Sixty-six years ago today, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, which turned out to be about as smart of a strategic move as taunting the New England Patriots just before the game. During subsequent years, there was an inevitable investigation into why and how the US got caught so flat-footed, and who, if anyone, was to blame.
Decades later, revisionist historians reopened this debate. In the 1970's, not coincidently in the time of Watergate and lingering questions about the Kennedy assassination and the Gulf of Tonkin, it was fairly popular to blame Pearl Harbor on ... FDR. The logic was (and still is, among a number of historians) that FDR was anxious to bring the US into the war, but was having trouble doing so given the country's incredibly isolationist outlook during the 1920's and 1930's. These historians argue that FDR knew about the Pearl Harbor attack but did nothing (or in the most aggressive theories, actually maneuvered to encourage the attack) in order to give FDR an excuse to bring America into the war. The evidence is basically in three parts:
- The abjectly unprepared state of the Pearl Harbor base, when there were so many good reasons at the time to be on one's toes (after all, the Japanese were marching all over China, Germany was at the gates of Moscow, and France had fallen) could only be evidence of conspiracy.
- The most valuable fleet components, the carriers, had at the last minute been called away from Pearl Harbor. Historians argue that they were moved to protect them from an attack known to be coming to Pearl. They argue that FDR wanted Pearl to be attacked, but did not want to lose the carriers.
- Historians have found a number of captured Japanese signals and US intelligence warnings that should have been clear warming of a Pearl Harbor attack.
I have always been pretty skeptical of this theory, for several reasons:
- First, I always default to Coyote's Law, which says
When the same set of facts can be explained equally well by
- A massive conspiracy coordinated without a single leak between hundreds or even thousands of people -OR -
- Sustained stupidity, confusion and/or incompetence
I think it is more than consistent with human history to assume that if Pearl Harbor was stupidly unprepared, that the reason was in fact stupidity, and not a clever conspiracy
- The carrier argument is absurd, and is highly influenced by what we know now rather than what we knew in December of 1941. We know now that the carriers were the most valuable fleet component, but no one really knew it then (except for a few mavericks). Certainly, if FDR and his top brass knew about the attack, no one would have been of the mindset that the carriers were the most important fleet elements to save.
- I find it to be fairly unproductive to try to sort through intelligence warnings thirty years after the fact. One can almost ALWAYS find that some warning or indicator existed for every such event in history. The problem occurs in real-time, when such warnings are buried in the midst of hundreds of other indicators, and are preceded by years of false warnings of the same event.
- I don't really deny that FDR probably wanted an excuse to get the country in the war. However, I have never understood why a wildly succesful Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was more necessary than, say, an attack met strongly at the beach. I can understand why FDR might have allowed the attack to happen, but why would he leave the base undefended. The country would have gotten wound up about the attack whether 5 ships or 10 were destroyed.
It is interesting how so much of this parallels the logic of the 9/11 conspiracists. And, in fact, I have the same answer for both: I don't trust the government. I don't put such actions and motivations past our leaders. But I don't think the facts support either conspiracy. And I don't think the government is capable of maintaining such a conspiracy for so long.