Pearl Harbor in Retrospect

"Wherever or whenever Washington may have thought the Japanese cat would probably jump, Hawaii's primary mission was to meet it there if it came. Yet both the Army and Navy commands there acted as if there were no chance of a Japanese overseas attack on them. What they actually did and did not do, simply spelled 'It can't happen here.'"

As for the sudden "clash of arms," that was exactly what we ourselves had feared. We had cautioned the Pacific commands against committing the first overt act in the warning orders sent out four days before the "clash of arms" message was intercepted.

That message is also an interesting example of the selection of a clue to prove a point, without regard to the background of "magic" as a whole. What had actually happened was this: On November 26 the Japanese ambassadors in Washington, in a radio to Tokyo, spoke, in passing, of the possibility of a British and American military occupation of the Netherlands East Indies. Tokyo promptly picked up that "very important matter" and radioed back on the 27th to find out "more about it." (It had, in fact, been discussed in Washington, but not approved.) On the 27th, and again on the 28th, the Japanese ambassadors radioed their belief that it might come about.

Now, with that background, read (as we did) all of what Tokyo, on November 30, told its Ambassador in Berlin to say to Hitler and Ribbentrop: "Say to them that lately England and the United States have taken a provocative attitude, both of them. Say that they are planning to move military forces into various places in East Asia and that we will inevitably have to counter by also moving troops. Say very secretly to them that there is extreme danger that war may suddenly break out between the Anglo-Saxon nations and Japan through some clash of arms, and add that the time of the breaking out of this war may come quicker than anyone dreams."

Projected on the background of the idea of American occupation of the Dutch islands, which apparently Tokyo had accepted, this famous clue takes on quite a different complexion. It is certainly hard to read into it a warning of so premeditated an attack, on Japanese initiative, as that which had, in fact, already been launched on the high seas.

"Magic" has since been read, in the light of what subsequently happened, as a clear indication that Japan intended to involve us in her war from the outset. But that reading also requires a high degree of selectivity in "Operation Hindsight." "Magic" said the Japanese would push us out of China—of course they would if and when they were at war with us. They had already made a good start on it, without war. "Magic" warned the Japanese ambassadors not to break off the negotiations or arouse our suspicions; all of which tied in with whatever "automatic" military preparations they wished to complete, whoever their chosen victim might be, before they showed their hand in Washington.

"Magic" spoke often of the "brink of chaos," chaotic conditions," and the "tremendous crisis" that would follow the rupture of the Washington conference. It frequently coupled us, at least eventually, with Great Britain in the war they foresaw. Tokyo told Berlin that we classed Japan with Germany and Italy (with which we were not at war) as enemies. All this, however, was nothing more than we ourselves well knew—that we could not long maintain neutrality if the war spread to the Far East.

As late as November 15 Nomura was suggesting to Tokyo that, if the conference broke down and Japan pursued an unrestricted course, the most probable immediate results would be the rupture of diplomatic relations with us, or at least a partial rupture such as we then had with Germany. And Tokyo did not say him nay. Only just before Pearl Harbor did "magic," that prolific source of information and misinformation, indicate with any clarity Japanese intention of involving us in war from the outset.

The plain fact is that the war warnings sent out by the highest military authorities nine days and more before Pearl Harbor were far more authoritative and more definitive of what the Hawaiian commands might expect, and what was expected of them, than any information or interpretations from "magic" that Military or Naval Intelligence could possibly have sent. Complete reliance was placed on the effect those warnings should have had—and did have everywhere except in Hawaii. But Tokyo apparently believed that the incredible might happen and Hawaii be surprised: Washington did not.


If the last few days before the Pearl Harbor attack much has been said and written, but to little profit. The die had been cast. The Muse of Tragedy then had the plot well in hand. She saw to it that no circumstance occurred to ruffle the complacency in Hawaii, or to shatter the confidence of Washington in Hawaii's full alert. The Japanese fleet sailed silently through that "vacant sea" which Hawaiian defense studies had marked down as a likely line of approach. The movement was covered by effective smoke screens—Japanese activities in the South China Sea and shilly-shally business at the Washington conference.

There was a flurry about the famous "East Wind" broadcast, meaning war with us, or at least rupture of diplomatic relations. We arranged for Hawaii to get and understand that broadcast if it came. But no one there or in the War Department ever got it. It was, in all probability, never sent. Instead the Japanese ordered the burning of certain codes. So did we.

But first came "magic" messages about merely being prepared to burn their codes. We were, I think, a bit slow to take them at face value because they seemed so queer and unnecessary. We intercepted one on November 15 in the midst of negotiations still far from deadlocked. Why should the Japanese be worried about their codes on November 15, and not only in Washington but also in Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina? It was very odd. A later message of the same sort we assessed merely as a confirmation of our warnings already dispatched. Later, on December 3, "magic" told us that their embassy in Washington was to destroy most of their codes—not simply be prepared to do it. We then broke our rules and Navy radioed it to the Pacific commands, including Hawaii. We relied on routine liaison with Navy, not wishing further to jeopardize "magic" by sending two messages. Liaison did not work in that case in Hawaii. But, as a matter of fact, the Japanese were burning their codes out there; Hawaii knew it and we soon knew that they knew it.

The last twenty-four hours in Washington before the bombs fell have come in for much scrutiny. Why did the President, with most of the Japanese final answer before him, conclude that it meant war and then, after a fitful attempt to reach Admiral Stark by telephone, quietly go to bed? Why was he in seclusion the following morning? Why was no action taken on the Japanese reply by the Secretaries of State, War, and Navy when they met on that Sunday morning? Why did they not consult the President, or he send for them? Where was everybody, including my humble self? Why, in short, didn't someone stage a last-minute rescue, in good Western style?

The picture undoubtedly is one of men still working under the psychology of peace. They were, to quote Secretary Stimson again, "under a terrific pressure in the face of a global war which they felt was probably imminent. Yet they were surrounded, outside of their offices and almost throughout the country, by a spirit of isolationism and disbelief in danger which now seems incredible." They were men who thought they had done their possible to prepare for impending war, and who had no idea that there was an innocent maiden in need of rescue.

There has been a great deal of discussion on who saw the "pilot" messages and the final fourteen-part Japanese answer; when they saw them and what they did about them. A more important point is what those "magic" messages told us.

The "pilot" messages from Tokyo informed the Japanese ambassadors in Washington, on December 6, that the final fourteen-part answer would probably, though not surely, be received by them the next day, December 7; that it was very long; that instructions would follow as to the exact time it was to be presented; and that before presenting it, the ambassadors were to "put it in a neatly drafted form," being "most careful to preserve secrecy," and "absolutely sure not to use a typist or any other person"!

Japanese methods were often curious—witness the business about code burning and the "East Wind." But so far as any logical deductions could be drawn from the "pilot" messages, they seemed to indicate Monday, December 8, as the earliest date for the presentation of the Japanese answer. The funny business about secrecy and exact timing seemed to be extravagant preparations for that presentation in Washington coincidently with an official announcement in Tokyo of the rupture of negotiations. The Japanese ambassadors had recommended just that to Tokyo ten days before.

It has sometimes been argued that a military decision should have been reached, or action taken, on the Japanese fourteen-part reply when "magic" gave it to us five or six hours before the attack. But though couched in aggressive language, the reply was only what we had been expecting, for a week or more—the rupture of negotiations—and had so warned Hawaii and the other outposts. It is difficult to see what the military could have done about it. It was a matter of foreign relations, not of armed forces already warned of "hostile action at any moment."

It is significant that the authorities responsible for our foreign relations, the President and the Secretary of State, perceived no useful action that could be taken on it at that time. The President, with the full reply before him, remarked only on the rupture of negotiations and gave no sign that he foresaw immediate hostilities. The Secretaries of State, War, and Navy apparently discussed, almost up to the time the Japanese carriers were launching their planes, how best to bring the United States into the war!

It was not until "magic" told us, on that Sunday morning, that the Japanese ambassadors were to burn their remaining codes and present Tokyo's reply to the Secretary of State at 1.00 P.M. that the timing became suspiciously significant. For it was a most unusual and extraordinary hour, on a Sunday afternoon, for foreign ambassadors to deliver a long-delayed reply to an elderly Secretary of State. We then suspected that Japanese military action of some sort, and at some still unknown place, might coincide with that hour. Even then the Chief of Naval Operations demurred to a further warning, so sure was he that all forces were on the alert, and consented only that it be transmitted to naval commands at second hand through General Marshall's message.

That message was written for alerted commands. The Chief of Staff had no idea he was communicating with any other. So complete was our confidence in all Pacific alerts, so far were we from doubting Hawaiian preparedness, that, as the message was leaving the Chief of Staff's office, his operations officer, in his presence, said that if there was question of priority, it should go first to the Philippines!

In all probability the receipt of the message could have made no material difference in Hawaii. There would not have been sufficient time to bridge the gap, mental and material, between the status of the Hawaiian commands on that quiet Sunday morning and one of effective alert.

In any event, the Muse who had so consistently worked up the tragedy saw to it that the message was delivered to all addressees, except Hawaii. She was taking no chances; but it was a busy morning for her. She had to see to it that operations against a Japanese submarine just off Pearl Harbor, beginning almost four hours before the attack, caused no general alert. She was almost caught out by a couple of gadget-happy soldiers who stayed overtime on their radar and actually saw and reported the approaching Japanese planes. But she promptly trumped that trick by producing a lieutenant who said, "Forget it." How the Greeks would have appreciated that final touch of inexorable fate!

Over two thousand men died at Pearl Harbor. They did not die in vain. Their sacrifice counted heavily in the great score that brought us final victory. But it did not count on the day the Japanese caught them unprepared and got away almost unscathed. For that the Hawaiian commands were directly responsible. Beyond that lay the system under which our armed forces were organized and operated—complete separation of the Army and the Navy, no unity of command, and decentralization within each service. That system may be criticized after the event, since in Hawaii it failed in its essential function: it did not produce, afloat or ashore, the reaction expected by higher authority or required by the crisis. Perhaps too much stress was put upon it in a country loath to admit the danger it faced, and in military establishments not taut on the starting line, not yet geared to war.

It remains to be seen whether the recent merger of the forces—land, sea, and air—guided by the lessons of a global war, can be made effective, or whether pre-Pearl Harbor conditions are inherent in a democracy before the shooting starts. They had better not be, for the next surprise attack will be quite another story.

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