Here's the end of "What Did The President Know and When Did He Know It? Part I - which discussed comments by Neal Conan at the Alaska Press Club conference a week ago.
So last night, reading Doris Kearns Goodwin's No Ordinary Time in bed after hearing Neal Conan, I got to Franklin Roosevelt's Atlantic 'fishing trip' which turned into a secret meeting at sea with Winston Churchill in August 1941. Part of the discussion at the "Atlantic Conference" was about the negotiations between the US and Japan. Which brought to mind, Conan's mention of "What did the president know . . .?" and the debate WW II buffs have had over whether President Roosevelt knew in advance about the Pearl Harbor attack.This is that follow up.
I was going to include that here, but I think this is enough for one post and I'll follow up with another post on that topic.
Roosevelt and Churchill are at sea. It's August 1941.
The opening discussion centered on what to do about Japan's increasingly aggressive stance in the Pacific. For more than a year Roosevelt had been trying to avoid a showdown with Japan, whose expansionist policies under Premier Fumimaro Konoye threatened American interest in the Pacific. To the president's mind, a détente with Japan was essential to gain the time he needed to train the armed forces and mobilize the factories to accomplish the real end of American Foreign policy - the destruction of the Hitler menace. Roosevelt believed an early war with Japan would mean "the wrong war in the wrong ocean at the wrong time." (p. 265)
There had been earlier disagreement in the cabinet. Some, including Treasury Secretary Morganthau, wanted a total embargo on oil to Japan, while Secretary of State Hull felt that would precipitate war.
In June, the debate over the oil embargo had assumed political significance at home when Ickes, in his capacity as fuel administrator, was forced to ration oil in New England. "It's marvelous," Morganthau taunted the president, describing a cartoon just published in the Washington Star. "It's got a car driving up with a Japanese as a chauffeur and Hull filling the gas tank. . ."Roosevelt was afraid an embargo would drive Japan to the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) and Roosevelt didn't have enough navy for both the Atlantic and Pacific.
"The Japanese are having a real drag-down and knock-out fight among themselves," Roosevelt further explained, "and have been for the past week - trying to decide which way they are going to jump - attack Russia, attack the South Seas (thus throwing in their lot definitely with Germany) or whether they will sit on the fence and be more friendly with us. No one knows what their decision will be."
But in mid-July, when forty thousand Japanese troops invaded rubber-rich Indochina [the French colony, now Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia] and quickly took over the country, the president finally agreed to take retaliatory action. He froze all Japanese assets in the U.S., notified Japan that the Panama Canal would be closed for repairs, and announced that he was cutting off all high-octane, [sic] gasoline. Whereas [Secretary of War] Stimson and [Secretary of Interior] Ickes believed that all gasoline - not just high-octane, suitable for airplanes - would be embargoed, Roosevelt preferred to move one step at at time, "to slip the noose around Japan's neck, and give it a jerk now and then." (pp. 265-266)So in July before the December Pearl Harbor attack, the US was still selling oil - but not high octane - to Japan. That doesn't sound like he was expecting to be attacked by Japan. Actually, it turned out, while Roosevelt was with Churchill in August, "implemented by subordinates . . . the limited embargo he had sanctioned had become full-scale." (p. 283)
At the August Atlantic Conference, Goodwin reports that Churchill wanted Roosevelt to get tough with Japan.
Roosevelt seriously considered Churchill's proposal [warning that Great Britain and the US would be compelled to go to war if Japan encroached the South Pacific], but in the end settled on a softer, unilateral message, fearing that the strong language of the joint declaration would guarantee war. (p. 266)In the fall of 1941, the president wanted to arm merchant ships taking supplies to Great Britain. Congress balked, believing the president was trying to provoke a war with Germany. It passed November 8 after 11 days of debate.
The closeness of the vote made it clear to Roosevelt that, short of some dramatic event, there was no chance of getting Congress to vote a declaration of war against Germany. "He had no more tricks left," [Playwright, biographer, and FDR speech writer] Robert Sherwood observed. "The bag from which he had pulled so many rabbits was empty." His only recourse was to wait on events. (p. 283)Meanwhile,
Japan could not tolerate the embargo on oil. The crisis strengthened the hand of the military. On October 16, War Minister General Hideki Tojo replaced Fumimaro Konoye as premier, and gave Japanese diplomats until the last day of November to arrange a satisfactory settlement with the United States that would end the sanctions; if they failed, war would begin in early December. In the meantime, active preparations were under way for a massive air strike against Pearl Harbor.Goodwin then writes about other events going on from Thanksgiving dinner to a coal strike. After the coal settlement, the president was heading for a break in Warms Springs when word came that a Japanese expedition was headed south from Japan. Roosevelt responded angrily at the evidence of Japanese bad faith. It was now the last days of November. Admiral Stark warned:
The stumbling block in the negotiations was China. Whereas Japan was willing to remove its troops from Indochina and promise not to advance beyond current positions in return for America's lifting of the embargo, she refused to withdraw completely from China. For a time, it seemed that Roosevelt would accept a partial withdrawal of Japanese troops from China, but strong protests from Nationalist Chinese leader Chiang Kai-Shek hardened the U.S. position. (p. 283)
Japan may attack: the Burma Road, Thailand, Malaya, the Netherlands East Indies, the Philippines, the Russian Maritime Provinces . . . The most essential thing now from United States viewpoint, is to gain time. Considerable Navy and Army reinforcements have been rushed to Philippines but desirable strength not yet been reached. Precipitance of military action on our part should be avoided so long as consistent with national policy. The longer the delay, the more positive becomes the assurance of retention of these Islands as a naval and air base."Then the president proceeded on his trip to Warm Springs. But shortly after he arrived, he got a call.
The President agreed with Stark about the importance of playing for time. Though he had little hope now that an agreement could be reached, he instructed Hull to send a proposal to the Japanese demanding that Japan leave China and Indochina in return for an American promise to negotiate new trade and raw-materials agreements. The note reiterated what the United States had been saying for months: that Japan could at any moment put an end to the exploding situation by embracing a peaceful course, and that once she did this her fears of encirclement would come to an immediate end. (p. 286)
When Hull called at 9 p.m. he told Roosevelt that he had just finished reading an explosive speech which Premier Tojo was scheduled to deliver the following day. The speech called on Japan, "for the honor and pride of mankind," to take immediate steps to wipe out U.S. and British "exploitation" in the Far East. Hull was convinced that a Japanese attack was imminent; he advised Roosevelt to return to Washington as soon as possible. The president agreed to leave the following day. [which would be November 30] (p. 287)The Japanese intentions had everyone's attention the next week and Goodwin [I'm sure some of you have forgotten Goodwin was the book's author] reports that at a meeting on Friday, December 5 there was discussion of where the Japanese fleet was. Secretary of the Navy Knox assured the president they would know in a week. Saturday afternoon they had an intercepted Japanese cable to the negotiators in Washington rejecting the first 13 points of Hull's proposal and promising the 14th on Sunday.
The improbable hope of Saturday night was crushed on Sunday morning, December 7, when the fourteenth part of the Japanese message terminating diplomatic negotiations arrived. Within minutes, a second message came through, instructing Ambassador Kichisaburo Nomura to deliver the entire fourteen-part reply to Secretary Hull at precisely one o'clock. To colonel Rufus Bratton, chief of the Far Eastern Section of the War Department, the timing of the 1p.m. deadline seemed significant. With a sinking heart, he told General Marshall that he feared it might coincide with an early-morning attack somewhere in the Pacific. "The Japanese are presenting at 1p.m. EST today what amounts to an ultimatum. Just what significance the hour set may have we do not know, but be on the alert." Uncertain of the security of the scrambler phone, Marshall opted to send his warning by the slower method of commercial telegraph. In order of priority, the warning was to go first to Manila, then to Panama, and finally to Hawaii. By the time the message reached the telegraph station in Honolulu, the attack on Pearl Harbor had already begun. (p. 288)So, when I finished this section, it was clear that Goodwin did not think the president knew before the attack. A few pages later she punctuates that conclusion.
"I remember," Perkins later said, "the President could hardly bring himself" to describe the devastation. "His pride in the Navy was so terrific that he was having actual physical difficulty in getting out the words that put him on record as knowing the Navy was caught unawares. . . I remember that he said twice to Knox, 'Find out for God's sake, why the ships were tied up in rows." Knox said, 'That's the way they berth them!' It was obvious to me that Roosevelt was having a dreadful time just accepting the idea that the Navy could be caught so off guard." (p, 292)
Goodwin addresses the title question explicitly on the next page:
Historians have focused substantial time and attention trying to determine who knew what and when before the 7th of December - on the theory that Roosevelt was aware of the Japanese plans to attack Pearl Harbor but deliberately concealed his knowledge from the commanders in Hawaii in order to bring the United States into hostilities through the back door. (p. 293)She goes on to address why she is convinced that he didn't.
Here it is, 61 years later and the question of what the president knew and when he knew it is still being debated. I'd like to think that given our greater access to information and ability to disseminate information, we'll get the answers faster now than in the past.