Pearl Harbor: Roosevelt Knew

Today is the seventy-first anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, an act that brought us into World War II, pushed a reluctant America onto the world stage, and ushered in the age of empire. The official history of that event is that it was a "sneak attack" precipitated by war-crazed Japanese militarists, and that the totally unprepared Americans – kept from arming themselves by evil "isolationists" in Congress and the Republican party – were caught completely by surprise.

There is, however, one big problem with this official history: it’s a lie.

The truth is that, by the winter of 1941, the Americans had decrypted the various Japanese military and diplomatic codes: President Roosevelt, key members of his cabinet, and top military leaders, including Gen. George C. Marshall, US Army chief of staff, had access to this intelligence, which was intercepted, decoded, and transmitted directly to them. We know this because Robert Stinnett, in researching his seminal book, Day of Deceit: The Truth About FDR and Pearl Harbor, obtained heretofore unknown documents under the Freedom of Information Act, which trace the intelligence stream from interception stations throughout the Pacific to the 36 Americans cleared to look through what was, in effect, a window into Japanese plans and preparations for the Pearl Harbor attack. The President and 35 other Americans in top political and military circles knew where the attack was to take place, they knew when it was to take place, and they watched it unfold, step by step, with full knowledge of its import.

It is widely remarked that even on the eve of Pearl Harbor, the vast majority of the American people stubbornly resisted efforts to drag us into the European war. The Court Historians responsible for constructing the FDR cult would have had great difficulty denying the pattern of presidential prevarication that had us effectively fighting the Axis powers long before war was officially declared. So instead of taking on this impossible task, which would have been laughed out of court, they openly valorized him for his expertise at the art of deception. Thomas Bailey, who taught history at Stanford University for 40 years and authored The American Pageant, long a standard US history textbook, extolled the liar and his lie in his 1948 book, The Man in the Street: The Impact of American Public Opinion on Foreign Policy:

"Franklin Roosevelt repeatedly deceived the American people during the period before Pearl Harbor. He was like the physician who must tell the patient lies for the patient’s own good…. Because the masses are notoriously shortsighted and generally cannot see danger until it is at their throats, our statesmen are forced to deceive them into an awareness of their own long-run interests."

In a rave review of the Bailey volume on the front page of the New York Times Book Review, a young Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., hailed Bailey’s "candor and good sense" in dealing with "the Roosevelt problem." "If he was going to get the people to move at all," wrote the future Official Historian of American liberalism, "he had to trick them."

Trick them he did. He also tricked the Japanese, who had no idea their codes had been broken, thus allowing the Americans access to their internal diplomatic deliberations as well as their military preparations after the peace proposals of then Prime Minister Prince Fumimaro Konoye had been decisively rejected by Washington. Konoye had proposed traveling to the United States on a secret mission to reach an accommodation with Washington over China and Southeast Asia: Washington responded with a disdainful silence – and by leaking the Japanese proposal to the pro-war Herald-Tribune.

A few weeks later, due in no small part to this revelation, the Konoye government fell. Japan’s War Party was in charge, and war preparations had begun on the Japanese side – followed step by step by our extensive intelligence-gathering operation, which intercepted and translated coded Japanese messages almost as soon as they were transmitted, drawing a comprehensive picture of Japan’s war plans weeks before the Pearl Harbor assault.

As Stinnett shows, a Japanese spy at Pearl Harbor, attached to the Japanese consulate, was closely watched, his messages to his superiors decoded and dispatched to Washington, where they were eagerly read. The Japanese had mapped Pearl Harbor down to the last warship, and Ensign Takeo Yoshikawa’s last message to his commander read:

"There are no barrage balloons at these places – and considerable opportunity is left for a surprise attack."

Could it get any clearer than that? Yet when US Admiral James O. Richardson objected to FDR’s insistence on keeping the US fleet bottled up at Pearl Harbor, he was summarily fired.

Secretary of War Henry Stimson’s diary for November 25, 1941 notes a meeting of FDR’s top advisors: "The question was how we should maneuver them [the Japanese] into … firing the first shot without allowing too much danger to ourselves."

Stinnett’s book provides a wealth of detail, and cites hundreds of supporting documents, including those unearthed thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, which prove conclusively that the movements of the Japanese military as they made their way across the Pacific to Pearl Harbor were well-known to the Americans. The communications of Japan’s chief of the naval general staff, Admiral Osami Nagano, from November 5 to December 2, "violated every security rule," writes Stinnett:

"[Admiral] Yamamoto would direct Vice Admiral Nagumo and the First Air Fleet to set sail from Hitokappu Bay on November 26, 1941 (Tokyo Time), proceed through the North Pacific, and refuel north of Hawaii (transmitted November 25, 1941); and finally, Nagano set the date for commencement of hostile action against the United States, the British Empire, and the Netherlands as December 8, 1941 (Tokyo Time; transmitted December 2, 1941). Based on these transmissions, President Roosevelt and General George Marshall predicted war with Japan would begin the first week of December. We would know even more about what FDR and his chief advisors thought, but the Japanese radio messages remain incomplete, still cloaked in American censorship. Though the author has filed Freedom of Information requests for all communication data concerning Nagano’s messages, the information has not been released."

Of course it hasn’t, and for a very good reason: the myth of the "sneak attack" on Pearl Harbor is a pillar of the "Greatest Generation" narrative that is the foundation of our interventionist foreign policy. That storyline goes something like this: we "saved" the world from the Axis powers, overcoming our "isolationist" inclinations, and went on to create a "world order" in which we established, forevermore, our duty and destiny to police the four corners of the earth and stand up for Goodness, Justice, and Fair Play. Now that we know how FDR lied us into that war, however, the picture becomes a bit more complicated – and certainly less favorable to an American president described by Gen. Douglas MacArthur as a man who "never told the truth where a lie would suffice."

It is a testament to the persistence of mythology in place of actual history that Michael Beschloss, an alleged historian, could tweet the following as the Pearl Harbor anniversary approached: "Friday is Pearl Harbor Day, and no, FDR didn’t knowingly allow the attack to take place."

The Court Historians never rest, for their job is never done: since the truth is eventually going to come out, no matter how strenuously the cover-up is engineered and maintained, they are constantly seeking to marginalize truth-tellers like Stinnett and others, who labor to disinter the facts from the collection of self-serving fables we call "history."

That FDR’s deception holds some lessons for our own day seems too obvious to even comment on, and I’ll let my readers draw their own conclusions as to its meaning and applicability in the present context. I’ll just note that after 70-plus years of government lies, the "news" that the President of the United States could lie us into a war – while sacrificing the American fleet at Pearl Harbor – isn’t half as shocking as it was back when writers like John T. Flynn first made the accusation.


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Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].