Pearl Harbor

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.