The bombing of Pearl Harbor: What FDR knew

The Good War, Revisited: “At this point in its history, the American Republic has arrived under the theory that the President of the United States possesses limitless authority publicly to misrepresent and secretly to control foreign policy, foreign affairs and the war power.”


Each Pearl Harbor day offers a fresh opportunity for those who correctly believe that Franklin Roosevelt knew of an impending attack by the Japanese and welcomed it as a way of snookering the isolationists and getting America into the war. And year by year the evidence continues to mount. The Naval Institute’s website featured a detailed article by Daryl Borgquist to the effect that high Red Cross officials with close contacts to Roosevelt quietly ordered large quantities of medical supplies and experienced medical personnel shipped to Hawaii well before Dec. 7, 1941.

In 1995, Helen Hamman, the daughter of one of these officials, wrote to Bill Clinton a letter disclosing that her father had told her in the 1970s that shortly before the Pearl Harbor attack Roosevelt had told her father of the impending raid and told him to send Red Cross workers and supplies to the West Coast to be deployed in Hawaii. Roosevelt, Ms. Hamman wrote, told her father “the American people would never agree to enter the war in Europe unless they were attack [sic] within their own borders.” Borgquist’s research, now published in Naval History magazine, shows that the Red Cross was indeed staffed up and on a war footing in Hawaii by November 1941.

Foreknowledge by FDR of the “surprise attack” on Pearl Harbor has been demonstrated about every five years, ever since the Republicans made a huge issue of it after World War II. Each time there’s a brief furor, and then we slide back into vaguer language about “unproven assertions” and “rumors.” It’s one of the unsayables of 20th-century history, as Charles Beard discovered in 1948 when he published his great book President Roosevelt and the Coming of the War (1941), subtitled “A Study in Appearances and Realities.” Beard effectively disposed of the “surprise attack” proposition after researching official government documents and public hearings. For example, the State Dept.’s own record showed that FDR’s Secretary of State Cordell Hull conferred with the British ambassador on Nov. 29, 1941, and imparted the news that “the diplomatic part of our relations with Japan was virtually over and the matter will now go to the officials of the Army and Navy.” As Beard and others pointed out, the U.S. had already not only undertaken the blockade and embargoes that forced Japan into the war, but also knew that Japan was about to attack and waited for it to do so, so the isolationists could be outmaneuvered and the U.S. could enter the war on a tide of popular feeling.

At dawn on Dec. 7, 1941, the first wave of Japanese planes flew in from the east over the Waianae Mountains, leaving about 4000 American casualties with 2400 dead. Beard’s scholarly but passionate investigation into secret presidential diplomacy incurred venomous abuse, as did his judgment that the ends (getting the U.S. into the war) did not justify the deceptive means.

Back in the early 1980s John Toland published his excellent book Infamy, which mustered all the evidence extant at that time about U.S. foreknowledge. He advanced the thesis that though FDR and his closest associates, including Gen. Marshall, knew the Japanese naval force was deployed with carriers in the North Pacific,they were so convinced of the impregnability of the base that they didn’t believe the attack would have much serious effect. They thought a surprise Japanese raid would do little damage, leave a few casualties but supply the essential trigger for entering the war. Toland quoted from Labor Secretary Frances Perkins’ diary an eerie description of Roosevelt’s ravaged appearance at a White House meeting the night of Dec. 7. He looked, Perkins wrote with extraordinary perception, ”not only as though a tragedy had occurred but as though he felt some more intimate, secret sense of responsibility.”

The U.S. military commanders on Honolulu, Husband Kimmel and Walter Short, were pilloried, destroyed, set up to bear the major responsibility. For many years they fought to vindicate themselves, only to face hidden or destroyed evidence and outright perjury from their superiors.

In May of 1983 an officer from the Naval Security Group interviewed one of Toland’s sources who had previously insisted on remaining anonymous. The person in question was Robert Ogg, who had been an enlisted man in naval Intelligence during the war, and was one of those who detected the presence, through radio intercepts, of a Japanese task force working its way toward Pearl Harbor in the first week of December 1941. This force had been under radio silence, but the “silence” had been broken on a number of occasions.

Both Ogg and his immediate superior, Lt. Hosner, reported their intercepts and conclusion to the chief of intelligence of the 12th Naval District in San Francisco, Capt.Richard T. McCullough. McCullough was not only a personal friend of Roosevelt’s but enjoyed assured access to him through Harry Hopkins’ phone at the White House. Ogg confirmed in 1983 that McCullough had said at the time that the information about the Japanese task force had been passed to the White House. British code-breakers at Bletchley had also passed the news to Winston Churchill that Pearl Harbor was to be attacked.

The lesson here is that there is no construction too “bad” or too “outrageous” but that it cannot be placed upon the actions of powers great or small, though usually great. When Toland’s book was published there were many who scoffed at the “inherently implausible argument,” the “fine-spun conspiracy theory.” Gazing up the newly emerging national security state and the dawn of the Cold War, Beard argued that the ends did not justify the means, and concluded thus:

“In short, with the Government of the United States committed under a so-called bipartisan foreign policy to supporting by money and other forms of power for an indefinite time an indefinite number of other governments around the globe, the domestic affairs of the American people became appendages to analeatory expedition in the management of the world… At this point in its history the American Republic has arrived under the theory that the President of the United States possesses limitless authority publicly to misrepresent and secretly to control foreign policy, foreign affairs and the war power.”

Truer words were never written.

The ”Good War”

Just as FDR’s foreknowledge of the attack is rediscovered every few years, so, too, is the fact that the Pacific war was a very nasty affair. Every so often new accounts and photographs emerge documenting the cruelties of that war. In 2001, the BBC aired combat film of American soldiers shooting wounded Japanese and using bayonets to hack at Japanese corpses while looting them. “Former servicemen interviewed by researchers spoke of the widespread practice of looting gold teeth from the dead–and sometimes from the living.”

The archival film is fresh evidence of the atrocities, but the war crimes themselves are an old story, best told by John Dower in his 1986 book War Without Mercy. Back in the February 1946 issue of The Atlantic the war correspondent Edgar L. Jones wrote, “We shot prisoners in cold blood, wiped out hospitals, strafed lifeboats, killed or mistreated enemy civilians, finished off the enemy wounded, tossed the dying in a hole with the dead, and in the Pacific boiled the flesh off enemy skulls to make table ornaments for sweethearts, or carved their bones into letter openers.”

By the spring of 1945 the Japanese military had been demolished. The disparities in the casualty figures between the Japanese and the Americans are striking. From 1937 to 1945, the Japanese Imperial Army and Navy suffered 1,740,955 military deaths in combat. Dower estimates that another 300,000 died from disease and starvation. In addition, another 395,000 Japanese civilians died as a result of Allied saturation bombing that began in March 1945. The total dead: more than 2.7 million. In contrast, American military deaths totaled 100,997. Even though Japan had announced on Aug. 10 its intentions to surrender, this didn’t deter the bloodthirsty Gen. “Hap” Arnold. On Aug. 14, Arnold directed a 1014-plane air raid on Tokyo, blasting the city to ruins and killing thousands. Not one American plane was lost and the unconditional surrender was signed before the planes had returned to their bases.

This raid, like the dropping of the A-bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was aimed at Moscow as much as Japan, designed to impress Stalin with the implacable might of the United States. The Cold War was under way, and as Beard prophesied in 1948, democracy wilted amid the procedures of the national security state, whose secretive malpractices are still being exhumed.

Papers released by the American Dept. of Energy showed that scientists from the UK Atomic Energy Authority removed children’s bones and bodies to ship to the United States for classified nuclear experiments. There is a transcript of a secret meeting in Washington of “Project Sunshine,” where Willard Libby, a scientist who later won the Nobel Prize for his research into carbon dating techniques, told colleagues, “Human samples are of prime importance, and if anybody knows how to do a good job of body-snatching, they will really be serving their country.”

British scientists from Harwell and the Medical Research Council supplied not only American researchers but their own labs with body parts, collecting about 6000 corpses between 1955 and 1970. As The Observer reported, Jean Prichard, whose baby died in 1957, said her child’s legs were removed by hospital doctors and taken to Harwell without permission. To prevent her from finding out what had happened, she says she was forbidden to dress her daughter for her funeral. “I asked if I could put her christening robe on her, but I wasn’t allowed to, and that upset me terribly because she wasn’t christened. No one asked me about doing things like that, taking bits and pieces from her.” Copyright by Reposted, with permission, by (

Jeffrey St. Clair is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature, Grand Theft Pentagon and Born Under a Bad Sky. His latest book is Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion. He can be reached at:

Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.

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  1. Very soon,we will have the definitive evidence and the truth told of the 9/11 incidents in the U.S.A. being the “brainchild” of Bush and his mates so that they could “morally” invade Iraq and wage the war-of-terror on the whole world as well as Al Quaida!!
    What’s a few thousand “innocents” sent to their deaths as well as the damage to the psyche of the U.S. citizens when the government and big business can get their hands on Iraq’s resources AND win the war against truth of it’s allies!

  2. Speaking of revisionists, they remind me of the claptrap Cong. Darrel Issa foments all the time!

    When FDR warned of “quarantining” the aggressors in his 1937 speech, he was excoriated for being a “warmonger,” and 400 newspapers called for his impeachment. Did they forget that in Hitler’s worldwide manifesto, Mein Kampf he had published a blueprint for conquest, and his idolatrous followers sang, “Today Germany, tomorrow the world.” Did they forget that in Japan, the press expounded the explicit theme of Japan’s right and intention to dominate China and to expand southward into the fertile fields of Indochina and the oil rich East Indies?

    What lesson, with regards to massive air power penetrated Admiral Pratt, who almost three months after the attack, still believed that the battleship was the “core of the fleet,” and the aircraft carrier, no matter how large would be “more efficient in a shuttle service for fighter planes than they would be if used to form a fleet nucleus or engage in extraneous operations.”

    The speech took just six minutes and is regarded as one of the finest delivered in the 20th century. Shortly after noon on Monday, Dec. 8, 1941, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt stood at the podium in a joint session of Congress.

    “Yesterday, Dec. 7, 1941, a date which will live in infamy, the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan,” he told the audience.

    The president had dictated the first draft of his speech to his secretary, Grace Tully, late on the afternoon of Dec. 7. He seldom wrote his own speeches, but both of his top speechwriters were out of town.
    For all intents and purposes, these were his words. His aims were to rally the nation and let the American people know what happened and what was ahead.

    Three groups:
    a. Roosevelt Foreign Policy was mistaken- because American participation in the war ultimately worked to the benefit of the Soviet Union- this thesis was adapted by William S. Neumann and William Henry Chamberlain- they ignored the fact that the USA had to deal with the immediate danger, the Berlin-Rome-Tokyo Axis, .and could not operate on the basis of what was then a problematical future menace.
    b. Charles Beard- the historian believed that FDR maneuvered the US into the war. But he merely insinuated rather than stated outright that FDR knew about the Pearl Harbor attack in advance and deliberately permitted it to come unopposed.
    c. The spearhead of the 3rd revisionist school, was the sociologist and historian Harry Elmer Barnes. He believed that to get around FDR’s campaign promise the he would not lead the US into was unless attacked, the President and most of his top military and political advisers schemed to maneuver Japan into striking.. Barnes postulated, that Pearl Harbor must not be alerted, hence FDR and Marshall, acting alone, arranged that such a warning be withheld. And finally, many of Roosevelt’s advisers joined with him in a massive cover-up.

    Many naval personnel interviewed in connection with Pearl Harbor, especially enlisted men or junior officers at the time , believed in the Roosevelt-as-villain thesis.

    Admiral Husband Kimmel- claimed that the surprise at Pearl Harbor was due not to any lack of responsible action on his part, rather that the Roosevelt Administration withheld information from him. The charge was investigated dozens of times and there was no proof of his claim or accusations.

    John Toland, a recent revisionist contributor, started to claim the ability of reading FDR’s mind and therefore his intentions. He claimed often that FDR allowed the attack would go on because the US would achieve an overwhelming victory. The concept of using “Pearl Harbor as bait.”

    John T. Flynn- The truth about Pearl Harbor- charged FDR with “appalling negligence, ineptitude and ignorance. Flynn believed president wanted to provoke Japan to attack. (He hated FDR and wrote specious book about him, which I have in my library. Few today, but the nutty conspiratorial fiends bother to even read its silliness!)

    Curtis Dall, FDR’s former son-in-law, who turned anti-FDR was supposedly told by FDR about a Naval Intelligence report containing an intercept of the Japanese Navy that it was going to attack the US. The story was fiction and even Dall said it had been twisted beyond belief.

    William F. Friedman, the renowned cryptologist, who played a critical in breaking the Japanese Purple Code- (Later he spend years in a mental hospital!)

  3. These stories are re-hashed tripe. Gordon Prange and Donald Goldstein wrote the definitive books on Pearl Harbor.

    John Toland’s book was thoroughly discredited. His Pulitzer Prize was awarded many years earlier and had nothing to do with his later idiotic and shoddy work. FDR’s Chief of Staff Admiral William D. Leahy never said that remark, and the exhaustive works by Pearl Harbor expert Gordon Prange, “At dawn We Slept,” December 7, 1941,” and “Pearl Harbor, the Verdict of History” do not support the later and erroneous conclusions of Toland and your suppositions.

    Toland’s fantastic unsubstantiated conclusions were drawn from a host of lies, half-truths, rumors, political mumbo-jumbo and the like. I cannot remember the details regarding the exact criticisms made, point-by-point, of Toland’s fairy tale, but they are a matter of public record. I am sure that with enough search on the Internet you can find out easily how he was discredited. For sure, the Pearl Harbor disaster was a consequence of many flaws in leadership, management and the improper use of intelligence. There are countless examples of those failures and lapses. But for sure, Pearl Harbor was on “war alert” as of November 1, 1941. The overlapping command structure of the Navy (Admiral Husband Kimmel) and the Army and Army Air Corp (General Walter C. Short) added to the problem of a unified, coordinated and effective defense. Whether it was the proper use of Army Air Corp planes for air-sea search, or the lining up of fighter planes for defense against sabotage, or whether it was faulty information on a large flight of B-17’s due to land in Hawaii that same morning, or whether it was non-implementation of proper radar equipment, or whether it was unloaded anti-aircraft guns on the battleships or a myriad of other short-comings, the fault certainly was in the hands of the local commanders. Another book by Lt. Cmdr Edwin Layton, the Chief Intelligence officer at Pearl Harbor attempted to shift the blame to Washington and also to make a case for a cover-up. There was also a feeble attempt to blame George Marshall for the cover-up, because he sent the last warning by Western Union instead of by radio. (Weather conditions did not allow for radio transmissions or use of the phone lines.) These sensationalist books have been all failures in the end. The authors were out to make a “quick buck” and garner some historical footnoted acclaim.
    Nothing in the Japanese code; naval or diplomatic, gave any clue to an imminent attack, especially at Pearl Harbor. When Kuruso and Nomura, the Japanese envoys arrived at Secretary of State Hull’s office, Hull already knew of the attack. They (the Japanese emissaries) were delayed because they had difficulty reading and translating their own codes and destroying their own documents. In a sense FDR, and his colleagues, new that their message was an ultimatum preceding an act of war. But no one knew where the attack would come or when it would happen. Most guesses picked the Dutch East Indies or possibly Australia. If anything Douglas MacArthur got a “pass” on his failures regarding the disposition of his forces in the Philippines. He was aware of the Pearl Harbor attack and did very little correct when it came to protecting his fleet of powerful B-17 bombers (among many other mistakes.)

    FDR, a naval man, was thoroughly shocked by the attack. He was shaken to the core. His private secretary grace Tully observed him in a darkened room, utterly mortified and teary. FDR could only state, “The public will never forgive me for losing their navy!” FDR loved the navy and would have never allowed something to happen like Pearl Harbor. If they would have had an inkling of a potential attack, he would have allowed his carrier forces to be sent to Wake Island to deliver airplanes. They would have been off Pearl in a defensive posture. The battleships would have been on a much more ready-action alert basis. Thankfully they were all in the shallow waters around Ford Island. Therefore almost all the old pre-WWI battleships were raised and repaired for later duty in the war. They also never thought aerial torpedoes could do damage in the shallow waters of their base! US intelligence should have been aware of the success the British had in attacking the Italian naval base at Taranto. But the Japanese were certainly aware, and had developed a very effective shallow water aerial torpedo.

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