American Commanders Were Unfairly Blamed for “Surprise” Attack at Pearl Harbor

      Establishment historians state that U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt was surprised by Japan’s attack at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. In reality, Roosevelt knew that Japan’s attack was coming, and used it as an excuse to enter the United States into World War II. Roosevelt and his administration also unfairly blamed the American naval commanders at Pearl Harbor for Japan’s “surprise” attack.   

Pearl Harbor attack colorized.

Historical Background

      By the closing months of 1941, the United States was intercepting and breaking within a matter of hours almost every code produced by Japan.[1] The Army Signal Corps had broken the top Japanese diplomatic code known as PURPLE in August 1940. The United States was thus able to decipher and read all diplomatic messages sent between Tokyo and Japanese officials all over the world. Copies of these and other intercepted messages were circulated to all key administration officials in Washington, D.C. These messages, known as MAGIC, revealed much important information to the recipients.

      The United States sent duplicate code machines to London, Singapore and the Philippine Islands to keep the British and our Far East forces informed. Hawaii never received a duplicate code machine. Therefore, our government in Washington, D.C. had a far greater than normal responsibility to make certain that Hawaii was properly informed and alerted.[2] However, the two United States commanders at Pearl Harbor, Rear Adm. Husband Kimmel and Maj. Gen. Walter Short, were never informed of the intercepted Japanese messages. The Roosevelt Administration did not disclose these intercepted Japanese messages to Kimmel and Short because it wanted the Japanese to make a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.

      In the last week of November 1941, Roosevelt knew that an attack by the Japanese in the Pacific was imminent. Roosevelt warned American Ambassador William Bullitt against traveling across the Pacific, “I am expecting the Japs to attack any time now, probably within the next three or four days.”[3] Roosevelt and his administration knew this based on the intercepted Japanese messages. This information should have been given to the commanders at Pearl Harbor to enable them to prepare for and thwart the Japanese attack.

Thick smoke billows from stricken American warships (from left, USS West Virginia and USS Tennessee) along battleship row. US Navy/Interim Archives/Getty Images

American Military Commanders Unfairly Blamed

Adm. Kimmel

      The war was only 10 days old before some Congressmen questioned why America’s military leaders at Pearl Harbor had been unprepared for the Japanese attack. Fearing that a congressional investigation would harm both his political future and the war effort, Roosevelt appointed a five-man board of inquiry headed by Associate Justice Owen J. Roberts of the U.S. Supreme Court. In order to maintain military secrecy, the Roberts Commission did not examine or discuss any of the Japanese naval intercepts. The Roberts Commission’s report concluded that the Pearl Harbor attack was successful due to failures and errors of judgment by Adm. Kimmel and Gen. Short. They were both charged with dereliction of duty. President Roosevelt approved the Roberts Commission’s report on January 24, 1942.[4]

      A number of investigations of the Pearl Harbor attack followed the Roberts Commission report. Most of these investigations were attempts to suppress, mislead, or confuse those who sought the truth. Facts and files were withheld so as to reveal only those items of information which benefited the Roosevelt Administration.[5]

Gen. Short

      Investigations conducted by the Army and Navy boards did eventually exonerate Adm. Kimmel and Gen. Short from derelictions of duty and failures to act which were “the effective causes” of the disaster at Pearl Harbor. In its report released on August 29, 1945, the Navy Court of Inquiry said that Adm. Harold Stark had “failed to display the sound judgment expected of him” in not transmitting to Adm. Kimmel in 1941 important information. This important information included warning Kimmel “that an attack in the Hawaiian area might be expected soon.”[6]  

      One commentator has noted that those who maintained secrecy, failed to remember, or testified on behalf of the administration in the Pearl Harbor investigations rose very quickly to high places. These people include Gen. George Marshall, who was made a permanent five-star general, Col. Walter Bedell Smith, who became a three-star general, Alben Barkley, who became vice-president under Harry Truman, Sen. Scott Lucas, who became the Senate majority leader, and John W. Murphy and Samuel H. Kaufman, who were both appointed to lifetime federal judgeships. On the other hand, virtually no one who testified in the various hearings as to the facts that were damaging to the Roosevelt Administration and their superiors was ever promoted or rewarded.[7]        

      None of the Pearl Harbor investigations was able to prove definitively that the Roosevelt Administration knew beforehand of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. This is because key evidence began to be concealed as early as December 11, 1941. On this date Rear Adm. Leigh Noyes, the Navy’s director of communications, consigned the pre-Pearl Harbor Japanese military and diplomatic intercepts and the relevant directives to Navy vaults. In August 1945, the Navy blocked public access to the pre-Pearl Harbor intercepts by classifying the documents TOP SECRET. When the congressional investigation into the Pearl Harbor attack began on November 15, 1945, only diplomatic messages were released. None of the details of the interception, decoding, or dissemination of the pre-Pearl Harbor naval messages was introduced into evidence.[8]

      The Freedom of Information Act has since been used by Robert Stinnett to release information not available in previous Pearl Harbor investigations. Stinnett, a veteran of the Pacific War, conducted 17 years of research involving more than 200,000 documents and interviews. Stinnett concluded that: 1) the United States provoked Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor; 2) U.S. intelligence knew that the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was coming; and 3) Adm. Kimmel and Gen. Short were deprived of this intelligence.[9]

      Stinnett stated:

“Seven Japanese naval broadcasts intercepted between November 28 and December 6 [1941] confirmed that Japan intended to start the war and that it would begin at Pearl Harbor. The evidence that poured into American intelligence stations is overpowering. All the broadcasts have one common denominator: none ever reached Adm. Kimmel.”[10]

      Adm. Robert A. Theobald, who was in the port of Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked, conducted extensive research for many years into the Pearl Harbor attack. Theobald concluded that President Roosevelt forced Japan to war by unrelenting diplomatic-economic pressure. Also, Theobald concluded that Roosevelt enticed Japan to initiate hostilities with its surprise attack of the U.S. Pacific Fleet in Hawaiian waters. By withholding information from Adm. Kimmel that would have caused Kimmel to render the attack impossible, Theobald stated that President Roosevelt brought war to the United States on December 7, 1941. There would have been no Pearl Harbor attack if MAGIC had been made available to the Hawaiian commanders.[11]

Adm. Theobald

      Adm. Theobald lists the following facts to show that the Pearl Harbor attack was in accord with President Roosevelt’s plans:

      1. President Roosevelt and his military and naval advisors were well aware that Japan invariably started her wars with a surprise attack synchronized closely with her delivery of the Declaration of War;

      2. In October, 1940, the president stated that, if war broke out in the Pacific, Japan would commit the overt act which would bring the United States into war;

      3. The Pacific Fleet, against contrary naval advice, was retained in Hawaii by order of the president for the alleged reason that the fleet, so located, would exert a restrictive effect upon Japanese aggression in the Far East;

      4. The fleet in Hawaii was neither powerful enough nor in the necessary strategic position to influence Japan’s diplomatic decisions, which could only be accomplished by the stationing of an adequate naval force in Far Eastern waters;

      5. Before the fleet could operate at any distance from Pearl Harbor, its train (tankers, supply and repair vessels) would have had to be tremendously increased in strength—facts that would not escape the notice of the experienced Japanese spies in Hawaii;

      6. President Roosevelt gave unmistakable evidence, in March, 1941, that he was not greatly concerned with the Pacific Fleet’s effects upon Japanese diplomatic decisions, when he authorized the weakening of that fleet, already inferior to that of Japan, by the detachment of three battleships, one aircraft carrier, four light cruisers, and 18 destroyers for duty in the Atlantic—a movement which would immediately be detected by Japanese espionage in Hawaii and the Panama Canal Zone;

      7. The successful crippling of the Pacific Fleet was the only surprise operation which promised the Japanese navy sufficiently large results to justify the risk of heavy losses from land-based air attacks if the surprised failed;

      8. Such an operation against the fleet in Hawaii was attended with far greater chances of success, especially from the surprise standpoint, and far less risk of heavy losses than a similar attack against the fleet based in U.S. West Coast ports;

      9. The retention of the fleet in Hawaii, especially after its reduction in strength in March, 1941, could serve only one possible purpose, an invitation to a surprise Japanese attack;

      10. The denial to the Hawaiian commanders of all knowledge of Magic was vital to the plan for enticing Japan to deliver a surprise attack upon the fleet in Pearl Harbor, because, as late as Saturday, December 6, Adm. Kimmel could have caused the attack to be cancelled by taking his fleet to sea and disappearing beyond land-based human ken.[12]

      Adm. Theobald’s conclusions are reinforced by Adm. William F. Halsey, who was one of three senior commanders of the Pacific Fleet serving under Adm. Kimmel. Adm. Halsey stated:

“…I did not know then of any of the pertinent ‘Magic Messages.’ All our intelligence pointed to an attack by Japan against the Philippines or the southern areas in Malaya or the Dutch East Indies. While Pearl Harbor was considered and not ruled out, the mass of evidence made available to us pointed in another direction. Had we known of Japan’s minute and continued interest in the exact location and movement of our ships in Pearl Harbor, as indicated in the ‘Magic Messages,’ it is only logical that we would have concentrated our thought on meeting the practical certainty of an attack on Pearl Harbor.”[13]

      Adm. Kimmel was dumbfounded that the MAGIC messages were never disclosed to him. Kimmel stated that if he had all of the important information then available to the Navy Department, he would have gone to sea with his fleet and been in a good position to intercept the Japanese attack.[14] Adm. Kimmel concluded in regard to the Pearl Harbor attacks:

      Again and again in my mind I have reviewed the events that preceded the Japanese attack, seeking to determine if I was unjustified in drawing from the orders, directives and information that were forwarded to me the conclusions that I did. The fact that I then thought and now think my conclusions were sound when based upon the information I received, has sustained me during the years that have passed since the first Japanese bomb fell on Pearl Harbor.

      When the information available in Washington was disclosed to me I was appalled. Nothing in my experience of nearly 42 years of service in the Navy had prepared me for the actions of the highest officials in our government which denied this vital information to the Pearl Harbor commanders.

      If those in authority wished to engage in power politics, the least that they should have done was to advise their naval and military commanders what they were endeavoring to accomplish. To utilize the Pacific Fleet and the Army forces at Pearl Harbor as a lure for a Japanese attack without advising the commander-in-chief of the fleet and the commander of the Army base at Hawaii is something I am wholly unable to comprehend.[15]

      Adm. James O. Richardson agreed with Kimmel’s assessment. Richardson wrote after the war:

      I consider that, after Pearl Harbor, Adm. Kimmel received the rawest of raw deals from Franklin D. Roosevelt…I consider [Harold] “Betty” Stark, in failing to ensure that Kimmel was furnished with all the information available from the breaking Japanese dispatches, to have been to a marked degree professionally negligent in carrying out his duties as chief of naval operations.

      This offense was compounded, since in writing he had assured the commander-in-chief of the United States Fleet twice (both myself and Kimmel) that the commander-in-chief was “being kept advised on all matters within his own [Stark’s] knowledge” and “you may rest assured that just as soon as I get anything of definite interest, I shall fire it along.”[16]

      The U.S. government and military possessed solid intelligence before December 7, 1941, concerning Japanese plans to attack the United States. According to the Army Pearl Harbor Board:

      Information from informers and other means as to the activities of our potential enemy and their intentions in the negotiations between the United States and Japan was in possession of the State, War and Navy departments in November and December of 1941. Such agencies had a reasonably complete disclosure of Japanese plans and intentions, and were in a position to know what… Japanese potential moves…were scheduled…against the United States.  Therefore, Washington was in possession of essential facts as to the enemy’s intentions….This information showed clearly that war was inevitable and late in November absolutely imminent. It clearly demonstrated the necessity of resorting to every trading act possible to defer the ultimate day of breach of relations to give the Army and Navy time to prepare for the eventualities of war.[17]

      The Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor was no surprise to the Roosevelt Administration. Adm. Kimmel and Gen. Short were denied the vital information of a planned Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor because Roosevelt wanted an excuse to get the United States into the war. Roosevelt made Kimmel and Short the scapegoats for the Pearl Harbor tragedy. This is consistent with Franklin Roosevelt’s complex and devious nature. Roosevelt admitted to Secretary of the Treasury Morgenthau six months after Pearl Harbor:

“You know I am a juggler, and I never let my right hand know what my left hand does…and furthermore I am willing to mislead and tell untruths if it will help win the war.”[18]

Franklin Roosevelt and Henry Morgenthau Jr.

Roosevelt Conspired to Force America’s Entry into World War II

      Numerous historians and political leaders have concluded that Roosevelt conspired to force the United States into war. Historian Harry Elmer Barnes summarized President Roosevelt’s efforts to involve the United States in World War II:

      Roosevelt “lied the United States into war.” He went as far as he dared in illegal efforts, such as convoying vessels carrying munitions, to provoke Germany and Italy to make war on the United States. Failing in this, he turned to a successful attempt to enter the war through the back door of Japan. He rejected repeated and sincere Japanese proposals that even Hull admitted protected all the vital interests of the United States in the Far East, by his economic strangulation in the summer of 1941 forced the Japanese into an attack on Pearl Harbor, took steps to prevent the Pearl Harbor commanders, General Short and Admiral Kimmel, from having their own decoding facilities to detect a Japanese attack, kept Short and Kimmel from receiving the decoded Japanese intercepts that Washington picked up and indicated that war might come at any moment, and ordered General Marshall and Admiral Stark not to send any warning to Short and Kimmel before noon on December 7th, when Roosevelt knew that any warning sent would be too late to avert the Japanese attack at 1:00 P.M., Washington time.[19]

      William Henry Chamberlain also concluded that Roosevelt guided America into the war. Chamberlain wrote: “The war with Germany was also very largely the result of the initiative of the Roosevelt Administration. The destroyer deal, the lend-lease bill, the freezing of Axis assets, the injection of the American Navy, with much secrecy and doubletalk, into the Battle of the Atlantic: these and many similar actions were obvious departures from neutrality, even though a Neutrality Act, which the President had sworn to uphold, was still on the statute books.”[20]

      Chamberlain further stated that America’s entry into World War II was based on illusions:

      America’s Second Crusade was a product of illusions which are already bankrupt. It was an illusion that that the United States was at any time in danger of invasion by Nazi Germany. It was an illusion that Hitler was bent on the destruction of the British Empire. It was an illusion that China was capable of becoming a strong, friendly, Western-oriented power in the Far East. It was an illusion that a powerful Soviet Union in a weakened and impoverished Eurasia would be a force for peace, conciliation, stability, and international co-operation. It was an illusion that the evils and dangers associated with totalitarianism could be eliminated by giving unconditional support to one form of totalitarianism against another. It was an illusion that a combination of appeasement and personal charm could melt away designs of conquest and domination which were deeply rooted in Russian history and Communist philosophy.[21]

      Historian Klaus Fischer writes that Roosevelt implemented numerous actions in 1941 that prepared the United States to enter World War II:

      Roosevelt’s actions against both Germany and Japan were positively provocative, including the previously mentioned programs of cash and carry, lend-lease, neutrality zones, restoring conscription, increased defense appropriations, and secret war plans. In March 1941 Roosevelt informed the British that they could have their ships repaired in American docks, and that same month the president ordered the seizure of all Axis vessels in American ports. On April 10, Roosevelt extended the security zone all the way to the eastern coast of Greenland, negotiating the use of military bases on the island with a Danish official who did not have approval from his home government. If we add the various economic sanctions the president imposed on Japan, it is hard to escape the conclusion that Roosevelt was preparing the nation for war.[22]

      Clare Boothe Luce surprised many people at the Republican Convention in 1944 by saying that Roosevelt “lied the American people into war because he could not lead them into it.” Once this statement proved to be true, Roosevelt’s supporters ceased to deny it. Instead, they said Roosevelt was forced to lie to save his country and the rest of the world.

      Sir Oliver Lyttelton, the British minister of productions in Churchill’s cabinet, confirmed that the United States was not forced into war. Speaking before the American Chamber of Commerce in London in 1944, Lyttelton stated: “Japan was provoked into attacking the Americans at Pearl Harbor….It is a travesty of history to ever say America was forced into war.”[23]       

      On December 8, 1941, Rep. Hamilton Fish made the first speech in Congress asking for a declaration of war against Japan. Fish later said that if he had known what Roosevelt had been doing to provoke Japan to attack, he never would have asked for a declaration of war. Fish stated:

      FDR deliberately goaded Japan into war….Roosevelt was the main instigator and firebrand to light the fuse of war, abetted by the five members of his war cabinet. They were all sure that the Japanese would start the war by an undeclared strategic attack.

      Roosevelt, through his numerous campaign pledges and also by the plank of the Democratic national platform against intervention, had tied himself in unbreakable peace knots. There was only one way out—to provoke Germany or Japan into attacking us. He tried in every way possible to incite the Germans to attack, but to no avail. The convoy of ships, and the shoot-at-sight order, were open and brazen efforts by the president to take the country into war against Germany, but Hitler avoided the lure.

      The delay and virtual refusal to inform our Hawaiian commander is inconceivable, except as a part of a deceitful and concerted scheme of silence….The tragedy of Pearl Harbor rests with FDR, not only because of the infamous war ultimatum, but for not making sure that Kimmel and Short were notified of the Japanese answer to the ultimatum.[24]

     If Roosevelt’s secret policies had been known, the public demand for his impeachment would probably have been unstoppable. Fish wrote: “If the American people had known that they were deliberately tricked into a foreign war by Roosevelt in defiance of all his promises and pledges, there would have been political bombs exploding all over the United States, including demands for his resignation or impeachment.”[25] Fish concluded:

“Roosevelt had the opportunity to be a great peacemaker. Instead, he chose to be a disastrous war maker.”[26]

      Even biographers friendly to Roosevelt admit that until the last year when he was weighed down by physical illness, Roosevelt had never been as happy as during World War II. After the Casablanca Conference, Roosevelt wrote a letter to George VI: “A truly mighty meeting…As for Mr. Churchill and myself, I need not tell you that we make a perfectly matched team in harness and out—and incidentally we had lots of fun together, as we always do.”[27]

Churchill and Roosevelt having “fun together” May 24, 1943.


      Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor was no surprise to Franklin Roosevelt and his administration. The Roosevelt Administration knew that Japan’s attack was coming, and knowingly withheld information from the American commanders at Pearl Harbor that would have enabled them to thwart the Japanese attack. The American commanders were unfairly made the scapegoats for Japan’s successful attack at Pearl Harbor. What Roosevelt described the next day in his speech  as “a date which will live in infamy” was deliberately caused by the Roosevelt Administration.

U.S. Navy sailors rescue a survivor from the water alongside the sunken battleship USS West Virginia amid the Japanese air raid.Army Signal Corps/U.S. National Archives/Wikimedia Commons


[1] Stinnett, Robert B., Day of Deceit: The Truth about FDR and Pearl Harbor, New York: The Free Press, 2000, p. 83.

[2] Greaves, Percy L. Jr., “The Pearl Harbor Investigations,” in Barnes, Harry Elmer (ed.), Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace, Newport Beach, Cal.: Institute for Historical Review, 1993, p. 410.

[3] Feb. 12, 1946, conversation between William Bullitt and Henry Wallace, from Henry Wallace Diary, Henry Wallace Papers, Library of Congress Manuscripts, Washington, D.C. Quoted in Tzouliadis, Tim, The Forsaken: An American Tragedy in Stalin’s Russia, New York: The Penguin Press, 2008, p. 240.

[4] Stinnett, Robert B., Day of Deceit: the Truth about FDR and Pearl Harbor, New York: The Free Press, 2000, pp. 254-255.

[5] Greaves, Percy L. Jr., “The Pearl Harbor Investigations,” in Barnes, Harry Elmer (ed.), Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace, Newport Beach, Cal.: Institute for Historical Review, 1993, p. 409.

[6] Beard, Charles A., President Roosevelt and the Coming of the War 1941, New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1948, pp. 306-307.

[7] Greaves, Percy L. Jr., “The Pearl Harbor Investigations,” in Barnes, Harry Elmer (ed.), Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace, Newport Beach, Cal.: Institute for Historical Review, 1993, pp. 409, 466.

[8] Stinnett, Robert B., Day of Deceit: the Truth about FDR and Pearl Harbor, New York: The Free Press, 2000, pp. 255-257.

[9] Ibid., Preface, pp. XIII-XIV.

[10] Ibid., pp. 203-204.

[11] Theobald, Robert A., The Final Secret of Pearl Harbor, Old Greenwich, Conn.: The Devin-Adair Company, 1954, pp. 192, 198, 201.

[12] Ibid., pp. 193-195.

[13] Ibid., Foreword, pp. vii-viii.

[14] Kimmel, Husband E., Admiral Kimmel’s Story, Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1955, p. 110.

[15] Ibid., p. 186.

[16] Richardson, James O., On the Treadmill to Pearl Harbor: The Memoirs of Admiral James O. Richardson, Washington, D.C.: Naval History Division, Department of the Navy, 1973, p. 450.

[17] Kimmel, Thomas K. Jr., “Kimmel and Short: Vindicated,” The Barnes Review, Vol. IX, No. 2, March/April 2003, p. 42.

[18] Fleming, Thomas, The New Dealers’ War: FDR and the War Within World War II, New York: Basic Books, 2001, p. 26.

[19] Barnes, Harry Elmer, Barnes against the Blackout, Costa Mesa, Cal.: The Institute for Historical Review, 1991, pp. 285-286.

[20] Chamberlain, William Henry, America’s Second Crusade, Chicago: Regnery, 1950, p. 352.

[21] Ibid., p. 364.

[22] Fischer, Klaus P., Hitler and America, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011, p. 140.

[23] Fish, Hamilton, FDR The Other Side of the Coin: How We Were Tricked into World War II, New York: Vantage Press, 1976, pp. xi-xii.

[24] Ibid., pp. 139, 149-150.

[25] Ibid., p. 150.

[26] Ibid., p. 76.

[27] Ibid., p. 116.

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1 Response

  1. Arch Stanton says:

    One should read rear admiral (then lieutenant) Kemp Tolly’s book, “Cruise of the Lanikai” to understand just how far Roosevelt was willing to go to provoke a Japanese attack on American property. The Lanikai was purposely crewed in part with Filipinos to ensue the Philippine government would be brought into war on the American side.

    Roosevelt had also begun an embargo of goods to Japan strangling Japan of needed resources that would force them to look elsewhere in the pacific for needed supplies.

    Note also the fleet was not “crippled” at Pearl Harbor, as the only capital ships sacrificed were battleships already proven obsolete. By 1941 the battleship was a proven dinosaur, highly vulnerable to aerial attack by Billy Mitchell, who, in 1921 sunk the “unsinkable” German battleship SMS Ostfriesland using Martin MB-2, biplane bombers.

    “Early runs easily sank the smaller ships in minutes, including a German submarine, but Mitchell offered one more display of the MB-2’s unprecedented ability. Seven MB-2s specially outfitted to carry newly developed 2,000-pound bombs, showered the massive German battleship Ostfriedland, dispatching it to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean in just 21 minutes and 30 seconds.
    In response, Major General Clarence C. Williams, the Army’s chief of ordinance, declared, “A bomb that was fired today will be heard around the world.” It was said that the U. S. Navy admirals watching the test wept after the battleship disappeared beneath the waves. A mere airplane had sunk a capital ship.”

    In fact, there were no major engagements involving battleships in the pacific war. The fate of the battleship was sealed by the German battleship Bismarck, when she sunk the British battleship HMS Hood with a single shot. The Bismarck was then herself crippled by attacks from ancient Fairy Swordfish torpedo biplanes allowing her to be finished off by other surface ships. It is ironic that the ancient biplane was the major factor in the demise of the ancient battleship.

    While American battleships in the pacific were relegated to the role of artillery support for the amphibious landings in the American “island hopping” campaign, Japanese Battleships were sunk without ever firing a shot. This included the Japanese battleship Yamato, the last and largest battleship ever built. No one disputes the Pacific war was between the nations aircraft carriers.

    Today, the aircraft carrier is in the same position as the battleship of WWII, i.e. extremely vulnerable to aerial attack, this time from highly advanced, hypersonic, nuclear armed cruise missile. A single missile of this nature can take out an entire carrier task force.

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