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Pearl Harbor: how FDR handled the Japanese threat

In his new book, released ahead of the 70th anniversary of the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor that drew the US into the Second World War, Steven M Gillon takes a highly sympathetic view of President Franklin D Roosevelt's handling of the Japanese threat.

The massive air strike that commenced around 8am on December 7, 1941, by the Empire of Japan against the US naval station at Pearl Harbor achieved an almost mythical status even while it was still in progress. Every element of chance worked in its favour. The Japanese fleet supporting the attack was shrouded in storms for most of its trek across the Pacific, so although US officials knew of its existence, they had no idea of its destination. The target of the strike was almost laughably positioned for destruction - both the warships at anchor at Pearl and the fighter planes parked at nearby Kaneohe Bay, and Bellows, Wheeler, and Hickam army air fields were assembled in extremely close proximity to each other, ship-by-ship and plane-by-plane - ironically, as a defence against sabotage. All of those warships were on a relaxed, Sunday morning standing, with most of their officers ashore.

These factors combined to turn the Japanese strike into that rarest of all military exercises: one that goes exactly as planned. When the lead planes flew in from the north that clear morning and saw their sleeping targets, they were able to radio back that total surprise had been accomplished.

For the next two hours, planes dropped bombs on all high-level targets and mercilessly strafed the US soldiers and sailors who scrambled to effect a defence. As Steven Gillon writes in his pious, somewhat thin new book Pearl Harbor: FDR Leads the Nation into War, "With bombs exploding around them and machine-gun fire strafing the decks, it soon became clear that the sailors at Pearl Harbor were witnessing the impossible: a full-scale Japanese attack on what most Americans considered an impenetrable fortress."

By the time the attack ended at 10am, eight battleships were either sunk or sinking, seven other warships were damaged, 350 planes had been destroyed, and 3,566 men had been killed or wounded. The Japanese lost only a handful of planes and their fleet moved back into the Pacific virtually unchallenged.

Despite the stunning tactical strike the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor represented, historians have been damningly vocal about what a colossal strategic blunder it was. Not only did the attack fail to cripple the United States' small but vitally important fleet of aircraft carriers (they were at sea that morning), but it also failed to take out the petrol stores very close to Pearl, on which the fleet depended. Worst of all, the strike guaranteed a war with the US.

A good deal of such talk has the swagger of hindsight, and it plays out along the narrative lines President Franklin Delano Roosevelt laid down 70 years ago. Gillon, a professor of history at the University of Oklahoma whose previous credits include The Kennedy Assassination - 24 Hours After: Lyndon B Johnson's Pivotal First Day as President, does very little to challenge that narrative. His book is meant to be a portrait of leadership in crisis and, repeating the trick from his LBJ book, he focuses his attention on the moment immediately after the Japanese attack. His is a Roosevelt who was wary of becoming involved in "the wrong war in the wrong ocean at the wrong time" and desperately wanted to keep his focus on the storm clouds gathered over Europe. His is also a Roosevelt filled with a kind of backhand patrician contempt for "the Japs" - a contempt shared by most of his cabinet, most certainly including his distant and condescending secretary of state Cordell Hull. According to Gillon, even on the eve of Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt's military staff were unanimous in discounting any serious threat to the United States from Japan.

This was foolhardy. As Gillon himself points out, by 1941 the United States and Japan were two nations "trapped in a cycle of escalation". Japan was dependent on the US for 80 per cent of its oil and similarly high percentages of its iron and steel, and that dependence rankled. Japanese aggression against China and sabre-rattling against the Dutch East Indies, British Malaya and French Indochina had only increased as the 1930s wore on, and with every new incident, Roosevelt's wariness increased. Indeed, his order to move the US Pacific Fleet from its base in California to Pearl Harbor was a response to British pressure on the US to more directly confront Japanese aggression in the Pacific.

In September 1940, in a gesture aimed at that aggression, Roosevelt banned the export of iron and steel to Japan. The move prompted Japan to sign the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy only days later. In July 1941, Roosevelt signed an order requiring the Japanese to apply for licences for each and every shipment of oil. He stipulated to his own commerce regulators that those licences were to be uniformly granted, nevertheless, he wanted the symbolism to be clear. Shortly afterwards, while Roosevelt was meeting with Winston Churchill off the coast of Newfoundland, Dean Acheson, then a (very imperious) assistant secretary of state, took it upon himself to deny all such licences, effectively embargoing Japan. As he put it (with what Gillon calls "typical arrogance"), "no rational Japanese would believe that an attack on us could result in anything but disaster for his country". The smooth alacrity with which a returned Roosevelt accepted his subordinate's fiat hardly speaks of a reluctant participant - rather of a politician looking for deniability.

Gillon is happy to provide that deniability. Time and again he portrays Roosevelt as distracted at key moments by elements outside his control - the death of his mother, the United Mine Workers strike, the situation in Europe, even a stubborn sinus infection. Each of these things may have been a distraction, but cumulatively they sound like special pleading on our author's part: the harried chief executive whose mistakes are largely the result of divided attention. But Gillon's own reporting belies this image. The afternoon of December 7, just hours after learning that Pearl Harbor had been attacked, Roosevelt was having long conversations with architects about making office-space additions to the White House, for instance. And although Gillon writes that Roosevelt was "preoccupied with the military and diplomatic demands of fighting a global war" when he signed Executive Order 9066 on March 21, 1942 - authorising the forced evacuation of over 100,000 Japanese-American citizens of the West Coast to "relocation centres" throughout the West, he himself notes that Roosevelt had "long harboured negative attitudes toward Japanese Americans". Distraction can only explain so much.

"On December 2," Gillon writes, "Japan's emperor approved a war order, setting the date as December 8 (December 7 in Hawaii and Washington). Tokyo sent a message to its ambassadors in Washington to burn their code machines - an ominous order suggesting the diplomatic effort had come to an end." Gillon assures us that "the possibility that Japan would strike America or its possessions seemed remote to all", although there's always been a discordant note in such claims. Why cut off ambassadors in America unless violence against America was at least contemplated? If FDR believed - as Gillon tells us over and over - that Pearl Harbor itself was "impregnable", he might not have thought the same thing about American interests in, for instance, the Philippines and he might not have cared quite so much, especially if such an attack (which his own economic sanctions had made all but inevitable) might help mobilise public opinion in favour of the war in Europe, against Japan's Tripartite allies.

In any event, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor landed like a thunderbolt, and it represented, as Gillon writes in a very effective chapter, the "opening salvo in a breathtaking Japanese offensive: Guam, Thailand, Singapore, British Malaya, Hong Kong, the Midway Islands, Wake Island, the Philippines - all were attacked before the day was out. With the US Pacific Fleet crippled, there was nothing to stop this offensive, and many long, bloody years would be required to reverse it.

Gillon is at his most assured in detailing the immediate aftermath of that tidal wave of aggression. FDR wanted to "control the flow of information", but news quickly spread, and with it came questions: was the attack merely a prelude to a Japanese invasion of the West Coast? Were more battleships and dive-bombers on the way? Was Germany involved (erroneous initial reports had swastikas on some of the Japanese planes at Pearl Harbor)? Stores, bars, and restaurants were closed all along the West Coast, and blackout conditions were imposed. The Secret Service had been complaining about lax White House security since the days of William Howard Taft - even in FDR's time, citizens could have their Sunday picnic on the grounds. Ten safe houses around Washington were now created, and the Secret Service began the construction of a bomb shelter underneath the Treasury Building, although FDR refused to even darken its door.

That bomb shelter raises the biggest spectre hovering around Gillon's book, since, of course, December 7, 1941, is no longer the only "date which will live in infamy" for American citizens. Gillon's book begins and ends with mentions of September 11, 2001, and his focus on FDR's response in the first 24 hours after the attack can't help but reflect on the response of President George W Bush in the wake of the terrorist attacks that morning. Roosevelt stayed in the White House and drew his staff in tight around him, to manage information and devise strategies - and then he went before Congress and asked for a declaration of war against Japan. Bush was whisked aboard Air Force One until the Secret Service could be certain the threat was over - and then he launched wars on Iraq and Afghanistan without Congressional approval. In 70 years, he'll be lucky to get a historian as sympathetic as Gillon.


Steve Donoghue is managing editor of Open Letters Monthly.

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