Audio-video documents
France in WWII
Vichy law and the Holocaust
Amgot home page

The New Mysteries of Pearl Harbor

A book by François DELPLA


[This text is produced by computer-aided translation with minimal post-editing]

7 December 1941, at dawn, in the anchorage of Pearl Harbor, the fleet of the United States undergoes the assault of a cloud of Japanese bombers, born by aircraft-carriers without having been noticed. A document, interpretable as a declaration of war, is given to the American government by Japanese diplomats an hour after the start of the attack. Hundred of books have been devoted to this event.

This is the first in the French language, and one of the first that is not in English. That in itself deserves an explanation. The subject has been treated before mainly from the angle of American politics. It has been concerned to know what to attribute a success as complete as that of the Japanese combined fleet.

Two schools have confronted since the day following the disaster: one touches on collective and individual failures of an American military system at sleep since 1918, that tried to be revitalised since some months in the situation created by German army success against France, Great Britain and the USSR.

The other school is interested exclusively in the political aspect. It tries to demonstrate that president Roosevelt, desirous to involve a restive country in the war, had provoked a Japanese aggression in order to attain this, and more or less consciously directed the thunderbolt to the base of Pearl Harbor. One baptizes this school "revisionist", and one speaks of the conspiracy theory.

The controversy had taken vigor in 1944 on the occasion of elections, some hoping to finish with the long reign of Roosevelt and his democratic party, others defending his person and action. The inquiry and trials hounded the campaign all along, and the new democratic victory obtained only a weak respite: the sudden death of the president, 12 April 1945, incited some congressional republicans to relaunch the controversy. In all, eight inquiries have taken place; they have thrown to the public a mass of documentation, permitting the most contradictory conclusions and feeding quarrels until our day. On each 10th anniversary, we see new works, when commemorations revive interest.

The subject deserves to be reopened today even in terms of issues which have been treated so far. A battle that has confronted two countries should not be eternally told from the viewpoint of one alone. For even more reason since this event took place in a planetary conflict. It is necessary therefore to include the Japanese viewpoint, and consider the balance of forces between all the large powers. Few men have had to the same degree as Roosevelt the sense of global risk of this war. The historian has therefore to put in light his motivations, to make the tour of the planisphère by getting into the skin of an American president.

As for the aggressor, his policy is, the most often, stereotyped to the extreme. Japan is not presented as a country, inhabited and governed by human beings, but rather as a physical reality, a sort of compressed gas that tends naturally to expansion and explosion. At the very most one speaks of a pacifist tendency in the government, incarnated at a moment by the prime minister Konoye, but rapidly overrun and neutralized by militarists all plainly aggressive. This picture deserves strong alterations.

But, to describe with precision the speculations of Washington and Tokyo, it is necessary also to cross continents and oceans. Japan had a special relationship with Germany, it has been said, and even a bit too much. But overlooked is the extent to which the Japanese government disappointed, on fundamental points, the expectations of Hitler. Precisely regarding Pearl Harbor, it is not easy to disentangle in what measure Japan satisfied Germany and in what measure it disturbed it. As for the United States, its main partner is England and, there also, one has underestimated contradictions and conflicts of interest, particularly clear in the Pacific, to which the correspondence between Roosevelt and Churchill owes its more turbulent passages.

A theory appeared recently, according to which the role of the British PM had been determinant in the genesis of Pearl Harbor, in that he had by special information provoked on 26 November a stiffening of the American attitude (version of Layton #1 ), or on the contrary that he had hidden this information and betrayed Roosevelt to better involve him in the war (version of Rusbridger #2 ). The second theory is manifestly false, the first deserving more examination, but both have the merit of attracting attention to the British attitude, a direction of research up to there too much neglected.

The soviet factor, finally, is a determinant. Pearl Harbor occurred six months after another surprise attack, that of Hitler against the USSR, the immense country of a political regime scorned by all others, that separates Germany and Japan. The evolution of this theater of operations, the perception that one has of its future and hopes that one formulates as to its outcome in the various capitals cannot remain without influence on events of the Pacific, and in spite of this, few books establish a bond between Pearl Harbor and the simultaneous effort of Hitler to take Moscow before the winter #3 .

One can date to 1985 the renewal of studies on the Japanese aggression. That year, the work of Admiral Layton approached in a new manner the role of Great Britain, but he gave also to all the American - Japanese crisis the viewpoint of a well informed person, who had lived events including that of Pearl Harbor and frequented thereafter the archives, notably those that had been opened in 1979. In 1986, the publication of the collected papers of General Marshall #4 , if it casts little light on the deeds and gestures of the American supreme commander in the period preceding the assault, it has at least shed light on his thinking by giving notably the account of a secret meeting between him and some journalists on 15 November 1941.

During the same period, while his compatriots had confined themselves to establishing facts, the Japanese historian Akira Irye delivered a work of reflection #5 . But two recent publications have brought out even more. They have upset the documentary field, up to then smothered by the forty volumes of official inquiries. It concerns first the Pearl Harbor Papers #6 . Gordon Prange had written the work on Pearl Harbor #7 that presented best the Japanese version of things. The author had been able to study it leisurely on the spot immediately after the war, collecting a lot of documents and testimonies.

Thirteen years after his death, his collaborator Donald Goldstein and Katherine Dillon decided to publish full texts that he had only cited, notably the writings of the inventor and chief of the attack, the Admiral Yamamoto, and the person who had developed all the details, the commander Genda. That gives the book a fascinating and, in many ways, new approach.

The American viewpoint has also been renewed by a book of the jurist Henry Clausen, charged in 1945 with an important inquiry with wide investigative power. His reports figured in one of the forty official volumes, but they had been little noticed. In 1992, he published a very lively account of his cross-examination #8 , adding a lot of details on the état d'esprit of the US military, which was the goal of the study. It is there, finally, the thread that allows one to detect in the quagmire of inquiries of 1944-46 some contradictions and to gain a definitive idea of a certain number of facts, even if one does not share all conclusions of the author.

The present book is born of a perusal of these works, and of the observation that no-one can change our vision of things - while all provide materials for that purpose. Little by little a new image has emerged, and an unexpected explanation has taken form. It does not resolve all the questions, and it raises new ones. My work does not try to be a definitive judgement, but an element in a controversy that is not about to end, and it is an invitation to reveal new documents - particularly from Japan and some neutral countries such as Spain or the Vatican. One will not find here a lot of newly revealed archives.

The problem is that the history of Pearl Harbor suffers not from a lack but from an overabundance of documents. At least where it doesn't concern that which could have been truly revealing, the information furnished to the US and British leaders on the movements of the Japanese fleet and aircraft. They seem, on the American side, to have been destroyed and, on the British side, to remain hermetically sealed.

The British government has nonetheless authorized in 1993 the consultation of certain files, following accusations against Churchill: these have been examined during the writing of this book and have enriched some aspects, but on Japanese armed force positions they are perfectly mute - which means that things are stilled concealed from us because, if the prime minister seemed unaware of the threat weighing on Pearl Harbor, he was certainly informed of other displacements of Japanese troops.

This book is, finally, one of the first not justified by the participation of its author to events or to their immediate aftermath. Indeed, from Morrison to Clausen passing by Prange, Layton and the British authors, the basic works have almost all been written or cowritten by military men, responsible for various missions in the theater of the Pacific during the second world war, or just thereafter. It is time, without doubt, that a generation of pure historians take the relay and that participation in events ceases to be the obligatory credential.

Among the persons that have helped me in this work with counsel and advice, including critical, have been archivists, historians, publishers, journalists. I have to thank particularly those whose fidelity has proven an attachment without restraint to free historical research:

#1 Edwin T. Layton, Roger Pineau and John Costello, And I Was There, New - York, 1985.

#2 J. Rusbridger and E. Nave, Betrayal at Pearl Harbor / How Churchill lured Roosevelt into WW II, New-York 1991, tr. fr. New-York, Pygmalion 1992.

#3 A happy exception: Stanley Weintraub, Long Day's Journey into War, Truman Talley Books-Dutton, 1991. The book opens on a map of the Russian front and reminds us frequently what is happening there.

#4 The Papers of George Catlett Marshall, vol. 2 "We Cannot Delay", Johns Hopkins, 1986.

#5 particularly The Origins of WWII in Asia and the Pacific, New - York, 1987.

#6 The Pearl Harbor Papers, published by Donald M. Goldstein and Katherine V. Dillon, Brassey's, 1993.

#7 Gordon W. Prange, Donald M. Goldstein and Katherine V. Dillon, At Dawn We Slept, McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1981. The edition used is that of 1991, with a postface by D. Goldstein and K. Dillon, Penguin Books.

#8 Henry C. Clausen and Bruce Lee, Pearl Harbor Final Judgment, Crown Publishers, 1992 and Leo Cooper, 1993. cited by G. Chaliand, Anthologie mondiale de la stratégie, Laffont, 1990, p. 967-968. cf. Henry C. Clausen, op. cit., p. 189.

Pearl Harbor Hearings Website
Please tell us if you find this interesting and if it is sufficiently readable.


Audio-video documents
France in WWII
Vichy law and the Holocaust
Amgot home page