Pearl Harbor: It’s Taken 75 Years for the Truth to Emerge

The Scapegoating of the Military Leaders at Pearl Harbor

Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan, authors of A Matter of Honor: Pearl Harbor: Betrayal, Blame, and a Family's Quest for Justice. Photo credit: Eileen Hyland; Harper Collins

There has been a lot of loose talk lately about news reporting that should be factual and truthful, particularly with respect to political and geopolitical events. The Kennedy assassination and 9/11 are two contemporary examples where the search for the truth has consumed the lives of so many who cared deeply about the facts.

Anthony Summers has studied and written about both 9/11 and the JFK murder. Now, together with hispartner Robbyn Swan, he turns his focus to the events at Pearl Harbor, 75 years ago.

Pearl Harbor was the deadliest attack against the US before 9/11 as 2,403 men perished on that day in 1941.

Immediately following the attack, President Franklin D. Roosevelt established a commission to go to Hawaii and try and find out what happened. Summers finds however, there is more blame in Washington than in Hawaii — the Chief of Naval Operations Harold Stark, and even the esteemed and revered General George Marshall.

Summers and Swan also believe that Admiral Husband Kimmel and the Army’s Hawaiian commander Lt. Gen. Walter Short were unfairly forced into retirement and scapegoated for the event.

There is lots more to learn as WhoWhatWhy’s Jeff Schechtman talks with Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan.


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Full Text Transcript:

Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to Radio WhoWhatWhy, I’m Jeff Schechtman.

75 years ago the nation suffered what had been prior to 9/11, the worst attack on its shores. Not surprisingly, the events surrounding that attack on Pearl Harbor have been for 75 years the subject of almost endless debate, speculation, and blame. Understanding history is never perfect. The rearview mirror is not always clear. But in their new book on the events surrounding Pearl Harbor, historian and journalist, Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan, come as close as possible. Anthony Summers is the author of nine previous books including The 11th Day, which was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for history. Summers has traveled worldwide for the BBC. He was deputy editor of their flagship program Panorama and his books have been the basis for major television documentaries. Robbyn Swan is the author of four previous books with Anthony Summers. She worked as a researcher for John le Carré and has written for Salon, National Journal, The Daily Telegraph, and has contributed to documentaries for PBS and the History Channel. It is my pleasure to welcome Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan to talk about their new book A Matter of Honor: Pearl Harbor, Betrayal, Blame, and a Family’s Quest for Justice. Anthony Summers, Robbyn Swan, thanks so much for joining us on Radio WhoWhatWhy.

Anthony Summer & Robbyn Swan: Thank you.

Jeff: Anthony, I want to start with you. Your last book focused on the events surrounding 9/11. Talk a little bit about the nexus between 9/11 and the work you did looking back on what happened at Pearl Harbor.

Anthony: We have covered both 9/11 and Pearl Harbor because there are likenesses, great events like that, arrived with an enormous noise, news noise, and within administrations, counterclaim and claim. And they go from the very beginning, what really happened is fuzzy at the edges, unclear and then an artificial clarity is created and the key one we found in this case is that blame was placed on the commanders in Hawaii, the US commanders-in-chief in Hawaii early on. And this was not fair. They wanted, they needed to scapegoat, what one Navy administrator described years later as, “unnecessary scapegoat.” And a lot of the focus of our work over the last year or so has been trying to determine to what extent it was fair or not fair to blame the commanders on the spot.

Jeff: When one looks at that and the focus that was placed on Admiral Kimmel who was, as you say, the scapegoat who took the bulk of the blame for the events, was it because there was an effort to find a scapegoat or because the immediacy of events at the time pointed in that direction?

Robbyn: Well, as you say, I think it was partially the immediacy issue. Right after the attack there was a lot of finger-pointing, but there was also a need to bring the country together and to move on. And the commission that was hastily formed by President Roosevelt, who was himself under attack for getting the US “into a war” that he had promised not to get into – made Kimmel and Short out there in Hawaii, and as the military commanders on the scene, the natural place to staunch the flow of blood from the top. “We need to get this investigation finished and then we need to move forward as a country. And we need to keep the commanders in place. We cannot sacrifice Kimmel and Short, but also sacrifice our chief of naval operations, our chief of staff, and other senior ranking officers. So we must stop here. We must get on with the war effort.”

Jeff: Talk a little bit, Anthony, about where Roosevelt was looking to place blame.

Anthony: I don’t think Roosevelt sat in the White House and said “blame Naval Commander Admiral Kimmel and Army Commander in Hawaii General Short. It wasn’t like that. But he did appoint a presidential commission and send them to Hawaii to find out what happened. From the start that was an unbalanced way to go about it because all the answers were not in Hawaii. Many of the answers were in fact in Washington where there had been what we determined over the last couple of years of delving into tens of thousands of records, that there had been gross inefficiencies in the naval headquarters in Washington. I don’t think he gave a brief at all to go and find Kimmel and Short totally to blame for the problem. But his order was to go and find out who was to blame. And the commission went to Hawaii and did most of its investigating in Hawaii, and surprise, surprise, the blame was placed in Hawaii.

Robbyn: As a small example, Jeff, the witness testimony, so to speak, that was collected in Washington was done in sort of an ever so chummy fashion. Not under oath, by and large, groups of men meeting with the commission, sort of hashing out what they had done. In Hawaii, by contrast, men were brought in one at a time in a very adversarial courtroom-like situation without representation and grilled over their behavior under oath. So, two completely different setups give you an idea of the different tone and the different direction the evidence gathering took in each of those places.

Anthony: And officers have rights at a court-martial. This was not a court-martial. No charges were laid as such. But they were used to the idea that they would have their rights in the same way that a civilian would have rights in a civilian court in the United States. But they weren’t allowed to have an attorney or a federal officer representing them, and indeed Admiral Kimmel who was not a man subject to hysteria, I mean, he’s a very level-headed naval officer, came out at one point and said to somebody in the anteroom to the hearing in Hawaii, “What are they trying to do, crucify me?” That was the atmosphere.

Jeff: There were numerous reports that were done, numerous commissions that were set up over time to look into this. Talk about that.

Robbyn: Well, Admiral Kimmel really pushed for court-martial. So did General Short while he lived. They wanted the chance to clear their name. On the other side of that we had the fact that Roosevelt’s enemies kept using the Pearl Harbor issue repeatedly as a political blunt instrument to get at him, and that he himself was personally responsible in some way for the severity of the attack. They were pushing for further investigation. These two elements marching forward through the 1940s meant that there was a real push for investigation. At the same time, there were secrets being kept. Secrets that would have affected the war effort, had they come out. So there was this constant tension between the two, when and where it would be appropriate to have an investigation. What could be said. How much could be made public. In the end, there were nine official inquiries, after the initial investigation by the Roberts Commission that made the terrible charges against Kimmel and Short. There were subsequently Navy and Army courts of inquiry. The Navy court of inquiry, a panel of three admirals, found that Admiral Kimmel had behaved responsibly throughout, that there had been no dereliction in his part. Unfortunately, that was kept secret. Later, there were some opinions, some endorsements added to that by the secretary of the Navy, and the chief of naval operations, that were very harsh, and took a very harsh tone towards Kimmel. And that was eventually publicly released. And then later, after that, there was a very large congressional inquiry, a joint congressional inquiry, both House and Senate participation in 1945, and going into 1946. And that gave Kimmel the opportunity to speak publicly, air much of the case he could make, that he had not been properly informed of various key issues, and make his case for the defense. But by then his reputation had been so tarnished, it was not really possible to clear himself, to clear his name.

Jeff: Talk a little bit about the attitude in Washington, as there were from time to time, fingers that were pointed directly at Roosevelt.

Anthony: Roosevelt was, if not king, he was interested and in favor of joining in the war against the Nazis. He wanted on the other hand to fend off war in the Pacific. He didn’t want to be fighting on two fronts at once, so his natural position was to support basically the British in against the Nazis in the Atlantic, during the Atlantic war, and to hope that war would not break out anytime soon in the Pacific. The people, and large body of the Congress in Washington, were absolutely against the war. They were called the isolationists. And when Pearl Harbor happened, and immediately as the obvious reaction, war had to be declared against Japan. And within a couple of days, we were at war with Germany as well. There were accusations that started, rumbles, rumors started to build up and up and have lasted down the years so they become not a fact, but sort of accepted public rumor that Roosevelt had known in advance, had had some foreknowledge, possibly shared with Winston Churchill, that the Japanese were going to attack Pearl Harbor, but because Roosevelt wanted to get into the war, so went the rumor, he had allowed the attack to go ahead. We have really dug deep into those accusations and found them completely baseless.

Jeff: Talk a little bit about the chief of naval operations, Harold Stark, and his role in all of this.

Robbyn: Well, Harold Stark had been one of Admiral Kimmel’s closest friends in the Navy. And when Kimmel was appointed, Stark wrote to him and told him how happy he was that he was going to have someone with Kimmel’s can-do attitude in the post, commander-in-chief of the Pacific, and the nominal head of the entire fleet. But Stark had some flaws as an administrator. He was on all accounts, a very diplomatic man. Very intelligent man. In many ways, a kindly grandfather-type. His men thought he was a man of great honor and of personal integrity. And I don’t, to a great extent, doubt that. He did seem to be that. However, he tended to waffle. He would say one thing in a letter and then several paragraphs later say another.

Anthony: He was a [bumbler?].

Robbyn: A warning might go out, and in the next paragraph he would draw it back. He was also administering a department that had within it, some very forceful personalities. In particular his chief of war plan, Admiral Turner, who really was allowed to have too much influence over what information was sent to the fleet during 1941, and very much constrained what information flowed from Washington out to the commanders in the field. And that bottleneck, if you will, had a real influence on the intelligence that they had in the Pacific, versus the intelligence they had at home.

Anthony: To get to the nut of that, there was a wealth of intelligence that was received in Washington at Naval headquarters that never got to Kimmel, that went nowhere in some cases. We report on documents that were never unearthed until now, a naval chart showing that 10 months before the Japanese attack, US Naval intelligence had detailed evidence showing that aerial torpedoes could be successfully launched in water as shallow as that in the sharp end of Pearl Harbor. This was vital information to the men in the Pacific Coast because Pearl Harbor was extremely shallow. But a chart showing how the British had succeeded with aerial torpedoes in the same way that we now know the Japanese were going to, just seems to have been plain ignored, never passed on to Admiral Kimmel in Hawaii. And just as pertinently, they had intercepted messages sent to the Japanese spy base, to the consulate in Hawaii, early on in September, three or four months before the attack, asking him to send detailed information on which ships were in which parts of Pearl Harbor. It’s normal for navies to gather intelligence on a potential enemy’s harbors, but it is not normal to say where exactly is which battleship and where exactly is such and such  an aircraft carrier in a harbor. What are their movements? What are their routines? When do they come and go? That sort of information is a strong pointer, especially if it’s not being asked about other harbors, is a strong pointer to the notion that the potential enemy is planning an attack. There was such information. It builds up over the weeks. There came a time when instead of having such reports once a week, the Japanese wanted reports on Pearl Harbor twice a week. This was key information that Admiral Kimmel should’ve been told, but it wasn’t shared with him.

Jeff: And what did General Marshall know?

Robbyn: Well, General Marshall, like everyone in Washington, was a recipient of the material known as Magic. Magic was the super secret code breaking plan under which the US had been able to break into the Japanese diplomatic codes. Particularly high levels of diplomatic codes called Purple. And Purple, was the code being used to transmit information between Tokyo and the ambassador in Washington, who was doing the peace negotiations. Now, everyone in Washington who was receiving that information, – and it was a very small group of about 10 officers authorized to receive that – was seeing essentially what the Japanese intended to do, diplomatically before, almost before the Japanese themselves. Now, Admiral Kimmel had no access to that. That said, this intelligence did not contain the plans for the attack on Pearl Harbor. But amongst the intelligence that the Magic program gleaned, there were tidbits that did give a clue, such as the request to the spy in Tokyo for the grid layout and the position of ships and harbor. There were those kinds of teasers. Unfortunately, that Magic program was being very poorly handled. Not only were there only 10 men seeing the material, but those 10 men, because of the need for secrecy, they were seeing individual decryptions of messages one at a time. They were then taken away. They couldn’t make notes. The information was burned. They weren’t allowed to talk about it. So you had a situation where you are getting all this wonderful data, but you were seeing it only one sliver at a time. As one analyst later described it, “They were looking at the individual pictures but nobody was putting together the movie.” And so, all that wonderful intelligence was in many ways squandered before Pearl Harbor. And General Marshall was one of those who was seeing that, and not seeing it, if you will. So in that sense, Marshall, like other senior officials who saw that, bears responsibility.

Anthony: As chief of staff.

Robbyn: Exactly. On all of these questions, men don’t lower down the chain of command also bear responsibility for not doing, or not seeing. But in the military, this idea that the man in charge should be held to account, should’ve applied not just to Admiral Kimmel and to General Short, but to the men in Washington as well, to General Marshall and to Admiral Stark. And they were not really held accountable for the missteps made in Washington.

Anthony: We haven’t really touched quite in what we said so far on the ludicrous things this led to. At one point, they were so concerned with secrecy that the information, as Robbyn has said, became effectively useless. But there were ludicrous situations. The president, one might say “of course”, was one of the people permitted, one of the few people permitted to read Magic. But because one of his aides at some point had received a Magic report of a decoded message, and then it was found screwed up and thrown away in a trash basket at the White House – for a time the White House was completely cut off from the information, and then an officer would go along and read the text of the message and in front of the president and not let him keep anything, and require him just to remember it and then leave. And in the end in the last weeks, President Roosevelt, who realized rather belatedly, that this was a ridiculous situation, demanded that he get brought the text of these things again. But it was a sillly situation that continued week after week.

Robbyn: Kimmel and Short in Hawaii were accused of having been essentially asleep at the switch. There was a famous book, At Dawn We Slept. Well, it wasn’t in Hawaii that people were asleep. In the month before the attack, in the final month, the people reading Magic, saw a series of messages saying, “We must solve this problem. There must be a peace negotiation that is concluded by a deadline.” “The deadline is November 25th.” “Oh, we will give you four more days. The deadline is November the 29th. After that it will be too late. Things will be, would have been put in motion that it will be too late to stop.” But no one reading those messages thought, “What is this motion?” “What are the Japanese doing that it will be too late to stop?” In the final day before the attack, there were a series of messages. “We are going to send you our final response to the latest peace proposal. The final proposal starts coming in. The final answers are coming in.” But the men in Washington acted as if it’s just another Saturday. People go home. They go to dinner. They go horseback riding. And they go to bed. And the messages come in overnight and there’s no one there immediately to translate them, and pass them on. So the final message saying, “You must deliver our final response to the Americans on these peace negotiations.” “It must be delivered specifically this time, 1 PM eastern time.” A message which everyone who sees, the message agree, there’s something that’s going to happen at that time. What is 1 PM? What does it mean elsewhere in the world? My God, that’s 7 AM in the Pacific. But no one is there immediately to handle that message because people are home in bed. Now, how can you blame Kimmel and Short for being asleep at the switch when those in Washington are just as asleep, and they’ve got so much more information to go on. So that crucial bit of information, when General Marshall finally sees it at 11 AM on Sunday, December 7, and writes a warning message, it’s only minutes before the attack begins. And the warning message he sends gets held up and is finally delivered to Pearl Harbor hours after the attack, when the men are lying dead, and Kimmel and Short are licking their wounds, trying to pull things together.

Jeff: Had Washington been more responsive within the timeframe that we’re talking about, what might’ve been different? What might’ve been done differently that could’ve forestalled the attack?

Anthony: In the context of what Robbyn was talking about, they lost virtually all of the night hours of December the 6th, and going into December the 7th. And then all the morning hours, while they discussed whether to send a warning message to the Pacific or not. If that message had been clear and had been transmitted to Kimmel and Short at the time it could’ve been transmitted, which would be very early in their morning, during their night, during the late-night hours, the reaction would’ve been that all the antiaircraft gunner would’ve been ready to fire. They did fire. The Navy guns did fire at the Japanese planes surprisingly quickly. So quickly that the Japanese commander afterwards said that the shock of surprise was almost negated by the swiftness, the efficiency of the naval response. But planes, the Army would’ve disbursed its planes. Reconnaissance planes would’ve been sent out. So many things that the Army or the Navy could jump to and realize that this is something was likely to come. Possibly going to come. The response would’ve been much better, much faster. As it was, they got the message from Washington. In the case of Kimmel, eight hours after the attack began. This is very largely, although there are some sinister things that we found out while working on this case, this is very largely a prime example, not of the conspiracy theory of history, but the screw-up theory of history. I mean two things are happening tomorrow. They will be unveiling a statute in here, in this town, with solemn ceremony, guns fired, [and] choirs. It’s where Admiral Kimmel grew up, and as he’s never been remembered, and its’ going to be, we think, a very good statue, actually one that looks like him, inaugurated to him. And the grandsons will be here, who are continuing the fight to get Kimmel’s four-star rank restored, which I think you know. If you looked at the end of the book, the last chapter is really the key to this area-that Congress in the year 2000 sent to then President Clinton, a recommendation that Kimmel be posthumously restored to his four-star rank, and that General Short, the army commander also be posthumously restored to the rank he held back then, the same top-rank he held back then. But no president has acted on it, and at the unveiling of the statue tomorrow, the two grandsons who’ve been continuing the fight, as their fathers did before them, will be publishing the letter they’ve written to President Obama, asking Obama to act on the congressional request to restore their rank before he leaves office.

Jeff: What is your sense, given that you’ve been following this for so long, what is your sense of how this is going to play out?

Anthony: Who knows in the present interregnum between Obama and Trump. On the other hand, presidents, this is not a question of pardoning these men, but as you know, in their last days in office, it’s traditional for presidents to take certain actions, to clear people, things that they decided in their grace and favor they will do. And one thing that would be very easy to do, certainly on paper, very easy to do because Congress has, both houses of Congress have voted for it, is to restore Kimmel posthumously to his four-star rank, which is what the family has been pressing for since the Admiral’s death in 1968. There’s been huge pressure for this. 36 – am I right, Robbyn? – 36 admirals of similar rank to Kimmel’s or senior, have themselves petitioned the past president, George HW Bush, for restoration of Kimmel’s rank. This has been going on, certainly since the ‘90s.

Robbyn: There is a counter, which is the fact that the two, a portion blamed fairly, in Pearl Harbor’s case, means not that you have to actually point a finger of criticism at General Marshall, who – no greater hero has this country, almost – and Harold Stark, who was the architect of the D-Day invasion, he was instrumental in that and had many, many loyal friends in the Navy. By which I do not mean anything negative. I simply mean that there are good men on both sides of this, and to share the blame for Pearl Harbor fairly, they must shoulder some of the burden. And I think there is resistance to that, to the restoration of the ranks of Kimmel and Short simply because in turn people feel it means leveling that criticism at Marshall, Stark, Turner in particular, and others. And it’s true. It’s tragic. It does not in any way, I think, undermine what those men later did, or their contributions to the later war effort. But at least they were allowed to make those contributions. And Kimmel and Short were denied the opportunity to make further contributions to the war effort, which most agree they could’ve made.

Anthony: I would differ a bit there. While we can’t have a great debate on it now, I would differ with Robbyn. I think, yes of course, certainly years ago people would say, “Well this would besmirch chief of staff Marshall and Admiral Stark who went on, in spite of his bumbling at the time of Pearl Harbor, went on to distinguish himself as being in charge of the U.S. Navy, part on D-Day in Europe and so on.” But they’re long gone. This is not, I don’t think, there’s any need to go, to be attacking chief of staff Marshall, or dragging Stark’s name through the mud. It is a matter of, I mean, Joe Biden, present Vice President, if you look on the last page or so of the coda at the end of the book, has called this the most tragic injustice in American military history. And it’s a question of righting that wrong. You can right the wrong done to Kimmel and Short without necessarily blasting away at the top brass in Washington who should’ve shared the blame.

Jeff: Anthony Summers, Robbyn Swan. The book is, A Matter of Honor:  Pearl Harbor, Betrayal, Blame and a Family’s Quest for Justice. I thank you both so much for spending time with us.

Anthony & Robbyn: Thank you, Jeff.

Jeff: Thank you for listening and joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast, I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate


Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Roosevelt and MacArthur (US Navy / Wikimedia), Walter Short and Husband Kimmel (US Department of Defense / Wikimedia) and Pearl Harbor (National Archive / Wikimedia).

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