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The surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, has been a source of debate ever since and will probably continue to be, because it is difficult to fix terms of reference. For example, was the probable withholding of information from the commanders on the scene that of commission (criminal conspiracy) or omission (ineptitude)? Would timely information have made any difference anyway? It did not in the Philippines, eight hours later. And what does America in 1996, more than half a century after the end of the war that began for us there, do about Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, commander in chief of the Pacific Fleet, and Lt. Gen. Walter C. Short, commander of the Hawaiian Department of the U.S. Army? Both officers retired under dark clouds that have never been officially lifted.

Now the distinguished naval writer Edward L. Beach, a retired U.S. Navy captain well known as the author of such works as Run Silent, Run Deep and The United States Navy: 200 Years, weighs in with Scapegoats (Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Md., 1995, $24.95). Beach makes it clear that his is not a revisionist work, but a reinterpretation of the many available studies of one of the United States’ most famous disasters. His is a distinctively American effort to clear the individual commanders’ honor, which, he argues, was unfairly stained.

Certainly, as Beach reviews the evidence, Kimmel and Short were in an impossible situation. A Purple machine, which enabled American cryptanalysts to read Japanese message traffic, had been earmarked for Pearl Harbor but was diverted to England. Anti-aircraft assets were one sixth of those required. All of 100 promised Consolidated PBY-5 Catalina patrol aircraft went to England. Kimmel’s predecessor, Admiral James O. Richardson, had been abruptly removed from his position for protesting the materiel and intelligence shortcomings at Pearl.

In context, Beach explains that the U.S. Pacific defensive perimeter had shifted to west of the Philippines. Pearl Harbor was, in the view of Washington, a relative backwater. Who could have anticipated Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto’s unorthodox plan to strike the U.S. Pacific Fleet at its home port?

The picture that emerges under Beach’s marshaling is a familiar one: a Washington political and military establishment riveted on the war in Europe and talking only to itself. The top secret decoding capability of the Purple machine was not fully utilized due to understaffing, and only the diplomatic code traffic–not the naval operational code traffic–was attended to. There may have been some concern that utilization of some of the intelligence gained in Operation Magic might compromise the capability by warning the Japanese that their mail was being read. Beach, however, concludes that it was possible to protect Magic and still warn Kimmel. Nonetheless, critical references to Pearl Harbor, such as the “bomb plot” message of September 24, 1941, seeking berthing information on the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl, were withheld from Kimmel by Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner. Holding sway over naval war plans, Turner even reassigned two officers who protested the failure to send that news to Kimmel. Beach believes that if Turner alone had not stood in the way, adequate warnings would likely have reached Kimmel, as had been promised by Admiral Harold Stark, chief of Naval Operations. Kimmel possessed contingency plans for putting the fleet to sea given a significant warning. As it was, Beach judges that Stark could have been sued for damages for the failure of his Navy to warn Kimmel and Short.

There are many other conundrums, the most telling of which may be the December 6, 1941, midnight White House “meeting-that-never-was.” General George C. Marshall, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke in Washington, D.C., that evening, and was accustomed to stopping by the White House when he was downtown. Later he could not recall what he had been doing that night. It is well known that Marshall was also unreachable during the critical early hours of December 7 because he was horseback riding. Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox later muddied the waters with reference to a midnight warning that he assumed Marshall had sent to Pearl Harbor. The text of that warning has never been found. The rest, as they say, is history: the attack on Pearl, the subsequent attack on the Philippines for which the American defenders were unprepared, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s denunciation of Japan, Hitler’s declaration of war, and four years of conflict. Even before the war was over, a series of inquiries began in which Kimmel and Short were never formally charged, never accorded counsel, yet which resulted in dereliction of duty statements that Roosevelt accepted. Where does this leave us now? Beach calls himself a “second-class revisionist,” not prepared to declare Roosevelt guilty of conspiracy, but seeing his willingness to let history unfold hopefully in a way that would allow the United States to enter the war against Germany. The Pearl Harbor attack was a convenient military disaster on the way to our “crusade in Europe.” Kimmel and Short were expendable casualties in a greater cause. It was not the first nor last time that subordinate commanders have been placed out on a limb and have seen that limb subsequently sawed off.

Beach’s quest is now to get history rewritten to clear the undeserved dishonor of Kimmel and Short.

Will it happen? In 1995, Kimmel’s grandson, Manning M. Kimmel, IV, pleaded his grandfather’s case in Senate hearings. The Navy’s general counsel declared in response that there is no historical evidence that President Roosevelt or anyone else in Washington deliberately withheld information that Kimmel needed to properly defend Pearl Harbor.
Roderick S. Speer