From History News Network

Subject: Pearl Harbor Myths
Posted By: Bernard Weisberger
Date Posted: June 15, 2001, 9:24 AM
I am sorry to see my friend Tom Fleming betrayed by his Roosevelt-o-phobia into an inaccurate set of statements that detract from his record as an historian and writer. First of all, the quotation from Frank Knox’s diaries that FDR expected to be "hit but not hurt" prove merely that he was anticipating a war with Japan, as was nearly everyone with any sense in November of 1941. In no way does it furnish incontestable evidence of an invited attack.

Secondly, Fleming wonders why there was a seemingly abrupt cut-off of oil to Japan in August of 1941, and he even seems to suggest that somehow this justified the Imperial Government in feeling threatened. In fact, Japan was in firm control of China’s coast, had moved into Indochina after the fall of France, and was clearly poised to attack British and Dutch possessions in south-east Asia, easy targets with The Netherlands occupied and Britain still under aerial and sea siege. What was more, the USSR looked to be on the verge of being overwhelmed by the 3-month-old blitzkrieg, and the prospect of an Axis about to seize control of the combined resources of Asia and Europe was a real one. To continue fueling Japan’s war machine for another year in order to "stall off Japan" would have been a reckless and foolish course for any President. A restraining move had to be made—and if the U.S. forces in the Pacific weren’t ready to handle the results, some of the blame might be laid at the feet of a Congress that had starved the Army (but not the Navy) for years prior to the Roosevelt-initiated buildup of 1940.

True, Roosevelt was clandestinely waging a naval war with Germany in order to keep Britain’s lifelines open. But that is all the more reason why FDR might not have wanted to bring on a war with Japan. There was no guarantee that Hitler would honor his pact with Tokyo and if he had not, the chances of getting the U.S. Congress to declare war against him while we were actively fighting Japan would have been slim. Moreover, whatever polls showed, the isolationists of 1941 appealed to the concept of staying out of Europe’s, not Asia’s fights. A possible war with Japan (especially after the 1937 sinking of the U.S.S. Panay while on patrol in the Yangtze River) was a frequent topic of discussion and would not necessarily have been unpopular or considered a "foreign war" comparable to that between Britain and Germany.

And what government with a concern for public opinion wouldn’t find useful to have the enemy fire the first shot? Who would have anticipated a blow by stealth before a declaration of war? And on Hawaii, a U.S. Territory thousands of miles from Japan, and thousands of miles closer to the Philippines which we were pledged to defend—so much for Admiral Richardson’s idea of basing the Pacific fleet at San Diego? How could the State Department’s supposedly "intransigent" response to Japan’s November proposals be responsible for the Japanese attack when the Japanese strike force was already en route?

And finally, since a "war warning" based on our reading of the Japanese diplomatic code was in fact issued on November 27th, why weren’t defensive precautions immediately taken by the commanders on the ground at Pearl? The answer goes to the only accurate part of Fleming’s assessment, namely that everyone grossly underestimated Japan’s capabilities. If we forgive Admiral Kimmel and General Short for that, why condemn Roosevelt as his haters have been doing for sixty years?


Fleming’s piece has a new twist. It fits into the entire revisionist fantasy of right-wingers like Pat Buchanan that the United States really could have avoided war with the Axis powers and perhaps combined with them to eliminate the USSR. (And then what, one wonders?) The idea that Japan would suddenly have compromised its imperial aspirations in the Pacific if war had been delayed until Tokyo saw Hitler bogged down in Russia is completely conjectural. Fleming’s recent writings suggest a further drift towards the notion that evil politicians subverted the good advice of honorable military officers on both sides of World War II.

Let it go, Tom. Yes, it’s true that World War II wasn’t entirely "the Good War" that propaganda painted, or that unconditional surrender isn’t necessarily the best policy for a wartime government to follow. And you’re right that it’s time to deconstruct many of the myths that surround the conflict But the biggest and most mean-minded of them is that Franklin D. Roosevelt, in order to get us into a war with Hitler, created and welcomed an American military disaster in the Pacific.