwise unavailable. The reader is constantly confronted with paragraphs that end as such: "Censorship has concealed from the American public the details contained in this first bomb map, nor was the map's existence ever revealed to Congress in any of the Pearl Harbor investigations."

Sentences like these are pure trickery. The map to which Stinnett refers is probably of no consequence, but, as with all conspiracy theories, every lousy gum wrapper counts as evidence. Any document can be woven into the plot, especially a document that no one has ever seen.

A book like "Day of Deceit" is worthwhile only in one way: It can inspire non-conspiracy theorists to revisit what they believe about history and, perhaps, pull from the shelves the work of an actual historian, such as Stephen E. Ambrose, whose essay, "Just Dumb Luck: American Entry into World War II" in "Americans at War" is a succinct rebuttal to all of Stinnett's kookiness.

In that short essay, Ambrose points out that America in 1941 was horribly ill-prepared for war, and that Roosevelt's attention was focused across the Atlantic, not the Pacific. "As Roosevelt tried desperately," writes Ambrose, "to get involved in the European war without ever once telling the American people that they absolutely had to come to grips with the Nazis, who could not otherwise be defeated, indeed promising them, in the face of all logic, that with American tools the British and Russians could do the job -- he was trying desperately to avoid war with Japan."

The theory that FDR took the "back door to war" by goading the Japanese is also countered with the most basic facts. The president sought to take up arms against Germany only after Hitler's inexplicable declaration of war -- not as a result of Pearl Harbor. Even after Pearl Harbor, Ambrose reminds us, "Roosevelt did not ask Congress to declare war on Japan but to recognize that a state of war existed between the two countries."

Whereas a professional like Ambrose explains history with broad strokes and big ideas, as well as facts that are all present and accounted for, Stinnett and his ilk rely on mind-numbing minutia that will interest only the true believers.

For anyone who is already convinced that the government lied, and continues to lie, about Pearl Harbor, "Day of Deceit" is a treat that should make the post-Thanksgiving dinner bull-session a roaring success.

Finally, all the "proof" in one place.

For anyone else, however, this book will probably induce either rage or sleep.

Pia Nordlinger is a member of the editorial board of the New York Post. Her work has appeared also in The Weekly Standard, National Review, Art News, City Journal and The Washington Times.

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