I feel like a conspiracy nut…

…but this documentary is from the BBC, and seems to be backed up pretty well. The short version: the attack on Pearl Harbor was not a surprise at all, and FDR willingly let thousands of Americans die as an excuse to enter World War Two. Congress wouldn’t allow the US to go to war unless the country was attacked. Instead, they created an oil embargo against Japan. The Japanese needed to get oil from elsewhere, so they started to look at Indonesia and other islands in the pacific. They could easily have been defeated by the US fleet in Hawaii while doing this (I’m still a little hazy on this bit), so they first needed to get rid of the US forces there. The Japanese tried to go the diplomacy route to end the embargo, but when that failed, they sent their fleet to attack. Radio operators all over the Pacific (from California to New Zealand) all intercepted these signals, they all could decipher the code used, and they all knew about the attack several days before it was going to happen. This information was relayed to Washington, but people deliberately prevented it from getting to the commanders at Pearl Harbor itself. The attack happened, thousands of Americans died, but Roosevelt had his excuse to declare war on Japan, and the rest is history.

I found this fascinating, if a little unbelievable at first. In school, I had always been taught that the attack was an unprovoked surprise, but that never jived for me. If the Japanese hadn’t attacked, the Axis would probably have won WWII, and it seemed stupid of them to create more enemies in the war. This documentary at least partly explains things: the Japanese actually had a good reason to attack (they needed the ships out of the way before they could get resources from Indonesia), and the Allies had enough of a spy network that they could actually find out about obvious things like large fleets sailing across the Pacific. I still don’t fully understand why the Japanese couldn’t just get their oil from Indonesia and leave the Americans alone, but at least I have part of the picture now. This brings new meaning to the phrase “December 7, 1941—a date which will live in infamy.”

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3 Comments

  1. This definitely sounds like a conspiracy theory

    Alan,

    Please don’t be offended by what I am going to say, but I strongly suspect that you have been misled by this program. I am definitely not an expert on World War 2, but I believe I have found several fallacies in their argument.

    Let’s suppose that FDR did know that the Japanese would attack Pearl harbor on that date with 100% certainty. Even if he didn’t care that several thousand Americans would perish, he definitely wouldn’t want to have his entire fleet knocked down in one fell swoop. Here are some of the things he could have done to let Americans get real pissed while being confident of winning the pacific theatre:

    1. Kept a token fleet in pearl harbor to limit ship losses.
    2. Met the surprise attack with an ambush.
    3. Arrange to “discover” Japanese treachery a few hours before the invasion to allow a reasonable sortie.

    However, there’s a lot of evidence that the white house didn’t have the total intelligence implied by the show.

    1. The purple code used by the Japanese embassy didn’t have as much useful information as the show implies; the Japanese didn’t trust the foreign ministry politically, and they knew that we were trying to break their codes. The actual ship movements were coordinated with the JN-25 code which we were unable to crack at all until the attack on Midway; there was too little communication before the war to make any progress.

    2. Why on earth would Japanese high command tell spies in the United States that they were going to launch a surprise attack? Spies are supposed to give information to their government, not the other way around.

    3. Huge ship movements seem like an obvious thing to us now because of our extensive submarine and satellite information networks, but these “huge” ship movements could have fit comfortably in a few square miles of sea and they were moving across the pacific ocean. When the Japanese tried another surprise attack at Midway, the only reason we discovered the attack was massively improved intelligence, and even then there was a whole lot of lucky guesswork (and generals who denied that there would be an invasion!); we only “found” the invasion fleet when it was a few hours away.

    4. The Japanese government was not unified in their desire to declare war on the United States. The Japanese army definitely wanted to annihilate anybody non-Japanese, but the navy (and the emperor!) weren’t keen on “waking the sleeping giant”. It is conceivable that war could have been avoided if Japanese nationalism and the influence of their army hadn’t been so strong.

    A lot of the other reasons given by the BBC seem pretty flimsy to me. They mentioned that the British-German double agent “tricycle” wanted to examine pearl harbor for potential weaknesses. So what? Pearl Harbor was a major military installation (which is why it was chosen for the surprise attack), and antagonist governments wanted to know as much as they could so they could effectively attack it. This doesn’t appear to suggest a surprise attack any more than it suggests the axis was readying for war with everyone. The program also suggests that Japanese aggressions towards the United States went against the other axis powers, so why would Germany have helped Japan here?

    We definitely knew that the Japanese were put between a rock and a hard place, and we had a lot of information that hinted they were going to go to war with us. Suggesting that FDR and his entire web of advisers committed treason against the United States, and we only know after 67 years, and that they wanted to annihilate their pacific fleet while there were so many other less suicidal choices seems a little much though.

    • Re: This definitely sounds like a conspiracy theory

      Interestingly enough, item #1 is partly true; a significant chunk of the fleet was out doing war games.

      The things I’ve read indicate that there was some hint things were coming, but no sure thing, and part of the fleet was put out of harm’s way for that reason.

      Just because the British say it, doesn’t mean it’s true. (Although it is more likely to be funny!)

    • Alan says:

      Re: This definitely sounds like a conspiracy theory

      Don’t worry about offending me. As long as you are not sexist/racist/homophobic and you can back up your argument with something besides the Bible, I’m pretty hard to offend.

      I agree with you that it certainly smells like a conspiracy theory, and at first I was very incredulous of the whole thing. However, I usually trust the BBC on their history, particularly on issues where I suspect the American version has been slightly altered to portray America in a better light. The interviews of people describing where they were and what they did at the time was what made me think this could be real; I wouldn’t have believed it without these primary sources.

      You’re right that there are some pretty large, gaping holes in this version of the story. but it fits so much better than the version I learned in school (the Japanese attacked the US without provocation, without anything to gain, and apparently without expecting retaliation). I suspect you’re right that this conspiratorial version isn’t exactly correct either, but it’s the best I’ve found so far. If you have a version of the story with fewer plot holes, I’d be interested in seeing/reading it, to get a fuller understanding of what happened.

      You make a lot of good points, and the only one I will dispute is number 3. If you have a directional antenna (which is very easy to get; you can make a crude one out of a couple pop cans and some wire), it’s very easy to see what direction a radio signal is coming from. If you have two of these in two different locations (California, Hawaii, New Zealand, other ships sailing elsewhere in the Pacific, etc), you can triangulate the source of the signal. I’m pretty sure it would be easy to figure out where the ships were based just on the radio signals coming from them.

      Incidentally, this is why the Japanese maintained radio silence as they went to attack (and why people continually point this out): even if they used a code, the radio transmissions at all would have given away their position. Consequently, it makes sense that for the final attack, they would have maintained radio silence. However, I have a hard time believing that radio silence was maintained for more than a couple hundred miles of the trip; I suspect people could tell where the ships were most of the time (though the only evidence of this that I have is the video in this post).

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