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Reporter, historian debate whether FDR knew Pearl Harbor would be hit

By Dave Yanovitz


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President Franklin D. Roosevelt had advance knowledge of the Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, but allowed it to happen because he wanted Japan to commit an "overt act of war," a historian and author said July 14 at a Newseum Inside Media program.

Robert Stinnett, author of Day of Deceit: The Truth About FDR and Pearl Harbor, told the audience that U.S. Naval Intelligence had intercepted and decoded Japanese military cables before the morning of the attack and knew what was coming.

"On Nov. 27, 1941, President Roosevelt issued orders to all the commanders in the Pacific and told them to stand aside, don't go on the offensive, remain in a defensive mode, and these are [his] exact words, 'for the United States desires that Japan commit the first overt act' of war," said Stinnett, who began his research on the subject in 1982 while working as a reporter for The Oakland (Calif.) Tribune.

Author and historian Thomas Allen said he disagreed with Stinnett's conclusions. "Many of the 1941 and 1942 code messages were not decoded until 1945 or 1946," said Allen, the author of Remember Pearl Harbor as well as World War II: The Encyclopedia of the War Years and more than 20 other books.

Stinnett said that in 1982 he went to Pearl Harbor and filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the U.S. Navy to see a monitoring station in Hawaii that was, according to a Pearl Harbor book titled At Dawn We Slept, intercepting Japanese messages. The Navy granted his request. His interest piqued, Stinnett "met with cryptographers, who steered me to other cryptographers, and that's what really started me going" on the research that became his book.

But Allen said, "in the book, there are a couple of real problems. There are inferences that if you can detect and intercept something, you've got [complete information]. Lots of problems come out of that. You can pluck the information out of the air, but then [the information has] to be decrypted.

"On Dec. 1, 1940 — and this is not really mentioned in the book — the Japanese changed [their] code drastically," Allen continued. "From Dec. 1, 1940, through at least 1942 there was very, very little actual deciphering of Japanese naval messages."

Stinnett said his research has brought him face-to-face with sailors, soldiers and nurses who lived through what Roosevelt called "a date which will live in infamy."

"I have spoken to the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association ... and they are aghast that they were used as lures for this Japanese attack," Stinnett said, responding to a question. "They had no idea, though many of them suspected that something like this was in the works, that they were pawns.

"They felt the United States Pacific Fleet were manned by expert sailors and officers and would never have been caught in such a situation unless it was a foregone conclusion."

Comments of that nature from Stinnett eventually drew the ire of one audience member, Navy Adm. Mack Shauers, who said he was stationed in Pearl Harbor from early 1942 until the end of World War II. Shauers argued with Stinnett about exactly when a coded message was translated into English. Stinnett claimed the date was Nov. 25, 1941; Shauers said it was in 1946.

"You are doing a disservice to all Americans by representing to them that President Roosevelt, as president of the United States, in effect knew the attack was coming, allowed it to happen and thus led the United States into a war," Shauers said. Several audience members applauded in agreement.

Allen also said that Stinnett had mischaracterized Roosevelt.

"A man who was assistant secretary of the Navy, who loved the Navy, who loved ships, is not going to make Pearl Harbor and all the men in it a pawn," he said. "And this conspiracy, which Bob (Stinnett) calls a 60-year cover-up, has got to be a record for conspiracies in the United States. I find it extremely hard to believe."

The program was held in conjunction with the Newseum's ongoing exhibit, War Stories, on display through Nov. 11.


Journalist uses FOIA to uncover 'Truth About FDR and Pearl Harbor'
Author tells Pacific Coast Center audience what information he found and how he found it for book, 'Day of Deceit.'  07.25.00

War Stories events coverage
Coverage of discussions relating to Newseum's War Stories exhibit.  07.31.01