Why Roosevelt Wanted Japan to Attack Pearl Harbor

By Kaplan, Morton A. | The World and I, October 2000 | Go to article overview

Why Roosevelt Wanted Japan to Attack Pearl Harbor


Kaplan, Morton A., The World and I


Morton A. Kaplan is Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Chicago and editor and publisher of The World & I.

For fifty years I had dismissed the argument by World War II revisionists that Roosevelt placed the fleet at Pearl Harbor to be sunk by the Japanese. Each subsequent book on that subject, even by serious scholars, failed to shake my conviction that the claim was without merit. Yet that thesis has now been shown by Robert Stinnett in his recent book Day of Deceit: The Truth About FDR and Pearl Harbor to be the most likely explanation of that event. If Roosevelt was the mastermind of this plot, as I now believe, and if it can be justified, as I will argue, then serious issues of democratic accountability will turn out to be murkier than most constitutional lawyers would acknowledge.

It would be generally agreed that the president has no constitutional authority to surreptitiously lead the nation to war, even if there is not, as there was in this case, a clearly expressed statutory and public commitment to staying out of foreign wars. There are exceptions to every set of rules, however, and the conditions of the period created exceptional obligations on the part of a president who understood how much was at stake.

I never did believe FDR in 1940 when he said that he wanted to keep the United States out of the war. I understood that this prevarication was a necessity in a United States that had passed neutrality acts in 1935, '37, and '39 and that in 1940 had approved a military draft by only a single vote in the lower house. FDR did persuade the public to support lend-lease and the bases-for-destroyers deal. But a great majority of the public, supported by three consecutive statutes, wanted no part of a foreign war. If there had been even a hint that Roosevelt wanted to enter the war--one campaign speech went, "I hate wah, Elenah hates wah, Falla [his dog] hates wah"--then Wendell Willkie would have been elected in 1940. Yet Roosevelt knew that protecting American democracy required American entrance into a war against Nazi Germany and its allies.

Stinnett does not discuss FDR's interventionary actions before Pearl Harbor with respect to the European war. British intelligence had more direct access to Roosevelt than did his cabinet officers. Roosevelt and Churchill carried on an intimate correspondence and concocted joint strategies. American warships helped Allied supply convoys to evade German submarines. When this did not prevent German submarines from sinking too many supply ships, we actually sank German submarines--an act of war. If this had become public knowledge, FDR would have been impeached and likely convicted. Hitler, who had no real conception of the American democratic process, refrained from reactions that he likely thought would only have intensified American efforts. Japan was more likely to respond to American provocations because it was more vulnerable. It had to seize Southeast Asian oil and other raw materials after the embargo became more fully implemented to prevent a collapse of its war effort. Damaging the U.S. fleet would provide time for consolidating its advances in Southeast Asia.

THE PLAN

Stinnett presents massive evidence that Roosevelt intended to goad the Japanese into an overt attack. The basis of the plan was an eight-point memorandum by Lt. Cmdr. Arthur McCollum. This memorandum, each element of which was implemented, was admittedly designed to produce a Japanese attack. Although it went from McCollum to FDR's military advisers, the routing slips show Roosevelt was on a list to receive it. If this otherwise outrageous scheme of a subordinate to precipitate a war had been objectionable, or even inconsistent with understood objectives, McCollum would have been rebuked and perhaps removed. Roosevelt would not have been kept in the dark about a matter of utmost importance to him, and the records show that he personally took charge of "D," sending warships into waters adjacent to Japanese activity.

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