The Pearl Harbor controversy, 1941-1946
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Largely ignored by students of wartime America, the Pearl Harbor disaster became the basis for a political controversy which perpetuated the pre-war isolationist-interventionist debate and challenged the authority of the powerful New Deal government. Faced with continual pressure from critics to release all information pertaining to the December 7 debacle, the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration attempted to quell the issue for the duration of the war to avoid a potentially volatile political battle and to keep national attention fixed on the war effort. To the extent that the President and the high administration officials succeeded or failed in controlling the Pearl Harbor issue--and avoiding political disaster--is the focus of this study. Since the President and the Secretaries of War and the Navy were convinced of the correctness of their own actions prior to the air attack, they assumed that accountability for the disaster resided at the lowest echelons of authority --namely the Hawaiian Command. In trying to avert a wave of recriminations the administration sought a middle course between full disclosure of Pearl Harbor data and punitive action against the local commanders, General Walter Short and Admiral Husband Kimmel. This compromise backfired--unwittingly creating scapegoats and initiating a major debate over the question of responsibility --when the President's Commission on Pearl Harbor (the Roberts Commission) openly blamed Kimmel and Short for the disaster in early 1942. The Executive branch's careful monitoring of the inquiry and the prohibition against examining questions of Washington's role in the disaster made the administration's motives suspect and opened the way for a lingering suspicion of conspiracy festering in high official circles. When Kimmel and Short were ordered to retire soon after the disclosure of the Roberts report, critics quickly assumed that Roosevelt had something to hide. Throughout the remainder of the war, the controversy over responsibility raged. Confronted with constant opposition to its scenario on Pearl Harbor, the administration became more defensive and less willing to reevaluate its interpretation. The most serious wartime challenge to the official position came in the form of new Army and Navy investigations of Pearl Harbor ordered by Congress in 1944. Both the Army Pearl Harbor Board and the Navy Court of Inquiry placed more emphasis upon lapses in Washington than derelictions in Hawaii. Most significantly, the publication of the Army/Navy reports, in conjunction with the end of the war, forced an open congressional investigation of the disaster--something the administration sought vigorously to avoid. The congressional investigation, far from expectations, was not the panacea for years of uncertainty and recrimination. The Democratic-controlled hearings, despite the publication of a plethora of data, became a partisan circus. The sides were too polarized for any other course of action. Like the other Pearl Harbor inquiries, the congressional hearings did not resolve the perplexing issue of personal culpability. Consensus was impossible, and blame proliferated rather than narrowed. Although the original intent of the Roosevelt administration's policy was to keep Pearl Harbor from interfering with national unity and the war effort, it mutated into a destructive cover-up, prohibitive of a dispassionate analysis of the disaster. In the end, the controversy: 1) perpetuated the debate over the direction United States foreign policy should take; 2) provided an issue to inflame partisanism between Democrats and Republicans; 3) confused rather than enlightened the public about the reasons for American entry into the war; and 4) reinforced the notion that individuals, not institutions or systems, were responsible for the breakdown in vigilance. The Pearl Harbor controversy, therefore, produced much heat but very little light.