[December 7th marks National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day, so this week I’ll remember and AmericanStudy some histories related to the 1941 attack. Leading up to a special post on how we remember such infamous days.]
On the Pearl Harbor conspiracy theory that doesn’t hold up but is illuminating nonetheless.
I wrote an entire weeklong series on American conspiracy theories a few years back, but managed to avoid writing about one of the most prominent historical conspiracy theories: the theory that high-ranking U.S. government officials, up to and in some of the theories including President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, had advance knowledge of the Pearl Harbor attack and let it happen (or even, in some of the most extreme theories, encouraged it) in order to push the United States into the European theatre of World War II through a so-called “back door.” Such theories go back at least as far as 1944, when John Flynn, a journalist and co-founder of the isolationist America First Committee, published a pamphlet entitled The Truth about Pearl Harbor (that’s the full text of the 1945 British edition, which seems unchanged other than a new “Publisher’s Preface”). A World War II naval officer, Rear Admiral Robert Theobald, wrote his own 1954 book, The Final Secret of Pearl Harbor: The Washington Background of the Pearl Harbor Attack, developing the argument more fully. And in recent years, the most prominent of these conspiracy theorists has been World War II veteran and journalist Robert Stinnett, whose 1999 book Day of Deceit: The Truth about FDR and Pearl Harbor lays out the theory at particularly elaborate length.
I could pretend that I’ve done all the research myself to disprove those sources and theories, but in truth I’ve mainly relied on this excellent Wikipedia page, which takes the different theories one-by-one and takes them apart quite effectively. Highlighting any one tends to reveal just how easily and thoroughly they can be debunked, as illustrated by the argument that the absence of the U.S. Pacific Fleet’s three aircraft carriers from Pearl Harbor indicates advance knowledge of the attack (and a desire to protect the carriers from it). For one thing, one of those carriers, the Enterprise, was on its way back to Pearl Harbor that morning (having delivered fighters to Wake and Midway Islands), and had been scheduled by arrive at 7am (about an hour before the attacks commenced) but was delayed by weather. And for another, even more important thing, at that time carriers were considered far less central to naval strategy and warfare than battleships; if the U.S. had wanted to protect key elements of its fleet, it would certainly have not had all 8 of its Pacific Fleet battleships in the harbor at the time. Certainly after the attack carriers became central to the U.S. war effort in the Pacific, but that represents both a strategic shift and a direct response to the attack’s destruction of the U.S. battleships and navy.
So there really doesn’t seem to be much to the various layers to the Pearl Harbor conspiracy theories—but they have endured for more than 75 years, and I think there are a couple significant reasons why (besides our general societal and perhaps human fascination with conspiracy theories, about which I wrote many times in that aforementioned series). For one thing, few if any other military moments in American history have been as surprising and embarrassing for the U.S. forces, and thus in need of alternate explanations for the disaster; this was even more true in the 1940s, when the U.S. had not yet suffered what is considered its first defeat in an international military conflict, the Vietnam War (and that conflict has its own share of “The powers that be wouldn’t let us win” theories). And for another thing, Franklin D. Roosevelt has in my experience received about as much extreme and vehement hate as any American president not named Lincoln. Since Roosevelt was president during a war that should have united Americans, rather than one that directly divided us, that vitriolic opposition is a bit harder to understand; but I’ve encountered it time and again, and I believe it helps again why so many Americans can apparently continue to believe that FDR allowed a catastrophic attack on the United States to take place on his watch.
Next history tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?