5-290 Editorial Summary of Pearl Harbor Committee Testimony (1)

Publisher: The Johns Hopkins University Press

Subject: Postwar

Editorial Summary of Pearl Harbor Committee Testimony (1)

December 6-8, 1945 Washington, D.C.

December 6

Marshall answered questions for four hours posed by committee general council William D. Mitchell, beginning with some background on his service in the Far East, duties as chief of staff, and his office’s general activities and problems during 1940 and 1941. Asked about the relative autonomy of his subordinate field commanders, Marshall said: “My endeavor was to select the ablest people available at the time, have their missions defined, and give them the responsibility for the positions which they occupied.” (U.S. Congress, Joint Committee on the Investigation of the Pearl Harbor Attack, Hearings . . . , pt. 3 [Washington: GPO, 1946], p. 1051. This source is hereafter cited as Pearl Harbor Committee, Hearings.)

Marshall rejected the idea that the various military contingency plans developed and the staff conferences held with the British, Canadians, and Dutch either committed or permitted other nations to commit the United States to war. (Ibid., pp. 1052-53, 1057.) There was then a lengthy discussion of the 1940 Hawaiian Department alert and the War Department’s efforts to reinforce Hawaii. (Ibid., pp. 1059-83.) By late 1941, Marshall stated, despite materiel shortages, the Hawaiian Department commander (Lieutenant General Walter C. Short) “had sufficient means to have broken up the attack so it could only have done limited harm,” provided the army command was alert. At the time, however, Marshall said that he himself was inclined to think that the risks to the Japanese fleet from an attack on Hawaii were too great for them to risk; thus Japan’s southward expansion would proceed slowly and conservatively. (Ibid., pp. 1084, 1086.)

The questioning then shifted to President Roosevelt’s relations with his army and navy civilian and military chiefs in late November and early December 1941. “From a purely military side Admiral Stark and I together endeavored to put forward the policy of the necessity of taking every measure that we could think of, politically or diplomatically, to carry along the situation in the Pacific without disruption, at least until we had an opportunity to prepare the forces there” (i.e., some time after February 1, 1942). This led to a discussion of the circumstances surrounding the War Plans Division’s November 27, 1941, warning message to General Short and the handling of decrypted Japanese messages. (Ibid., pp. 1088-89, 1096-1103.)

December 7

Prior to the day’s public session, the committee held an executive meeting (Marshall was briefly present) to discuss the September 1944 letters Marshall had sent to Republican party presidential candidate Thomas E. Dewey asking that Dewey not make a campaign issue of American knowledge of Japan’s intentions in early December 1941 as a result of having broken the Japanese high-level diplomatic code (“Purple”). (See Papers of George Catlett Marshall, #4-525 [4: 604], #4-526 [4: 605], and #4-530 [4: 607-11].) Marshall wished to maintain the secrecy on certain sections of the letters that concerned cryptanalytic methods. A minority argued vigorously for complete release and the committee ultimately agreed. (Two days later the New York Times cited an unnamed army source as saying that this revelation had done “incalculable” harm to U.S. intelligence-gathering capabilities, since nations that used encryption systems similar to the German and Japanese would now change them. [New York Times, December 9, 1945, sec. 1, p. 32.])

Marshall’s four and one-quarter hours of testimony began with a discussion of the Japanese “winds” code message that was to have warned their diplomats of an imminent break in relations with the United States. (This has often been called the “winds execute” or “winds implementing” message. The debate since 1944 has been over whether such a message was ever sent by the Japanese or received by the U.S. and what its receipt would have meant operationally to the United States.) Marshall denied ever having read such a message. Then followed testimony on another famous document: the December 6-7 fourteen-part summary of Japan’s position and the subsequent instruction to deliver the message to the State Department at 1:00 P.M. Washington time on December 7. Marshall had read this and consequently sent warning messages to the four Pacific commands. (Pearl Harbor Committee, Hearings, pp. 1106-10, 1162.) On the significance and content of these messages, see Prange, At Dawn We Slept, pp. 360-61, 457-59, 466-67, 474-76, 485-87.) There then ensued a discussion of who in the War Department had the authority to send the Pacific commanders a warning message like that of November 27, defensive preparations in Hawaii, and the idea of unity of command there. (Pearl Harbor Committee, Hearings, pp. 1116-24, 1162.)

The committee then took up the Dewey letters and U.S. cryptanalytic work. (Ibid., pp. 1124-39, 1146-48, 1156-58.) Marshall was again questioned about the November 27 warning message, General Short’s response, and War Department reaction to the response, which Marshall admitted was inadequate and, as he was in charge, his fault. The former chief of staff also reiterated that the Hawaiian Department should have done a better job against the attack, given the personnel and materiel it had available. (Ibid., pp. 1141-45, 1150.) Marshall was asked where he was on the evening of December 6, 1941; he said that he could not remember precisely (words that would be thrown back at him thereafter): probably he was at home, but certainly not at the White House, as certain conspiracy theorists were asserting. (Ibid., p. 1110.)

December 8

Two members of the Republican party cross-examined Marshall for four and one-half hours; both concentrated particularly on what they considered the War Department’s egregious failure to send General Short sufficient information on Japanese intentions gleaned from MAGIC intercepts. Congressman Bertrand W. Gearhart (California) began with questions about the military’s attitude toward war with Japan. Marshall explained why the armed services desired to delay a war and the general state of U.S.-Japan relations in late 1941. Questioning then shifted to the fourteen-part Japanese message. Marshall again defended the War Department’s behavior and insisted that the General Staff had no reason to believe that Short’s command was unprepared. (Ibid., pp. 1166-71, 1176-83.)

Most of the day’s questions were asked by Senator Homer Ferguson (Republican of Michigan): who had authority to act in the War Department on the morning of December 7, where was General Marshall that morning, how were MAGIC intercepts handled, what were the Intelligence Division’s procedures, and what intelligence exchanges had taken place with the British. (Ibid., pp. 1183-1201.) This was followed by questions and testimony on the omission of reference to cryptanalytic intelligence from the Roberts Commission’s 1942 report, the reasons for Marshall’s 1944 letters to Thomas Dewey, and the military’s efforts to protect the MAGIC source.

One recurring question was why did Marshall refuse to use the scrambler telephone to call Short’s headquarters after receiving the final section of the fourteen-part message on the morning of December 7, 1941. The instrument was not safe for more than ordinary privacy, Marshall insisted; in fact, the Germans had intercepted some of President Roosevelt’s scrambled conversations. Besides, he said, even if he had used the telephone, he would have called General MacArthur in Manila first. (Ibid., pp. 1212-14.) Senator Ferguson then switched to probing what he considered a pre-Pearl Harbor U.S.-British-Dutch plan to go to war against Japan. Marshall did not agree that such a “plan” existed, that the military had approved of one, or that it had been implemented. (Ibid., pp. 1218-33.)

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. 5, “The Finest Soldier,” January 1, 1945-January 7, 1947 (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003), pp. 379-381.

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