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No U.S. conspiracy on Pearl Harbor

December 16, 2011
By Bruce Dudley

What is one to make of the recent commentary about 70 years of secrets concerning the attack on Pearl Harbor?

The piece is mainly of interest not because of any new or startling information, but rather as a generic example of a shopworn and discredited conspiracy theory about that dramatic event.

After World War II, an exhaustive investigation was conducted by Congress, resulting in testimony and reports which filled 40 volumes without yielding any credible evidence of a plot by President Roosevelt to maneuver the United States into the European war through the back door of the Pacific.

As prominent historians of U.S. foreign policy wrote more than a half-century ago, there was no such sinister scheme but considerable negligence, misjudgments and human frailty present in the ranks of FDR's military advisors in Washington. Such constituted the chief explanation for American unpreparedness and the surprise at Pearl Harbor.

The president's best military planners determined correctly that the main Japanese targets would be other areas of the Pacific Far East, including Indo-China, Malaya, Thailand, Midway, Wake Island and the Philippines. These, indeed, were the prime Japanese military objectives on that fatal day. No one among the "top brass" in Washington thought that Japan would or could undertake an additional, far riskier carrier operation further eastward.

Citing the Stinnett book, "Day of Deceit," places the conspiracy theorists on shaky ground.

Historian and diplomat Philip Zelikow reviewed "Day of Deceit" in the prestigious journal Foreign Affairs and expressed mocking skepticism about Stinnett's revisionism, noting that the author offers "little new and never fashions his information or research into a coherent argument." Zelikow's assessment echoes the traditional interpretations of earlier generations of historians.

Other critics of Stinnett's research are much harsher in their analysis of his book.

Retired former senior CIA historian Donald Steury referred to Stinnett's revisionism as a "theory concocted from whole cloth." He also added the scathing remark that "those who have been able to check his alleged sources are unanimous in their condemnation of his methodology. The author has made up his sources or lies about what the source says."

Another extremely skeptical reaction to "Day of Deceit" comes from Philip H. Jacobsen, a retired lieutenant commander who served as a cryptologist for the U.S. Navy. In an extended commentary on Pearl Harbor and the evidence set forth by Stinnett, Jacobsen states that "it is clear that no U.S. official knew beforehand of the Japanese plan to attack Pearl Harbor. The book fails to prove any part of its massive revisionist theory."

After 70 years, perhaps the most certain aspect regarding the attack on Pearl Harbor is that conspiracy theories survive the passage of time and the objective diligence of scholarly historiography.

FDR was a masterful politician and respected wartime leader, but quite certainly not a fool who would deliberately bait the Japanese into attacking Pearl Harbor to plunge his country into WWII and, in the process, stupidly destroy the nation's Pacific fleet.

The Grand Conspiracy Theory, asserting that Roosevelt lured Japan into bombing Pearl Harbor, has its domestic equivalent in a recent thesis promoted by conservative writer Amity Shlaes. In "The Forgotten Man: A New History of The Great Depression," this pseudo-historian denigrates FDR's New Deal economic policies as having worsened the dire economic situation of the 1930s.

Both of these periodically recurring views defy historical logic and are lacking for hard evidence. They should more properly be considered part of America's mythological past.


Bruce Dudley lives in Camden, Del., and Paul Smiths. He grew up in Saranac Lake and taught U.S. history and related topical subjects for 27 years at Prince George's Community College in Largo, Md.



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