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Pearl Harbor: FDR Knew It Was Coming

by Alexander Cockburn

They thought a surprise Japanese raid would do little damage
The implacably conventional movie "Pearl Harbor" offers fresh opportunity for those who correctly believe that Roosevelt knew of an impending attack by the Japanese and welcomed it as a way of snookering the isolationists and getting America into the war.

The Proceedings of the Naval Institute is featuring a story by Darryl Borgquist to the effect that high Red Cross officials with close contacts to Roosevelt quietly ordered large quantities of medical supplies and experienced medical personnel shipped to Hawaii well before Dec. 7, 1941.

Don C. Smith was deputy administrator of Red Cross services to the armed forces from 1942-1946. As Borgquist recounts, Smith's daughter, Helen E. Hamman, wrote a letter to President Bill Clinton on Sept. 5. 1995, recalling a conversation with her father. Hamman wrote that FDR told Smith of the impending attack and said that "the American people would never agree to enter the war in Europe unless they were attack (sic) within their own borders." Borgquist's research shows that Smith followed Roosevelt's orders.

Foreknowledge by FDR of the "surprise attack" on Pearl Harbor has been demonstrated about every five years, ever since the Republicans made a huge issue of it after World War II. Each time there's a brief furor, and then we slide back into vaguer language about "unproven assertions" and "rumors." It's one of the great unsayables of our twentieth century history, as the great historian Charles Beard discovered in 1948, when, near the end of his life, he published "President Roosevelt and the Coming of the War 1941," subtitled "A Study in Appearances and Realities."

Beard effectively disposed of the "surprise attack" proposition through research in official government documents and public hearings. For example, the State Department's own records show FDR's Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, conferred with the British ambassador on Nov. 29, 1941, and imparted the news that "the diplomatic part of our relations with Japan was virtually over, and the matter will now go to the officials of the Army and Navy."

Beard's scholarly but passionate investigation into secret presidential diplomacy incurred venomous abuse, as did his judgment that the ends (getting the United States into the war) did not justify the deceptive means.

In the early 1980s, John Toland published his excellent book "Infamy," which mustered all the evidence extant at that time about U.S. foreknowledge. He advanced the thesis that though FDR and his closest associates, including General Marshall, knew the Japanese naval force was deployed with carriers in the North Pacific they were so convinced of the impregnability of the base that they didn't believe the attack would have much serious effect. They thought a surprise Japanese raid would do little damage and leave a few casualties, but supply the essential trigger for entering the war. Toland quoted from Labor Secretary Frances Perkins' diary an eerie description of Roosevelt's ravaged appearance at a White House meeting the night of Dec. 7. He looked, Perkins wrote with extraordinary perception, "not only as though a tragedy has occurred, but as though he felt some more intimate, secret sense of responsibility."

The U.S. military commanders, Kimmel and Short, on Honolulu, were set up to bear the major responsibility, and pilloried and destroyed. For many years they fought to vindicate themselves, only to face hidden or destroyed evidence, and outright perjury from their superiors.

In May of 1983, an officer from the Naval Security Group interviewed one of Toland's sources who had previously insisted on remaining anonymous. The person in question was Robert Ogg, who had been an enlisted man in Naval Intelligence during the war. He had been one of those who detected the presence, through radio intercepts, of a Japanese task force working its way toward Pearl Harbor in the first weeks of December, 1941. This force had been under radio silence, but the "silence" had been broken on a number of occasions.

Both Ogg and his immediate superior, Lieutenant Hosner, reported their intercepts and conclusion to the chief of intelligence of the 12th Naval District in San Francisco, Calif., Captain Richard T. McCullough. This officer was not only a personal friend of Roosevelt's but also enjoyed assured access to him through Harry Hopkins' phone at the White House. Ogg confirmed in 1983 that McCullough had said at the time that the information about the Japanese task force had been passed to the White House. British code-breakers at Bletchley had also passed the news to Winston Churchill that Pearl Harbor was to be attacked.

The lesson here is that there is no construction too "bad" or too "outrageous" but that it cannot be placed upon the actions of powers great or small, though usually great. When Toland's book was published there were many who scoffed at the "inherently implausible argument," the "fine-spun conspiracy theory." Gazing at the newly emerging National Security State and the dawn of the Cold War, Beard argued that the ends did not justify the means and concluded thus:

"In short, with the Government of the United States committed under a so-called bipartisan foreign policy to supporting by money and other forms of power for an indefinite time an indefinite number of other governments around the globe, the domestic affairs of the American people became appendages to an aleatory expedition in the management of the world. ... At this point in its history, the American Republic has arrived under the theory that the President of the United States possesses limitless authority publicly to misrepresent and secretly to control foreign policy, foreign affairs and the war power."

Truer words were never written.

© Creators Syndicate

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Albion Monitor June 6, 2001 (

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