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The Real Lessons of Pearl Harbor, Part 2

By       Message Alan Pyeatt       (Page 1 of 3 pages)     Permalink    (# of views)   9 comments

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Part 2:   Economic Pressure and a Vulnerable Naval Base

In Part 1, we learned that Americans became disillusioned after World War I, and opposed entering the new European war.   However, President Franklin D. Roosevelt intended to provoke an attack by the Axis powers to change public opinion and convince America to enter the war on the side of Britain and France.

1942 propaganda poster
(Image by Wikimedia Commons)
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Meanwhile, President Roosevelt was having far more success in his efforts to increase military spending.   A contributing factor was the lingering economic depression, and the popularity of Keynesian economic theories.   According to the British economist John Maynard Keynes, any government spending - even spending that diverts resources away from production of consumer goods and capital goods - contributes to economic growth.   The logical conclusion of this theory is that any government spending, including military spending, stimulates the economy.   Other economists (such as Henry Hazlitt) criticized this theory as merely a variation of the broken-window fallacy.    However, the idea that military spending contributes to economic growth is still with us to this day.   As a result, some Congressmen who opposed intervention in foreign wars may have been willing to increase military spending anyway.   Admiral Theobald describes the intense American military buildup:

On September 3, 1940, the United States obtained long-term leases to outlying bases in British territory, in exchange for 50 old destroyers.   On September 16, the Selective Service Act became law.   By the end of 1940, Congress had voted: an immediate increase of the Army to 1,000,000 enlisted men, with an eventual goal of 4,000,000; 50,000 planes for the Army Air Corps; 170,000 enlisted men for the Navy, and 34,000 for the Marines; 15,000 planes and 10,000 pilots for the Naval Air Force; and a naval building program which envisaged an eventual two-ocean navy and embraced 17 battleships, 14 heavy cruisers, 40 light cruisers, 197 destroyers and 74 submarines.

Continuing his efforts, the President, on December 29, 1940, made a radio plea to the country for support for further large increases in the Army and Navy; and the budget submitted in January, 1941, recommended the then tremendous peacetime appropriation of $10,811,000,000 for the military and naval establishments.

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But despite some low-level conflict with German submarines, FDR had failed to provoke Germany into an attack. As George Victor wrote in The Pearl Harbor Myth: Rethinking the Unthinkable, "He seems to have concluded - correctly as it turned out - that Japan would be easier to provoke into a major attack on the United States than Germany would.   As Secretary of War Henry Stimson later told a Congressional investigation, 


In spite of the risk involved... in letting the Japanese fire the first shot, we realized that in order to have the full support of the American people it was desirable to make sure that the Japanese be the ones to do this so there should remain no doubt in anyone's mind as to who were the aggressors.

Also, Stimson met with President Roosevelt, Secretary of State Cordell Hull, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox, General George Marshall, and Admiral Harold Stark, the Chief of Naval Operations, on November 25, 1941.   At this meeting, Secretary Hull remarked that the Japanese might attack at any time.   Later that day, Secretary Stimson wrote in his diary, "The question was how we should maneuver them into the position of firing the first shot without allowing too much danger to ourselves."

By then, Japan had been subjected to intense diplomatic pressure and economic sanctions.   These sanctions included ending exports of aviation fuels and lubricants to Japan under the Export Control Act, scrap iron and steel, and oil.   Roosevelt also froze all Japanese assets in the United States.   The diplomatic pressure exerted on Japan is described in Charles Callan Tansill's book, Back Door to War; Roosevelt Foreign Policy 1933 - 1941 and in William L. Neumann's essay, "How American Policy Toward Japan Contributed to War in the Pacific" in Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace, edited by Harry Elmer Barnes.

According to George Victor:


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Expecting to lose a war with the United States - and lose it disastrously - Japan's leaders had tried with growing desperation to negotiate.   On this point, most historians have long agreed.   Meanwhile, evidence has come out that Roosevelt and Hull persistently refused to negotiate....   It was after learning of Japan's decision to go to war with the United States if the talks "break down" that Roosevelt decided to break them off.

Meanwhile, Roosevelt baited his trap by moving the Pacific Fleet's base from San Diego, California, to Pearl Harbor in April, 1940.   The Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet, Admiral James Richardson, objected to the move because in his opinion it left the fleet vulnerable to enemy attack.   Roosevelt removed Richardson from command and replaced him with Admiral Husband Kimmel, who commanded the fleet at the time of the Japanese attack.   General Walter Short was also placed in command of the island's shore defenses, including the harbor.   During the attack, Admiral Robert "Fuzzy" Theobald, author of The Final Secret of Pearl Harbor, was in command of the Pacific Fleet's destroyers.

Pearl Harbor is a relatively shallow harbor, and the aerial torpedoes with which American military leaders were familiar would have become stuck in the mud before rising to the surface and hitting their targets.   Roosevelt (who had served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy under Woodrow Wilson) and his staff were not aware that Japan had developed new torpedoes that would be effective in the shallow waters of Pearl Harbor.   Therefore, it is likely that they underestimated the damage an aircraft carrier-based attack could cause.

However, U.S. Army Colonel Billy Mitchell had proved that battleships were vulnerable to aerial attack as early as February, 1921.   And in war games in 1932, Admiral Harry Yarnell had proved that Pearl Harbor itself was vulnerable to a carrier-based naval attack, even without Japan's shallow-depth torpedoes.   So, it requires a leap of faith to conclude that Roosevelt and his advisors really thought that Admiral Richardson's objections to basing the fleet at Pearl Harbor were unfounded.   After all, Pearl Harbor was located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, thousands of miles from the mainland ports of San Diego and San Francisco.   And yet, that is exactly what the apologists for Roosevelt's strategy would have us believe.

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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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