#4-519 Editorial Note on Investigation of the Pearl Harbor Attack

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Editorial Note on Investigation of the Pearl Harbor Attack

June-September 1944

The Roberts Commission's 1942 report on the Pearl Harbor attack, which placed the primary blame for the errors committed by United States forces on the local commanders—Lieutenant General Walter C. Short and Admiral Husband E. Kimmel—had not stilled interest in the question of responsibility. Both officers, determined to have courts-martial in order to clear their names, were collecting evidence, and they had numerous allies in their services, among the public, and, more importantly, in Congress. The Navy Department initiated an investigation by Admiral Thomas C. Hart, former Asiatic Fleet commander, that ran from February 22 to June 15, 1944. Hart interviewed forty witnesses and collected numerous documents, but Congress was not satisfied. By Senate Joint Resolution 133 of June 13, 1944, Congress required the War and Navy departments "to proceed forthwith with an investigation into the facts surrounding the catastrophe." (The testimony, documents, and reports of all the wartime investigations were included in Joint Committee on the Investigation of the Pearl Harbor Attack, Pearl Harbor Attack: Hearings . . . Pursuant to S. Con. Res. 27, 40 parts, 79th Cong., 1st sess., 1946. One of the best scholarly analyses of the events and the investigations is Gordon W. Prange et al., At Dawn We Slept: The Untold Story of Pearl Harbor [New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1981] .) Secretary of War Stimson was convinced that "the instigating forces in Congress which produced the inquiry are largely political and trying to embarrass the President." (September 21, 1944, Yale/ H. L. Stimson Papers [Diary, 48: 102].)

The Army Pearl Harbor Board began work on July 20 and the Navy Court of Inquiry on July 24, 1944. The three-member board, sometimes called the Grunert Board after its president, Lieutenant General George Grunert (the other members were Major General Henry D. Russell and Major General Walter H. Frank), began hearing witnesses on August 7 when it held a session in Marshall's office in the Pentagon Building. Marshall admitted that he was not particularly well prepared, but he thought that "in view of the fact that the Secretary did not feel he could appear for quite some time, it was essential that I at least make a preliminary appearance before the Board, to give you as much data as I could, so that you could get ahead on that basis without undue delay.” Marshall quickly asked for a closed session—i.e., with only himself and the three members—which lasted for fifty-seven minutes. At this time he discussed the signals intelligence derived in December 1941 from the broken Japanese high-level diplomatic code: MAGIC. In the open session, Marshall answered questions concerning Pacific defenses, correspondence with General Short, relations with the navy, and administrative procedures. (Marshall testimony, August 7, 1944, Pearl Harbor Attack, pt. 27, pp. 11–34; quote on pp. 11–12.)

By August 28, Admiral Kimmel had succeeded in obtaining and entering into evidence before the Navy Court of Inquiry certain of the highly secret MAGIC intercepts, particularly those relating to the fourteen-part message sent from Tokyo to the Japanese embassy in Washington, D.C., December 6–7, concerning the cessation of the ongoing negotiations and likely severing of diplomatic relations. (Concerning this message, see the editorial note and Marshall's Roberts Commission statement in Papers of George Catlett Marshall, #3-001 [3: 3–6].) This new evidence provoked new questions: (1) Was enough known at the highest government levels that one could reasonably argue that Japanese intentions regarding the Hawaiian fleet base should have been deduced? (2) If so, had Washington leaders deliberately withheld information from Kimmel and Short that was crucial to carrying out their duties? As George H. E. Smith, secretary of the Senate Minority (i.e., Republican) Steering Committee, and a firm believer in the thesis that the Roosevelt administration had been responsible for the nation's entry into the war, wrote to Kimmel's attorney, Charles Rugg, "The diplomacy leading up to Pearl Harbor is the bulwark of Admiral Kimmel's defense—not the technical situation at Pearl Harbor." (Prange, At Dawn We Slept, pp. 628, 630.)

On September 2, Marshall testified before the Navy Court of Inquiry regarding aircraft and air defenses in Hawaii and army-navy relations. There was also a lengthy discussion of U.S.-Japan diplomacy immediately prior to the December 7 attack. The court desired to know whether Marshall considered "the contemplated severance of the diplomatic relations practically a declaration of war.” Marshall "was not certain of that. They have so many devious ways of doing things nowadays that whether or not their first move would be an out-and-out act of war was not any certainty in my mind." (Pearl Harbor Attack, pt. 33, p. 831.)

Since the number of people with knowledge of MAGIC was expanding as a result of the navy court's actions, when Marshall prepared to testify before the army board again on September 29—this time on the record—he was particularly concerned with the MAGIC intercepts, their handling, and their meaning.
Recommended Citation: The Papers 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. 4, “Aggressive and Determined Leadership,” June 1, 1943–December 31, 1944 (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), pp. 597–599.

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