07 December 2011

A Date that Will Live in Infamy

Rescue operations on the U.S.S. West Virginia after the attack on Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941

December 7th 1941, a date that will live in infamy.    Those words uttered by President Franklin D. Roosevelt during his address to Congress have resonated in the 70 years since the attack on Pearl Harbor Naval Base in Hawaii.

Americans were shocked out of their inclination to isolationism during the 1930s by what was understood as being a sneak attack by Japanese forces.

Recent scholarship calls into question how much of a surprise the Japanese strike was to the American government.  In his new book December 1941: 31 Days that Changed America and Saved the World, Craig Shirley points to a recently declassified FBI on Franklin Roosevelt.  On December 4, 1941, a memo from the Office of Naval Intelligence warned the President that:

In anticipation of open conflict with this country, Japan is vigorously utilizing every available agency to secure military, naval and commercial information, paying particular attention to the West Coast, the Panama Canal and the Territory of Hawaii.

Unlike Loose Change 9/11 conspiracy mongers, Shirley does not purport that FDR knew of the attack and did nothing or blew the response. Instead, the author of December 1941 suggests that there were more pieces to the puzzle.

This was certainly true on the diplomatic end.  American and Japanese diplomats  had been engaged in a tense series of negotiations over a US embargo of oil shipments to Japan in the three months prior to December, 1941.  FDR’s Secretary of State Cordell Hull had presented Tokyo with a 10 point ultimatum on November 26, 1941 which stunned Japanese diplomats who had just suggested a 90 day cooling off period.

Most American history books key on the difficulty of translating the Japanese cable that delayed delivery of the demarche, which was supposed to have been handed over just as the attack on Pearl Harbor began. But American sources had intercepted a Japanese Foreign Ministry draft memorandum that was tantamount to a declaration of war. But FDR saw nothing new in the message and took no further preparations.  In addition, Japanese researcher Takeo Iguchi debunks the myth that war was caused by a misunderstanding, as internal Japanese government documents indicated that Japanese Army and Navy prevailed over the Foreign Ministry to keep their war aims secret.

Another interesting angle of the Day of Infamy is why President Roosevelt only asked Congress for a declaration of war against the Empire of Japan.  On the evening of December 7th, FDR was shaken as he expected America to be hit but not hurt in any conflict with Japan. Historian Shirley pointed out that FDR and his War Cabinet considered declaring war against all three Axis powers, Japan, Germany and Italy.  But in the end, FDR only chose Japan, as America was still healing from the Great War and isolationism.  Oddly enough, it was German F├╝hrer Adolph Hitler who declared war against America in self written speech before the Reichstag on December 11, 1941. There might have been a markedly different outcome had America kept its attention towards the Pacific and Europe had to fight for itself aside from Lend Lease with the British Empire.

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