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Each Pearl Harbor day offers a fresh opportunity for those who correctly believe that Franklin Roosevelt knew of an impending attack by the Japanese and welcomed it as a way of snookering the isolationists and getting America into the war. And year by year the evidence continues to mount. The Naval Institute’s website featured a detailed article by Daryl Borgquist to the effect that high Red Cross officials with close contacts to Roosevelt quietly ordered large quantities of medical supplies and experienced medical personnel shipped to Hawaii well before Dec. 7, 1941.
In 1995, Helen Hamman, the daughter of one of these officials, wrote to Bill Clinton a letter disclosing that her father had told her in the 1970s that shortly before the Pearl Harbor attack Roosevelt had told her father of the impending raid and told him to send Red Cross workers and supplies to the West Coast to be deployed in Hawaii. Roosevelt, Ms. Hamman wrote, told her father “the American people would never agree to enter the war in Europe unless they were attack [sic] within their own borders”. Borgquist’s research, now published in Naval History magazine, shows that the Red Cross was indeed staffed up and on a war footing in Hawaii by November 1941.
Foreknowledge by FDR of the “surprise attack” on Pearl Harbor has been demonstrated about every five years, ever since the Republicans made a huge issue of it after World War II. Each time there’s a brief furor, and then we slide back into vaguer language about “unproven assertions” and “rumors” . It’s one of the unsayables of 20th-century history, as Charles Beard discovered in 1948 when he published his great book President Roosevelt and the Coming of the War 1941, subtitled “A Study in Appearances and Realities”. Beard effectively disposed of the “surprise attack” proposition after researching official government documents and public hearings. For example, the State Dept.’s own record showed that FDR’s Secretary of State Cordell Hull conferred with the British ambassador on Nov. 29, 1941, and imparted the news that “the diplomatic part of our relations with Japan was virtually over and the matter will now go to the officials of the Army and Navy”. As Beard and others pointed out, the U.S. had already not only undertaken the blockade and embargoes that forced Japan into the war, but also knew that Japan was about to attack and waited for it to do so, so the isolationists could be outmaneuvered and the U.S. could enter the war on a tide of popular feeling. At dawn on Dec. 7, 1941, the first wave of Japanese planes flew in from the east over the Waianae Mountains, leaving about 4000 American casualties with 2400 dead. Beard’s scholarly but passionate investigation into secret presidential diplomacy incurred venomous abuse, as did his judgment that the ends (getting the U.S. into the war) did not justify the deceptive means.
Back in the early 1980s John Toland published his excellent book Infamy, which mustered all the evidence extant at that time about U.S. foreknowledge. He advanced the thesis that though FDR and his closest associates, including Gen. Marshall, knew the Japanese naval force was deployed with carriers in the North Pacific, they were so convinced of the impregnability of the base that they didn’t believe the attack would have much serious effect. They thought a surprise Japanese raid would do little damage, leave a few casualties but supply the essential trigger for entering the war. Toland quoted from Labor Secretary Frances Perkins’ diary an eerie description of Roosevelt’s ravaged appearance at a White House meeting the night of Dec. 7. He looked, Perkins wrote with extraordinary perception, ”not only as though a tragedy had occurred but as though he felt some more intimate, secret sense of responsibility”. The U.S. military commanders on Honolulu, Husband Kimmel and Walter Short, were pilloried, destroyed, set up to bear the major responsibility. For many years they fought to vindicate themselves, only to face hidden or destroyed evidence and outright perjury from their superiors.
In May of 1983 an officer from the Naval Security Group interviewed one of Toland’s sources who had previously insisted on remaining anonymous. The person in question was Robert Ogg, who had been an enlisted man in naval Intelligence during the war, and was one of those who detected the presence, through radio intercepts, of a Japanese task force working its way toward Pearl Harbor in the first week of December 1941. This force had been under radio silence, but the “silence” had been broken on a number of occasions. Both Ogg and his immediate superior, Lt. Hosner, reported their intercepts and conclusion to the chief of intelligence of the 12th Naval District in San Francisco, Capt. Richard T. McCullough. McCullough was not only a personal friend of Roosevelt’s but enjoyed assured access to him through Harry Hopkins’ phone at the White House. Ogg confirmed in 1983 that McCullough had said at the time that the information about the Japanese task force had been passed to the White House. British code-breakers at Bletchley had also passed the news to Winston Churchill that Pearl Harbor was to be attacked.
The lesson here is that there is no construction too “bad” or too “outrageous” but that it cannot be placed upon the actions of powers great or small, though usually great. When Toland’s book was published there were many who scoffed at the “inherently implausible argument”, the “fine-spun conspiracy theory”. Gazing up the newly emerging national security state and the dawn of the Cold War, Beard argued that the ends did not justify the means, and concluded thus : “In short, with the Government of the United States committed under a so-called bipartisan foreign policy to supporting by money and other forms of power for an indefinite time an indefinite number of other governments around the globe, the domestic affairs of the American people became appendages to an aleatory expedition in the management of the world… At this point in its history the American Republic has arrived under the theory that the President of the United States possesses limitless authority publicly to misrepresent and secretly to control foreign policy, foreign affairs and the war power”. Truer words were never written.
Just as FDR’s foreknowledge of the attack is rediscovered every few years, so, too, is the fact that the Pacific war was a very nasty affair. Every so often new accounts and photographs emerge documenting the cruelties of that war. In 2001, the BBC aired combat film of American soldiers shooting wounded Japanese and using bayonets to hack at Japanese corpses while looting them. “Former servicemen interviewed by researchers spoke of the widespread practice of looting gold teeth from the dead –and sometimes from the living”. The archival film is fresh evidence of the atrocities, but the war crimes themselves are an old story, best told by John Dower in his 1986 book War Without Mercy. Back in the February 1946 issue of The Atlantic the war correspondent Edgar L. Jones wrote, “We shot prisoners in cold blood, wiped out hospitals, strafed lifeboats, killed or mistreated enemy civilians, finished off the enemy wounded, tossed the dying in a hole with the dead, and in the Pacific boiled the flesh off enemy skulls to make table ornaments for sweethearts, or carved their bones into letter openers”.