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While battles raged in Europe, North Africa and China, opinion polls in the summer of 1940 indicated that most Americans did not want their country involved in another war. Disillusioned by the failure of their nation’s idealistic commitment to “make the world safe for democracy” in World War I, many Americans had chosen to retreat into isolationism rather than send their sons to face the horrors of combat. The isolationist lobby in America was loud and strong, demanding that President Franklin D. Roosevelt keep the United States out of any foreign wars.

Yet, at that moment, Great Britain was standing alone against the Axis powers. Roosevelt and important members of his cabinet–displaying more vision and realism than most citizens–became convinced that a victorious Germany would threaten the national security of the United States. They believed Americans needed to become more involved.

Given public sentiment at the time, the president believed that his countrymen would rally only to oppose an overt act of war on the United States. In order to achieve this, the president, in concert with his advisers, decided that the only means of accomplishing this was to provoke Japan.

At the center of the scheme to spark a war was Lt. Cmdr. Arthur H. McCollum, head of the Far East Section at the Office of Naval Intelligence. Code-named “F-2,” McCollum–born to Baptist missionary parents in Nagasaki and well versed in Japanese language and culture–oversaw the routing of communications intelligence to the president from early 1940 to December 7, 1941. Every intercepted and decoded Japanese report destined for the White House passed through McCollum’s office, which was an element of Station U.S., a secret cryptographic center at the Navy Department in Washington.

McCollum’s section was a clearinghouse for all categories of intelligence reports on Japan and all the other nations of east Asia. Few people employed by the U.S. government knew as much about Imperial Japan’s activities and intentions as he did. McCollum believed that a war with Japan was inevitable and that rather than wait, America should provoke a confrontation at a time best suited to its own interests.

After careful consideration, McCollum advocated eight steps that he predicted would provoke a Japanese attack on the United States. These included keeping the U.S. Pacific Fleet, then cruising in the Pacific Ocean, in the vicinity of the Hawaiian Islands; insisting that the Dutch refuse to grant Japanese demands for undue economic concessions, particularly oil; and in conjunction with the British, clamping an embargo on all trade with Japan.

McCollum’s measures were immediately put into effect. In fact, throughout 1941, provoking Japan was Roosevelt’s principal foreign policy aim. His cabinet members, most notably Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, were on record as favoring this confrontational policy.

Roosevelt’s adoption of McCollum’s steps is detailed in Robert B. Stinnett’s Day of Deceit (The Free Press, New York, 1999, $26). Stinnett, a decorated Navy veteran, longtime journalist and BBC consultant, provides a detailed and extensively documented history of the events leading up to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Step by step, and drawing on 16 years of research and Freedom of Information Act requests for suppressed evidence, Stinnett sweeps away all previous rumors and speculation to build a convincing case that the Sunday morning attack was no surprise and was, in fact, deliberately instigated by the Roosevelt administration as a way of quickly bringing America into World War II.

Stinnett has left no stone unturned, and his account rewrites the historical record of the war. His well-written and gripping narrative is buttressed with copies of many relevant government documents, intelligence reports and Japanese diplomatic and military intercepts.

Explosive, revealing and disturbing, this book gets to the heart of the debate about America’s leadership as the nation was swept into the war. It is a sober and careful study, however, without sensationalism. Stinnett has simply done his homework doggedly and thoroughly, and has sought to present what he believes is the full story behind the Japanese attack.

One of the most shocking of McCollum’s proposals, says the author, was Action D, the deployment of U.S. warships within or adjacent to Japanese territorial waters. During secret White House meetings, Roosevelt personally took charge of Action D, labeling the provocations “pop-up” cruises. According to Stinnett, Roosevelt said, “I just want them to keep popping up here and there and keep the Japs guessing. I don’t mind losing one or two cruisers, but do not take a chance on losing five or six.” Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, commander of the Pacific Fleet, objected, saying, “It is ill-advised and will result in war if we make this move.”

From March through July 1941, Stinnett writes, White House records show that FDR flouted international law and dispatched naval task groups into Japanese waters on three such cruises. One of the most provocative was a sortie into the Bungo Strait, southeast of Honshu, the principal access to Japan’s Inland Sea.

No shots were fired or lives lost during the cruises. It would take all eight of McCollum’s proposals to accomplish that. After the eighth provocation, Japan responded. On November 27-28, 1941, American military commanders received the order: “The United States desires that Japan commit the first overt act.” According to Secretary Stimson, that order came directly from Roosevelt.

The commanders in Hawaii, Admiral Kimmel and Army Lt. Gen. Walter Short, were deprived of intelligence that might have made them more alert to the risks entailed in FDR’s policy, but they obeyed his order. After the Pearl Harbor raid, both men were relieved of command.

Stinnett is convinced that President Roosevelt faced “an agonizing dilemma” and was forced by circumstances to act the way he did. Painful though they surely were, his decisions were strategically calculated to ultimately lead to Allied victory over the Axis powers. In short, says the author, the Pearl Harbor attack was, from the White House perspective and in the context of the times, something that had to be endured in order to stop a greater evil–the Third Reich in Europe.

The truths revealed in this book, Stinnett believes, do not diminish Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “magnificent contributions to the American people.” As with all American presidents, he must be viewed in the total context of his administration.

As the author points out, McCollum’s prediction of the likely result of American provocations came true on Monday, December 8, 1941. In the wake of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Congress quickly declared war on Japan, and three days later Germany and Italy declared war on the United States. In response, America’s young men flocked to recruiting stations, and the peacetime economy rapidly switched to war production.

Stinnett’s book shows, with a series of intercepts, that the attacking Japanese fleet did not maintain radio silence, as hitherto believed; that Japanese codes were decrypted and sent to the president in daily briefing packets; that a known Japanese spy, Tadashi Morimura, a naval ensign, transmitted data from Hawaii–including a map showing all the ships berthed around Ford Island–beginning on August 21, 1941; that two weeks before the attack Kimmel was ordered to stop patrolling the waters north of Oahu in a routine exercise that would have detected the oncoming Japanese fleet; and that crucial evidence is suspiciously missing from U.S. files. Among the missing information are 13 key messages from Japanese commander Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto to his attack force, intercepted by U.S. radio operators.

As for the attack itself, the author believes that it was a major mistake for Japan. Japanese strategists shared a widely held belief that a nation’s navy could be destroyed or curtailed by sinking its battleships. Battleship Row was a mouth-watering target, but Stinnett says that the 360 Japanese carrier planes would have done better to concentrate on Pearl Harbor’s 5 million barrels of stored oil and destroyed the Navy’s dry docks, machine shops and repair facilities. Had the Japanese been able to destroy Pearl Harbor’s infrastructure, the blow would have delayed America’s response to their advances in the Pacific, forced an American retreat to the West Coast and given the Japanese command another few months of offensive operations.

Stinnett concludes that the real shame of Pearl Harbor lies with the stewards of government who have kept the truth under lock and key for half a century. Had the facts been released immediately after the war ended, the world’s view of American history would not have been “grossly distorted.” Highly detailed, reasoned and literate, Stinnett’s book is a triumph of historical scholarship and a valuable contribution to the record of World War II.

By Michael D. Hull