Conspiracy Theory: FDR and Pearl Harbor

I teach US History. I teach eighth graders. Some day I might be put up for sainthood, but honestly, I would not want to teach any other age. Despite their hormones, eighth graders are an inquisitive group and at this age, learning is still fun for them and can be quite a serious adventure. Such is the case this week. We started a new unit on World War II. The first couple of days we learn about Hitler’s rise to power, Mein Kampf, and the Nuremberg Laws. Yesterday, we began investigating the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Now, as a teacher, I have to dispel a lot of urban myths. Usually the biggest is the JFK assassination (this blog will come up in about a month). But the first one I like to do is what FDR knew about Pearl Harbor. We begin the lesson by reviewing Germany and then we segue into Japanese Aggression in the 1930s and 1940-41. Kids are furiously taking notes and Pearl Harbor is attacked. Students get the motive on the part of the Japanese, but when I bring up whether FDR is involved, heads turn and I get the “What you talkin’ bout Willis?” looks from all my students. We use that one simple question of whether or not the President of the United States of America was involved in the greatest surprise attack by another country on our soil as the jumping off point for the lesson.

The first piece of evidence we examine is the notorious “Bomb Plot Message”. In 1941, US intelligence services intercepted this message headed for some in Hawaii.

“Strictly secret.

“Henceforth, we would like to have you make reports concerning vessels
along the following lines insofar as possible:

“1. The waters (of Pearl Harbor) are to be divided roughly into five
subareas (We have no objections to your abbreviating as much as you

“Area A. Waters between Ford Island and the Arsenal.
“Area B. Waters adjacent to the Island south and west of Ford Island.
(This area is on the opposite side of the Island from Area A.)
“Area C. East Loch.
“Area D. Middle Loch.
“Area E. West Loch and the communication water routes.

“2. With regard to warships and aircraft carriers, we would like to have
you report on those at anchor (these are not so important) tied up at
wharves, buoys and in docks. (Designate types and classes briefly. If
possible we would like to have you make mention of the fact when
there are two or more vessels along side the same wharf.)”

There are some who see this as a smoking gun. However, nowhere does it say the time and manner of the attack. It could be a simple reconnaissance mission or it could be planning for an attack. But there are several key elements regarding intent and time missing from the message.

We then begin watching the History Channel’s: Conspiracy? FDR and Pearl Harbor. It is a very good program and one perfect for any age. Although it is a bit one sided at times, it does present evidence from both sides about what FDR knew, when he knew, and what he did or did not do about it. Other information is put forth about the possible conspiracy of FDR letting the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor. These tidbits include:
1. Radio traffic in November of 1941 from around the Pacific
2. US intercepts of other information
3. FDR’s own memo about pre-emption – FDR issued an order that under no circumstances that US forces would fire the first shot. We would always act in defense.
4. The McCollum Memo – This memo is a plan for action in the Pacific. Below I have included page six of the document.

Now the McCollum Memo is a plan or strategy for dealing with Japan. In and of itself, it is no great piece of military planning. But politically, it is a gem. The problem comes into is this: How would FDR get his hands on it.

The video concludes by leaving it up to the viewer what happened with FDR and Pearl Harbor. For the past four years I have shown this video, students are usually split 50/50 on what happened. Some focus in on the evidence, some focus in on what the evidence doesn’t provide, some focus in on what they want to believe. It is an interesting task in critical thinking and using evidence to support or disprove a point of view.

As a historian, I can honestly say, conjecture and speculation is used quite a bit in the video. But the bomb plot message, while a key piece of intelligence, still only proves that Pearl Harbor was a target. When one looks at the state of US forces in 1941, we were way behind any condition for military readiness. We were actually training with wooden weapons during the Great Depression because we couldn’t afford the real thing. Anyway, in the world of military intelligence, every military facility is a target. But in the end, Admiral Yamamoto and the Japanese planned and carried out the attack. It was not through the willingness of FDR to let the attack happen but through the ineptitude of commanders of Pearl and the Japanese plan of attack that it was such a devastating blow. I am sure FDR had to have known Pearl was in Japan’s sights, but no one knew it would be at 5:30 a.m. on December 7, 1941, a day that will live in infamy.

Here is another video but it focuses more on lost pictures rather than the memos mentioned above.

23 thoughts on “Conspiracy Theory: FDR and Pearl Harbor

  1. I think your teaching method is a good one, and hope you continue it for many years, cause good teacher are hard to come by. I found an error in the spelling of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto name. You spelled it as Admiral Yamato. The Yamato was one of the largest battle ship of her day with 18 inch main guns and a displacement of 72,800 tonnes, while Yamamoto was a 57 year old man. I know it’s not important. However it is no secret that FDR wanted into the war, but the American public would never have agreed to get involved in Europe’s war. Military tactics would make a decision like pearl harbor an easy one. allow the enemy to think you are weak and provide targets that would draw them in. in combat it is better to defend than attack, you will have the defensive positions and the ability to counter attack. it is the perfect draw and fain. However in the attack at pearl, there was not prepared defensive positions. But it did provide the spark that brought the U.S. into the war.

    Now whether you believe that FDR knew about the pending attack or not, our entrance into the war was going to happen. Entering when we did was far better for a number of reasons, but most important was to enter while England was still intact, providing us with a foot hold in Europe, and not having to fight German naval vessels off the America’s coast line . Whether or not the president knew prior and aided in the attack of pearl harbor isn’t as important as to was it important to enter the war in 1941 or being forced into the war in say 1943 or 1944 when Germany controlled all of Europe and the USSR and all their resources being brought to bear on the only free country left standing alone with their pants blowing in the wind.
    I applaud you for allowing you students to think for themselves, and apply critical thinking to history. Just because something is written in the history books doesn’t always means it’s true. You know as well as I do that the spoils go to the victor, and the victor writes the history. Just look at WWI to understand what I mean about this.
    Before I finish out this rant, allow me to introduce myself. My name is Bill, and I severed in the US AIR FORCE for 12 years. I spent four years as a Pararescuemen (PJ) and a heavy Bomber maintainer for six years. I have a BS history degree from Eastern Washington University, and several Military NCO schools that dealt with military tactics and history. I severed in the Panama invasion (operation Provide Hope) and Desert Storm as well as the last 6 years of the Cold War. I would be happy to continue a discussion on this subject or any subject about the Second World war. I find it a great subject because it was the birth of the superpowers, and whether you like it or not the deciding factor in many world affairs since the end of the war.

  2. what the hell is this about, i mean i had no idea that people thought that pearl harbor was a conspiracy. i mean i know that 911 was but pearl harbor honestly… please explain this to me.
    thank you,
    amber fleming

  3. The battleships were deemed obsolete by this time and many military strategists were convinced that the war in the sea will be fought in the air.

    So, Where were the US Aircraft Carriers during this time? 🙂

  4. Before the so-called Day of Infamy, the US and Japan were not at war yet. So, Midway and Guadalcanal were not even in the radar yet.

    The carriers conspicuous absence from Pearl Harbor during the early morning attack where they “normally” dock was highly suspicious. This scenario was one of the contentions of many conspiracy theorists to support their arguments.

    Add the fact, that when the Japanese attacked the Philippines a day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, they found to their surprise all the US planes literally and figuratively, ‘sitting ducks’ as they were lined side-by-side on the tarmac.

    Makes you wonder, why the USAFFE were ‘not informed’ of the attack in Pearl Harbor earlier? 🙂

  5. Just like in the case of the ‘missing’ carriers- Failure of Intelligence. 🙂

    The reason the US were quite successful in Midway and the rest of the Pacific Campaign was because the US codebreakers broke the Japanese Imperial Navy’s code. Thus, they were able to intercept and decrypt the enemy’s ‘top secret’ messages.

  6. The reason that the Japanese did not destroy the fuel debots is because of a series of reasons, allow me to explain. 1) The attack was supposed to be done in waves, three total. Only two waves of attacks occured. Wave three was supposed to target repair shops/factories/oil depots etc…anything that would allow the Americans to rebuild. The third wave did not occur because when the first wave flew over the harbor they radioed back to their navy saying that the Carriers were not present at the Harbor. Which is one of the reasons to why this surpise attack can be considered a tactical defeat. (the carriers being the fist of the US Pacific Navy power were not destroyed). Now, sense the carriers were missing and the Japanese had no clue where they were, the Japanese commander in charged ordered the third wave not to go, incase the Americans had set a trap using the Carriers whos location was unknown to the Japanese; they would be able to use wave three for defense from the possible counter attack.

  7. Yes, I believe that FDR was trying to provoke a fight with Japan. That is the reason for his having sent the “pop up” fleets across their zone of influence. These fleets made up of old cruisers and submarines would eventually cause Japan to attack, most likely the vessels in front of them, and the US could respond.

    By keeping the bulk of the Pacific Fleet in the harbor, the navy would be able to be protected by the air cover, that was lined up in the way it was because the actual true fear was of espionage, not an air attack.

    Also, a fleet of that size successfully eluding detection from Japan to Hawaii is virtually impossible (yes, I’m accepting the fact that they pulled it off). Also, the military was putting a lot of stock in the new radar systems, but unfortunately, n0 one took them seriously since most didn’t understand how to use it or for its accuracy, keep in mind that we were still scrambling aircraft in the 80’s because radar mistook large migrations of birds for Soviet aircraft, imagine what it would have been like in 1941 when this stuff was still in its infancy and sparsely placed around the islands.

    Another mistake that many people make is that Pearl was on the 7th and the Philippines was on the 8th. These dates are accurate. But you must realize that the Philippine Islands are across the international dateline from Hawaii. Therefore the attack on the Philippines was a day later in name only, but in reality a matter of hours later.

    If you read the McCollum memo what you see is nothing more than a memo answering a “how would you” question that has been presented. The fact that we did defend England first is well presented, but it must be remembered that Japan slammed our fleet, but left a large number of troops in the Far East that they now had to contend with minus a substantial portion of their fleet. However, if that fleet would have been in the Philippines instead, then our fleet at Pearl Harbor could have easily responded.

    And yes, the battleships were ancient, but their losses were huge, because their guns would have been integral at pounding Japanese land forces in the Phi Islands, along with Japanese ships since that kind of naval fighting would have been more “close up and personal” according to vessel standards. (Remember Taffe 6 and the battle that took place in the Islands).

  8. I concur with most statements about the cover-up regarding Pearl Harbor. There was a similar conspiracy regarding PH involving Britain. PM Churchill received info about a possible attack on PH in mid November 1941 and either failed to notify American officials or cooaborated with FDR to cover up such info. Churchill had his dark spots too.

  9. Pingback: Zu Verschwörungstheorien in diesem Blog « USA Erklärt
  10. i say its a conspiracy. Maybe not FDR, maybe it was churchill? Everyone wanted us and needed us in the war. Just a matter of who was sick enough to let this happen to make it so.

  11. this conspiracy evidence doesnt go far enough. you must deal with colonialist mentality over the centuries of expansion. the colonialist have managed to create its own worst enemies. remember the boxer rebellion? ww2 and one were war between the colonialist and the control of exploitable resourses from around the world

  12. Lincoln is considered on of the greatest Presidents. Yet he deliberately broke many, many laws and trampled on American rights (jailing people he didn’t like) . So if FDR wanted an attack, he was in the tradition of Lincoln, who wanted an attack of Fort Sumter, and helped to provoke it

    I have not seen your JFK material, but I’m troubled that you apparently dismiss all evidence that the Warren Report version is flawed. Or that The Russian ended their efforts to arm Cuba, not because of JFK’s machismo, but only AFTER we agreed to remove our missiles from Cuba

  13. I like to point to FDR’s speech to the nation after Pearl Harbor, he tells American that it is evident that the surprise attack was planned ‘many days, even weeks in advance’. It took me weeks to plan my most recent trip to Italy and that was for a vacation. The thought that Japan came up with attack just a few weeks before it happened is absurd. FDR needed a way into the war, he knew.

  14. FDR did know. We (the U.S.) cut off the oil supply to Japan–they attacked Pearl Harbor as a way into the Middle East for oil.

  15. There is a psychological reason why most do not believe their government could do such atrocious things to its own people. Trauma was a vast effect on the human psyche and the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor provided mass trauma much like the WTC bombings did on 9/11. We know that this attack had a huge impact on the majority of the US population. As a culture, we lost our sense of security and became very vulnerable because our world view changed. As a result, we were easily culled into war.

    One can deny the circumstantial and other evidence contradicting the government mandated view of the events of Pearl Harbor because our current paradigm would be affected. Our government, we are taught in school and the media, are the good guys promoting “democracy” throughout the world. We are heroes. With this mentality, any evidence to the contrary can be easily dismissed as “conspiracy theory” proclaimed by tin foil hat wearing nut jobs. Or, one can discount by saying government is too incompetent or didn’t have the technology. When using the logical side of your brain, one realizes that all governments conspire and it is the norm, not the exception. This fact doesn’t prove a conspiracy at Pearl Harbor. Rather, it opens up your mind to this possibility making it easier to digest things one would have a knee-jerk rejection to.

  16. Allow me to recommend that you read two articles on the Pearl Harbor issue and that you may want to revise some of your statements based on the information in those articles:

    Six Myths of the Traditional Pearl Harbor Story

    The Pearl Harbor Conspiracy and the 1946 Minority Report of the Joint Congressional Committee

    Also, regarding your reliance on Prange’s research, you might want to read John Costello and Roger Pineau’s “Authors’ Notes” in Edwin Layton’s book And I Was There: Pearl Harbor and Midway–Breaking the Secrets, in which they show that Prange got many things wrong.

  17. Let’s suppose, for a moment, that the Americans get a bit luckier on tactical warning (historically, they were extremely unlucky–the Japanese gave the Americans several opportunities to catch them before the strike).

    Against fully alerted defenses, the Pearl Harbor raid would’ve cost the Japanese most of their best aviators, and may have cost them several aircraft carriers (think Coral Sea and Midway rolled into one event, on Day One of the war, for just how badly things could easily have gone).

    OK. The Japanese have taken their best shot, and they got slaughtered.

    Are the US and Japan at war? Why or why not?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s