Pearl Harbor is one of the turning points in American history. Its effects are still with us: a system of alliances that replaced isolationism, a Defense Department including all the military services, the intelligence establishment, the recurrent fear that the Soviet Union will resort to surprise attack.
The enormity of the event led to no fewer than seven administrative investigations and to the most extensive congressional inquiry ever undertaken. The record of the congressional hearings, published in 1946, incorporated the testimony and exhibits of the previous investigations, making its thirty-nine volumes an unparalleled mine of information for writers who have produced scores of books and articles on the attack. So minutely did these investigations scrutinize what happened before Pearl Harbor that we can, for example, read the comment of a Navy yeoman when he pulled the wiretaps from the Japanese consulate in Hawaii: “At 4 PM Honolulu time in the 1941st year of Our Lord, December 2 inst., I bade my adieu to you my friend of 22 months standing. Darn if I won’t miss you! Requiescat in Peace.”
These investigations sought to determine how the United States was—in a favorite phrase of the time—“caught napping” at Pearl Harbor, where 2,403 US lives were lost and much of the Pacific Fleet destroyed. The question was sharpened by the fact that the United States had earlier solved the Japanese diplomatic codes and ciphers and thus had an extraordinary source of intelligence about Japan.
Controversy surrounded the matter almost from the start. Two schools of thought arose—if they had not already existed on the basis of political and perhaps philosophical preconceptions. One, which we can call the orthodox school, basically holds at fault the Army and Navy commanders at Pearl Harbor, Lieutenant General Walter C. Short and Admiral Husband E. Kimmel. They were sent there in the face of the rising tension with Japan with one job to do—protect the fleet—and they failed. Most historians side with this school. Among them are the Pulitzer Prize-winning Samuel Eliot Morison, author of the fifteen-volume semiofficial history of the US Navy in World War II, and Roberta Wohlstetter, whose Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision first applied the concepts of information theory to the questions of intelligence at Pearl Harbor.
Each of the books under review falls into one of these two classes. Gordon W. Prange’s At Dawn We Slept belongs to the orthodox school, John Toland’s Infamy to the revisionist. Prange’s book is superior, both as history and as narrative. A historian at the University of Maryland, Prange died in May 1980. He spent thirty-seven years studying Pearl Harbor, using his …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Blame the White House? October 21, 1982