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Nothing New Under the [Rising] Sun

Sixty-six years ago today, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, which turned out to be about as smart of a strategic move as taunting the New England Patriots just before the game.  During subsequent years, there was an inevitable investigation into why and how the US got caught so flat-footed, and who, if anyone, was to blame.

Decades later, revisionist historians reopened this debate.  In the 1970's, not coincidently in the time of Watergate and lingering questions about the Kennedy assassination and the Gulf of Tonkin, it was fairly popular to blame Pearl Harbor on ... FDR.  The logic was (and still is, among a number of historians) that FDR was anxious to bring the US into the war, but was having trouble doing so given the country's incredibly isolationist outlook during the 1920's and 1930's.  These historians argue that FDR knew about the Pearl Harbor attack but did nothing (or in the most aggressive theories, actually maneuvered to encourage the attack) in order to give FDR an excuse to bring America into the war.  The evidence is basically in three parts:

  • The abjectly unprepared state of the Pearl Harbor base, when there were so many good reasons at the time to be on one's toes (after all, the Japanese were marching all over China, Germany was at the gates of Moscow, and France had fallen) could only be evidence of conspiracy.
  • The most valuable fleet components, the carriers, had at the last minute been called away from Pearl Harbor.  Historians argue that they were moved to protect them from an attack known to be coming to Pearl.  They argue that FDR wanted Pearl to be attacked, but did not want to lose the carriers.
  • Historians have found a number of captured Japanese signals and US intelligence warnings that should have been clear warming of a Pearl Harbor attack.

I have always been pretty skeptical of this theory, for several reasons:

  • First, I always default to Coyote's Law, which says

When the same set of facts can be explained equally well by

  1. A massive conspiracy coordinated without a single leak between hundreds or even thousands of people    -OR -
  2. Sustained stupidity, confusion and/or incompetence

Assume stupidity.

I think it is more than consistent with human history to assume that if Pearl Harbor was stupidly unprepared, that the reason was in fact stupidity, and not a clever conspiracy

  • The carrier argument is absurd, and is highly influenced by what we know now rather than what we knew in December of 1941.  We know now that the carriers were the most valuable fleet component, but no one really knew it then (except for a few mavericks).  Certainly, if FDR and his top brass knew about the attack, no one would have been of the mindset that the carriers were the most important fleet elements to save.
  • I find it to be fairly unproductive to try to sort through intelligence warnings thirty years after the fact.  One can almost ALWAYS find that some warning or indicator existed for every such event in history.  The problem occurs in real-time, when such warnings are buried in the midst of hundreds of other indicators, and are preceded by years of false warnings of the same event.
  • I don't really deny that FDR probably wanted an excuse to get the country in the war.  However, I have never understood why a wildly succesful Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was more necessary than, say, an attack met strongly at the beach.  I can understand why FDR might have allowed the attack to happen, but why would he leave the base undefended.  The country would have gotten wound up about the attack whether 5 ships or 10 were destroyed.

It is interesting how so much of this parallels the logic of the 9/11 conspiracists.  And, in fact, I have the same answer for both:  I don't trust the government.  I don't put such actions and motivations past our leaders.  But I don't think the facts support either conspiracy.  And I don't think the government is capable of maintaining such a conspiracy for so long. 

Posted on December 7, 2007 at 09:10 AM | Permalink


I'm a Naval History buff with my main interest being US Navy carrier operations. I remember hearing a paper presented in 1987 that declared the Pearl Harbor attack a "blessing" for the US Navy. The reasons for this were presented a follows.

1. The attack on Pearl forced the US Navy to rely on its carriers and submarines. This lead to changes in doctrine and tactics that persist until this day.

2. The attack on Pearl, combined with the Lend Lease program, forced the US Navy to modernize its ships. The US Fleet prior to December 7th was out classed by the Japanese fleet.

3. The attack on Pearl saved thousands of US lives. If the Japanese had launched it's attacks without attacking Pearl, the US Fleet would have sailed to meet them, probably in the Phillipines. Considering that a large number of the dead came from one ship (the Arizona), how many deaths would there have been if the outclassed US Fleet had met the Japanese Fleet in the open ocean?

4. Probably the most important reason, given current events, the attack united the US people, including both political parties, giving them a common goal and the resolve to carry it out.

By the way, I like Pittsburgh's chances on Sunday too!

Posted by: Jim Collins | Dec 7, 2007 9:59:37 AM

Putting aside my general distaste for conspiracy theories, I've always found your last bullet to be the most persuasive -- assuming Roosevelt wanted us in the war, what was the gain in allowing the attack to succeed?

By the way, you're missing one of the more popular recent conspiracy theories -- it was actually Churchill who knew all about it, but didn't notify us, because he wanted us in the war. Same problem -- why would he want his new ally to come into the war wounded?

But pointing out anything like that is like trying to convince people that extreme heat weakens steel.

Posted by: BobH | Dec 7, 2007 10:06:19 AM

If the gov't were actually able to effectively carry out a huge covert conspiracy without any leaks, maybe i wouldnt be so scared of it running our healthcare system.

Unfortunately our "evil scheming administration" couldn't even out an "agent" or fire a couple of lawyers without it being a huge scandal.

Posted by: bryan | Dec 7, 2007 10:20:29 AM

The first rule of disasters is there is always a "I told you it was going to happen" memo somewhere. The question then becomes which the Congress critters nerver seem to ask is who read the memo and what if anything did they do.

Jim Collins, comment #2 - The US Navy ordered 8 Essex class carriers in September, 1940 so the modernization was well under way more than a year before Pearl Harbor.

Posted by: | Dec 7, 2007 11:25:35 AM

You make the same argument I have lots of times: in 1941, naval combat was battleship combat, and no damn fool would have preserved the carriers, unproven in wartime, at the expense of the battleships.

Furthermore, if a successfully-repelled attack on Pearl were not enough to get the American people's blood up for war, then the invasion of the Philippines, launched within 24 hours, certainly would have been. Remember that the Philippines were than a US territory, akin to Puerto Rico today. Anybody want to predict the public reaction when somebody invades Puerto Rico?

Posted by: Dan | Dec 7, 2007 11:32:54 AM

I think your Coyote's Law is just an alternate form of Occam's Razor.

Posted by: Jeffrey Ellis | Dec 7, 2007 12:53:23 PM

Dan: today? I think leftist intellectuals and the media would say that Bush is just looking for an excuse to attack Venezuela. I think the average Joe would be confused.

Posted by: Bearster | Dec 7, 2007 1:00:52 PM

They also ordered Gato class subs before Pearl Harbor, but Congress was playing footsie with the funding for both. After the attack on Pearl the Navy was given what amounts to a blank check. As far as a conspiracy goes, I believe that Roosevelt and Churchill both had indicators that something was going to happen, but they expected it to happen else where. Kind of sounds familiar, doesn't it?

Posted by: Jim Collins | Dec 7, 2007 2:15:04 PM

Anybody want to predict the public reaction when somebody invades Puerto Rico?

Confusion, followed by relief?

Posted by: AC | Dec 7, 2007 3:16:18 PM

"in 1941, naval combat was battleship combat": except that the successful British carrier attack on the Italian navy at Tarranto implied otherwise.

Posted by: dearieme | Dec 7, 2007 3:21:33 PM

"War Plan Orange", which was the U.S. Navy's plan for fighting a battle in the Pacific against the Japanese, specifically envisioned a "decisive battle" between battleship surface fleets which would occur somewhere in the Western Pacific. Carrier forces were secondary to this plan because it was envisioned that air cover would be available from the Philippines. So it is correct to say that -- as far as the U.S. Navy was concerned -- naval combat in 1941 was battleship combat.

Pearl Harbor was viewed as being to shallow to attack from torpedo bombers. The Japanese studied the British attack on Taranto very closely. The British used a special cradle that allowed the torpedoes to be dropped in shallower than normal water.

The simple fact is that he interwar U.S. Navy was deficient in both its strategic thinking (battleship combat) and its tactics (not learning from Taranto, being completely outclassed in night fighting by the Japanese). Jim Collins is right, the execution of War Plan Orange probably would have resulted in the destruction of most of the U.S. surface fleet and god knows how many deaths.

Posted by: jimk | Dec 7, 2007 5:57:40 PM

The U.S. was already reading Japanese naval & diplomatic code, and knew something was afoot. Hence Phillipines, etc. on alert. This isn't controversial (nor does it prove conspiracy).

Coyote's law is incomplete: 3. The facts can also be explained by an inept, bungled, shortsighted, half-assed conspiracy.

The "what would FDR or whomever have gained from this" tack usually assumes a level of foresight and unbounded rationality that we've no good reason to assume.

Posted by: Mr. X | Dec 7, 2007 11:59:09 PM

Coyote's law to me sounds like a corollary of one of Robert A. Heinlein's observations: Never understimate the power of human stupidity.

That short sentence has served me well in my dealings with bureaucracies.

Posted by: Gorgasal | Dec 8, 2007 1:17:53 AM

Einstein said, “The difference between genius and stupidity is that genius has its limits.”
Oscar Wilde said "there is no sin except stupidity."
Voltaire said “The only way to comprehend what mathematicians mean by Infinity is to contemplate the extent of human stupidity."

People so tied up in conspiracies that they fail to see the world around them, just add to the general background of stupidity.

Posted by: Al Fin | Dec 8, 2007 8:49:30 AM

i've always though the "Pearl Harbor Conspiracy" theorizing was pretty much of a red herring when he it is incontestable that FDR was doing everything he could to provoke BOTH Japan and Germany into providing a casus belli. This while he was telling the US public "I hate war" and "your boys won't fight in a foreign war."

For info on FDR's undeclared war in the North Atlantic:

Posted by: steve r | Dec 8, 2007 9:12:40 AM

I find it far too hard to believe in the 9/11 official version. I think it's going to be like JFK though - we're probably never going to know what really happened.

And the government CAN maintain conspiracies, it has been doing so all through the 20th century. Society reacts to such revelations as MK-ULTRA for example with blandness and the "I won't think about this for I cannot do anything about it" mentality.

Posted by: Mesila | Dec 9, 2007 3:29:22 AM

Yeah, 50 years ago the cia slipped a couple mickey's. The fact that you know about it is more proof then anything that the governments ability to maintain conspiracies is practically nill. Hardly lends credence to your argument against the 9/11 "official version".

Posted by: bryan | Dec 10, 2007 8:04:53 AM

I thought that it was pretty much accepted that we knew and let the attack proceed.

Posted by: ParatrooperJJ | Dec 10, 2007 9:58:41 AM

No conspiracy here, other than what McCollum's (Office of naval Intelligence) memo to FDR on Oct 7, 1940 suggests:

It is not believed that in the present state of political opinion the United States government is capable of declaring war against Japan without more ado; and it is barely possible that vigorous action on our part might lead the Japanese to modify their attitude. Therefore, the following course of action is suggested:

A. Make an arrangement with Britain for the use of British bases in the Pacific, particularly Singapore.
B. Make an arrangement with Holland for the use of base facilities and acquisition of supplies in the Dutch East Indies.
C. Give all possible aid to the Chinese government of Chiang-Kai-Shek.
D. Send a division of long range heavy cruisers to the Orient, Philippines, or Singapore.
E. Send two divisions of submarines to the Orient.
F. Keep the main strength of the U.S. fleet now in the Pacific in the vicinity of the Hawaiian Islands.
G. Insist that the Dutch refuse to grant Japanese demands for undue economic concessions, particularly oil.
H. Completely embargo all U.S. trade with Japan, in collaboration with a similar embargo imposed by the British Empire.

All of which FDR promptly put into action......

Posted by: WTF | Apr 25, 2008 11:02:29 AM

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