World War II in the Pacific Part I – Recipe for War

I decided to write a series of short articles on World War II in the Pacific after a class discussion about Pearl Harbor Day with students who are seniors in high school. Most students were aware that Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor, causing the United States to enter the war. However, most students were also ignorant of other relevant details surrounding this momentous historical event. Most troubling to me was the response that many students gave to my question “Why did Japan attack the United States on the morning of December 7, 1941.” Students told me that it was because the United States cut off trade with Japan; specifically, the U.S. deprived Japan of the vital resource of oil. This was an unfair act, according to some students, and it pushed Japan to attack the U.S. The insinuation being that we provoked the attack. It is true that the U.S. restricted trade with Japan leading up to Pearl Harbor, however students were altogether unaware of the reasons why our nation would do such a thing.

The Winds of War

The 1941-1945 clash between the Empire of Japan and the United States was inevitable for various reasons. The winds of war began to blow with Japan’s disregard of the sovereignty of neighbors and imperialistic ambitions. Japanese aggression in China took place on a scale that equaled the barbarity and disregard for human life that took place on the European Eastern Front during World War II. The Rape of Nanking in December 1937 was fully on par with the type of atrocities committed in that theater of the war. Thousands of Chinese people were brutalized; women and children were raped and murdered. Japanese soldiers, encouraged by their officers, committed heinous crimes, including infanticide. Some Japanese Army officers competed to see how many POWs they could decapitate with their samurai swords. Ten million Chinese people eventually perished as a direct result of Japanese aggression.[1] In Nanking alone, then the capital city of the Republic of China, over 200,000 prisoners of war and civilians were massacred on orders issued under the hand of the occupying Japanese overlord, Prince Yasuhiko Asaka, who was a member of the royal family.[2] The atrocities that took place in Nanking were witnessed and closely documented by Westerners and widely reported in the international media. On December 12, 1937, the Japanese Air Force attacked and sank the USS Panay, a U.S. Navy patrol vessel, as it was in the process of evacuating civilians from Nanking. These acts, combined with Japanese membership in the Tripartite Pact and the subsequent Japanese occupation of French Indochina (now known as Vietnam), forced the U.S. to take a hardline stance against Japanese aggression with trade embargoes and demands that Japan withdraw troops from occupied territories as part of any possible diplomatic solution.

Front page of the Phillipines Herald reporting the attack on the USS Panay.
WARNING GRAPHIC – Video portrays real images and video of war crimes victims. Video footage recorded by American missionary John Magee.

The problem was that any chance at a diplomatic solution under the circumstances of the time was impossible given the power wielded by the Japanese Army within the Japanese government. In light of the February 26, 1936 coup attempt, in which a group of young Japanese army officers killed several high ranking officials and occupied government buildings, it was decided that all future war ministers had to be approved by the top three Army leaders. If the Army did not approve of a cabinet’s decisions, their hand-selected War Minister would simply resign and they would not approve of anyone else. Under the Japanese system of government his would lead to the fall of any cabinet they opposed and the need to appoint a new cabinet.[3] Consequently, Imperial Army leaders gained total political control in Japan. And most of those in the Army leadership were hawks, including General Hideki Tojo, who eventually ended up serving as both War Minister and Prime Minister simultaneously. To the Japanese Army war hawks, territorial concessions were completely unacceptable; they saw going to war on their own terms as the best solution given the circumstances. Although Tojo went through the motions of an attempt at diplomacy, the die was cast and a deadline was set for war on November 30th, 1941, if diplomacy failed, which Tojo fully knew would be the case before negotiations with Washington even began.[4]

WARNING GRAPHIC – Video portrays actual images of death and combat. 1937 Newsreel of the USS Panay incident filmed by Norman Alley.

Intelligence Failure

The failure to recognize and properly address the threat that the Japanese naval fleet posed to U.S. military assets in the Hawaiian Islands resulted in the tragedy of December 7, 1941. This was due to various factors. Chief among these was the lack of a well-trained and organized military intelligence agency that could rapidly intercept, decode, analyze, and distribute actionable information to the military and civilian decision makers who needed it. In 1941 the intelligence organizations that eventually morphed into various contemporary intelligence agencies were in their infancy. Army and Navy cryptographers, for example, were organized in a joint unit under the code name MAGIC. These early pioneers in the field of modern cryptography and signals intelligence had some successes, including the deciphering of Japanese diplomatic codes. However, policies for the classification, distribution, and proper analysis of intelligence were nonexistent.

Female technicians operate the analog machines used to decrypt Japanese diplomatic cables during WWII. The woman on the left is a member of the U.S. Army Women’s Auxiliary Corps, the one on the right is a civilian. Public Domain.

Accurate analysis of Japanese diplomatic communications combined with human intelligence and other signals intelligence could have given an accurate picture of Japanese intentions had the available intelligence been properly coordinated. In real time bits and pieces of information were picked up, some overlooked, and others not distributed in a timely manner. A December 2, 1941, MAGIC intercept asked Japanese agents in Hawaii for specific information regarding Pearl Harbor defenses. Another on December 3 indicated that Japanese operatives would signal to the Japanese ships off the coast of Oahu by putting lights in windows, burning garbage as a smoke signal or placing want ads on the radio.[5] A linguist on duty recognized the significance of the intercepts and passed them to the watch officer who criticized her work and said he would put off working on it until the following Monday, December 8, one day too late.[6] Another MAGIC intercept to the Japanese Ambassador Kichisaburo Nomura and special envoy Saburo Kurusu, who were in Washington to negotiate peace with the Americans, indicated that they were no longer needed and thanked them for their work. Their last orders were to destroy their encryption machine, codebooks, secret files, and finally deliver a message to President Franklin Roosevelt on Sunday December 7 at exactly 1:00 pm local time – 7:00 am in Hawaii.[7] This message was passed immediately to General George C. Marshall, Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, who ordered his subordinates to pass on a warning to American and Naval forces in Hawaii and the Philippines apprising them of the situation and ordering them to be on alert. Due to atmospheric interference, the alert message was sent via Western Union and was not received until it was too late.[8] Given the gravity of the situation, it is mind boggling that someone did not ensure that the message was delivered as soon as possible to General Walter Short and Admiral Husband Kimmel, the top Army and Navy officers in Hawaii. Had they received timely and accurate intelligence reports, adequate defensive measures could have been taken. The fleet could have been sent to sea and Pearl Harbor and other military installations on Oahu made “hard targets.” They could have even made plans to meet a Japanese attack with a counterblow from carrier-based aircraft.


In the aftermath of Pearl Harbor the public and politicians wanted “heads to roll.” The last thing that FDR, his cabinet, or top military brass wanted was to get dragged before Congress and give testimony in which they would have to recognize their own mistakes which included:

  • Sending Pacific commanders convoluted warnings.
  • Not passing intelligence to commanders that revealed the Japanese had mapped Pearl Harbor and knew the berthing place of each vessel.
  • Assuming but never verifying that the Pacific fleet was on alert.
  • Not realizing that General Short had only enacted security measures against sabotage.
  • The lack of a supreme military commander on Oahu (command was split between Kimmel and Short) which led to confusion.
  • Never taking seriously Navy Secretary Frank Knox’s own early theories about a possible Japanese surprise attack. Based on the available information, Knox believed that a Japanese attack was imminent.
  • Not reacting to the Japanese diplomatic cable 1:00 deadline on December 7, 1941, by ensuring the alert reached the Pacific commands and instead sending a telegram by civilian message service that arrived too late.

As a result, they decided to make scapegoats out of General Short and Admiral Kimmel. Short and Kimmel do deserve some blame. Given the circumstances and winds of war that were blowing they should have had forces under their command on alert. The general lack of readiness and laid-back attitude among their subordinates was their fault. But they did not deserve the treatment that they received. Both men were sacked days after the attack. In 1942 FDR created the Roberts Commission, headed by US Supreme Court Associate Justice Owen Roberts, to investigate and report the facts surrounding the disaster. The commission, while not a court martial, pronounced both Short and Kimmel guilty of “dereliction of duty.” The officers were discharged from service and sat out the rest of the war. Simultaneously, the commission whitewashed the actions of the Roosevelt administration and others higher up in the chain of command. Both Short and Kimmel were capable officers and likely would have performed well in combat command, had they been allowed an opportunity to redeem themselves and serve their country during the war.

General Walter C. Short and Admiral Husband E. Kimmel flank Lord Louis Montbatten at a reception held in his honor on Oahu in 1941 prior to the Pearl Harbor attack. Public Domain.

End Notes

[1] Iris Chang, The Rape Of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust Of World War II (New York: Basic Books, 2011), 8.

[2] Ibid. 40-41, 100-101.

[3] John Toland, The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire, 1936-1945 (Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition, 2003), Kindle Locations 861-867.

[4] Ibid. Kindle Locations 3004-3008.

[5] Ibid. Kindle Locations 4381-4393.

[6] Ibid. Kindle Locations 4388-4393.

[7] Steve Twomey, Countdown to Pearl Harbor: The Twelve Days to the Attack (Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition, 2016), 269.

[8] Ibid. 271.