3-001 Editorial Note on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941

Publisher: The Johns Hopkins University Press
Date: December 7, 1941

Subject: World War II

Editorial Note on Pearl Harbor

December 7, 1941

Tension between the United States and Japan had been high for months, and it was clear to informed observers that the negotiations between the two nations over their respective roles in East Asia and the Pacific were nearing the breaking point. Military leaders in Washington knew that the question was not whether the Japanese would open hostilities with the United Stated but when and where. Marshall later testified: “We anticipated, beyond a doubt, a Japanese movement in Indo-China and the Gulf of Siam, and against the Malay Peninsula. We anticipated also an assault on the Philippines. We did not, so far as I recall, anticipate an attack on Hawaii; the reason being that we thought, with the addition of more modern planes, that the defenses there would be sufficient to make it extremely hazardous for the Japanese to attempt any such an attack.” (Marshall testimony, August 7, 1944, Joint Committee on the Investigation of the Pearl Harbor Attack, Hearings . . . pt. 27, Proceedings of the Army Pearl Harbor Board [Washington: GPO, 1946], p. 14.)

While it became clear on December 7 that the Japanese believed they had to protect the flank of their southward drive by crippling the United States Fleet, U.S. Army and Navy planners had failed to make that surmise. The War Department and Marshall were criticized afterwards for providing inadequate information regarding the state of United States-Japan diplomacy to Hawaiian Department Commander Walter C. Short and for failing to follow up properly on the warning message of November 27 (see Papers of George Catlett Marshall, #2-607 [2: 686]) and to notice that Short was preparing defenses only against sabotage and not against a hostile attack. Short also had falsely assumed that the navy was conducting the distant reconnaissance contemplated in the joint defense plan. The navy commander in Hawaii, Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, presumed that the army was on sharper alert than for sabotage only and falsely assumed that the army’s radars were in full-time operation. (Mark S. Watson, Chief of Staff Prewar Plans and Preparations, a volume in the United States Army in World War II [Washington: GPO, 1950], pp. 494-512.)

Since the late summer of 1940, army and navy cryptanalysts had been intercepting and deciphering the most secret Japanese diplomatic code (designated “Purple” by the codebreakers), and they were able to read the December 6 cable that constituted Japan’s final response to Secretary of State Cordell Hull’s proposals almost as quickly as could the Japanese embassy in Washington. By late evening on December 6, the first thirteen parts of the fourteen-part message to Ambassador Kichisaburo Nomura had been intercepted, deciphered, and prepared for distribution to the small list of leaders allowed access to intercepts, code-named “Magic.” Although some persons on the list received copies of the document that evening, Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall did not. In any event, the message dealt primarily with diplomatic issues, and as the final portion had not yet been received, no one who did read the message took any action.

Marshall’s morning of Sunday, December 7, began as usual with a horseback ride on the former agricultural experiment farm east of Fort Myer. He planned to arrive at his office in the Munitions Building several hours later than his normal 7:30 A.M., for the chief business of the day was to be a meeting with President Roosevelt and his advisers at 3:00 P.M. The topics presumably would be the reinforcement of the Philippines and the disposition of military forces in and plans for the Far East.

The fourteenth part of the message from Tokyo was received in the War Department early on December 7; it was not a declaration of war but a breaking off of the negotiations. The spur to action arrived while Marshall was riding. A brief cable directed Ambassador Nomura to deliver the fourteen-part message to Secretary Hull at precisely 1:00 P.M. eastern standard time (E.S.T.). It immediately occurred to Colonel Rufus S. Bratton (U.S.M.A., 1914), chief of the Far Eastern Section of Military Intelligence and one of the men responsible for delivering Magic intercepts, that this time might be important, since in the Far East it corresponded to early morning or dawn, traditionally the time for launching attacks.

Colonel Bratton attempted to reach General Marshall by telephone, but he was out; no message was relayed to him, so he did not return the call until after his ride, around 10:00 A.M. Bratton did not communicate any sense of overwhelming urgency to the chief of staff. Marshall arrived in his office shortly after eleven o’clock and began to read the fourteen-part cable. When he asked the meaning of the delivery time, Bratton explained that it might correspond to an early morning attack somewhere in the Pacific. Marshall at once began to write a dispatch to the four key commanders around the Pacific Basin. What no one in Washington then knew was that an undetected Japanese task force of six aircraft carriers was only two hundred miles north of the vital United States Naval Base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and was within minutes of launching its planes. The aircraft began their attack on Pearl Harbor at 7:50 A.M. Honolulu time (1:20 P.M. in Washington), less than two hours after Marshall had begun to write his warning message.

Beyond the destruction and deaths it caused, the attack made it extremely difficult for the United States to reinforce its garrisons and air bases in the Philippines and elsewhere in the Pacific; it also drew attention, materiel, and manpower from the North Atlantic theater. It greatly stimulated the previously slow pace of army reorganization and eliminated any remaining political and funding delays to mobilization. With a definite enemy in view and a score to settle, military morale rose immediately.

The Pearl Harbor attack stimulated numerous investigations, official and scholarly, and an enormous outpouring of documents and monographs. Its political implications long engendered controversy. President Roosevelt ordered the first investigation, a commission headed by Supreme Court Justice Owen J. Roberts, which met in Washington and Hawaii between December 22, 1941, and January 23, 1942. One side-effect of the commission’s investigation and report, Marshall discovered in subsequent weeks, was to create “an investigative complex; that is, everyone who has any responsibility for a theater immediately calls for all the reinforcements possible in order to establish an alibi on paper in case anything should happen.”(Notes on War Council, March 16, 1942, NA/RG 165 [OCS, SGS, Secretary of War Conferences File].)

Later in the war investigations were conducted by the U.S. Army Pearl Harbor Board (July 20-October 20, 1944) and the U.S. Navy Court of Inquiry (July 24-October 19, 1944). In addition there were four special inquiries during the war, two each by the army and the navy. These were conducted by Admiral Thomas C. Hart (February 12-June 15, 1944), Vice Admiral H. Kent Hewitt (May 14-July 11, 1945), Major Henry C. Clausen (November 23, 1944-September 12, 1945), and Colonel Carter W. Clarke (September 14-16, 1944, and July 13-August 4, 1945). These six investigations produced a total of 9,754 printed pages of proceedings and exhibits. The final official inquiry was carried out by a joint committee of Congress between November 15, 1945, and July 15, 1946. This committee accumulated all the records of the previous investigations and published its own hearings and exhibits in forty volumes in 1946. (Joint Committee on the Investigation of the Pearl Harbor Attack, Investigation of the Pearl Harbor Attack: Report . . . [Washington: GPO, 1946], pp. 269-71.)

The various investigations exerted considerable effort to establish a chronology of events, the whereabouts of each important participant in Washington, and the extent of his knowledge of Japanese intentions and of United States defense measures in Hawaii. The Roberts Commission returned from Hawaii in mid-January 1942 and began its final hearings with General Marshall.

Recommended Citation: ThePapers of George Catlett Marshall, ed.Larry I. Bland and Sharon Ritenour Stevens(Lexington, Va.: The George C. Marshall Foundation, 1981- ). Electronic version based on The Papers of George Catlett Marshall, vol. 3, “The Right Man for the Job,” December 7, 1941-May 31, 1943 (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991), pp. 3-5.

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