Answering the Conspiracy Theories: The Attack on Pearl Harbor by Gregory Hilton

BOOK REVIEWS: “Infamy: Pearl Harbor and its Aftermath” by John Toland (1982) and “The Truth About Pearl Harbor” by John T. Flynn (1944). New introduction by Laurence M. Vance, Ph.D., http://www.lewrockwell.com/vance/vance189.html

I never would have voted for President Franklin Roosevelt, and many aspects of his liberal domestic agenda were misguided. The FDIC, SEC and Social Security were all necessary, but initiatives such as the NRA and AAA only prolonged and exacerbated the Great Depression. While I am not a Roosevelt fan, I believe it is outrageous to claim he betrayed his country by hiding evidence of the impeding attack on Pearl Harbor.
For over 60 years this false accusation has been made by isolationists, and their theory is that FDR did this in order to obtain a declaration of war on Japan. That is a major theme of numerous isolationist publications.
I do not recommend either of these books. If you want to know more about Pearl Harbor without the isolationist slant, two excellent suggestions are Gordon Prange’s authoritative “At Dawn We Slept,” or John Costello’s “The Pacific War.”
Despite the obvious flaws of the above books, it is important to revisit this topic because of the attention this debate continues to receive from prominent libertarians, paleoconservatives and radical liberals. What they have in common is isolationism, conspiracy theories and claims that America was tricked into entering World War II.
Practically all of the isolationist literature lists these two books among their original sources. “The Truth About Pearl Harbor” by John T. Flynn had an initial printing of 250,000 in 1944, and this booklet was reprinted by publications such as the Chicago Daily News. Additional ammunition for the isolationists came from the late John Toland’s 1982 best seller, “Infamy: Pearl Harbor and its Aftermath.”
Toland received the Pulitzer Prize for his book “The Rising Sun,” and both authors have superior research and writing skills. Unfortunately, the evidence they provide here is flimsy, but it certainly adds gasoline to the conspiracy theory fires.
The authors relay an abundance of circumstantial evidence, but the bottom line is that there still is no evidence proving Roosevelt knew Pearl Harbor was about to be hit. There is also no document indicating we knew the position of the Japanese fleet.
Toland was married to a Japanese woman and was always sympathetic to Tokyo’s viewpoint. He emphasizes Japan’s anti-communist nature but he really loses me in trying to say the war was not imperialistic.
The Pulitzer Prize winner says “It was a tragedy that men like Stimson, Hull, Knox, and Forrestal felt obliged to join in the cover-up to make scapegoats of two innocent men, Admiral Kimmel and General Short.” He is referring to Secretary of War Henry Stimson, Secretary of State Cordell Hull, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox and our first Secretary of Defense, James V. Forrestal. Kimmel and Short were the Navy and Army commanders at Pearl Harbor.
John T. Flynn, the other author, joined socialist Norman Thomas in forming the pacifist Keep America Out of War Committee in the late 1930s. He also was one of the founders of the isolationist America First Committee.
The American First organization did include many patriotic Americans, but often it was used as a transmission belt for Nazi propaganda. Flynn also worked for the Senate’s Nye Committee which called the American defense industry “merchants of death.” He was opposed to both Lend-Lease and the Selective Service Act.
Toland tries to prove Roosevelt knew Pearl Harbor was going to be attacked, but Flynn does not go that far. He does claim it was Roosevelt who decided to start a war with Japan. He says the President allegedly reached this conclusion 11 months before the Pearl Harbor attack. According to Flynn, “We must now face a very obvious and a very ugly fact. It is that the President made up his mind that NOW was the time for a showdown with Japan, and he led the country into that showdown incredibly unprepared.”
Flynn also says “It was Roosevelt who personally managed the whole crisis. It was Roosevelt who bottled up the fleet in Pearl Harbor. It was Roosevelt who stripped the base of its defenses. . . He did not order the fleet out of Pearl Harbor where it could defend itself, because he wanted to create the appearance of being completely at peace and surprised when the Japs started shooting. ” Flynn goes on to claim FDR was totally satisfied with the readiness of our armed forces which is obviously not true. The President had no “foolish sense of security.”
Flynn’s arguments against Roosevelt are similar to the 9/11 conspiracy claims against George W. Bush. The present anti-war crowd tried to blame America for the attack on the Twin Towers because of U.S. support for Israel.
In a similar manner, Toland and Flynn claim Japan was provoked into the attacking Pearl Harbor because America was sending aid to the United Kingdom, and we had placed sanctions on Japan in response to its invasion of China and French Indo-China. According to the authors, these sanctions forced Japan into its membership in the Rome-Berlin-Tokyo Axis.
The best argument put forward by the conspiracy theory advocates is to claim Roosevelt had advance knowledge of the December 7, 1941 attack because America had broken Japan’s diplomatic and military codes. We had broken the codes and it was an intelligence coup. The result is that the commander of the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor was notified on November 24th that negotiations with Japan were not going well, and to prepare for “surprise aggressive movement in any direction by the Japanese.” The Chief of Naval Operations and the Chief of Staff of the Army were both told on the same day to expect war.
On November 27th a war warning was issued to the Army commander in Hawaii. In the first week of December the United States decoded several messages which can also be categorized as war warnings. Some of these messages were ignored at low levels, others were misinterpreted and the most important message resulted in an immediate reaction.
At 9 pm on the evening of December 6th Roosevelt sent another message to Emperor Hirohito seeking peace. At 10 pm an ominous 14 part Japanese secret communication was decoded, but we still did not know when or where they might strike. Our military chiefs were immediately informed and they were asked to come to the White House at 10 am the next morning.
Everyone realized the situation was serious but there was no message which said, “Attack Pearl Harbor on December 7 at 6:30 am.” The senior echelon of the American government believed the Philippines were the obvious target. It was thought that with the existing torpedo technology no nation would be capable of sinking American ships due to the shallowness of Pearl Harbor. We did not know of Japan’s torpedo engineering break through.
President Roosevelt was a Navy man who well knew the importance of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, and fully realized how long it would take to rebuild these ships. We are actually fortunate the fleet was not ordered out to sea because we were able to salvage many of the ships which sunk in the shallow waters of Pearl Harbor.
FDR did not need the Pearl Harbor attack to justify America’s entry into World War II. He could have just released the intelligence we already had to the public. He could have pointed to the U.S. destroyers Greer, Kearny and Reuben James which were all sunk by Nazi Germany while on patrol duty. There was also no need for the attack to be a surprise. FDR could have alerted our commanders in Hawaii and still have received a declaration of war.
The attack would have been seen as a dastardly act of aggression even if we had been on full alert and waiting for the Japanese. It would only have been to America’s advantage to have inflicted heavy losses on the Empire of Japan.
On the other hand, if the attack had been more successful, America might have been knocked out of the war before it began. The original attack plan called for the destruction of the oil depot, the submarine pens, the ship repair yard as well as the aircraft carriers. The Japanese Zero fighter planes were outfitted to knock out all of those facilities, but for the most part they were untouched. The Japanese also considered invading and holding onto Hawaii. Losing Hawaii as a base of operations would have been a huge blow.
Then the Pacific campaign would have been conducted from distant California. The isolationists also ignore the fact that Roosevelt did not know Nazi Germany would enter the war against America. Germany was not obligated to fight any country which was at war with Japan. Nor was Japan obligated to declare war on countries Germany was fighting. The so-called Pact of Steel was a mutual assistance agreement.
Flynn’s explanation of the Tripartite Pact is misleading. It would have gone into effect if America attacked Japan, not the other way around. Numerous German generals were baffled by Hitler’s declaration of war on the U.S. Hitler had abandoned many pacts before, and this was perhaps the only time the Fuehrer felt an obligation to assist a treaty partner.
Roosevelt always felt the real danger to the world was Hitler, not Japan. If FDR wanted to enter the European war, why would he encourage an attack by Japan?
The above introduction to Flynn’s booklet is by isolationist Lawrence Vance, an adjunct instructor in accounting at Pensacola Junior College. He previously wrote “The Rotten Republicans” about the GOP victory in 1994. He calls Republicans “stupid and evil” and accuses John McCain of being a “war criminal.” He says no one should join the U.S. military, and denounces those who join our armed forces. He feels no war is justified, including World War II, and wrote a book attacking Abraham Lincoln.
America was definitely unprepared for war, but there was no secret conspiracy. Once again, the United States had decoded 13 of the 14 parts of a secret message the evening before the attack. This was the final transmission from Tokyo to its Washington embassy prior to the war.
It contained an ultimatum the Japanese Ambassador was instructed to deliver to Secretary of State Hull at 1 pm Washington time, which was 6:00 am in Hawaii, warning of a breach in relations. It also contained instructions for the Japanese delegation to destroy their code machines, a clear indication they intended to break relations with the U.S. The United States immediately assumed the decoded message were a declaration of war. Warnings were sent out by both the Army and the Navy to commands in Hawaii and the Pacific in general.
The Navy’s link to Pearl Harbor was via a one kilowatt radio transmitter but the message did not go through because of static in the ionosphere that evening. The Army had a ten kilowatt transmitter. Its messages went through but the Navy did not ask the Army to warn the Pacific Fleet.
They instead sent an encrypted message via Western Union. The bicycle courier arrived at Pacific Fleet headquarters 8 hours after the attack. General laxity of the Army and the Navy in Hawaii prior to Pearl Harbor contributed more to Japanese success than any other single factor. They did not keep the radar stations monitored full time, their patrols were inadequate, and when approaching planes were spotted on radar the Army mistakenly assumed they were U.S. aircraft.
Any criticism of the lack of U.S. war supplies is entirely justified. America was the 17th ranked military power at the time of Pearl Harbor and our soldiers had to train with wooden guns. General Hap Arnold in discussing the Army Air Corps said “Dec. 7 found the Army with plans but no planes.”
The Army commander in Hawaii did have 10 hours of warning but he was worried about sabotage rather than an aerial attack. He did not understand the warning.
The U.S. military thought the Imperial Japanese Navy was still anchored in their Inland Sea, and we had no idea four aircraft carriers were within 200 miles and a group of submarines were approaching Hawaii’s Diamond Head. Even by 1943 we still did not realize what Japan had accomplished.
Two years after the war began senior Navy officers were speculating that the attack had been made by only two aircraft carriers. Our Navy thought the carriers Akagi and Kaga were too old and slow for such an attack, and we had not realized the Shokado and Zuikaku were already in operational service.
The White House was obviously highly worried about an attack in the Pacific, but once again, no one in the American government was sure of the location. Our senior military leaders were assuming the Philippines would be Japan’s logical target. The discussion about Pearl Harbor was only speculation.
Among other arguments raised by the isolationists are the sanctions imposed on Japan by the United States in response to Tokyo’s continued aggressive policies. The isolationists claim World War II was America’s fault because of these sanctions.
Japan took over one-third of China (Manchuria) as a colony in 1931, and full scale war broke out between Japan and China on July 7, 1937. In 1939, the U.S. renounced the Treaty of Commerce which was signed by both nations in 1911. When Japanese troops entered northern French Indo-China (Vietnam) a partial embargo of aviation gasoline and scrap-metal was imposed in July 1940. This had no impact and Japan took over southern Indo-China in July, 1941. The U.S. then imposed a freeze on all Japanese assets as well as a complete oil embargo on August 1, 1941.
It would have sent a terrible message to Germany and Italy if Japan was allowed to completely get away with such naked aggression. The U.S. sanctions would have been relaxed if Japan had left southern Indo-China. We also wanted them to break the Tripartite Pact of Alliance with Germany and Italy, and to leave China.
The last two items were the subject of negotiation. The Pearl Harbor came fours years after the “Rape of Nanking” where over 300,000 people died and the American warship Panay was sunk by Japan. Secretary of State Cordell Hull and others believed that if the U.S. demonstrated strong opposition and took a firm attitude to Japan’s expansion in Indo-China, the Tokyo government would back off. Japan instead wanted to spread its “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.”
They thought the key to doing this was knocking out the U.S. Pacific Fleet, which would remove the main obstacle to Japan’s conquests. The isolationists also point to FDR’s promise one week before his 1940 re-election to avoid “foreign military wars.” What they do not explain is that when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor it was no longer a foreign war.
The Pearl Harbor attack was the subject of the bipartisan Roberts Commission investigation as well as in-depth hearings before the U.S. Senate in 1945. John T. Flynn was one of the attendees. The hearings were held in the large Caucus Room and were well publicized. It was the biggest Congressional investigation in 12 years, and the Roberts Commission and the Senators completely rejected the conspiracy theories.
Toland and Flynn are the best of the isolationist conspiracy theory believers. Most people who peddle these theories have no respectable sources. The fact that a claim has been made by anybody, anywhere, is enough for them to reproduce it and demand answers to these rumors.
They will never admit they are wrong but will instead compile an endless list of minute details that in no way prove their case. They always claim the official account is wrong and they take quotes of context to try to prove their point.
In hindsight we wish many things had happened differently in the weeks leading up to the Pearl Harbor attack. We wish messages had been decoded earlier, or that our military officers had realized the serious nature of what Japan was doing. We wish the instructions given to the Navy and Army commanders at Pearl Harbor had been clearer.
John T. Flynn died in 1964 but his writings continue to be actively promoted by the John Birch Society (JBS) and the Libertarian Party. He shared the JBS goals of removing the United States from the United Nations, and denouncing the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). He wrote “We must rid America of the United Nations, which provides the communist conspiracy with a headquarters here on our own shores.”
Flynn also did not want America to have a bipartisan foreign policy and he attacked the CFR because both Dean Acheson and John Foster Dulles — secretaries of state from opposing parties — were members. Flynn was always against defense spending and overseas military action, even when the communists were the enemy. He joined the left wing in opposing the Korean War. President Harry Truman responded to those critics by calling them “Kremlin assets,” and the sort of miscreants who would shoot “our soldiers in the back in a hot war.” National Review made the right decision when it rejected Flynn and the JBS.
The bottom line is that Franklin Roosevelt did not know Japan would attack Pearl Harbor. What is obvious with nearly 70 years of hindsight was not obvious in 1941. Even if he thought Japan would try an aggressive move he never imagined a full frontal assault on American forces in a sneak attack on the Pacific Fleet. If the Japanese had been willing to consolidate their gains in north China the United States might have left them alone.
In most events like this it is easy to look back and find puzzle pieces that allow conspiracy theory advocates to jump to a conclusion. It is much harder, however, to do this in real time without the blessing of hindsight.
Many now say we should have known 9/11 was going to happen, but at the time it was unimaginable. After the fact we can see evidence indicating it was going to take place. The conspiracy theories continue to grow despite the massive evidence demonstrating that George Bush did not bring down the twin towers. LBJ and the CIA did not assassinate John F. Kennedy. Adolph Hitler did not escape to Argentina, and the British Royal family did not have Lady Diana killed.
There was no conspiracy at Pearl Harbor and the Japanese were not duped into war by the manipulative Americans.

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