World War 2



Cover-Up, by Bruce R. Bartlett, New Rochelle, N.Y.: Arlington House, 1978, 189 pp., $8.95.

Bruce Bartlett's Cover-Up is one of the few revisionist books on Pearl Harbor to appear in over two decades. Pearl Harbor revisionism got its start from that indomitable journalist John T. Flynn. In 1944, while World War II was still raging, Flynn published a small pamphlet, The Truth about Pearl Harbor. After the Japanese surrender in 1945 he issued a second, The Final Secret of Pearl Harbor. Flynn's pathbreaking exposes were largely responsible for the joint congressional investigation into Pearl Harbor during late 1945 and early 1946.

The heyday of Pearl Harbor revisionism followed, marked by the classic works of Charles A. Beard, George Morgenstern, Harry Elmer Barnes, and Charles Callan Tansill. By the mid-'50s, unfortunately, revisionist scholarship on American entry into World War II had run its course. Only a few books, pamphlets, or articles—such as Barnes's final essay on the topic, posthumously published in Left and Right; or Bruce Russett's very brief No Clear and Present Danger—have emerged since them. Even New Left historians, with the notable exceptions of Lloyd C. Gardner and Robert F. Smith, have been relatively silent on the issue.

Despite its apparent decline, however, revisionism has had a major and lasting impact on the orthodox historical interpretation of Pearl Harbor. To fully gauge this impact, one must carefully distinguish among the various strands in revisionist thinking. There are four related but distinct charges that characterize revisionist writings; they are listed here in order of increasing severity. Revisionists, not surprisingly, disagree among themselves, some holding to the less severe charges without endorsing the others.

Charge I: President Roosevelt, for whatever reason, wanted to lead the United States into World War II, despite significant isolationist and anti-interventionist opposition among the American people. In order to achieve this goal, Roosevelt first attempted to provoke Germany into declaring war against the United States. When that failed, he used increasing economic sanctions against Japan to maneuver its government into firing the first shot at Pearl Harbor. At the same time, in order to sustain his popularity, Roosevelt lied to the American people about his intentions, disguising his steps toward war as measures to avoid conflict.

Charge 2: As a result of the success of U.S. military intelligence in breaking the most secret Japanese code, the Roosevelt administration was fully aware of the consequences of its policies upon the Japanese government. Prior to Pearl Harbor, the administration knew that war with Japan was imminent. Roosevelt anticipated a Japanese attack on December 7 or soon thereafter.

Charge 3: Through the deciphering of the Japanese code, the Roosevelt administration knew not only the exact time of the Japanese surprise attack but also had deduced the exact location. The administration, however, failed to warn adequately the commanders at Pearl Harbor of the impending attack. This black-out of Hawaii was deliberate because the administration suspected (correctly, as it turns out) that any signs of preparation for an attack on the part of U.S. forces would cause the Japanese to call off the strike, thus averting war.

Charge 4: Roosevelt set the fleet up for attack. Against the advice of his naval commanders, he moved the Pacific Fleet from the West Coast of the United States to Hawaii, exposing it as a decoy to induce a Japanese attack.

Orthodox historians, while they refuse to admit it, have in effect almost totally incorporated the first of these four revisionist charges into their interpretations. Although some early court historians—Basil Rauch, for instance—endeavored to portray Roosevelt as sincerely interested in peace, most now agree that Roosevelt hoped to plunge the country into war at the earliest opportunity. The orthodox historians do not dispute the factual accuracy of the revisionist claim but rather argue that American intervention in World War II was a worthy goal—indeed, vital for national security. Many go so far as to criticize Roosevelt for not dragging the United States into the war fast enough!

Most of these historians also agree that Roosevelt was far from completely honest with the American people. Some, like Thomas Bailey, defend Roosevelt's duplicity as necessary. "If he was going to induce the people to move at all," writes Bailey about Roosevelt, "he would have to trick them into acting for their best interests. He was like the physician who must tell the patient lies for the patient's own good." Other historians, like Robert Divine, hold that Roosevelt's deviousness was merely a gratuitous personality quirk; Roosevelt could have drawn the United States into the war just as easily if he had been forthright with the public about the extreme peril they faced from Axis expansion.

Amazingly, orthodox historians have also largely accepted Charge 2. There is still considerable disagreement over whether naval intelligence actually received and distributed the famous "winds execute," but many other decoded messages whose reception and distribution is beyond doubt have established that Roosevelt and his advisors knew that war with Japan was rapidly approaching.

What remains an open question is not whether Roosevelt expected a Japanese attack but precisely where he expected that attack to occur. The primary, although not the only, evidence supporting Charge 3 consists of what are called the "bomb-plot" messages. These were instructions sent by Tokyo to the Japanese consulate in Honolulu and intercepted by Washington. They required the Japanese consulate to gather and send back elaborate and detailed information on the deployment of American warships in Pearl Harbor. If properly interpreted, the "bomb-plot" messages pinpointed Pearl Harbor as the location for the attack, since Tokyo made no requests for similar information from any other location.

Roberta Wohlstetter and the other orthodox historians who have dealt with these messages contend that they were not properly interpreted because of simple human frailty and "noise" from competing intelligence signals. Consequently, Roosevelt and his closest advisors all expected the Japanese attack to come somewhere in the Far East, most probably the Philippines. This false expectation explains the failure to give the Hawaiian commanders, Kimmel and Short, an unequivocal warning. Occasionally, orthodox historians also attempt to shift the responsibility to Kimmel and Short by arguing that the Hawaiian commanders did not appropriately respond to the meager "war warnings" they did receive.

If orthodox historians reject Charge 3, then obviously they consider Charge 4 totally preposterous. Even for many revisionists, the claim that Roosevelt intentionally exposed the fleet to attack is much too extreme. Since, as far as we know, there is no written confirmation of Roosevelt's motives, this charge remains a speculative surmise based on circumstantial evidence.

Now let us see how Bartlett's new book fits into this overall schema. In general, Cover-Up is a very cautious revisionist survey. The first three chapters provide a brief review of America's entry into the Second World War. These chapters rely heavily on previous secondary works and add very little that is new. In them, Bartlett reaffirms the first two revisionist charges while explicitly disavowing the second two. Nevertheless, Bartlett's summary is able and well integrated, probably as good an introduction to the revisionist case as anyone unfamiliar with the subject will find.

The heart of Bartlett's book begins with his fourth chapter and is an account of the various Pearl Harbor investigations. Percy Greaves, chief researcher for the Republican minority during the congressional investigation of Pearl Harbor, wrote the only previous account of these investigations in Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace, a revisionist collection edited by Barnes. Greaves's contribution, however, did not go much beyond treating the investigations as sources of information. Bartlett, by looking at them as historical incidents of interest in their own right, covers new ground.

Bartlett has something to say about all nine or so (depending on how you count them) of these investigations, but he focuses most extensively upon the final congressional probe. He does an excellent job of recounting the efforts of the government and military officials to protect themselves from all four of the revisionist charges. Bartlett's narrative clearly demonstrates that, without the persistence of the Republican members of the investigating committee, the Democratic majority not only would have cleared the Roosevelt administration of the last two revisionist charges but also would have successfully suppressed the truth of the first two charges.

As a final service, Bartlett has reprinted in its entirety Flynn's seminal pamphlet, The Final Secret of Pearl Harbor. It is a pity that Bartlett, while he was at it, did not also include Flynn's earlier The Truth about Pearl Harbor.

I have only two reservations about Bartlett's presentation. First, it is just too short. His entire text runs only 127 pages. His book, therefore, is little more than an overview; a summary of new material about the Pearl Harbor investigations is prefaced with a summary of old material about America's entry into the war. Bartlett cannot avoid giving many subjects superficial treatment. Thus, while his book is a good introduction, it is very far from being a comprehensive revisionist account of the Pearl Harbor investigations, let alone a comprehensive revisionist account of the Pearl Harbor attack. The definitive accounts of both of these subjects still wait to be written.

My second reservation with Bartlett's book, one that I have already hinted at, is more serious. I believe that his revisionism is far too restrained. He is far too willing to accept the excuses concocted by orthodox historians to protect the Roosevelt administration. With Bartlett's rejection of the third and fourth revisionist charges, the contents of his book become hardly distinguishable from what has already found its way into orthodox interpretations.

Let me round out this review by listing a few of the items that, in my opinion, make Charge 3 very close to certainty and make Charge 4 at least reasonable speculation. Some of these items Bartlett mentions in his book; others he does not.

• Naval planners always assumed that if the Japanese ever started a war with the United States they would attack the Pacific Fleet, wherever it was located. The Navy demonstrated the vulnerability of Pearl Harbor to air attack during maneuvers as early as 1932 and again in 1938. Defense plans prepared as late as April of 1941 accurately described a carrier-based air attack on Pearl Harbor. (Mentioned by Bartlett.)

• In April 1940 Roosevelt ordered the Pacific Fleet from the West Coast to Pearl Harbor. When Admiral Richardson, the commander of the fleet, protested this move because it left the fleet dangerously exposed to attack, he was relieved of command. (Mentioned by Bartlett.)

• In January 1941 Ambassador Grew in Japan passed on to Washington a rumor given to him by the Peruvian ministry that the Japanese were then planning a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. (Mentioned by Bartlett.)

• Deciphering the main Japanese code, called Purple, required the assistance of a special machine, several of which were built. In the summer of 1941, Washington rerouted the Purple machine originally designated for Pearl Harbor to the British, who already had one. This prevented the Hawaiian commanders from reading decoded Japanese messages themselves. U.S. forces in the Philippines, on the other hand, had their own Purple machine. (Mentioned by Bartlett.)

• Kimmel and Short made frequent requests for additional planes so they could conduct an adequate aerial reconnaisance around Pearl Harbor. Washington ignored all these requests. (Not mentioned by Bartlett.)

• Just in case the Japanese moved against the British and French in the Far East without striking at American possessions, Roosevelt ordered the naval commander in the Philippines to send three small ships to intercept any Japanese naval forces participating in such an operation. The commanders of the small ships understood that they were being sent on a suicide mission to provide a casus belli. Although not directly relevant to Pearl Harbor, this item shows how desperately Roosevelt wanted to get into the war. He was not above setting up an incident. (Mentioned by Bartlett.)

• I discussed above the "bomb-plot" messages, which set up a target grid for Pearl Harbor and were intercepted by Washington. (Mentioned by Bartlett.)

• A final "bomb-plot" message, sent on December 3, established a system by which the Japanese consulate in Hawaii would signal the location of U.S. warships not by radio but visually to Japanese ships offshore! This "bomb-plot" message was translated in Washington on the afternoon of December 6. The official story is that our old friend Commander Kramer did not like the translation, so he cursorily laid it aside for further work. (Not mentioned by Bartlett.)

• Efforts by lower-ranking officers in Army and Navy intelligence to compose and send warnings of possible Japanese attack to Hawaii were countermanded by their superiors. (Not mentioned by Bartlett.)

• On December 6 General Arnold personally ordered the Army air forces on the West Coast dispersed in the event of a possible Japanese attack. If Roosevelt and his subordinates expected an attack on the Philippines only, why did they alert the West Coast? Hawaii seems to be the only area not alerted. (Not mentioned by Bartlett.)

• When on December 7, after his mysterious absence, General Marshall finally sent a warning to Hawaii, he sent it by commercial telegraph rather than by scrambler telephone or radio transmitter, both of which were readily available. The warning arrived after the attack was over. (Mentioned by Bartlett.)

While some of these points are consistent with the theory that the Roosevelt administration expected the Japanese to strike at the Philippines, they become far more sinister once one concedes, as the other points strongly indicate, that Washington knew that Hawaii was the Japanese target.

Regardless of one's ultimate conclusions about the more extreme revisionist accusations, Bruce Bartlett's Cover-Up is well worth reading. For those unfamiliar with Pearl Harbor revisionism, it is a good introduction. Those who have already read the older revisionist writings will still profit from its account of the Pearl Harbor investigations. Until a more comprehensive general treatment appears, it will remain one of the better summaries.

Jeffrey Rogers Hummel is a graduate student in US history at the University of Texas at Austin.