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The Real Lessons of Pearl Harbor, Part 3

By       Message Alan Pyeatt     Permalink
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This dispatch is to be considered a war warning.   Negotiations with Japan looking toward stabilization of conditions in the Pacific have ceased and an aggressive move by Japan is expected within the next few days.   The number and equipment of Japanese troops and the organizations of naval task forces indicates an amphibious expedition against either the Philippines, Thai, or Kra Peninsula, or possibly Borneo.   Execute an appropriate defensive deployment preparatory to carrying out the tasks assigned in WPL 46.   Inform District and Army authorities.   A similar warning is being sent by the War Department.   Spenavo inform British.   Confidential districts, Guam, Samoa take measures against sabotage.

The message sent to General Short simply stated, "Negotiations with Japan appear to be terminated with only the barest possibility of resumption."

According to Admiral Kimmel's and General Short's critics, these messages should have been adequate to warn them of the imminent danger they were in.   But as Admiral Kimmel testified before a Joint Congressional Committee,


The statement in the Navy Department dispatch to me to the effect that the negotiations had ceased on November 27th was a pale reflection of actual events; so partial a statement as to be misleading.   The parties had not merely stopped talking.   They were at swordpoints.   So far as Japan was concerned, the talking which went on after November 26th was play-acting.   It was a stratagem to conceal a blow which Japan was preparing to deliver.   The stratagem did not fool the Navy Department.   The Navy Department knew the scheme.   The Pacific Fleet was exposed to this stratagem because the Navy Department did not pass on its knowledge of the Japanese trick.

As Admiral Theobald noted, "Never before in recorded history had a field commander been denied information that his country would be at war in   a matter of hours, and that everything pointed to a surprise attack upon his forces shortly before sunrise."


The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor began a few minutes before 8:00 AM on December 7.   The next day, in an emergency session, President Roosevelt asked for a declaration of war on Japan.   Congress approved the declaration of war immediately.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, public opinion swung decidedly in favor of war with the Axis powers, as Roosevelt had predicted.   Many opponents of America's entry into the war changed their positions, and the remaining opponents were left with little means of resistance.   As to Murray Rothbard wrote,


The America First Committee quickly dissolved after Pearl Harbor and went to war - despite the pleas of the bulk of its militants to continue being a focus of opposition to the nation's course.   Charles Lindberg totally abandoned the ideological and political arena and joined the war effort.

Among the intellectuals, there was, amidst the monolith of wartime propaganda, no room or hearing for libertarian or antiwar views.   The veteran leaders of libertarianism were deprived of a voice.

On December 11, 1941, as provided for in the Tripartite Pact, Germany declared war on the United States.   Roosevelt had achieved his goal of bringing America into the war against Hitler.  

Admiral Kimmel and General Short were blamed for the defeat at Pearl Harbor, and the mythology of an "unprovoked and dastardly" attack was woven into the fabric of the American consciousness.   Despite mountains of contrary evidence uncovered by historians and researchers, this mythology has gone largely unchallenged by educational institutions, civic leaders, and public opinion makers.  

This acceptance of a false mythology has undesired consequences, because the conclusions derived from this mythology are not the true lessons of history, but rather misleading conclusions based on deception.   Unfortunately, this is a common experience.   According to Frances FitzGerald (as quoted in Why American History Is Not What They Say: An Introduction to Revisionism):


History textbooks for elementary and secondary schools... are written not to explore, but to instruct - to tell children what their elders want them to know about their country.   This information is not necessarily what anyone considers the truth of things.

Jeff Riggenbach adds, "Public school history textbooks are meant to inculcate a certain general view of America in their student readers - a view that can be as well (perhaps better) served by a dose of myth as by a dose of truth."

So, what are the false lessons inferred by the dominant mythology of Pearl Harbor?   We can trust our leaders to protect us and tell us the truth.   We need our leaders to protect us from evil foreigners who want to harm us without cause.   If we get into a war with another country, it's probably their fault.   And so on.   As Robert Higgs wrote,


Historians have always known, however, that the true story was nothing like this patriotic fable dispensed each year on December 7 for popular consumption....   It behooves every educated American to learn this honest history and to pass it along to others when an opportunity arises, because the myth has long contributed, and continues to contribute, to a false view of the U.S. place in the world and to a grave misunderstanding of U.S. foreign policy. Ceaseless dissemination and widespread acceptance of this view is the very model of how the U.S. government tends to do foreign policy: provoke foreigners to attack Americans, then tell the American people that foreigners have attacked us for no reason and therefore we must strike back to defeat them or at least to teach them a lesson about treating the United States with deference.

Then what are the real lessons we should learn from a more critical (and accurate) view of the attack on Pearl Harbor?


First, the actions of our political and military leaders, and the motives that drive them, may not be what they say they are.   In any nation with a republican form of government, the political leaders are supposed to implement the will of its citizens.   However, under a veil of secrecy, or in conjunction with a complacent citizenry, those leaders may take actions that are contrary to the public will.

Second, unless they are restrained by effective safeguards, even a democratic nation's leaders may invert the power relationship between the citizens and their government.   Instead of implementing the people's will, they may take actions which shape public opinion to suit their own purposes.   They may even go so far as to deceive the public, allow the mass slaughter of their own citizens, and destroy the reputations of ethical leaders like Admiral Kimmel and General Short.

Third, for republican government to function properly, citizens must be vigilant to ensure that their leaders are truthful and actually implement the will of the people.   A complacent or inattentive citizenry provides an opening for politicians and military leaders to act contrary to the people's will.   Given Lord Acton's observation that "power tends to corrupt," if the public isn't vigilant, sooner or later leaders will emerge that will act unethically.

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Alan Pyeatt is an award-winning Civil Engineer who lives in Monrovia, California. He also enjoys music, organic gardening, economics, and audio/video production.

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