Pearl Harbor

Where Historians Disagree - The Question of Pearl Harbor

The phrase "Remember Pearl Harbor!" became a rallying cry during World War II—reminding Americans of the surprise Japanese attack on the American naval base in Hawaii and arousing the nation to exact revenge. But within a few years of the end of hostilities, some Americans remembered Pearl Harbor for very different reasons. They began to challenge the official version of the attack on December 7, 1941, and their charges sparked a debate that has never fully subsided. Was the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor unprovoked, and did it come without warning, as the Roosevelt administration claimed at the time? Or was it part of a deliberate plan by the president to make the Japanese force a reluctant United States into the war? Most controversial of all, did the administration know of the attack in advance? Did Roosevelt deliberately refrain from warning the commanders in Hawaii so that the air raid's effect on the American public would be more profound?

Among the first to challenge the official version of Pearl Harbor was the historian Charles A. Beard, who maintained in President Roosevelt and the Coming of the War (1948) that the United States had deliberately forced the Japanese into a position whereby they had no choice but to attack. By cutting off Japan's access to the raw materials it needed for its military adventure in China, by stubbornly refusing to compromise, the United States ensured that the Japanese would strike out into the southwest Pacific to take the needed supplies by force—even at the risk of war with the United States. Not only was American policy provocative in effect, Beard suggested; it was deliberately provocative. More than that, the administration, which had some time before cracked the Japanese code, must have known weeks in advance of Japan's plan to attack—although Beard did not claim that officials knew the attack would come at Pearl Harbor. Beard supported his argument by citing Secretary of War Henry Stimson's comment in his diary: "The question was how we should maneuver them into the position of firing the first shot." This view has reappeared more recently in Thomas Fleming, The New Dealers' War (2001), which also argues that Roosevelt deliberately (and duplicitously) maneuvered the United States into war with Japan.

A partial refutation of the Beard argument appeared in 1950 in Basil Rauch's Roosevelt from Munich to Pearl Harbor. The administration did not know in advance of the planned attack on Pearl Harbor, he argued. It did, however, expect an attack somewhere; and it made subtle efforts to "maneuver" Japan into firing the first shot in the conflict. But Richard N. Current, in Secretary Stimson: A Study in Statecraft (1954), offered an even stronger challenge to Beard. Stimson did indeed anticipate an attack, Current argued, but not an attack on American territory; rather, he anticipated an assault on British or Dutch possessions in the Pacific. The problem confronting the administration was not how to maneuver the Japanese into attacking the United States, but how to find a way to make a Japanese attack on British or Dutch territory appear to be an attack on America. Only thus, Stimson believed, could Congress be persuaded to approve a declaration of war.

Roberta Wohlstetter took a different approach to the question in Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision (1962), the most thorough scholarly study to appear to that point. Deemphasizing the question of whether the American government wanted a Japanese attack, she undertook to answer the question of whether the administration knew of the attack in advance. Wohlstetter concluded that the United States had ample warning of Japanese intentions and should have realized that the Pearl Harbor raid was imminent. But government officials failed to interpret the evidence correctly, largely because their preconceptions about Japanese intentions were at odds with the evidence they confronted. Admiral Edwin T. Layton, who had been a staff officer at Pearl Harbor in 1941, also blamed political and bureaucratic failures for the absence of advance warning of the attack. In a 1985 memoir, And I Was There, he argued that the Japanese attack was a result not only of "audacious planning and skillful execution" by the Japanese, but of "a dramatic breakdown in our intelligence process . . . related directly to feuding among high-level naval officers in Washington."

The most thorough study of Pearl Harbor to date appeared in 1981: Gordon W. Prange's At Dawn

We Slept. Like Wohlstetter, Prange concluded that the Roosevelt administration was guilty of a series of disastrous blunders in interpreting Japanese strategy; the American government had possession of enough information to predict the attack, but failed to do so. But Prange dismissed the arguments of the "revisionists" (Beard and his successors) that the president had deliberately maneuvered the nation into the war by permitting the Japanese to attack. Instead, he emphasized the enormous daring and great skill with which the Japanese orchestrated an ambitious operation that few Americans believed possible.

But the revisionist claims have not been laid to rest. John Toland revived the charges of a Roosevelt betrayal in 1982, in Infamy: Pearl Harbor and Its Aftermath, claiming to have discovered new evidence (the testimony of an unidentified seaman) that proves the navy knew at least five days in advance that Japanese aircraft carriers were heading toward Hawaii. From that, Toland concluded that Roosevelt must have known that an attack was forthcoming and that he allowed it to occur in the belief that a surprise attack would arouse the nation. But like the many other writers who have made the same argument, Toland was unable to produce any direct evidence of Roosevelt's knowledge of the planned attack. - "War Came at Pearl Harbor: Suspicions Considered," Herbert Feis - "Who lost Pearl Harbor?" by David Greenberg


Read the two articles above. Summarize Feis's response to the revisionist historiography of Pearl Harbor. According to Greenberg, how did this revisionist historiography become such a growth industry? Why have the conspiracy theories persisted to this day? How does Greenberg explicitly refute the recent findings of John Toland and other members of the revisionist school? - Interview with Michael Bay (National Geographic)

The surprise attack at Pearl Harbor was made into a film in the summer of 2001. Read the interview above on the making of the film and the controversy over its historical inaccuracies. What obligation do you believe filmmakers have to history when making a movie of this kind? Do you feel the controversy is justified or overblown?