The Great Liars

We’re coming up on the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Day of Infamy or the Day of Deceit depending your knowledge of the subject. It was early morning on December 7, 1941 when 205 carrier planes from the Japanese Imperial Fleet dove on the great American naval base in Hawaii in the first of two attacks. By the time they returned to the carriers, a good part of the Pacific Fleet was sunk or burning and more than 3000 men were dead or wounded. As military disasters go, this is in the front rank.
For decades the story – the party line you might say – was that the military and naval commanders at Pearl Harbor had been caught napping. Altough they were demoted and their careers ended, neither Admiral Husband Kimmel or General Walter Short were court-marshaled. That was part of the cover up. If they had been allowed to question their superiors in Washington, D.C., in a formal proceeding with sworn testimony they could have asked why they were denied intelligence that would have told them the Japanese fleet was on the way.
The reason why they were is the interesting story. Go back in time and you will understand why President Franklin Roosevelt and his war planners made the decision to keep Pearl Harbor in the dark. Germany and Russian were allies, France and Poland had been defeated, and England was on the ropes after the Dunkirk fiasco and a lesser-known but bigger evacuation from France a week later. They had left masses of equipment behind and the island braced itself for invasion by the all-conquering Wermacht. The Royal Navy guarded the English channel, but Hitler had 10,000 paratroopers at his disposal. Against that, a home guard armed in some cases only with fowling pieces and weapons from the Middle Ages guarded airfields. Although Japan was duplicating Nazis successes in the Far East, it was the weaker of the two enemy powers.
America’s dilemma was to get into the war quickly enough to save the English before Churchill’s new government fell before a mood of defeatism and England sued for peace. Biding its time, Germany refused to be provoked into armed belligerance against the United States, divided by a strong isolationist movement. It had signed a pact with Japan, however, pledging to come to its assistance if it went to war with America. Japan, heavily engaged in a war with China and facing a U.S. embargo on oil and other essential war materials, needed a quick win against the Pacific Fleet to build a defensive perimeter and protect the home islands against the Americans. Washington knew all of this. It was collecting and reading Tokyo’s coded diplomatic communications and at least two of the navy codes, successes that rivaled Enigma.
If Berlin would not take the bait, it must be Japan. This is the background of The Great Liars. I was delighted that it made Publishers Weekly’s list of the Best Books of 2014.

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