Maybe not Roosevelt...what about Churchill?

Okay, so you’ve proven to a pretty decent degree that Roosevelt did not know about the impending Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

However, I had heard an almost identical rumor: that Winston Churchill (or at least the British in general) had known about the impending attack on Pearl Harbor and withheld that information from the Americans in order that the Americans get into the War.

Any truth to that one?

This is in reference to the Staff Report http://www.straightdope.com/mailbag/mpearlharbor.html
I’ve heard the rumor, but in runs into the same major problem that the rumor of Roosevelt’s knowledge did- the British had managed to crack Japanese diplomatic codes, but breaking Japanese military codes was still a ways away.

In addition, the British government did send the information it had on the “Climb Niitakayama 1208” telegram, and suggested that Japan was planning an attack upon America. But again, it just didn’t know where.

And as far as bringing the US into the war- all that was necessary, in Roosevelt and Marshall’s stated opinions, was for Japan to make the first blow. That didn’t mean a crippling blow, or a surprise attack. Any attack by Japan- including one easily repulsed with little damage to US capability afterwards- would have sufficed to get the nation ready for war. Having the attack come as a ‘surprise’ to most Americans and being of great damage to US capability would actually be more likely to keep the US out of the war- Roosevelt’s cabinet scrambled after Pearl Harbor to keep details of the damage hidden so that people wouldn’t realize just how unprepared for war the US really was.

I have nothing to add except that this is an excellent report by John Corrado. Congratulations John.

I’ve heard the Churchill rumors too, either as a co-conspirator with Roosevelt, or as simply waiting in anticipation for the U.S. to be thrown into his arms as an ally by the attack.

The direct inspiration for Churchill-as-suspect is likely two-fold:

  1. His avowed willingness to do damn near anything to bring the U.S. into the war. I believe there were documented instances of British intelligence spreading outright disinformation to try to nudge the U.S. along, though I’d be hard pressed to name them, and the Axis threat was certainly real enough that Britain didn’t need to do much more than pass along the truth, with perhaps a little creative spin.

  2. The bombing of Coventry in 1940, when Enigma decryptions revealed that the Germans would be striking at this previously untouched and largely undefended target, but Churchill directed that no warning be given or expedient defences attempted in order to avoid compromising the Enigma secret. I believe that Churchill was later quoted as having been deeply troubled at having to have made that decision, but it certainly seems like the right one, given not only the scope of the secret being protected and the rather limited difference to Coventry that any actions would have made. This incident has probably fed the opinions of neo-isolationists and Churchill-haters to the effect that: “You see what kind of guy he was? He probably knew about Pearl Harbor too!”

In any event, I find the Churchill rumor even less compelling than the Roosevelt one. As Corrodo’s response to this query points out, British intelligence sources in the Pacific were no better than American ones at the time. The one edge the British might have had regarding Japanese issues was Japan’s ambassador to Germany, who was something of a “Teutonophile” and all too willing to share information with his hosts. Even so, the ambassador had no better information regarding his governments plans, much less the navy’s, than Japanese diplomats in the U.S. In fact, as the war commenced, the Japanese embassy in Berlin proved to be a better source of information on the Germans, thanks again to U.S. knowledge of the Japanese “Purple” diplomatic code. The Germans, of course, were as shocked by Pearl Harbor as anyone else, such that British intelligence had no opportunity to get in on the secret by that route.

Finally, if Churchill had somehow known about Pearl Harbor, it seems likely that he would also have had some useful information about Japanese plans in Southeast Asia, and would have been able to warn British forces in Singapore and Malaya about the Japanese attacks which sank the Battleship Prince of Wales and Battlecruiser Repulse, and humiliatingly crushed the British garrisons in the weeks following. None of which accrued any discernable political benefit to Churchill.

I thought Corrado’s report pretty well covered the necessary debunking bases. The fact is that by the time of the Pearl Harbor attack, everybody expected an attack, but nobody expected one by carriers on Pearl Harbor. Sabotage at Pearl was an accepted possibility, as was submarine activity around Hawaii (hence the agressive pursuit of a submarine contact which resulted in the depth charging and sinking of a Japanese mini-sub hours before the Pearl Harbor attack began.

The adequacy of Admiral Kimmel and company’s preparations at Pearl is another matter for debate. A still more glaring situation, however, was that in the Phillipines. A Japanese attack there was entirely expected, and yet General MacArthur’s preparations were quite inadequate, whether due to pseudo-racist underestimation of the Japanese, or outright incompetance. I’m not sure where the evidence stacks up regarding any advance warnings to MacArthur, but if he wasn’t warned at all or strenuously enough, it still seems more likely that the intention was to protect the intelligence source, rather than to ensure that we “got hit hard enough to bring us into the war”.

On the other hand, might there have been some in the armed forces or the government who still harbored a grudge over the supression of the Bonus Marchers in '32?

On a semi-related note, my one real criticism of Corrado’s generally well stated report is with his passing contention that “Had the air raid been followed up with an invasion, Pearl Harbor could not have held out for long”. In fact, the Army garrison on Oahu was fairly substantial. More to the point, Hawaii was thousands of miles from the nearest Japanese base (Kwajalein), and thousands of miles more from the nearest major naval and logistical support base (Truk). An attempted landing of the necessary scale over that distance would probably have been beyond the capabilities of the Japanese, who were at the limits of their resources moving substantial invasion forces over the short hops from Formosa to the Phillipines and from Indochina to Malaya. If they had undertaken an invasion of Pearl Harbor, the resources required probably would have precluded their invasions of the Phillipines and the Indonesian islands (the oil of which was the whole point of going to war). Moreover, without first securing Wake Island and/or Midway, the supply lines of any force landing in Hawaii would have been threatened and a campaign of any length would likely have been untenable.

And there are a few fishy things about that Foster “suicide” too… :wink:

Despite “Babylon 5”, the Coventry story was exploded almost as soon as it was first suggested in the 70’s. Ultra was capable of decrypting German signals, but not of interpreting German code words; Churchill knew that someplace was to be bombed, but not where.

I agree. Fine job, John.

In relation to the Coventry incident.

Winston Churchill and The Bombing of Coventry

And I’d like to add my congrats to John.

Particular thanks to Yojimbo for his debunking link.

I would maintain that widespread acceptance of the Coventry myth (and I was unaware of the Babylon 5 cite to it, by the way) has helped support belief in the Pearl Harbor myth. In fact, in keeping with the way in which urban legends evolve, some believers in the Pearl Harbor myth may merely be misremembering the Coventry myth (“Well, I know he knew about something and didn’t do anything about it…”).

great report

still, a few of John’s points seem to be open to questioning:

At the time Pearl Harbor was attacked, nearly all naval leaders–including the Japanese–considered carriers and
their aircraft best suited to reconnaissance. The real fighting would be left to the battleships

by the time of Pearl Harbor, the importance of aerial power in naval warfare had been proven twice: in November 1940, British torpedo-planes had attacked the Italian port of Tarent. The attack succeeded in disabling three Italian battleships.
And in May 1941, the sinking of the Bismarck had been possible because of an outdated eeny weeny airplane…

Two not too unsignificant events which showed that ships can easily fall prey to any winged machine with a torpedo under it’s belly, so still believing that carriers were unimportant can be considered shortsighted at best. And somehow, I have the feeling Roosevelt was not that dumb.

Also, John seems reluctant to believe that Roosevelt would have been willing to sacrifce soldiers to gain more votes in congress. Well, maybe Roosevelt was actually such a good guy. But he was a politician, and a look at WWII history will show you that there were no good guys giving orders anywhere.

And about Churchill (okay, please remember that I am not a revisionist, nor am I trying to put him on one step with Hitler or Stalin, nor am I trying to justify anybody’s war crimes, nor am I trying to weigh numbers against numbers), anyway, about Churchill. While he might have cared about the fate of his fellow countrypeople, Churchill seemed to have been quite “cool-blooded” when it came to senseless deaths. See the bombing campaign against germany anyway you want to, but the Dresden bombing was aimed at annihilating civilians. Nothing else.
I guess one reason for the Pearl Harbor Myth is that American national pride had to find an explanation other than having been outwitted by Japan.

sorry for the rant

Doc

A) Air superiority had been pretty well established, but that doesn’t mean that the old-line admirals believed it. (It hadn’t been that long since Gen. Mitchell’s 1925 court-martial.)

B) While one can question the morality (and, perhaps even more, the policy) of the Dresden bombing, let us not forget that England had suffered under the Blitz for far longer.

First off, thanks for all of the compliments. I appreciate it!

Now, as for some of the comments:

I think the groundings for the rumors were basic miscommunication, which isn’t hard in a situation where you want to try and keep as much as secret as possible.

As I pointed out in my report, the belief that Roosevelt had allowed PH to ‘happen’ in order to pull America into the war is documented as early as 1944; Gov. Dewey and several Republican Senators made no bones about their belief as such. Partially this was based on misinformation- they knew that codes had been broken by the American government which gave information about Japanese activities. They jumped to the mistaken conclusion that those codes actually gave specific information about the Pearl Harbor raid. Given FDR’s famous duplicity* when it came to getting his way in politics, it wasn’t that great a leap. But it was still an incorrect leap- at no point did the government have any information that suggested Pearl Harbor would be the specific target.

I don’t doubt that part of the suspicion that Roosevelt ‘allowed’ it to happen was based on an unwillingness to believe that our military could be caught with its pants so far down, especially by the Japanese. But anyone who thinks our military was in any sort of competent shape at the start of World War II should read “Washington At War” by David Brinkley, specifically the chapter on the state of the Armed Forces prior to Pearl Harbor.

As for air superiority- John W. Kennedy outlines my point very well. It’s one thing for air superiority and carrier superiority to be proved in battle. It’s quite another for the conventional wisdom to actually get around to believing it. The American Civil War, for example, ‘proved’ many points about the use of railroads in war, interior mobility, and the fate of trench warfare, lessons all ignored by the European generals of World War I because they felt that the ‘mob armies’ of the Civil War had nothing in common with their own armies.
[sup]*In one of my favorite jokes about FDR: Interior Secretary Ickes bursts into his office and starts shouting about the latest labor bill in Congress, and how it will absolutely ruin the working class, and the bill must be stopped. Roosevelt listens, and responds, “You’re absolutely right, Harold. You’re absolutely right.” Ickes, satisfied, leaves.

Then bursts in Samuel Gompers, head of the AFL-CIO, screaming that if the latest labor bill in Congress isn’t passed, the working class will lose all of their hard earned rights, and the bill must be passed. Roosevelt listens, and responds, “You’re absolutely right, Sam. You’re absolutely right.” Gompers, satisfied, leaves.

Eleanor, having been sitting next to FDR for all of this, turns to him and says, “Now, Franklin, you’ve just promised completely opposite things to two different people. There’s no way you can do that and expect to succeed.” And Roosevelt nods his head and says, “You’re absolutely right, Eleanor. You’re absolutely right.”

CORRADO – Nothing to add, except that I wanted to add my voice to the chorus of opinion that your report was excellent. Very well done.

I noted in a variety of sources–certainly the movie Tora, Tora, Tora was not the first or the best–that the failure of the military command in Hawaii to know about the pending attack on Pearl Harbor–even after the early-morning attack near Hawaii that sank a Japanese submarine–was the result of slow communications, mistaken assumptions, and general bumbling. (See the book More Rumor! for some details.)
During the 1944 Presidential campagin Dewey planned to make a general announcement to Americans that Roosevelt knew about the pending attack but took no action. This came as a bombshell (almost literally!) to military commanders, who knew that such a notion would tip the Japanese off that the Americans had broken the Purple “diplomatic” code. (It was one of the most complex devised before the age of computers and it took first-rate cryptologists years to break it). In any case, no decoded message specifying Pearl Harbor as a target reached the American brass in Honolulu before it was too late.
I once read that in the early 1930s, Japanese naval-academy students were given an examination question concerning the best way to pull off a sneak attack on Pearl Harbor.
Most generally, I prefer to apply Occam’s Razor (of all possible explanations, the simplest one that covers all the facts is most likely to be correct) here, rather than speculating on how Roosevelt or Churchill or anyone else was going to sacrifice American sailors and soldiers to get the United States into World War II on the Allied side.

All your other points were good, but IMO, this one alone demolishes the conspiracy theory. Can anyone imagine FDR going before Congress and saying, “Yesterday, Dec. 7, 1941, a date which will live in infamy, the United States was savagely attacked by the Empire of Japan … but we knew about the attack in advance and repelled it, so no blood, no foul.”

Reading this column on the “Roosevelt knew” hypothesis made me think of James Bamford’s “The Puzzle Palace”. One of the stories he tells to jazz up the often dry subject of cryptology is the tale of how the US intelligence community came to learn that Japan intended to declare war through the interception of encrypted diplomatic messages (in Purple code, which we had broken by 1941). Bamford makes the point (which Sec. of War Henry Stimson no doubt appreciated, since he ordered a complete reorganization of intelligence handling after Pearl Harbor) that the hodge-podge, uncoordinated way in which intelligence was gathered and disseminated may well have contributed to the delay in notifying the commanders in Hawaii that an attack was imminent. In Bamford’s telling, Army chief of staff Gen. George C. Marshall realized what was going on 6 hours after the messages were initially intercepted at Puget Sound. Bamford states that Marshall and underlings who brought him the messages knew from specific details in the messages (breaking off diplomatic relations at a precisely specified time; destroying codebooks and encoding equipment) that an attack was a likely possibility. Marshall ruled out a scrambled telephone call to General Short in Hawaii (which would have been made about two hours before the attack occured) as too risky for such sensitive material and decided to send it via the war department communications center. Due to circuitry problems, the message which was promised to be delivered “within the hour” to the recipient didn’t reach Fort Shafter in Hawaii until 2:40 PM local time. Would it have made a difference if Marshall’s message had reached the brass in Hawaii two hours, an hour, or even a half an hour before 7AM local time? It makes for great movie drama, but would the commander(s) have been able or even willing to take some sort of step like raising steam and sending the battle ships to sea on such short notice? Seems unlikely; and Corrado’s main point about not knowing where the attack might come remains. It’s easy in hindsight to say they should have expected the attack to occur at Pearl Harbor.

Day of Deceit : The Truth About FDR and Pearl Harbor
by Robert B. Stinnett

A recent book using declassified documents obtained under the freedom of information act. (Amazingly, some information about Pearl Harbor at that time is still classified…what the hell could they be hiding?)

He says he found examples of Japanese war codes we had broken BEFORE Pearl Harbor, hard to dispute if true. Should be available to everyone if they are FOIA documents…

I’ll admit that I’m not familiar with that book, Systat. Does Stinnett indicate which war codes had been broken? After all, just having broken some codes doesn’t mean that we had necessarily any information as to where the strike would take place.

Systat wrote:

Well, several cryptographic historians do dispute Stinnett’s conclusions and interpretations.

Stinnett’s central claims boil down to this: Kido Butai, the Imperial Japanese Navy task force that attacked Pearl Harbor, did transmit radio messages and those messages were intercepted by US listening stations and the location of the task force was plotted with high frequency direction finding.

Accepted historical wisdom was that Kido Butai maintained strict radio silence on its voyage to Hawaii, thus no message could be intercepted and warning could have been had of its approach. If a message had been intercepted, traffic analysis would have probably given an indication of the composition of the force and would have been a clear warning of the approaching attack on Pearl Harbor. Stinnett claims to have discovered though FOI documents that establish exactly that.

There are several problems with Stinnett’s analysis. First, it assumes an ability to read the Japanese fleet code JN-25B before the Pearl Harbor attack. The IJN switched over to JN-25B on December 1, 1941 and the US was unable to read its traffic for some months afterward and even then only about 10% of message were decrypted. Second, other historians claim that Stinnett has grossly misinterpreted US listening station intercepts and standard Japanese communications procedures. The messages that Stinnett reports in his book are neither novel (other historians have reported them) and misunderstood are not evidence of HFDF intercepts that could have been used to plot the location of Kido Butai.

The biggest mistake that Stinnett makes is his exclusive use of American intercepts and translations of Japanese messages. While this is useful in establishing what and when intelligence was available to US authorities, it doesn’t prove Kido Butai ever broke radio silence. Stinnett makes great hay over missing Japanese messages in US archives but fails to acknowledge the simple fact that not all Japanese messages were intercepted. But there is one place that does offer a more complete of set of Japanese communications: Japanese military archives. If Stinnett was looking for the smoking gun to definitively prove that Kido Butai did transmit radio messages on its approach to Hawaii, why didn’t he search the Japanese archives for the supposedly missing messages and corroborate the supposed intercepts?

Stinnett didn’t, but other historians have searched Japanese archives for messages that would have given away the Pearl Harbor attack and they have found no message transmitted by Kido Butai or turned up any Japanese witness that claims messages were sent. Sure, finding and interpreting original Japanese sources is not easy but other historians, notably Richard Frank, have done so. The truth is out there, why didn’t Stinnett go after it?

Stinnett’s argument is fundamentally flawed. He takes some misinterpreted intercepts and decrypts and inflates them into a grand conspiracy that reaches all the way into the White House and implicates the entire chain of military command. The problem is, neither Roosevelt nor the chain of command were intelligence analysts.Roosevelts wasn’t poring over intercept reports from Dutch Harbor or Station CAST or Station HYPO. Any intelligence they received was analyzed, synthesized and interpreted at several stages before it hit their desks. All that leaves a paper trail and Stinnett has manifestly failed to find any trace of it.

There is an interesting refutation of Stinnett’s interpretations of radio intelligence here.

Andrew Warinner

I can add some observations from a couple of relatives who did intelligence work.

Obtaining data is only one part of the challenge. That information is worthless unless the right people recognize, assemble, analyze, and communicate it before it becomes obsolete. Historically this has often posed a greater challenge than gathering the raw information itself. Battles have hinged on whether the commanders knew key findings.

Pearl Harbor is one of the more famous examples. Information moved at a different pace sixty years ago.

As mundane as this explanation sounds to conspiracy theorists, it’s nothing to the tedium the average specialist endures waiting for something significant. Try watching a retail store security monitor for one hour.

Didn’t they also say Churchill knew about or actually planned the sinking of the Lusitania?