A Matter of Honor is a passionately and thoughtfully developed defense of Admiral Husband S. Kimmel, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Although other officers were technically responsible for fleet defense in port, blame from Washington cascaded overwhelmingly on Kimmel due to the devastating loss of Pacific Fleet ships and men. Within days of the attack, the U.S. Navy relieved Kimmel, reduced him in rank, and made him a scapegoat.
Building on decades of work by Kimmel and his descendants, this book itemizes numerous instances, some egregious, where Washington failed to forward important information to Kimmel. This was despite the solemn pledge by Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Harold Stark that Kimmel would receive all relevant information. The authors emphasize previously known decrypted Japanese messages to illuminate the failure of U.S.-Japan negotiations in 1941, special Japanese interest in Pearl Harbor, and last-minute cables containing signals that war was likely to erupt the morning of December 7—though not where. But the authors also adduce new evidence that Washington failed to forward a report revealing that British planes in November 1940 had successfully employed aerial torpedoes in shallow water like that of Pearl Harbor—a feat previously regarded as technically impossible. It is not so clear, however, that Kimmel necessarily would have taken note of the reported torpedo launch points or the chart’s depth notations.
A Matter of Honor is persuasive that Kimmel suffered gross injustice in multiple ways, but the authors’ analysis falters on one critical point. Washington had sent “war warnings” to Hawaii, though these specified other locations as likely Japanese targets. The destroyer USS Ward reported that it had sunk a submarine (undoubtedly Japanese) about an hour before the Japanese air armada arrived. Kimmel’s headquarters squandered this tactical warning. The authors further reduce the problem of detection of the incoming Japanese aerial onslaught to issues involving radar sets. The real failure, however, was not the want of radar warnings, but the absence of an effective air information center that could properly analyze the messages and muster defenses before the attack arrived. Even after assigning the very damning responsibility due officials in Washington, the failures of the local Hawaiian commanders, including Kimmel, to react to these tactical warnings cannot be wholly exonerated under the stern U.S. code of command responsibility. Thus, scapegoating was inexcusable; accountability was not. —Richard B. Frank is a historian of the Asia-Pacific War and a member of the Board of Presidential Counselors of The National World War II Museum.