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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Pearl Harbor: The Seeds and Fruits of Infamy

For decades the prevailing view among historians has been that because the American people were too stubborn and stupid to concern themselves with foreign wars, President Franklin Roosevelt had to lie for a noble cause—namely, waging war against imperialist Japan and Nazi Germany.

Seldom have historians asked themselves why Americans would want to stay out of foreign wars. In 1940 Americans knew that the last time the subject came up was during the 1916 election, when President Woodrow Wilson vowed to keep America out of World War I. He won the election and the following year persuaded Congress to enter what he claimed was “the war to end all wars” so he could “make the world safe for democracy.” Instead the peace treaty triggered the bitter nationalist reaction that generated political support for Adolf Hitler’s totalitarian movement. Clearly those who wanted America to enter foreign wars were utterly unable to anticipate the horrifying consequences. Thus in 1940-41 many Americans wanted nothing to do with the wars in Europe and Asia.

FDR figured that if he could provoke the Japanese to attack the United States, the American public would support a declaration of war against Japan. Since Japan was allied with Germany, a war with Japan would bring America into the war against Germany. FDR was anxious to help his beleaguered British friends, even though most Americans wanted to remain at peace.

Pearl Harbor: The Seeds and Fruits of Infamy is a suspenseful detective story of that behind-the-scenes political scheming. The initial draft of the book was written by Percy L. Greaves, Jr., who served as chief of staff to the Republicans on the Joint Congressional Committee, which investigated Pearl Harbor in 1945-46. Greaves combed through countless documents and interviewed all the major (and many minor) figures involved. He continued to investigate for many years afterward, finding key pieces of evidence overlooked by everyone else. After he died in 1984, his wife, longtime FEE staffer Bettina Bien Greaves, spent more than two decades turning the manuscript into a monumental scholarly achievement.

Pearl Harbor is among the most provocative mysteries in American history. In Greaves’s account FDR appears as the grand puppeteer manipulating events—even when this meant sacrificing American lives. While the Japanese bombing is almost universally described as an outrageous surprise attack, the book presents considerable evidence that it wasn’t much of a surprise to FDR. Although he probably didn’t know for sure where or when the Japanese would attack, he had many reasons to expect they would, and Pearl Harbor was a good bet to be the target.

As the book documents, in January 1940 the U.S. government began blocking exports to Japan, including strategic minerals, iron, steel scrap, and petroleum products like gasoline. Since the Japanese weren’t willing to abandon their ambitions for conquest in Asia, it should not have been surprising that they would attempt to retaliate against the United States. In fact, when questioned by his wife, Eleanor, about his economic policies toward Japan, Roosevelt admitted that they were driving the two countries toward conflict.

Moreover, in 1940 American cryptographers cracked the top Japanese diplomatic code—known as “Purple”—used to transmit messages. That enabled U.S. officials to learn a great deal about what the Japanese government was planning. Much of the intrigue and suspense in the book involves the interception and decoding of Japanese diplomatic messages. The research done by Percy Greaves demolishes the idea, long cultivated by FDR’s followers, that the attack on Pearl Harbor took the President and his military advisers completely by surprise.

What had FDR and his advisers known—and when? After reading the book it seems beyond question that the administration knew late on December 6 that a Japanese attack was imminent, with Pearl Harbor a likely target, and yet no one took immediate action to warn the endangered base. The two Hawaiian commanders, Admiral Husband Kimmel and General Walter Short, were scapegoated to hide the administration’s incompetence and duplicity. After rigging a hasty “investigation” that declared Kimmel and Short derelict in their duty, the military engaged in a cover-up. Evidence was tampered with. Officers were pressured to have convenient “memory lapses” under questioning from counsel for Kimmel and Short. Army Chief of Staff General George Marshall (famed for the postwar Marshall Plan) comes off looking especially bad in the book’s recounting of events.

The book has two important lessons for today. One is that using duplicity to enter foreign wars is likely to backfire with terrible consequences for the ordinary people of a nation. The other is that politicians will stop at almost nothing to make themselves appear great and heroic. I recommend this book highly.

  • Jim Powell, senior fellow at the Cato Institute, is an expert in the history of liberty. He has lectured in England, Germany, Japan, Argentina and Brazil as well as at Harvard, Stanford and other universities across the United States. He has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Esquire, Audacity/American Heritage and other publications, and is author of six books.