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Pearl Harbor in Retrospect

(Source: theatlantic.com)

Now, with that background, read (as we did) all of what Tokyo, on November 30, told its Ambassador in Berlin to say to Hitler and Ribbentrop: “Say to them that lately England and the United States have taken a provocative attitude, both of them. Say that they are planning to move military forces into various places in East Asia and that we will inevitably have to counter by also moving troops. Say very secretly to them that there is extreme danger that war may suddenly break out between the Anglo-Saxon nations and Japan through some clash of arms, and add that the time of the breaking out of this war may come quicker than anyone dreams.”

Projected on the background of the idea of American occupation of the Dutch islands, which apparently Tokyo had accepted, this famous clue takes on quite a different complexion. It is certainly hard to read into it a warning of so premeditated an attack, on Japanese initiative, as that which had, in fact, already been launched on the high seas.

“Magic” has since been read, in the light of what subsequently happened, as a clear indication that Japan intended to involve us in her war from the outset. But that reading also requires a high degree of selectivity in “Operation Hindsight.” “Magic” said the Japanese would push us out of China—of course they would if and when they were at war with us. They had already made a good start on it, without war. “Magic” warned the Japanese ambassadors not to break off the negotiations or arouse our suspicions; all of which tied in with whatever “automatic” military preparations they wished to complete, whoever their chosen victim might be, before they showed their hand in Washington.

“Magic” spoke often of the “brink of chaos,” “chaotic conditions,” and the “tremendous crisis” that would follow the rupture of the Washington conference. It frequently coupled us, at least eventually, with Great Britain in the war they foresaw. Tokyo told Berlin that we classed Japan with Germany and Italy (with which we were not at war) as enemies. All this, however, was nothing more than we ourselves well knew—that we could not long maintain neutrality if the war spread to the Far East.

As late as November 15 Nomura was suggesting to Tokyo that, if the conference broke down and Japan pursued an unrestricted course, the most probable immediate results would be the rupture of diplomatic relations with us, or at least a partial rupture such as we then had with Germany. And Tokyo did not say him nay. Only just before Pearl Harbor did “magic,” that prolific source of information and misinformation, indicate with any clarity Japanese intention of involving us in war from the outset.

The plain fact is that the war warnings sent out by the highest military authorities nine days and more before Pearl Harbor were far more authoritative and more definitive of what the Hawaiian commands might expect, and what was expected of them, than any information or interpretations from “magic” that Military or Naval Intelligence could possibly have sent. Complete reliance was placed on the effect those warnings should have had—and did have everywhere except in Hawaii. But Tokyo apparently believed that the incredible might happen and Hawaii be surprised: Washington did not.


If the last few days before the Pearl Harbor attack much has been said and written, but to little profit. The die had been cast. The Muse of Tragedy then had the plot well in hand. She saw to it that no circumstance occurred to ruffle the complacency in Hawaii, or to shatter the confidence of Washington in Hawaii’s full alert. The Japanese fleet sailed silently through that “vacant sea” which Hawaiian defense studies had marked down as a likely line of approach. The movement was covered by effective smoke screens—Japanese activities in the South China Sea and shilly-shally business at the Washington conference.

More Info: theatlantic.com

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