Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox visited Franklin D. Roosevelt in the afternoon of Dec. 7, just after the president had learned about our devastating losses at Pearl Harbor. Knox later told his naval aide,"FDR was as white as a sheet. He expected to get hit but not hurt."
Several months later, Admiral Thomas Hart, commander of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet, returned to Washington D.C. and visited Roosevelt in the White House. By this time, Hart's small fleet was at the bottom of the Java Sea, overwhelmed by Japan's vastly superior navy. FDR told Hart that the army had misinformed him about its ability to defend the Philippines. If he had known the truth, he would have"stalled off the Japs" for another year.
Stop for a moment and ponder the meaning of these two statements. They reveal some startling facts about Pearl Harbor that you will not find in the movie or in the hype that is gushing from the TV screen. The first reveals that FDR knew the Japanese were going to attack the United States somewhere. But he did not think they would inflict serious damage. The second makes it clear that Franklin D. Roosevelt could have averted or at least delayed a war with Japan.
Perhaps more disturbing, what the president told Admiral Hart was a lie. In November 1941, the top commanders of the U.S. Army and Navy had begged FDR to keep negotiating with the Japanese for at least another three months to give them time to complete a buildup of air and ground forces in the Philippines. He chose to ignore these pleas, which were couched in unmistakably serious language.
Until November 26, 1941, Roosevelt had been negotiating with two Japanese diplomats who had come to Washington to try to resolve a crisis with the United States which began in August 1941. At that time, with no warning, the United States embargoed all shipments of oil to Japan. The Japanese were baffled and infuriated by this decision. For three previous years, the United States had supplied fifty percent of Japan's oil, while her army conquered much of China. Why had Roosevelt chosen this moment to cut off the oil?
The answer, it is now apparent, was FDR's desperate desire to start a war with Japan that would get America into the war he wanted to fight -- with Nazi Germany. Roosevelt had tried hard to start a war with Germany. He had flaunted documents fabricated by British intelligence, supposedly proving Berlin was planning to invade South America. He ordered the Navy to attack German U-boats on sight, in effect fighting an undeclared war in the Atlantic.
A U-boat put a torpedo into the magazine of the USS Reuben James. One hundred and fifteen American sailors died in the freezing Atlantic. The public reaction? Robert Sherwood, FDR's speechwriter, summed it up: people were more interested in who was going to win the Army-Notre Dame football game.
Until the day before Pearl Harbor, polls showed eighty percent of the American people did not want to fight either Germany or Japan. They approved Roosevelt's policy of all aid short of war to the nations fighting the Axis powers. But they trusted FDR's 1940 promise that he would not send their sons to fight in a foreign war. That promise was another lie -- whereby the president had painted himself into an agonizing political corner.
Instead of negotiating seriously with the Japanese, Roosevelt let Secretary of State Cordell Hull present the Tokyo diplomats with a ten point ultimatum that included a demand for an immediate withdrawal from China and Japan's repudiation of her alliance with Germany. The Secretary of State went to the White House on the morning of November 26, 1941 and read this document to the president who"promptly agreed" with it.
Roosevelt permitted Hull to deliver this intransigent message to the dismayed Japanese without any further consultation with the secretaries of the army or navy or the service's military leaders, who had begged him for more time. Even historians who attempt to defend the president describe his conduct on this day of decision as"extraordinary."
The Japanese diplomats were stunned and dismayed. They had offered a 90 day cooling off period in which neither Japan nor the United States would move troops or warships anywhere in the Far East while the two nations discussed their differences.
The historians' judgment of FDR's performance connects to something else we now know. American cryptographers had broken the Japanese diplomatic"Purple" code. The president was aware that Tokyo had set November 29 as a deadline for a settlement. After that the Japanese negotiators were told that war would become inevitable.
In the White House, Roosevelt met with Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Harold Stark, Army chief of staff General George Marshall, Secretary of War Henry Stimson and Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox. The chief topic they discussed was how to make sure, in Stimson's words, Japan"fired the first shot."
On November 27, war warnings were sent to American commands throughout the Pacific, with a special emphasis on the Philippines. The Army message contained a sentence missing from the Navy warning: IF HOSTILITIES CANNOT, REPEAT, CANNOT BE AVOIDED, THE UNITED STATES DESIRES THAT JAPAN COMMIT THE FIRST OVERT ACT. Obviously, Roosevelt assumed the war would begin there.
Why did FDR think he would get hit but not hurt in this war? Because the president and many others in the U.S. Navy and Army were convinced the Japanese were inept pilots and mediocre sailors. This racist superiority complex gave Roosevelt and his aides an incredible sense of complacency. On Dec. 4, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox told a group of big businessmen that we would be at war with Japan in three or four days. But he said not to worry. It would not last more than six months.
This ignorance of Japan's fighting ability meant the president exposed thousands of American servicemen in the Pacific to a conflict they could not win. Along with the destruction of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet, the Philippines were invaded and swiftly conquered. The 20,000 soldiers stationed there were killed or captured. Similar fates befell smaller garrisons on other islands.
Toward the end of the losing fight in the Philippines, General William E. Brougher, commander of the 11th Division, angrily asked:"Who had the right to say that 20,000 Americans should be sentenced without their consent and for no fault of their own to an enterprise that would involve them in endless suffering, cruel handicaps, death or a hopeless future?"
After the war, Admiral James O. Richardson, who had warned Roosevelt not to keep the fleet at Pearl Harbor --and had been fired for his unwelcome advice -- said:"I believe the President's responsibility for our initial defeats in the Pacific was direct, real and personal."
A final irony: if Roosevelt had stalled the Japanese for another three months, almost certainly we would never have gone to war with Tokyo. During those ninety days, the Russians counterattacked and threw the German Army into stunned retreat before Moscow. Suddenly Germany no longer looked like the winner of a two front war. Japan would have been much more amenable to abandoning what one historian has called their"hollow alliance" with Hitler and ending their stalemated war with China.
Merlo Pusey, editorial writer for the Washington Post and later a distinguished biographer, had this to say about Franklin D. Roosevelt's performance in the months before Pearl Harbor."Inevitably, we had to get into it [the war]. I just wish we had done it honestly and openly in our constitutional way of doing things instead of...by the back door. I think Roosevelt had a moral responsibility for leadership. If he had been less of a politician and more of a statesman, he would have taken a stand instead of trying to do it covertly."
Why had Franklin Roosevelt found himself forced to resort to this immensely risky, morally dubious pattern of deceit? Why was he unable to tell the American people the truth about one of the most important political decisions in the history of the country -- for that matter one of the turning points in the history of the world?
It is time for Americans to find an answer to this question. It is a crucial first step to seeing Pearl Harbor and the rest of World War II as history rather than a vainglorious mixture of memory and myth. That in turn may enable us to look at other wars -- notably Vietnam -- with adult eyes.