A Day That Will Live in Infamy

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The Sept. 11 attacks naturally remind us of Pearl Harbor, and on Dec. 3 Robert Bartley, former editorial page editor of The Wall Street Journal, addressed the intelligence failures preceding the Japanese attack. In doing so, he alluded to the “wildly implausible” claim that FDR knew the assault was imminent but chose not to inform the Army and Navy commanders in Hawaii. Bartley calls this charge against FDR an old “chestnut” perpetuated only by lingering”anti-Roosevelt feelings” and the desire of some “partisans” to restore the reputations of commanders Walter Short and Husband Kimmel. I think he’s all wet. Anti-Roosevelt feelings have nothing to do with my acceptance of the view that FDR and his top advisers blocked the Hawaii officers from receiving decoded warnings. Two books, one by John Toland and the other by Richard Stinnett, offer extensive circumstantial evidence, and the BBC has created a compelling documentary (based largely on Toland’s book Infamy). Toland, respected as a historian of Europe (but pointedly ignored on this topic), has written three books on Japan and the war. In each one he came closer to the conclusion that FDR must have known the attack was coming, and finally he decided that no other interpretation fits the facts. Respected writers like Bartley and Dorothy Rabinowitz still dismiss the idea, but I have come across no sustained rebuttal.

In my view, Bartley (along with many others) has a blind spot. He just won’t address the possibility that FDR might have done such a thing. Bartley’s cavalier dismissal illuminates how the enigmas of history resist resolution. As long as those who experience newsworthy events are still alive, there is debate and disagreement. Reputations are at stake.

Someone is usually lying, but who? Often key players don’t know; they just suspect, like the baffled cryptographer Laurance Safford who struggled for years to find out why his decoded messages did not get to the right people. Journalists struggle to find out the truth, but some relevant questions, such as whether FDR knew, are not even raised. Gen. George Marshall persuaded Thomas E. Dewey not to bring up the charges during the 1944 presidential campaign on the (probably correct) grounds that letting the Japanese know the codes were broken would hamper the war effort. Unless there is a “smoking gun” (like Monica Lewinsky’s dress) these issues are rarely settled. After a while, those who know the truth die, and the task of discovery falls to the historian. The historian’s advantage is that no one is any longer quite so eager to hide the truth. The disadvantage is that the trail of evidence has gone cold. Searching out and analyzing thousands of scraps of paper or microfilm or recordings or emails,┬Ěthe historian attempts to reconstruct from dry but tantalizing clues the flesh-and-blood moment of a rapidly distancing day. I venture that Toland and Stinnett have done that. From painstaking research they uncovered what only a select few knew in December, 1941,

(and spent years covering up). But to succeed, the historian needs something else – a sympathetic audience, which Toland and Stinnett do not yet have. Their stories float in limbo, awaiting yet another generation, one that has no passion about these matters, but rather the curiosity of history buffs. Only then will Toland and Stinnett receive the recognition they are due.

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