Did Roosevelt Know?

Every dozen years or so a new book comes out about Pearl Harbor. Some of these books merely tell how the attack succeeded. The more interesting ones seek to explain why. Why was it possible for a far-off country to surprise the mighty United States and sink some of its most powerful warships? The puzzle has been deepened by the knowledge that the United States had been breaking some of Japan’s codes and reading some of its secret messages.

Orthodox historians argue that Japan had cloaked its attack in such complete secrecy that no form of intelligence then used by the United States could have penetrated it. Revisionists offer a different answer. The attack succeeded, they say, through treachery—at the highest level. President Franklin D. Roosevelt is the traitor. They argue that Roosevelt, eager to get America into World War II to save Britain and defeat Hitler, needed an enemy attack on American forces to unite the nation. To ensure that such an attack would succeed, he and his subordinates withheld intelligence from Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, commander-in-chief of the Pacific Fleet, and Lieutenant General Walter C. Short, commanding general of the Hawaiian Department. Roosevelt thus was responsible for the deaths of 2,400 Americans and the sinking of eleven warships to get his war.

Among the revisionists are some distinguished historians: Charles A. Beard, a former president of the American Historical Association, for example, and John Toland, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author. The newest, most ambitious revisionist author, Robert B. Stinnett, a former photographer on the staff of the Oakland Tribune, is not in their class. He has spent a decade and a half on Day of Deceit but has come up with the most irrational of the revisionist books.

Stinnett posits a conspiracy so immense as to dwarf anything the earlier revisionists had proposed. One theory, for example, required only that the chief of naval operations sneak into the office of a subordinate, find in his files an intercept revealing the coming attack, and destroy it. Stinnett contends, however, that many naval officers passed documents to Roosevelt and his advisers while keeping them from Kimmel; they then concealed their acts from congressional investigators and historians—until Stinnett unearthed the conspiracy. He maintains that newly released documents, new interviews with aging survivors, and government suppression of papers support his view. But he misreads the record, misunderstands intelligence, mishandles facts, and misdirects readers.

One expert on communications intelligence found twenty-three pages containing technical errors in the first third of Stinnett’s book before publication, but the author refused to correct any. Another concluded a detailed review of Stinnett’s book in the journal Cryptologia, by saying,

To those of us who are familiar with Japanese naval codes and communications procedures at the time, available documentation in the Pearl Harbor arena as well as the pertinent personnel and history of OP-20-G [the Navy’s communication intelligence center], it is abundantly clear that the book fails to prove any part …

This article is available to Online Edition and Print Premium subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.