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Kimmel, Short, and Pearl Harbor: The Final Report Revealed

by Fred Borch and Daniel Martinez; Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Md., 2005, $25.95.

Controversy has swirled around responsibility for the disaster at Pearl Harbor ever since that horrible Sunday morning in December 1941. The commanders at Pearl, Admiral Husband Kimmel for the Navy and Lieutenant General Walter Short for the Army, took the early fall. Both suffered the indignity of being relieved of command, and when further assignments were not forthcoming, both retired from the service in early 1942. No less than nine investigations took place between 1941 and 1946 alone, reaffirming their responsibility for the disaster, and most historians have agreed with that verdict.

Ever since 1941, however, there have been those who claim that Kimmel and Short were jobbed. They were scapegoats, many say, victims of bungling—or worse—by officials in Washington up to and including General George C. Marshall and President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Leading the charge for Kimmel and Short in recent decades, understandably, have been their families. They have repeatedly petitioned the authorities, both military and civilian, for redress. Specifically, they have asked that the two be advanced on the retired list from the two stars with which they left the military to the three stars (in Short’s case) and the four (in Kimmel’s) they wore when they served at Pearl.

While the campaign has been singularly unsuccessful—being turned down by everyone from Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney (in the Bush I administration) to President Bill Clinton—it hasn’t been for want of trying. Like a judge-shopping lawyer, the Kimmels and their hired public relations firm have sought out practically every competent office in every branch of government.

Washington is a big city with many competing interests, and eventually they had some luck. In 1995 they won a powerful patron in the U.S. Senate, Strom Thurmond, the Republican head of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Senator Thurmond requested that the Department of Defense, rather than the supposedly biased Army or Navy, undertake yet another inquiry into Pearl Harbor. A committee led by Edwin Dorn, the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, met late in the year, carried out an investigation and eventually issued its report. The Dorn Report forms the subject of Kimmel, Short, and Pearl Harbor.

Fred Borch and Daniel Martinez certainly have the bona fides to tell this tale. Borch is a career Army lawyer and represented his service on the Dorn committee. Martinez is the chief historian of the USS Arizona Memorial and was a principal outside consultant to the investigation. The two not only analyze the background of the commission, they reproduce the entire Dorn Report (the first time it has appeared in print) with their own often penetrating annotations. They discuss the aftermath of the report and include the executive summary that Dorn sent to Deputy Secretary of Defense John P. White. And they publish the rebuttal to the report submitted on behalf of the Kimmels and Shorts by retired Navy Admiral David Charles Richardson. Add in the very useful annotated bibliography on Pearl Harbor, and you have a first-rate package. It’s hard to imagine ever needing to read anything else on the Dorn Report, and as a useful primer on the controversy as a whole, Kimmel, Short, and Pearl Harbor can’t be beat.

What emerges are two key notions. First, the Dorn Report was a political animal from the beginning. It never would have appeared if a powerful political insider had not demanded it. The deputy secretary of defense who had to handle Senator Thurmond’s request, John Deutch, had also just been nominated to serve as CIA director. He faced a confirmation fight in the Senate, and had no intention of antagonizing any potential supporters.

In other words, the Defense Department did the investigation not because there was any really new information but to placate the senator. The Dorn inquiry, in fact, would wind up relying heavily on the 1946 report of the Joint Congressional Committee (JCC) on the Investigation of the Pearl Harbor Attack, plus the 39 volumes that made up the hearing record for that body. One can ask, with justice, just how much of those 39 volumes the Dorn committee actually read. The group first met on October 24, 1995, and issued its report on December 1, a mere five weeks later. Likewise, the committee’s quick trip to Oahu (November 12-15) was not so much to uncover new information but because the final report “would have less credibility if a site visit were not conducted.”

For all those reasons, it’s no surprise that the report broke very little new ground. It did not recommend handing back the missing stars. It supported previous findings that Short and Kimmel were largely responsibile for the disaster. It did conclude that they “were not solely responsible,” however, since “others made significant errors of judgment.” Once again, these findings hardly amount to an earthshaking revision of the traditional view.

Like all the previous investigations, the Dorn committee had to balance two separate failures. First, there was the failure of officials in Washington to transmit intelligence reports based on intercepted Japanese messages to Kimmel and Short, and to convey “the sense of focus and urgency that those communications should have engendered.” Second, there was the failure of the two men “to make adequate preparations in light of the information they did have.” Intelligence before December 7 was imperfect and ambiguous— no surprise there. The “war warning” that Kimmel received on November 27 from the chief of naval operations spoke of “an amphibious operation against either the Philippines or Kra Peninsula or possibly Borneo.” Short got a message that same day that instructed him at one and the same time to undertake “such measures as you deem necessary” and “not, repeat not, to alarm civil population or disclose intent.”

Few officials at any level worried about an airstrike on Hawaii, since few thought the Japanese would dare such a risky attack on U.S. territory so far from their own bases—across 3,000 miles of open ocean. Short worried more about saboteurs than Japanese warplanes. That famous wingtip-to-wingtip deployment of U.S. aircraft on Oahu was more of an antisabotage laager than a war-fighting formation. None of this is new, and in fact the 1946 JCC went into it in some detail. The Dorn Report notes correctly, however, that “no war-fighting commander ever has enough information or enough resources.” The best ones still manage to triumph, and the better ones at least manage to defend themselves. Kimmel and Short did neither.

It is interesting to note that in their commentary on the report, Martinez and Borch make a much stronger case against the two commanders. Short subjected his Army Air Corps personnel to weeks of infantry training instead of honing their skills as airmen. Kimmel routinely lowered the fleet’s readiness level on weekends, and many of the sailors who came under Japanese attack on December 7 were suffering from Sunday morning hangovers. Had the Japanese struck later in the day, in fact, the attack would have caught the two commanders on the links for their customary Sunday golf game.

Martinez and Borch also take issue with the report’s claim that Kimmel and Short had no tactical warning of the attack. At 6:40 a.m., a Japanese midget submarine tried to infiltrate Pearl Harbor, and the destroyer Ward sank it. Ward’s skipper reported what had happened, but the general lack of urgency in Pearl and the lazy Sunday morning atmosphere kept it from being the wake-up call it should have been. Since Borch sat on the Dorn committee and actually wrote much of the report, his dissent from it is worthy of note. This book may therefore be read as a kind of “minority report” from one of the principals.

A second basic point of this volume is that the case for Kimmel and Short is based on what might charitably be called shaky foundations, and less charitably a conspiracy theory. Arising first within the Republican Party in the 1944 elections as a way of raising FDR’s negative ratings, it has continued to percolate within rightwing circles in the United States still obsessed with the alleged evils of his presidency. The government, critics say, deliberately withheld crucial information from the local commanders in Hawaii, data that could have helped them defend Pearl more effectively if not ward off the Japanese attack.

Many of Kimmel and Short’s defenders—and Admiral Richardson’s rebuttal in the book’s appendix bears this out explicitly—go so far as to accuse Roosevelt of having precise foreknowledge of the attack, to the exact day and hour. The president refused to inform his men on the spot, so the theory goes, because of his burning desire to get the United States into the war. American sailors died, in other words, not from military bungling, but from FDR’s sinister and secretive foreign policy. Richardson, in fact, sees Kimmel and Short as being utterly blameless for the destruction of the U.S. Pacific Fleet they had been entrusted to protect. He has to indulge in a bizarre collection of speculative musings and hearsay testimony to do so, but that’s the beauty of a conspiracy theory: The lack of hard evidence only convinces its adherents that the conspiracy runs deeper.

Ask yourself some questions. Do you believe, as Richardson’s rebuttal argues, that Japanese Ambassador Kichisaburo Nomura’s request for a 1 p.m. meeting with Secretary of State Cordell Hull on December 7 was a clear tip-off that there would be an attack on Pearl Harbor at that time (since, he argues, noon in Washington is 7 a.m. in Hawaii and 7 was an ideal time for an attack on Pearl)? Well, Hull apparently didn’t think it was so clear-cut, and neither do I. Nor, I suspect, would many reasonable people. Are hearsay comments from the daughter of a Red Cross official or poorly documented claims by popular historian John Toland really reliable evidence on Pearl Harbor? You don’t think so? Welcome to the conspiracy.

It is the most natural thing in the world to defend your family, and it is important to separate the Kimmels’ mission from that of the conspiracy theorists. That becomes more difficult, however, when we read that Edward Kimmel now considers the Department of Defense to be the family’s “entrenched hidden enemy.” The conspiracy continues, in other words, and the department personally selected by Senator Thurmond for its impartiality is now apparently part of the cabal.

Things appear to have reached an impasse. The current administration in Washington has little interest in the Pearl Harbor issue, since it touches on presidential responsibility for a surprise attack on the homeland. In the current post– 9/11 landscape, it’s probably the last thing in the world any president is going to want to pursue. Nevertheless, here’s one safe prediction: The “final report” discussed in Borch and Martinez’s fascinating book will not be the last salvo in the battle over Pearl Harbor.


Originally published in the June 2006 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.