Rarely has there been a result of a few misinterpreted words, leading to such tragic consequences, as on a sunny Sunday morning in Hawaii in 1941.
The death of more than 2,400 American sailors, soldiers and some civilians, in Pearl Harbor and at Hickam air base, occurred from a sneak attack by the Empire of Japan, a “date that will live in infamy,” in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s words.
There cannot be adequate praise for the heroism of the men who, taken by surprise in peacetime, wrestled anti-aircraft guns around and broke open ammunition boxes to reply to the Japanese airstrikes.
Many of the battleships that were the pride of the U.S. Navy were sunk or severely damaged for many months.
While commemorations and contemplation of the sacrifices of servicemen are always appropriate, the aftermath of the attack has some other lessons for today.
No less than eight investigations of the Pearl Harbor attack occurred and some of them focused on the ambiguous wording of numerous messages sent to commanders in Hawaii but also elsewhere in the Pacific.
At Pearl Harbor, one message initiated by George C. Marshall, head of the U.S. Army, was interpreted to mean beware of Japanese saboteurs, rather than the “war warning” that the Washington leadership intended.
Marshall’s latest biographer, David L. Roll, tells the story of how America’s leadership was taken by surprise, even with the advantage of breaking the radio codes of Japanese diplomats. Marshall accepted responsibility for his service’s failures but “its causes transcend the actions and omissions of dozens of individuals. They reside somewhere inside a haystack of assumptions and complacency.”
Not a bad summation, but even with some Republicans’ virulent hatred toward Roosevelt and belief in conspiracy theories — obviously, that has a contemporary ring — American government was also a different place then.
The Republican candidate for president in 1944, Thomas E. Dewey, had received politically explosive information that suggested America knew beforehand of the attack from the broken codes. The New York governor met with Marshall’s emissaries and accepted the general’s word not only that the charge was untrue but that — unbelievably — the Japanese diplomatic code had not been changed, and that revealing U.S. knowledge of it would endanger American sailors and troops.
It is a measure of Marshall’s stature and credibility, but also of Dewey’s public-spirited willingness to put country ahead of his own politics, that the Republican candidate did not raise the issue in the campaign.
Doing the right thing is a quiet heroism of public life that should also be marked on December 7.