80th Anniversary of a Date Which Will Live in Infamy
The great American sage Gore Vidal once said (or wrote): “We are the United States of Amnesia, we learn nothing because we remember nothing.” That certainly seems to be the case when it comes to our government making eerily similar and costly mistakes in both Vietnam and Afghanistan. The average American is notoriously ignorant about even some of the most important events of their own country’s history to say nothing of that of the rest of the world. But Pearl Harbor is a little different. Mention the words to someone on the street and chances are they will have at least a vague recollection that it was something important and they may even be able to tell you the date and something about it. It is certainly well remembered, if maybe not entirely accurately, by the scholarly and political classes, the few remaining veterans of World War II and their families and there will be many commemorating events for the 80th anniversary. The words, “Pearl Harbor” still had enough resonance in the year 2000 for the neocons behind the Project For the New Century to tell us that a new version of the 1941 catastrophe might be required for the American people to accept the shifting of resources to the military necessary to create a “Dominant Force” for the 21st century.
A good part of the reason Pearl Harbor continues to resonate is the fame of FDR’s address calling for Congress to officially declare that a state of war existed between the United States and Japan the day after the attack (the last time a president would ever do this) with the most memorable line being that December 7, 1941, was a date that would forever “live in infamy.” The drama of this moment provided probably the best scene in the otherwise critically panned 2001 movie Pearl Harbor starring Ben Affleck. So, let’s first take a closer look what was said in this speech, which ranks with the Gettysburg Address, at least in terms of impact if not necessarily for its style.
FDR said the Japanese attack was “unprovoked” and that the U.S. and Japan were “at peace” at the time of the attack. Obviously, his chief and immediate aim was to rally and unite the American people for a struggle against a particularly virulent form of Far Eastern fascist imperialism, imbued with racism. Previously, the Japanese had been fighting a brutal war of conquest against China since as early as 1931. Though both the U.S. and European powers, like Britain and France, had their own long history of meddling in Chinese affairs and reducing the country to the status of a near colony, Americans and their government clearly sided with China. Many were enamored with a romantic vision of the China of Pearl S. Buck’s novels. FDR himself could recall his opium smuggling grandfather, Warren Delano’s stirring tales of the Oriental trade and would always accord China status as one of the “Big Four” allies during World War II. On December 19, 1940, he approved $25 million in military aid to China, permitting it to purchase one hundred P 40 pursuit aircraft. By late spring 1941, the United States had also earmarked over $145 million in lend-lease funds for China to acquire both ground and air equipment. In May 1941, Secretary of War Henry Stimson approved a Chinese request for sufficient equipment to outfit thirty infantry divisions, intended for delivery by mid-1942. Prompted by his special adviser, Claire L. Chennault, a retired U.S. Army Air Corps officer, Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek also obtained Roosevelt’s support for an American Volunteer Group (AVG) of about one hundred U.S. civilian volunteers to fly the one hundred recently purchased P-40s. These “Flying Tigers” began arriving in Burma in late 1941, becoming the first Americans to fight alongside the Chinese.
“GIVE ALL POSSIBLE AID TO THE CHINESE GOVERNMENT OF CHIANG-KAI-SHEK” was item “C.” of a controversial memorandum put together by Lieutenant Commander Arthur H. McCollum, Director of the Office of Naval Intelligence’s Far East Asia Section, dated October 7, 1940 and addressed to the Director of Naval Intelligence, Vice-Admiral Walter S. Anderson. Other action items recommended in the McCollum memorandum included:
“D. SEND A DIVISION OF LONG-RANGE HEAVY CRUISERS TO THE ORIENT, PHILIPPINES OR SINGAPORE.”
“G. INSIST THAT THE DUTCH REFUSE TO GRANT JAPANESE DEMANDS FOR UNDUE ECONOMIC CONCESSIONS, PARTICULARLY OIL.”
“H. COMPLETELY EMBARGO ALL U.S. TRADE WITH JAPAN IN COLLABORATION WITH A SIMILAR EMBARGO IMPOSED BY THE BRITISH EMPIRE.”
“F. KEEP THE MAIN STRENGTH OF THE U.S. FLEET NOW IN THE PACIFIC IN THE VICINITY OF THE HAWAIIAN ISLANDS.”
According to McCollum, these and other provocative actions listed were needed to create “MORE ADO,” to change “THE PRESENT STATE OF POLITICAL OPINION IN THE UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT” (McCollum says nothing about general U.S. public opinion, which polling at the time showed was still against going to war either Germany or Japan but perhaps he was referring to Congress here) to make it easier for the U.S. to declare war on Japan. But, McCollum wrote, an even better situation would arise if these actions could lead Japan to “COMMIT AN OVERT ACT OF WAR” that would make it even easier to overcome public (and by extension congressional) resistance to getting into the war.
But what of the fact that FDR (correctly) saw Nazi Germany as the more immediate and serious threat and the very important question of whether war with Japan would necessarily bring the U.S. into World War II en toto? McCollum saw the Tripartite Pact signed by Germany, Italy and Japan just eleven days before he submitted his memo, to be a possible trigger but it’s not entirely clear how this would work. The pact only stipulated that:
[Germany, Italy and Japan] undertake to assist one another with all political, economic and military means if one of the Contracting Powers is attacked by a Power at present not involved in the European War or in the Japanese Chinese conflict. [i.e., the United States]
In fact, though the American people may not have fully realized it, by late 1941, the U.S. was already in an undeclared naval war with Germany in the Atlantic and rendering all possible assistance, including military assistance, to Britain, belying the idea that the country was “neutral.” In October 1941, the destroyer USS Kearny was docked at Reykjavík (Iceland was under a U.S. defensive occupation requested by its government). When German U-boats attacked a nearby British convoy and overwhelmed her Canadian escorts. Kearny and three other U.S. destroyers were summoned to assist. Kearny dropped depth charges on the U-boats and continued to barrage throughout the night. (This action was specifically cited as a provocation in Hitler’s declaration of war on the U.S. two months later.) On October 17, a torpedo fired by U-568 struck Kearny on the starboard side. The crew confined flooding to the forward fire room, enabling the ship to get out of the danger zone with power from the aft engine and fire room. Regaining power in the forward engine room, Kearny returned to Iceland with 11 men killed, and 22 others were injured.
On October 23, the destroyer USS Reuben James sailed from Newfoundland, with four other destroyers, escorting an eastbound convoy. On October 31, it was torpedoed near Iceland by German submarine U-552. Reuben James had positioned itself between an ammunition ship in the convoy and the known position of a German wolfpack. The destroyer was not flying the ensign of the United States and was in the process of dropping depth charges on another U-boat when it was engaged. Reuben James was hit forward by a torpedo meant for a merchant ship and her entire bow was blown off when a magazine exploded. The bow sank immediately. The aft section floated for five minutes before going down. Of a crew of 7 officers and 136 enlisted men plus one passenger, 100 were killed. Even before the Reuben James went down, FDR gave a speech where he said:
We have wished to avoid shooting. But the shooting has started. And history has recorded who fired the first shot. In the long run, however, all that will matter is who fired the last shot.
But, despite all this, Roosevelt felt it was still not enough to ask Congress for a declaration of war.
The McCollum memorandum was discovered in January 1995, by author Robert B. Stinnett in a box of naval records while he was researching his book, Day of Deceit: The Truth About FDR and Pearl Harbor. Stinnett served in the Navy himself during World War II, earning several commendations. If we can take him at his word, Stinnett’s “sole purpose” was to “uncover the true story of events leading up to the devastating attack on the naval base and adjoining Army facilities, and to document that it was not a surprise to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and many of his top military and policy advisors.” Not surprisingly he has faced a lot of criticism. One glaring problem is Stinnett’s contradictory statements about whether FDR ever saw the McCollum memorandum. On the one hand Stinnett writes that he has “conclusive evidence” Roosevelt saw it, including, “a series of secret presidential routing logs” but then provides no evidence of these logs. But it’s certainly possible that FDR either saw it or had its proposals relayed to him by either McCollum or one of his superiors.
Related to action “D.” on McCollum’s list (“SEND A DIVISION OF LONG-RANGE HEAVY CRUISERS TO THE ORIENT, PHILIPPINES OR SINGAPORE.”) Stinnett tells us that FDR dispatched naval task forces into Japanese territorial waters on what he called, “Pop up cruises.” Stinnett provides citations for the testimony of Vice Admiral John H. Newton, who led one of these before the Pearl Harbor investigation chaired by retired Admiral Thomas Hart from February 15 to June 15, 1944, for a second cruise that took U.S. warships to Central and South Pacific regions adjacent to islands under Japanese control and, most provocatively, for one in the Bungo Strait, within the southernmost territory of the Japanese home islands as being available in the Archives II collection of the Modern Military Records Branch at College Park, MD. Particularly chilling is the citation for secret Oval Office audio recordings of October 8, 1940 (the day after the date of the McCollum memorandum), where Roosevelt is heard to say:
I just want them to keep popping up here and there and keep the Japs guessing. I don’t mind losing one or two cruisers, but do not take a chance on losing five or six.
Item “G’ on McCollum’s memorandum (“INSIST THAT THE DUTCH REFUSE TO GRANT JAPANESE DEMANDS FOR UNDUE ECONOMIC CONCESSIONS, PARTICULARLY OIL”) was accomplished on July 26, 1941, Roosevelt seized all Japanese assets in the United States in retaliation for their occupation of French Indo-China. Britain and the Dutch East Indies quickly followed suit, resulting in Japan losing access to three-fourths of its overseas trade and 88 percent of its imported oil. This directly led to Japanese plans to seize the Dutch East Indies and its precious oil outright. The only force capable of stopping them was the U.S. Pacific Fleet, whose base had been moved from its traditional home port of San Diego, CA to Pearl Harbor by a decision of FDR. The fleet’s commander, Admiral James O. Richardson was dead set against moving the fleet to such an exposed and remote position without more preparation for its use in wartime. Subsequently, Richardson was removed from command and replaced by Admiral Husband Kimmel.
There are other sources that support the idea that Roosevelt desired Japan to commit just the sort of “overt act” Arthur McCollum envisioned in his memo. For example, the diary entry of Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, made ten days before the Pearl Harbor attack, which stated:
[Roosevelt] brought up the event that we are likely to be attacked perhaps next Monday [December 1, 1941], for the Japanese are notorious for making an attack without warning, and the question was what we should do. The question was how we should maneuver them into the position of firing the first shot without allowing too much danger to ourselves.
As Stinnett himself writes, the point of making this type of inquiry into the attack is not to condemn Roosevelt for “allowing Pearl Harbor to happen.” By late 1941, the U.S. was already more or less at war with Germany and it was also on a collision course for war with Japan. It was only a matter of time. World War II is often referred to as the “Good War.” It is if fact the title of a book by historian Studs Terkel. I come from the school that holds, there’s never been a good war or a bad peace. I think it’s more accurate to say World War II was one of history’s few necessary wars and that it was also necessary for the United States to be a full participant. There’s no doubt FDR believed this as well and that he was going to have to do whatever was necessary to help get the U.S. into the war. Fortunately, for the future of humanity, the Germans and Japanese were willing collaborators in this effort.