Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Ernest King
“One thing that might help win this war is to get someone to shoot King,” remarked the normally unflappable Dwight Eisenhower. “He’s the antithesis of cooperation…, he’s a mental bully.” What’s more, said Ike, the Chief of Naval Operations was “biased entirely in favor of the Pacific” and paid only lip-service to the Europe-First Strategy the Joint Chiefs and their commander, Franklin Roosevelt, had adopted. Eisenhower was no ETO partisan. He had spent four years in the Philippines assisting General Douglas MacArthur in his role as Field Marshall of the Philippine army. He understood the strategic importance of the southwest Pacific. What he didn’t understand, or appreciate, was CNO King’s bullheadedness, his parochial focus on his Navy.
King’s narrow focus and pugnacity had its benefits. He supported an offensive mindset that led to the Halsey Raids of February, 1942, which kept the Japanese off balance and, more important, gave American seamen battle experience and a boost in morale. These leadership qualities did not serve him as well in the spring when defensive concerns rose to prominence. Where would the Japanese make their big offensive? When would they strike? What were their strategic intentions? Joe Rochefort biographer Elliot Carlson described a jittery CNO in May of that year: “King visualized the possibility of ‘string raids, against, Midway, Oahu, New Hebrides, northeast Australia, possibly the [US] west coast and Canada. To say that King was scattered in his thinking would be an understatement.” King resisted Rochefort’s intelligence analysis, before ultimately assenting to defend Midway. This was not King’s his finest hour.
King was saved from himself and went on, quite possibly, to save the Allied cause in the Pacific. While southern Pacific commander Vice Admiral Robert Ghormley (COMSOPAC) and southwest Pacific commander MacArthur (COMSWPA) pleaded for more time, King insisted on a stepped-up timeline. Hit the Japanese before they could consolidate their gains, was his strategy. His only concession to caution was to move back Operation WATCHTOWER by one week to August 7. As it happened, the Japanese were caught sleeping. The 1st Marines put ashore on Guadalcanal unopposed. (Japanese forces on the smaller islands of Tulagi and Gavutu put up stiff but otherwise suicidal resistance.) Though it took another four to six months of brutal combat and nail-biting struggle for survival, the 1st Marines secured Guadalcanal and the Allies marked a critical victory. Barring King’s forcefulness, it would not have happened. The history of the war would have been entirely different. It’s a good thing neither Eisenhower nor anyone else was so hasty as to shoot him.
Chief of Staff of the United States Army General George C. Marshall
Several months before pleading caution to King, Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in the Southwest Pacific Area General Douglas MacArthur had begun a relentless P.R. campaign that had the effect of elevating his stature as America’s paladin in the Pacific. Issuing daily communiques to the American press, often at odds with Allied objectives and/or Joint Chiefs’ directives, Mac was a loose cannon. Yet Roosevelt understood his value in galvanizing morale at home–as well as the political cost of firing him. It fell to Army chief Brigadier General George C. Marshall to “manage MacArthur as best he could,” according to MacArthur biographer Walter Borneman. He went so far, at one point, to send a hero from the last war, a man as strong-willed and outspoken as MacArthur himself, to talk him down off the ledge. It didn’t work, so it was up to Marshall to manage his commander’s ego and talent for the remainder of the war.
Marshall’s diplomatic astuteness had in evidence, too, in the critical months before the attack at Pearl Harbor. In early November, he advised his commander against issuing an ultimatum and in favor of making “certain minor concessions which the Japanese could use in saving face.” In the event, American concessions, such as they were, were too little, too late. The Japanese put Admiral Yamamoto‘s audacious plan into effect.
And during that day of infamy, Marshall appears to have been at his worst. On December 6, after the decryption of a particularly troubling intercept, military brass in Washington debated sending a warning to Pearl. Intelligence chief Colonel Rufus Bratton pressed for sounding the alarm. Marshall demurred. An alert had been already been issued in November, he argued. A second one would only sow confusion. He left the office for the weekend, pointedly requesting that he not be disturbed over the weekend. They tried to bother him, anyway, but on Sunday morning, December 7, 1941, General George C. Marshall was incommunicado. As the naval base on Oahu was ravaged and military command in Washington thrown into confusion, the Army chief was on an extended horseback ride through the countryside.
In post hoc investigations, Stark and Kimmel were made scapegoats. Marshall’s actions, both the prudent and the questionable, escaped scrutiny.
Secretary of War Henry Stimson
Captain Ellis Zacharias of naval intelligence felt nothing but confidence in Secretary of War Stimson. Of his actions during the crisis of 1941-42, Zacharias said they would “remain forever impressed upon [his] memory with a feeling of admiration and gratitude.” Yet the historical record shows that Stimson’s actions were not all beyond reproach.
As the downward momentum picked up in late October, 1941, Stimson fairly gushed about the new “opportunity” opening up in the southwest Pacific: “Our whole strategic possibilities of the past twenty years has [sic] been revolutionized. From being impotent to influence events in the area, we suddenly find ourselves vested with the possibility of great effective power. Indeed we hardly yet realize our power in this respect.” “Realize” is the misleading word, for the United States had not in fact realized the potential of its power. Subsequent history revealed how the United States’ influence in the area was more “impotent” than “effective.”
At least Stimson backed up his words with a willingness to act. The secretary was much more hawkish on Japan than either Marshall or then then-CNO Admiral Harold “Betty” Stark. The two chiefs–whose subordinates, after all would prosecute the war–knew their forces needed more time to prepare. Politically, too, they understood that America must not be seen to fire the first shot. We’ll never know how history might have been different, for better and worse, had Stimson’s bellicose view prevailed.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Franklin Roosevelt was too political an animal to have been swayed by Stimson, in any case. The president, as the secretary of state noted in late November, faced the “difficult proposition” of how to “maneuver [the Japanese] into the position of firing the first shot without allowing too much danger for ourselves.” That “proposition” made Roosevelt vulnerable to charges that he anticipated the attack and did nothing to stop it. The rumors cropped up quickly and persisted for decades (even today there are revisionists who give them credence) that Roosevelt was willing to sacrifice the lives servicemen in order to preempt the America First-ers and to garner support for a war he had already more or less committed to. William Friedman, who led the team that broke Purple, famously lamented on the infamous day, “But they knew, they knew.” Indeed, the nation’s chief cryptanalyst was in a position to know. Daily Purple intercepts allowed American military planners to read Japanese diplomatic communications as readily as Japanese embassy officials.
What Friedman and his superiors (including Roosevelt) knew was that the Japanese were on the move, that a strike was imminent. What they did not know–indeed, could not even imagine–was that Pearl Harbor would be the target. Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet (CINCPAC) Admiral Chester Nimitz‘s chief intelligence officer, Lieutenant Commander Edwin Layton laid out the case most cogently: “All the new evidence that has been gathered for this account shows beyond any reasonable doubt that our leaders in Washington knew by the evening of 6 December that Japan would launch into war in a matter of hours rather than days. Not a shred of evidence has been uncovered from all the classified intelligence files to suggest that anyone suspected that Pearl Harbor would be the target.” The president and his so-called War Cabinet–Stark, Marshall, Stimson–lacked imagination rather than scruples.
Yet Roosevelt’s hard line toward Japan had made Pearl Harbor a possibility before it became an inevitability. The thirty-second U.S. president may have harbored anti-Japanese prejudice. At the least, his loyalties were conspicuously pro-Chinese–as were his secretary of state’s. Egged on by the not-so-diplomatic Stimson, Roosevelt had been imposing economic sanctions on Japan for two years. Instead of “bring[ing] Japan to its senses,” Roosevelt’s hard line had pushed a strengthening-but-sensitive world power into a corner. Sensitive to humiliation, it was bound to strike out.
The crisis, only partly of his own making, put Roosevelt in an increasingly tight bind. Increasingly, it posed a no-win political dilemma–or perhaps better: tri-lemma. If he attacked Japan preemptively, he would be denounced by the isolationists. If he made a deal and Japan later attacked, he would be labeled an appeaser. If he did nothing, he would be guilty of negligence. So Roosevelt chose to wait for Japan fire the first shot, in the meantime readying his forces and hoping the initial damage would not be too great. It was. The destruction of men and materiel was shockingly, insupportably large.
Roosevelt’s leadership style was not without critics. The straight-laced, gentlemanly Henry Stimson called his a “topsy-turvy, upside-down system of administration.” Indeed, Roosevelt could be frustratingly hard to pin down, putting off some decisions, making others with a casual swiftness that could leave advisers breathless. Yet the maddening method might have been just what was required of this wartime president. His actions–and even his inaction–came from a position of strength, from a man unafraid of the awesome responsibility history had foisted upon his shoulders.
All of these men–King, Marshall, Stimson, Roosevelt–have been seen as paragons of strength, whose decisiveness helped bring the Second World war to ultimate victory. Yet none of these four escapes scrutiny unscathed. Nor indeed can any of us. Look for a paragon to take your flag, to champion your cause. You won’t find him. You won’t find her. She will find her under attack for one thing or another. You will have to come to her defense. Or, concede she let you down, too. But you will weigh the accounts and show your challenger that the scales in favor weigh down those against.
It is the best anyone can do.
- Borneman, Walter R. MacArthur at War: World War II in the Pacific. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2016.
- Carlson, Elliot. Joe Rocheforte’s War: The Odyssey of the Codebreaker Who Outwitted Yamamoto at Midway, Annapolis, Naval Institute Press, 2011.
- Higgs, Robert. “How U.S. Economic Warfare Provoked Japan’s Attack on Pearl Harbor.” https://www.independent.org/news/article.asp?id=1930, May 1, 2006.
- Layton, Rear Admiral Edwin T. Layton (with Pineau and Costello), And I Was There: Pearl Harbor and Midway–Breaking the Secrets. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1985.
- Toll, Ian W. Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific, 1941-1942. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2012.
- Toll, Ian W. The Conquering Tide: War in the Pacific Islands, 1942-1944. New York, W. W. Norton &Company, 2015.
- Zacharias, Captain Ellis M. Secret Missions: The Story of an Intelligence Officer. New York: G. P. Putman’s Sons, 1946.