Pearl Harbor Truly a Sneak Attack, Papers Show
The battleship Arizona sinking during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Deceit rather than bumbling caused Tokyo's failure to warn Washington that war was imminent, newly found papers indicate. Photo Credit: The Associated Press
By Howard W. French, , 9 December 1999
TOKYO -- Freshly discovered diplomatic papers published here this week seem to overturn standard versions of the events leading up to Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, which have been told with little disagreement over the essential facts in history books on both sides of the Pacific.
The picture that emerges from the papers is one of a breathtakingly cunning deceit by Tokyo aimed at avoiding any hint to the Roosevelt administration of Japan's hostile intentions.
For decades, conventional wisdom has held that Japan attacked Pearl Harbor without any official warning of a break in relations only because of fateful accidents and plain bumbling that delayed the delivery of a document to Washington hinting at war.
Textbooks have dwelled on the problems of transmission and translation of the so-called Final Memorandum, on Dec. 7, 1941 -- the day Pearl Harbor was attacked -- in which Japan notified the United States that it was "impossible to reach an agreement through further negotiations."
The accounts have focused on the slowness of the Japanese Embassy in Washington to produce a cable of the memorandum from Tokyo, and on the delays caused by security rules that prohibited having the embassy's American secretary type the document.
The newly discovered documents include an earlier draft of the Final Memorandum, dated Dec. 3, in which the Japanese Foreign Ministry, mindful of the country's obligation under the Hague Convention to declare war before attacking, proposed stating that "we are forced to terminate negotiations."
More ominously, it added that Washington "would be held responsible for any and all the consequences that may arise in the future."
Takeo Iguchi, the researcher who discovered the papers in the Foreign Ministry archives, said the draft memorandum, together with another document, the wartime diary of Japan's general staff, point to a vigorous debate inside the government over how, indeed whether, to notify Washington of Japan's intention to break off negotiations and start a war.
In its entry for Dec. 4, the diary mentions the draft version of the Final Memorandum and makes clear that the general staffs of the navy and army rejected the Foreign Ministry's proposed warning to Washington. The definitive memorandum, with its much weaker wording, was drafted the next day.
That document was in fact intercepted before its delivery and read by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who saw it as amounting to a declaration of war. But aides to the president saw nothing new in the message, and preparations against an attack were not taken.
While the wording and timing of Tokyo's message were being fine-tuned, Japan's diplomats in Washington, deliberately kept in the dark by their capital, were meeting with their U.S. counterparts.
A Dec. 7 entry in the war diary notes approvingly that "our deceptive diplomacy is steadily proceeding toward success."
"The diary shows that the army and navy did not want to give any proper declaration of war, or indeed prior notice even of the termination of negotiations," said Iguchi, a professor of law and international relations at the International Christian University in Tokyo. "And they clearly prevailed.
Iguchi said the general staff, together with a pliant Foreign Ministry, had controlled not only the content of the message to Washington, but also its timing, insisting that the message be delivered to the State Department at 1 p.m. Washington time on Dec. 7.
In the end, the document was delivered to Secretary of State Cordell Hull about 2:20 p.m., approximately one hour after the sinking of the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
Even the famous delay in delivering the message, he said, was probably the result of deliberate planning. As evidence, he cited the many unusual, heavy garbles in the original cable that set it apart from most of Tokyo's clean transmissions and may have been intended to slow its delivery to Washington.
"The stereotypical version says that Japan attacked Pearl Harbor after intending to submit an ultimatum to Washington," Iguchi said, "but because of a misunderstanding, the message was delivered an hour too late. It has long been taught that had there not been this delay, the attack would have been honorable. Instead, it has been called treachery."
Iguchi said many of Japan's top historians had long spoken of the supposed embassy mix-up that delayed the delivery of Tokyo's final message to Washington as an "ugly blemish" on the country's history. "But the blemish belongs to those who engaged in deliberate deception, or who have failed to ever go into the documentary evidence," he said.
A spokesman for the Foreign Ministry confirmed that the documents at the center of Iguchi's research were genuine but declined to make any further comment, saying only that "there are many views about these events."
The first account of Iguchi's work was a small notice in the daily Yomiuri Shimbun in April. This week, The Japan Times, an English-language daily, printed a long article on the research. Iguchi said almost none of Japan's other news publications had shown any interest in his work.
Iguchi's findings clash with more comfortable views of the start of the war, and even many historians whose expertise focuses on the same events say they were unaware of his research.
Shinji Sudo, who teaches the history of international relations at Kyoto Sangyo University, was one of those who learned of the newly uncovered documents from a foreign journalist.
"Professor Iguchi's enthusiasm has moved the debate forward, and I value his work highly," he said. "I had thought that the blame should be placed on the negligent embassy staff, but my views have changed considerably. Still, the are others in academic circles who regard Professor Iguchi's work rather coldly, saying that he is just trying to clear the dishonor of his father."
Iguchi, who is himself a retired diplomat, is the son of a senior counselor in the Japanese Embassy in Washington at the time of the attack. Until now, the embassy staff has been forced to carry most of the blame for not informing the State Department in time. Speculation in Japan has focused on drunkenness among key staff members the night before, and late arrival at work.
Many in Japan, particularly conservative historians, have clung to the view that Washington forced war on their country. Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor was a feat of bold and courageous military planning and would have been completely honorable, they say, were it not for an incompetent diplomatic staff in Washington.
Other historians, though, said Iguchi's work would be taken immediately into account by specialists of this period and would gradually work its way into textbook accounts of the start of the war.
"We have, in essence, a new historical drama told to us by Professor Iguchi, and it is a contribution that will encourage further research and teaching," said John Stephan, a professor of modern Japanese history at the University of Hawaii. "Time magazine once described the Pearl Harbor attack as 'murder hidden by a toothy smile.' But since the early 1960s, this has been tempered by research that focused on the communications blunders.
"The evolution right now would seem to be back in the direction of the kind of interpretive leanings that existed in this country during the war. But these sorts of vicissitudes are constant in history."
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© 1999 by Neil Mishalov