The Pearl Harbor Coverup


In the post-Watergate world, attempts by an administration to block investigations of its conduct, to cover up embarrassing incidents and "lose" incriminating evidence, are taken for granted. Unfortunately, most of the public and academia are under the impression that what Nixon was accused of is somehow extraordinary in comparison to the conduct of past presidents. I would like to demonstrate the incorrectness of this assumption by examining an incident from recent history: Franklin Roosevelt's attempt to hide his own responsibility for not warning the Army and Navy commanders in Hawaii of the impending Pearl Harbor attack, though information about the Japanese surprise attack was available in Washington.

As Percy Greaves relates elsewhere in this issue of REASON, the United States was able to break Japan's top-secret diplomatic code in August 1940. The Army and Navy communications experts who achieved this feat were able to reconstruct the actual code machine itself and build duplicates. This meant that the United States could read the Japanese ambassador's messages from Tokyo as fast as, or even faster than, he himself could. Obviously the existence of this American code-breaking establishment and its ability to read the Japanese code was one of the most closely guarded secrets of all times. Unfortunately, in their zealous effort to maintain the security of this intelligence source, it was decided to severely limit distribution of copies of intercepted Japanese messages. Distribution was generally confined to a small cadre of high government officials around the President, including Hull, the Secretary of State, Marshall, the Army Chief of Staff, Stark, the Chief of Naval Operations, Stimson, the Secretary of War, and Knox, the Secretary of the Navy. Beyond these, only those military officers directly concerned with intercepting, translating, and evaluating this intelligence were even aware of the existence of these broken Japanese code messages. Thus the Army and Navy commanders at Pearl Harbor, General Short and Admiral Kimmel, were not privileged to judge the value of this intelligence themselves but were absolutely dependent on receiving the proper instructions from their superiors, Marshall and Stark, which would be based on the Japanese messages. As Greaves makes clear in his article, information warning of the imminent attack on Pearl Harbor, though known in Washington, did not reach Kimmel and Short until after the first bombs began to fall.


On December 8, the day after the attack, Roosevelt dispatched Secretary of the Navy Knox to Pearl Harbor to make a personal report on damages and responsibilities. His report was an unequivocal exoneration of Kimmel and Short. Knox said that they had never received the vital information which was available in Washington and that they had been denied the basic necessities for their defense. Consequently, Knox's report was not made public but was instead buried away, only to be discovered by accident years later by Senator Homer Ferguson.

In an effort to make scapegoats out of Kimmel and Short, Roosevelt proposed a new investigation, to be conducted by Supreme Court Justice Owen Roberts. This report would be released to the public and was to be a complete whitewash of the administration. To insure this, the other members of the Roberts Commission were all Roosevelt supporters, and witnesses were ordered not to disclose any information whatsoever about the broken Japanese code or the intelligence derived from it. This could be done easily because the only people besides Roosevelt, Stimson, Knox, and Hull who knew about the broken code were military men subject to military discipline and already sworn to secrecy. Accordingly, Justice Roberts issued a lengthy report which condemned Kimmel and Short as solely responsible for the tragedy. Throughout the entire war this is what the general public believed. Kimmel and Short became two of the most hated men in America. (See Kimmel, Admiral Kimmel's Story [Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1955], pp. 170-85.)

Another consequence of the Roberts Commission was that all of the incriminating documents gathered as evidence subsequently disappeared. One document in particular was the so-called "winds execute" message received by Naval Communications on December 4, which foretold, in "weather report" code, an attack upon the United States. Captain Laurence Safford of Naval Communications, one of the men primarily responsible for breaking the code, gave this message to the Director of Naval Communications on December 14 for use as evidence by the Roberts Commission. That was the last time anyone saw it. Even the radio station logs which recorded receipt of the message disappeared (Hearings before the Joint Committee on the Investigation of the Pearl Harbor Attack, [1946] part 39, p. 225). All Safford could ever find was the empty file folder that had contained the message.

Additionally, all the intercepted messages ever received were nearly destroyed as well. It was only through a fortunate accident that one almost complete set was saved when the others were destroyed. During the time Knox was in Hawaii making his report, his assistant, James Forrestal, became Acting Secretary of the Navy. Although Forrestal had previously been mainly concerned with matters of procurement and was thus totally unaware that the Japanese code had been broken or that Knox had been receiving copies of the messages, he learned about this in the course of carrying out his new duties. To get the facts, he ordered Commander Alwin Kramer to assemble copies for his inspection. When all the other copies were destroyed, this set, except for the "winds execute," was thus saved. Years later this set was discovered accidentally by Captain Safford, who made copies of the messages and returned them to their proper files.


Immediately after the Pearl Harbor attack both Short and Kimmel were relieved of command and assured that they would soon be reassigned. While waiting at home for reassignment, General Short heard from his old friend, General Marshall. The Roberts Report, condemning him and Kimmel, had just been released and its conclusion had been entirely unexpected by Short. In a depressed state, Short asked Marshall whether he ought to resign for the good of the Army. Marshall told him to wait and only resign if absolutely necessary. Trusting his old friend. Short sent an undated resignation to Marshall with instructions to use it when he thought it best for the Army. Marshall immediately dated it and accepted it, then called Admiral Stark to inform him of what had happened. Stark in turn called Admiral Kimmel to tell him that Short had just resigned; Kimmel took this to mean that he too should resign, which he did. The effect of this was that while Kimmel and Short were still liable for court-martial, they could not demand one so as to clear their names.

There was little else which could be done at this point, so Kimmel and Short quietly left the services to which they had devoted most of their lives and tried to live down their disgrace. At this time neither of them had any knowledge of the broken code or the vast intelligence denied to them, they only knew that somehow they were innocent.

Then, in the fall of 1943, Captain Safford discovered for the first time that Kimmel had never received any of the Japanese messages, having assumed all along that Kimmel knew what he knew and was therefore irresponsible for not being prepared for the attack. While on a trip to New York, Safford secretly met with Kimmel to tell him what he had just discovered. Needless to say, Kimmel was astounded by the revelation and resolved to defend himself on that basis. He immediately engaged lawyers who proceeded to demand a new investigation of the Pearl Harbor attack. As a consequence, the Navy was persuaded to engage Admiral Thomas Hart to gather additional evidence lest it be lost through the deaths of key participants.


About this same time, some information was leaked by Kimmel's supporters to members of Congress in order to force a more thorough investigation. The result was a Congressional mandate establishing the Naval Court of Inquiry and the Army Pearl Harbor Board, each to independently investigate and report on the facts of the attack. At first these investigating bodies were forbidden to hear evidence about the Japanese code and witnesses were ordered to lie rather than disclose such information. Kimmel objected to this and was finally able to get the Navy to relent on this point. The Army investigators learned, through the grapevine, that the Navy had secret information about the broken Japanese code, and demanded that they too be allowed to hear such evidence. General Marshall gave his permission, and both bodies were thus empowered to conduct the fullest possible investigation of the denial of relevant intelligence to the commanders at Pearl Harbor.

Though not empowered to investigate the conduct of civilian officials, both the Army Pearl Harbor Board and the Naval Court of Inquiry were highly critical of Secretaries Stimson and Knox in their conduct before the attack, as well as that of the Army Chief of Staff and the Chief of Naval Operations. The reports both exonerated Kimmel and Short, in stark contrast to the Roberts report.

Not to be outdone, the administration sought to have these critical reports discredited. Three more investigations were called for by Adm. Kent Hewitt and Cols. Carter W. Clark and Henry C. Clausen. It was the ostensible purpose of these officers to get additional evidence, but their true purpose was to discredit previous damaging evidence. During the course of these investigations many witnesses were induced to change previous sworn testimony. Thus the reports of these additional investigations once again absolved the administration of responsibility.


During the 1944 presidential election friends of Kimmel and Short leaked information about the broken code to John T. Flynn, who was then working for Thomas Dewey's campaign. It was decided that Dewey would make an important speech revealing the Roosevelt administration's culpability in allowing the attack on Pearl Harbor. Through an informant Marshall learned about Dewey's impending speech. On his own he sought to prevent this speech and sent a letter to Dewey with Colonel Clark as a personal messenger. The letter began by telling Dewey not to read on unless he promised not to reveal the information contained in the letter. Dewey quickly realized that this was simply a ploy to prevent him from telling what he already knew, he refused to read on, giving the letter back to Colonel Clark to be returned to Marshall. Marshall sent another letter to Dewey saying that the Army was still getting valuable intelligence from the Japanese through the broken code and begging Dewey not to reveal that the code was broken. Dewey suspected that this was not true, but rather than risk any American lives he decided to call off the speech.

It is open to speculation whether Dewey's speech would have given him the issue he needed to win the election, but at any rate we now know that Dewey's suspicions about the remaining value of the code were well founded. After the war, previously decoded Japanese messages were found which showed that the Japanese knew the United States was reading some of their coded messages. Admiral Wilkinson of Naval Intelligence knew this in October 1941. Apparently Sumner Welles, Under Secretary of State, read a message which foretold the German attack on Russia. Welles gave this message to the Russian Embassy, from which a German spy seems to have obtained the message and gotten it to the Japanese. Why the Japanese did not immediately scrap their code system I don't know. Probably they had such faith in the system that they thought that the United States had only broken a few messages but did not possess the entire code. In fact, after the war the Japanese maintained that it was impossible for the United States to have reconstructed their code machine without having stolen one.

After Dewey's decision not to make his speech on Pearl Harbor, John T. Flynn wrote a long article for the Chicago Tribune called "The Truth About Pearl Harbor" in which he revealed a vast array of damaging facts about Roosevelt's responsibility for the attack, but did not mention the code. The article was reprinted as a pamphlet and was widely circulated. When the war seemed nearly over, Flynn prepared a new pamphlet called "The Final Secret of Pearl Harbor" which told for the first time how the Japanese code had been broken. He released it on V-J day, and in retrospect it is truly amazing how much of the full story Flynn was able to infer simply on the basis of some leaks from Kimmel's friends and Marshall's letter to Dewey.


Soon thereafter bills were introduced in both houses of Congress for a full Congressional investigation of the Pearl Harbor attack. The administration, now under Truman, realized it could not completely block an investigation, but because the Democrats controlled Congress, they would control the make-up of the investigating committee. The Joint Congressional Committee to Investigate the Pearl Harbor Attack came to have five Senators and five House members, three of each, including the chairman, being Democrats. Because they held the majority, the Democrats were able to appoint a counsel favorable to the administration and to block the Republicans' efforts to subpoena witnesses and documents.

No provision was made for providing the minority Republicans with any kind of counsel or research assistance. Nevertheless, since Democrats surely would have bottled up all the damaging evidence against Roosevelt, the full burden of investigating was placed upon the Republican members. Fortunately, John Flynn was able to raise private funds to pay a Republican research staff to help with the investigation. The chief of the minority staff was Percy L. Greaves, who was then head of research for the Republican Party. He and his small staff worked tirelessly and it was largely through their efforts that Republican Senators Brewster and Ferguson were well armed with the facts needed to ferret out the truth from uncooperative witnesses. At one point the Democrats became so alarmed at their inability to cover up the truth in open hearings that an effort was made to get rid of Greaves.

It seems that the committee would sit at a long table with House members on one side and Senators on the other, with the Democrats in the center and Republicans on each end. Greaves would sit at the very end of the table next to the Senators and help them. One day Senator Brewster was away at a funeral, so Ferguson moved over into his seat and Greaves sat in Ferguson's. At this point, the Democrats pretended to notice Greaves for the first time. Chairman of the Committee, Senator Alben W. Barkley, remarked that, "He (Greaves) has been sitting by the Senator from Michigan (Ferguson) during these whole hearings and apparently prompting the Senator in the interrogatories he has addressed to the witnesses." This led to something of a scandal. Ferguson knew that Greaves was not officially supposed to be there so he said that Greaves was actually Brewster's aide. Word was quickly gotten to Brewster who officially made Greaves his assistant for the duration of the investigation.

It is difficult to fully comprehend the strenuous efforts of the Democrats to bury as much damaging evidence as possible. In spite of this, the Republicans were successful in forcing the investigation to go on nearly five months longer than originally planned. The committee's first chief counsel, William Mitchel, had hoped to be finished by Christmas. By the time he was finally forced by his health to quit, poor Mitchel was close to a nervous breakdown from all the revelations of gross misconduct by people he respected.

Specific examples of important evidence being covered up would include the Democrats' refusal to subpoena the full diary of Secretary of War Stimson, although one portion of it was known to say that Roosevelt's plan was to maneuver the Japanese into firing the first shot (Hearings, part 11, p. 5433). Neither would they subpoena the diary of Joseph Grew, who had been the ambassador to Japan and who had consistently warned that Roosevelt's policies were forcing Japan into war. The administration also forced witnesses to change previous sworn testimony, which was particularly easy to do with those in the military who would have ruined their careers by revealing damaging facts. Those officers like Captain Safford, who steadfastly refused to change his testimony, did in fact find their service careers ended.

Then there was Truman's attempt to keep General Marshall off the witness stand by ordering him on a mission to China just before he was scheduled to testify. The Democrats hoped to have Marshall on and off the stand in one day, but penetrating questions by Brewster and Ferguson kept him there for several days. There was the mysterious disappearance of 25 pages from the copy of the Roberts Investigation given to the committee. And finally there was the extraordinary pressure put on Republican House members Gerhardt and Keefe to sign the majority report, which virtually absolved the Roosevelt administration of any responsibility for the tragedy. It should be noted in their defense, however, that the Republican Congressmen did extract concessions from the Democrats which modified some of the more blatant portions of the final report, and Keefe's "Additional Views" were attached to the report. The latter were highly critical of the administration, perhaps even more so than the minority report.

The printed hearings of this massive Congressional investigation ran into 45 volumes including transcripts of all the previous investigations. The truth is there if it can be sifted out from all the irrelevant information and contradictory statements. This is what was attempted by revisionist historians such as Charles A. Beard, Charles Callan Tansill and Harry Elmer Barnes. But these men found blocks in their path when they tried to obtain documents from the government which were freely given to other writers, like Herbert Feis, who were more interested in apologizing for the administration's actions. Consequently, the story of Pearl Harbor is as muddled today as it was in 1946.


By contrast, the Watergate investigation had a far better chance of getting at all the facts.

In the first place, Watergate was a criminal investigation intent upon prosecuting individuals for individual offenses. With Pearl Harbor, there was never any thought that those involved were criminally responsible. It was rather a political investigation fired by the partisan ambitions of the Republican Party, which could taste victory in the 1946 Congressional elections. Thus the entire emphasis was different.

The most important difference in the investigations, however, is the fact that Congress and the executive branch were controlled by the same party in 1945-46, whereas in 1974 the branches were controlled by different parties. The latter situation put the opponents of the administration in control of the key investigating committees, with their power of subpoena and of choosing committee counsel. In this case the press also acted as an auxiliary investigating force since most of the newspapers large enough to carry out a substantial investigation on their own were controlled by liberal Democrats and willing to devote substantial news space to publicizing Watergate revelations, no matter how inconsequential.

In addition, one should recognize that most of the key participants in the Pearl Harbor coverup were military men, subject to military discipline to maintain their secrecy and, more importantly, dependent for promotion on not embarrassing their boss, the President.

One need not carry on further with Watergate since its story can be read in numerous places. But it does have one important similarity with the Pearl Harbor investigation from which we can learn. In each case the ruling administration was attempting to cover up a past mistake. History tells us that the first priority of government is to perpetuate itself; the second, then, is to perpetuate those in control of that government. And, as Professor F.A. Hayek has shown (The Road to Serfdom [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1944], pp. 134-52), it is always the worst members of society who get on top of the government apparatus. The point being that in each case it was not simply a matter of a few bad individuals being involved, or of some defect in our government which can be remedied by, for example, public financing of elections. Rather, it was government itself which dictated that those in power could never admit to a past mistake of the magnitude of Pearl Harbor or Watergate. With a vast party apparatus and government bureaucracy dependent upon him personally for its perpetuation, how could a president ever openly admit such a thing? In fact he could not.

Out of Watergate perhaps one healthy trend may finally emerge. With the publication of the tape transcripts, the President was virtually stripped naked of the cloak of official prestige which accompanies the office. We can see more clearly than ever before how the presidential decision-making process operates, and we see for ourselves that even the President makes decisions purely out of frivolous emotionalism. I am certain that if tapes existed of Roosevelt's conversations they would convey no less. Thus Nixon's claim that he was defending the Presidency is more true than realized. I believe Watergate has damaged the Presidency, and I applaud it. Every administration has had its Watergate, and Pearl Harbor was Roosevelt's. It is the historian's duty to make this fact known so that someday the lesson will be learned: as long as we have powerful government, it will always be the same.

Bruce Bartlett is a graduate of Rutgers University with a degree in history. He began his work on Pearl Harbor in 1973 under the direction of Lloyd Gardner, with a fellowship from the Institute for Humane Studies. He is presently doing graduate work at Georgetown University.