As the anniversary of the December 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor rolls around, critics of President Franklin Roosevelt will again claim he had advance knowledge of the strike and allowed it to happen. That would be treasonable on FDR’s part, of course.
A rational examination of events, though, shows that FDR had no such knowledge of the attack and that, preoccupied with the Nazi threat to Great Britain, he had absolutely no intent to provoke war with Japan.
It’s interesting to me, by the way, that those who excoriate FDR for treason never denounce General Douglas MacArthur, the U.S. commander in the Philippines, who was told of the actual attack after it occurred on December 7th and still did not order his Army Air Corps planes aloft to strike back. When MacArthur’s air arm was caught on the ground hours later, FDR is reported to have broken down and wept, “not again, not on the ground!” Overlooking MacArthur's "treason," (it wasn't, just indecision or timidity), while accusing a liberal president of it, a man who was weeping at his desk with his head on his arms utterly heart-broken by the surprise attack, has a strong aroma of right-wing political motivation.
An article published earlier this year in the monthly Rock Creek Free Press of Washington, D.C., reproduces the front page of the Honolulu Advertiser of November 30th, 1941, with its headline “Japanese May Strike Over Weekend!” The article claims FDR allowed the attack to happen. Since, presumably, U.S. military personnel on Hawaii could all read, why didn’t they respond by unlocking the ammunition lockers on the warships, cancel shore leaves, and take other readiness steps? Please note the Advertiser was a whole week early with the story about the threat of war, so there was plenty of time for Hawaiian military officers to prepare if they believed an imminent strike was aimed at Hawaii.
Could the explanation be they all believed the Japanese would attack the Philippines, not Hawaii? It’s useful to keep in mind the U.S. was a racist country in 1941 and it was not believed Asiatics were technologically capable of such an audacious strike. U.S. ambassador to Tokyo Joseph Grew learned early that year from a friendly Latin American embassy that a drunken Japanese translator had mentioned the Pearl Harbor attack but it was ignored just as previous warnings were ignored.
An attack on Pearl Harbor had even been postulated in 1921 in a prophetic book by British journalist and naval authority Hector Bywater, “The Great Pacific War.” Japanese admiralty officials studied the book closely and top U.S. naval officials gave it rave reviews---but still none of the latter believed war would begin at Pearl Harbor.
Besides, in 1941 FDR was interested in fighting Germany, not Japan, as evidenced by his strategy, once war broke out, of defeating Hitler first. Other indications that this was his primary concern were the enactment of lend lease for Great Britain and the transfer of 50 overage U.S. destroyers to the Royal Navy. FDR even lied to the public that Nazi U-boat attacks on American warships were unprovoked, when in fact the opposite was true. Hitler, who found himself in a desperate struggle after invading Soviet Russia and could not conquer England had strictly ordered his U-boat commanders not to attack American-flag vessels. Moreover, the U.S. Navy also violated neutrality by sending the Royal Navy information on the position of the German battleship Bismarck in May, 1941, that led to its destruction.
If FDR wanted an excuse to fight Japan he had every reason when the gunboat U.S.S. Panay was sunk by Japanese aviators in China’s Yangtze River in 1937 but he knew his Asiatic Fleet and the Philippine army were unready for war. This was still true in 1941 when Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall was telling FDR that he wouldn’t have enough Flying Fortresses based in the Philippines for war until April, 1942. Marshall put great stock in the bomber and told reporters at an off-the-record press conference in November, 1941, that if war broke out Japan’s wood-and-paper cities would be scorched by the warplane, as later proved to be true with its B-29 successor.
Indeed, the U.S. knew war was coming in the Pacific but Washington did not know when or where Japan would strike. It is fair to say the U.S. was making diligent efforts, though, to prepare as rapidly as it could. That U.S. carriers were not in Pearl Harbor December 7th had nothing to do with getting them out of harm’s way because an attack was expected on that port but everything to do with their ferrying fighter planes to reinforce unprepared U.S. Pacific outposts such as Wake Island.
The idea that FDR, a former assistant secretary of the Navy in World War One, would have deliberately concealed knowledge of an imminent attack on a U.S. base, defies everything known about the character of the man, his lifelong love of ships, (see his childhood sketches on the wall at Hyde Park), and his visionary efforts to build shipyards to mass produce warships and to modernize the fleet upon taking office in 1933. In fact, FDR sparked the largest naval buildup in U.S. history from the time he took office, doubling naval personnel between 1939 and 1941 alone. Six months after Pearl Harbor at the battle of Midway, the Japanese navy suffered a terrible reverse largely at the hands of U.S. vessels built before the war in good part under FDR.
If FDR had advanced knowledge of an imminent attack to precipitate a war with Japan he would at minimum have ordered the fleet into battle readiness and sent it steaming out into open water. That FDR knew the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was coming and allowed it to happen is one conspiracy theory that should be sunk promptly.
(Sherwood Ross is a Miami-based public relations consultant for non-profit organizations and has contributed articles to military and national magazines on World War II history. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org)