The smoke barely had time to clear before a dark cloud of intrigue and suspicion formed around the circumstances leading up to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. When the shock had worn off, questions began to be asked, at least by the most sober and realistic Americans: why had the US military been taken by surprise, and who, the Congress and the public wanted to know, was responsible? John T. Flynn was one of the first to stand up to the war hysteria, defy the atmosphere of political intimidation, and start asking questions. Flynn was an old-style liberal journalist, a former columnist for The New Republic, author of God’s Gold (1932), a best-selling book on the rise of the Rockefeller oil fortune, and also Men of Wealth: the Story of Twelve Significant Fortunes from the Renaissance to the Present Day (1941), who had been purged from the precincts of “respectable” journalism for his unrelenting opposition to US entry into World War II. Flynn labored mightily to avert that disaster, joining with others conservatives, mostly, and nascent libertarians in the antiwar America First Committee, writing, speaking, rallying and lobbying to stop FDR’s drive to war.
In the wake of Pearl Harbor, the America First Committee disbanded, and the “isolationists” were driven practically underground, hounded by the government, driven out of politics and journalism, and in some cases prosecuted for “sedition.” Flynn, however, would not be cowed. He wrote two scathing pamphlets, The Truth About Pearl Harbor (1944) and The Final Secret of Pearl Harbor (1945), that raised the question for the first time: did FDR have advance warning of the Pearl Harbor catastrophe? Flynn answer was yes.
It is amazing how much he gleaned from contemporary accounts in spite of the repressive wartime atmosphere that allowed the President to avoid a real investigation and it’s nothing short of astounding how he was able to cut like a searchlight through the cloud of obfuscating murk and get at the essential truth. As it was, given what we now know, his conclusions were fairly mild. Flynn makes the case that FDR had every reason to expect the Japanese to attack Pearl Harbor, that he ignored the advice of his generals, and that he deliberately bottled up the fleet there. He reveals that the Japanese code had been cracked, and that the diplomatic messages being sent back and forth between Tokyo and its various embassies had been intercepted by the British, delivered to the Americans, and decoded. But what he didn’t know couldn’t know was that much more than that had been intercepted. As revealed in Robert Stinnett’s book, Day of Deceit, a whole series of military messages sent by Japanese commanders betrayed the day and the hour of the attack and Stinnett shows that FDR had to have known this. Flynn couldn’t have had access to the thousands of pages of documents recently released under the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act that prove FDR’s foreknowledge, and that of top figures in his administration. But Flynn saw the pattern of deception, fifty years ago, even if he couldn’t have known the full extent of it. He is the father of Pearl Harbor revisionism, the first writer to collect the evidence and indict an American President for a heinous war crime one committed against his own soldiers and sailors.
Originally a supporter of the President, Flynn became one of FDR’s bitterest, most relentless critics: his book, Country Squire in the White House, so enraged its subject that FDR wrote to one editor, at the Yale Review, demanding that Flynn be “forever barred” from the pages of the “respectable” media. Flynn’s 1948 book, The Roosevelt Myth, is the definitive study of Roosevelt the opportunist and autocrat; Flynn’s 1944 volume, As We Go Marching, cited the fascist proclivities of the New Deal in wartime. Yet in concluding that the Pearl Harbor affair was the result of a “miscalculation,” Flynn was giving the President far too much credit. As Stinnett makes all too clear: instead of being a miscalculation, the Pearl Harbor disaster was a very carefully calculated catastrophe, one orchestrated as much from Washington as from Tokyo. “When the attack came,” writes Flynn, “[FDR] was appalled and frightened. He dared not give the facts to the country. To save himself he maneuvered to lay the blame upon Kimmel and Short.” If the President was appalled, it was at his own handiwork, but there is no record of his fear. Harry Hopkins, his top aide and, as we now know, a Soviet agent reported that the night before, when told that the Japanese had rejected his ultimatum, the President had said simply and quite matter-of-factly, “This means war.”
But if the enormity of FDR’s deception was inconceivable to even such a staunch opponent of the President as Flynn, still he managed to glean the broad outlines of it: Flynn knew something was very wrong about the circumstances surrounding the biggest disaster in US military history, and he courageously took up the cudgels on behalf of historical truth. It is true that, as Flynn said, FDR dared not give the facts to the country. For half a century, Admiral Husband E. Kimmel and General Walter Short were blamed for the disaster and the deaths, while the man who set them up went down in the history books as the “Soldier of Freedom.” But now, all these years later, the truth is coming out at last. Congress officially exonerated Kimmel and Short in 1998, and Senator Joe Biden, in his speech to the Senate, described the great injustice done to them as a classic case of scapegoating:
“These officers were publicly vilified and never given a chance to clear their names,” declared Biden. “If we lived in a closed society, fearful of the truth, then there would be no need for the President to take any action today. But we don’t. We live in an open society. Eventually, we are able to declassify documents and evaluate our past based on at least a good portion of the whole story. One of our greatest strengths as a nation comes from our ability to honor truth and the lessons of our past.. . . I can not accept that there is a reason for continuing to deny the culpability of others in Washington at the expense of these two officers’ reputations fifty-seven years later.”
But if Kimmel and Short weren’t responsible for US vulnerability at Pearl Harbor, then who was? In his speech, Biden said that the burden of guilt must be “shared” but between who and whom?
Flynn’s trenchant pamphlet was prescient in its conclusion that FDR had to have known a good deal about the Japanese plans. Aside from his prescience, however, the author of The Final Secret of Pearl Harbor was brave beyond measure: for this was wartime America, where fear of “sedition” suppressed virtually all dissent, and Flynn, whose work had appeared in The New Republic, Collier’s, and Harper’s, now found himself confined to a few conservative publications, such as the Readers Digest and the Chicago Tribune, whose publisher, Colonel Robert Rutherford McCormick, was the great enemy of the New Deal and the journalistic champion of America First. It was McCormick who printed the first of Flynn’s Pearl Harbor articles, on October 22, 1942, and this was reproduced in pamphlet form as The Truth About Pearl Harbor (New York: Privately printed, 1944). When the war ended, the “national security” dodge that had let the administration stonewall on the Pearl Harbor question was no longer applicable, and the cry for an investigation went up, led by Flynn and the Tribune. On September 2, 1945, the Tribune printed another piece on Pearl Harbor by Flynn which we have posted as today’s Spotlight article that contained what the editor called “the blackest charge ever made against an American.” Addressing his readers, the editor exhorted: “Read it. Read it in full. In occupies a good many columns in today’s Tribune. That space would not have been made available if the report had not been of such transcendent importance. We call on true Americans everywhere to join us in seeing that the nation is told how it was carried into the war.”