Pearl Harbor: A Date of Infamy

Published 22 Feb 2017

“Yesterday, Dec. 7, 1941 – a date which will live in infamy – the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.
The United States was at peace with that nation and, at the solicitation of Japan, was still in conversation with the government and its emperor looking toward the maintenance of peace in the Pacific.
Indeed, one hour after Japanese air squadrons had commenced bombing in Oahu, the Japanese ambassador to the United States and his colleagues delivered to the Secretary of State a formal reply to a recent American message. While this reply stated that it seemed useless to continue the existing diplomatic negotiations, it contained no threat or hint of war or armed attack.”

On December 7, 1941, a date of infamy according to FDR, the Japanese launched an attack on the U.S. naval base in Pearl Harbor on Hawaii’s island of Oahu. The attack destroyed 18 ships and almost 200 planes and caused about 3,700 American casualties. The attack was a complete surprise to the U.S. government, but some historians, especially revisionists, believe that:

  1. FDR intentionally lured the Japanese into attacking the U.S. by provoking them
  2. He knew that the target was Pearl Harbor

President Franklin D. Roosevelt wanted to enter the war in Europe, but the problem was the mood of the country. These anti-war views were shared by 80 percent of the American public from 1940 to 1941. Though Germany had occupied most of Europe, Americans did not want to get involved with “Europe’s War.” Revisionists argue Roosevelt was convinced that luring Japan into an attack on the U.S. was the sole choice he had in 1941 to overcome the powerful non-interventionist movement led by aviation hero Charles Lindbergh. Furthermore, some revisionists believe that Japan’s military plans were obtained in advance by the United States FDR and that he even knew the target would be Pearl Harbor but tried to conceal the information from the Hawaiian military commanders. Historians will never know for sure what was on FDR’s mind, and it may be true that FDR lured the Japanese into attacking the U.S. so that it would give him the excuse to join the war, but to claim that he knew that when and where the attack was going to take a place is nothing more than falsification or distortion of the facts.

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Some conspiracy theorists even dare to claim that FDR wanted war not because he wanted to fight Germany, but because he wanted to hide the failure of the New Deal in order to turn people’s attention away from the New Deal to the war. They even go on further by stating that FDR was a traitor to the nation before the war, and he surely forced us into war to save his commie friends in the Soviet Union. It may be true that FDR wanted America to fight militarist aggression in Europe. FDR indeed was a skilled politician who would take advantage of any opportunity to serve his agenda. However, to claim that this is evidence of conspiracy is simply wrong.
A shortcoming of the conspiracy theory is that there was no guarantee that Germany would declare war on America. And the idea that the US would engage war on Germany was not popular at the time. The feeling in Congress and much of the nation was “one war at a time”, and. Roosevelt’s “Date of Infamy” speech on December 8th did not mention Germany or any European nation. His speech did not indicate that we planned to add the Nazis to our list of enemies. Throughout this paper, I will list the claims made by so-called “conspiracy theorists” and explain why their claims are simply not true or circumstantial at best.

There has been a lot of debates regarding the ability of Allies to break enemy codes. The conspiracy theorists claim that FDR wanted the U.S. in the war so much that he purposely withheld information in order to lure the Japanese into attacking Pearl Harbor. After all, they argue that the Pearl Harbor was too attractive for the Japanese to pass. The Conspiracy Theorists lacked knowledge of the methods and processes in signals intelligence work. The process of intelligence collection requires a lot of effort and work even for misleading and incomplete messages. Even though the “code” has been broken, it takes time to decode and to translate the message to English. Then, translation needs to be verified. If the message requires attention, it is then passed up to the chain of command. Also, there was no central clearinghouse for message analysis — the navy, army and state departments all had independent operations. It is no wonder that no one had a clear, let alone a complete picture of the messages available.

Also, the conspiracy theorists argue that the “Fourteen-part message”, which the Japanese ambassador was going to deliver to the U.S. Secretary of State a half hour before the attack on Pearl Harbor, was a declaration of war, or at least a breaking off of diplomatic relations which would have signaled war. But the truth is that the message was not decoded and delivered in a timely manner, and as we all know, intelligence has little value unless it can be delivered in a timely manner. On December 6, 1941, U.S. code-breaking groups intercepted a “fourteen-part message” from the Japanese government to its American ambassador. The code-breaking service began intercepting a fourteen part message from the Japanese but only decoded the first thirteen parts. The Americans believed Japan was going to attack somewhere in Southeast Asia. The next day the remaining part of the message was deciphered. It mentioned that diplomatic relations with the United States were to be severed. After learning this, the United States War Department sent out an alert, but it was about four hours too late

When Pearl Harbor was under the attack, the carriers Enterprise and Yorktown were returning from Wake Island and Midway. The conspiracy theorists claim that the “old and obsolete” battleships were left while the “important and vital” aircraft carriers were hidden. It is true that naval strategists started looking at aircraft carriers. In the interwar years, there was a small, but vocal aircraft enthusiasts who were convinced that aircraft would dominate naval warfare. However, the military, and the navy, in particular, do not take new views well. Only after several trials, demonstrations, and war games, the utility of carrier-borne aircraft was demonstrated well enough to build some of the ships and place them in the fleet. However, the roles of these ships were limited to the support of battleships and heavy cruisers. Their role would be to scout, set up air defense, and to raid lighter craft.

Even in the Japanese navy, same ideas were shared. All of the plans in the southwest Pacific had the fleet supporting landings and waiting in the Philippines for the USN fleet to arrive for battle. In this battle, the role of Japanese carriers was to harass the Americans on their approach, but not to be used in a strike role. Yamato’s plan to cripple the American fleet at Pearl Harbor was not very popular with the majority of the IJN leadership. It was regarded as a high-risk endeavor, but it was also the only plan that anyone could come up with that took the initiative in attacking the American fleet.

So, no navy anywhere in the world had viewed the carrier as the main force for projecting power. A huge debt is owed to Nimitz and Halsey for developing the methods of using carriers as the main strike element. But in the end analysis, Halsey and Nimitz were forced to do this because they had no battle line to fall back on. The absence of American carriers at Pearl Harbor is not a conspiracy.
One area where the conspiracy theorists may have a good point is how the two commanders were treated after the events of December 7. Often, it is far more important to assess blame than to identify a problem and to try to fix it. Admiral Kimmel and General Short were held responsible and disgraced by the events of December 7. People wanted a scapegoat and the government gave them two. But the fact remains that even if they had information regarding the attack, they would have needed at least several hours, if not a week or two to develop a plan. Although it is the responsibility of the commanders to safeguard their troops, it is also often not solely their fault when things go wrong. Short and particularly Kimmel could not possibly do more than what they had done. They did not deserve to have their reputations and careers ruined.

The conspiracy theorists argue that the reason why many of the documents from World War II are still classified is the evidence that the government is still trying to hide conspiracy surrounding the Pearl Harbor attack. The problem with declassifying these documents is that there are literally hundreds of feet of documents that were classified right after the war in fear that the new enemy, the Soviet Union, might get something valuable. So the military, state department and anyone else with a streak of paranoia were allowed to place blanket classifications on those documents. By law, each must be reviewed by multiple levels of bureaucracy before declassification can occur.

The losses suffered at Pearl Harbor were a severe blow to the US military. 2403 were killed and this included 68 civilians. 1178 were wounded. Airpower in Hawaii took a beating as naval aviation lost 13 fighters, 21 scout bombers, and 46 patrol planes. The Army air losses were even higher as 18 bombers (including 4 B-17s) and 59 fighters were destroyed. Of course, the loss in fighting ships great. All of the battleships were damaged, all but two were either total losses or severely damaged. In addition to these losses, 3 light cruisers and 3 destroyers were also destroyed.

We will never know what really was on FDR’s mind. Maybe, it is true that he was desperately looking ways to stop Germany, and that his way into the war was through Japan, not Germany. However, Roosevelt’s only fault was that he failed to prompt effective action. He was guilty of negligence. Poor communications, inefficient intelligence gathering and dissemination systems, poor rules of engagement and a totally inadequate or lack of command structure is what caused the Pearl Harbor disaster. It was not a conspiracy. It was simply a nation and a government operating on inadequate information making assumptions that were not valid about an enemy who was more capable than we had anticipated.


  • Harold I. Gullan, “Expectations of Infamy: Roosevelt and Marshall Prepare for War, 1938-41,” Presidential Studies Quarterly 28.3 (1998): 510
  • Hilary Conroy, and Harry Wray, eds., Pearl Harbor Reexamined: Prologue to the Pacific War (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1990) iii
  • Karl G. Larew, “December 7, 1941: The Day No One Bombed Panama,” The Historian 66.2 (2004)
  • Thomas A. Breslin, “Mystifying the Past: Establishment Historians and the Origins of the Pacific War,” Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars8.4 (1976): 18
  • “VA Vows Not to Forget Pearl Harbor; Programs for Employees to Explore Veterans in History.” The Washington Times 23 Nov. 2002: A01.
  • Warren F. Kimball, “Franklin D. Roosevelt and World War II,” Presidential Studies Quarterly 34.1 (2004)
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