Sunday, January 10, 2010

Pearl Harbor and 9/11: The Conspiracy Theorist's "If...Then..." Statement

Original post 12/7/06

With this marking the 65th anniversary of the "day that will live in infamy", inumerable editorials and essays will be written comparing WWII to the War in Iraq and the wider fight against terrorism. Invevitably, the conspiracy theories surrounding FDR's foreknowledge of an attack on Pearl Harbor, "the backdoor to war" theory, will be dredged up again and contemporized with comparisons to similar theories about a government conspiracy being behind 9/11. You see, if it could happen then, it could happen now, right? The problem, of course, is that it didn't happen then.

In 1981, Gordon Prange's At Dawn We Slept was published posthumously. Prange had served in post-War Japan and eventually gone on to being a history professor at the University of Maryland. He spent a lifetime accumulating both Japanese and American documents and conducting interviews in a quest to determine whether or not there was a conspiracy.

Prange clearly lays the Pearl Harbor attack at the feet of the attackers and, more broadly, he clearly blames Japanese foreign policy and militarism for aggression in China, expansion in Southeast Asia and for making the decision to go to war with the U.S.

According to Prange, many within the Japanese navy and military opposed an attack on Pearl Harbor. The actual plan was devised by Minoru Genda, a Japanese Air officer, and it was only approved at the 11th hour when Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto threatened to resign. (One of the bigger ironies is that Yamamoto had tried to convince his superiors that going to war with the U.S.--with it's population, economic and industrial might--was not a good idea). One of those who had disagreed was Admiral Chuichi Nagumo but the rules of seniority dictated that he lead the attack and he followed his orders. Howerver, Nagumo had very little experience with naval aviation and Yamamoto assigned Genda to Nagumo's command. In short, neither the Japanese plan nor the men implementing it were infallible.

In fact, the Japanese unwittingly gave the U.S. some clues of an imminent attack and Prange provides some examples of such early warnings that could and should have tipped off U.S. forces that something was up. One example was that the first casualty of the attack was a Japanese submarine that was sunk by a U.S. destroyer one hour before the attack. This might have been reported to the U.S. Army in Oahu, which might have put the island on alert. But it didn't happen. Such clues could have been gathered and analyzed with greater imagination and less red tape in Honolulu and Washington, D.C.

At this point, it's worth taking leave of Prange for a bit and treating with Roberta Wohlstetter, whose Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision still provides one of the best studies of the uses and functions of military and political intelligence in crisis.*

Wohlstetter outlined the U.S. "magic" intelligence operation that enabled the U.S. to read Japanese diplomatic codes (not military), and thus any attempt to claim that U.S. codebreakers had information regarding an attack was missplaced. In addition to "magic", radio signals were picked up that may have led someone to conclude that an attack was imminent, but Wholstetter notes that such signals only appear to be the most important in hindsight and that, within the course of day to day activity, they may have been missed or lost in the general "noise" of the time.

As Wohlstetter emphasized, any technical advantages were often outweighed and hamstrung by the organizational defects and shortage of personnel within the U.S. Government. Even when accurate and valuable intelligence was gathered, there were still two hurdles to jump. First, the decision makers at the top had to be persuaded that the intelligence was important. Second, even if this was accomplished, there were institutional and bureaucratic roadblocks that frustrated attempts to turn information into actionable orders. As Walter Millis wrote in his review of Wohlstetter's book (American Historical Review, volume 68, #2):
The best intelligence in the world will never give unambiguous signs; it must leave it to statesmanship to make those hard decisions to which no certainty as to outcome or effect can ever attach.
Prange concluded that most U.S. officials in positions of authority knew that an attack like that which would occur at Pearl Harbor was possible, but most believed the Japanese would never take such a risk. Washington was focused on threats in SE Asia, not Hawaii, and they mistakenly believed that the commanders in Oahu had been properly warned and were prepared for a potential attack.

Admiral Husband Kimmel and General Walter Short commanded the Navy and Army at Pearl Harbor, respectively. After the attack at Pearl Harbor, both would be charged by the Roberts Commission with "dereliction of duty" and cast as the scapegoats. (Eventually, though, history would rectify the situation). Prange concluded that this was undeserved and determined that blame for being unprepared for the Pearl Harbor attack went from FDR on down.

That's not to say that Prange didn't find shortcomings with each commander, however. Kimmel didn't conduct long-range air reconnaisance during the week prior to the attack and Short misunderstood his mission: he was prepared for sabotage and safeguarded against this threat by clustering his planes together because it was easier to protect them if they were grouped together. Unfortunately, this made them all the more easy to hit from the air. He hadn't taken an air assault into account.

As for Washington, Prange explained that the Navy and War departments didn't do a good job of keeping Kimmel and Short up to speed and they didn't follow up on various warnings. The War department mistakenly thought that Short was on alert for both sabotage and other forms of assault and a number of key men in the Navy department actually thought that Kimmel's entire fleet (not just a few aircraft carriers) was at sea. Finally, Prange laid some blame at the feet of FDR, who he believed treated Japan to lightly and whose desire to not alarm the American public of the growing crisis with Japan left the public unprepared for war.

Prange summarized his conclusions thus:
Pearl Harbor resulted from a vast combination of interrelated, complicated, and strange historical factors: on the one hand, bountiful human errors of great variety, false assumptions, fallacious views, a vast store of intelligence badly handled; on the other, precise planning, tireless training, fanactical dedication, iron determination, technical know-how, tactical excellence, clever deception measures, intelligence well gathered and effectively disseminated, plain guts--and uncommon luck. (pp. xv-xvi)
Couldn't the same be said of 9/11?
We learned that the institutions charged with protecting our borders, civil aviation, and national security did not understand how grave this threat [terrorism] could be, and did not adjust their policies, plans, and practices to deter or defeat it. We learned of fault lines within our government--between foreign and domestic intelligence, and between and within agencies. We learned of the pervasive problems of managing and sharing information across a large and unwieldy government that had been built in a different era to confront different dangers.

{From the Preface of The 9/11 Commission Report}
To expect a large, sloth-like federal government to be flexible enough to take preventative actions in the face of unforseen threats is not realistic. Both Japan and terrorism were viewed as distant threats by the U.S. government. Of course, in each instance, there were those within the national defense and political structure who were alarmed and attempted to warn their superiors that oceans didn't protect the U.S. 9/11 wasn't the first time that those who had suspicions of a pending attack couldn't get themselves heard, through no fault of their own. The experience of Pearl Harbor shows that, tragically, the inability of government to act preemptively is neither new nor surprising.

ADDENDUM: For a historiographical survey of the "back door to war" debate amongst historians, Martin V. Melosi's "The Triumph of Revisionism: The Pearl Harbor Controversy, 1941-1982" {The Public Historian, Vol.5, No.2 (Spring 1983)} is very useful. Melosi himself is a Pearl Harbor revisionist (The Shadow of Pearl Harbor: Political Controversy over the Surprise Attack, 1941-1976), and while he "accept[s] the revisionist claim that the Roosevelt administration initiated a cover-up of Pearl Harbor" he also ultimately disagreed with the notion that "FDR and his chief advisors had encouraged the attack and therefore were trying to conceal their guilt." Instead, Melosi believes "that they wished to protect Roosevelt's foreign policy by quashing a political controversy over the question of responsibility." ("Triumph of Revisionism, 90.").

Frankly, I haven't the stomach to venture into the world of 9/11 conspiracy debunking, though Popular Mechanics (and many others) have.

* Its' worth mentioning that a Google search of Wohlstetter's book leads to a copy of a 1966 critique of same by Charles C. Hiles, who accuses Wholstetter of using the "blurout" method to distract the reader from the "real facts" of the attack. A close reading of Hiles piece indicates that he agrees that there was too much "noise" in Washington, but he asserts that Wholstetter's focus on contingency is misplaced and that an unseen "monkey wrench" had been thrown into the gears of government. That there was an invisible wall put up between the political branch and the military and that:
The unseen "monkey wrench" was having its effect; the gears were grinding, producing plenty of "noise" but of a far different kind than that heard by Dr. Wohlstetter.

There is no need to elaborate here on the mechanics of this figurative operational "monkey wrench." It was a hydra-headed thing of which considerations of space prohibit any detailed exposition in a brief discussion such as this.
Thus, the "monkey wrench" was a widespread government conspiracy, plain to see by all, but too complicated for him to have explained. According to Hiles we were headed to war anyway because FDR had been provoking the Japanese for just such an outcome. Pearl Harbor was just cover. See Melosi, above.


Perry Logan said...

The conspiracy theory about FDR and Pearl Harbor doesn't even make sense on the face of it.

Even if he had known about the attack and known exactly when it would occur, Roosevelt would have scrambled the American military and fended it off. The U.S. ould thenceforth be at war with Japan--and FDR would look like a hero.

So, even if FDR knew, there would be no need to let us get clobbered.

As for 9/11, it was sheer, mind-boggling incompetence at the top--the same fecklessness and incompetence that lost New Orleans.

Unknown said...

There would be no need to let us get clobbered? After Pearl Harbor, everyone in America wanted to join the war. Before that, NO ONE did!
Watch the History Channel, it now admits that FDR knew about the attack and let it happen. He intercepted the "Death Blow" message and removed the translation machines from Pearl Harbor.
There is no "conspiracy theory". FDR knew of the attack and let it happen so the Americans would be ready to go to war. (sound familiar at all?)

Anonymous said...

I think his point is that FDR could have prepared and shot down the Japanese just before Pearl Harbor was reached, with almost the same effect.

Anonymous said...

What most people tend to forget is that FDR wasn’t focusing on Japan before the attack on Pearl Harbour. His main concern was Hitler and the British/Soviet struggle to keep him at bay. That is why he came up with “the Destroyers for Bases Agreement” and the “Lend-Lease agreement”. He even let US ships escort British convoys as far as Iceland. On October 31, 1941 the USS Reuben James fell victim to a German torpedo. One could say that Germany and the US were already fighting an undeclared war during the fall of 1941.
Eventually the attack on Pearl Harbour pulled the US into a war, not with Germany but with Japan. It was not the war FDR wanted. He was strongly committed to the Allied cause and the defeat of Nazi Germany had his priority. He would have a big problem explaining his fellow countryman that he would not commit his main effort against the Japanese attacker but against a country that was technically speaking not at war with the US; Germany. Luckily Hitler solved that problem for FDR within a few days, on the 11th of December 1941 Germany declared war on the US. (Apart from the attack on the USSR perhaps the greatest blunder Hitler made during WW2; Germany had only obligations with Japan concerning defence, not attack)