Pearl Harbor: Another (Unhappy) Anniversary

President Obama and his successors would do well to ponder the examples of past presidents and make honesty a priority in all matters of war and peace, writes Eric Alterman.

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The USS Arizona Memorial is seen, Wednesday, December 7, 2011, in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. (AP/Marco Garcia)
The USS Arizona Memorial is seen, Wednesday, December 7, 2011, in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. (AP/Marco Garcia)

The New York Times reported Tuesday that the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association would commemorate its last Pearl Harbor anniversary yesterday as its members voted unanimously to disband at the end of this month.

“We had no choice,” said William H. Eckel, one-time director of the Fourth Division of the survivors’ association. “Wives and family members have been trying to keep it operating, but they just can’t do it. People are winding up in nursing homes and intensive care places.”

Alexander Abad-Santo of The Atlantic Wire worries that “America is slowly and surely losing its only human connections to Pearl Harbor.”

Well, now everything dies, baby, that’s a fact. And certainly historians have not let go of the myriad mysteries that continue to surround the attack.

President Barack Obama issued the traditional proclamation that presidents are wont to issue on anniversaries of important events that end in multiples of five.

“We look to December 7, 1941, to draw strength set by the example of these patriots and to honor all who have sacrificed for our freedom,” said President Obama in his proclamation for Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day 2011.

The December 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor is significant for any number of reasons. But one that is often overlooked is that it ushered in a modern era of the presidency where foreign affairs was declared essentially off limits to democracy.

It’s no secret that President Franklin D. Roosevelt desperately wanted to get the United States involved as a combatant in the war in both the European and Asian theaters. In this regard Pearl Harbor was a gift, and Adolf Hitler’s declaration of war four days later even more so. But it did not occur in a vacuum.

As I discovered while researching my 2004 book When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences (from which I have drawn much of what follows), President Roosevelt liked to call himself a “juggler,” who “never let my right hand know what my left hand does.” He was perfectly willing, in his own words, to “mislead and tell untruths if it will help win the war.”

To give just one example: During the 1940 election campaign, President Roosevelt repeatedly assured Americans that their sons would not be sent to fight in “foreign wars.” On November 2 he stated flatly, “Your president says this country is not going to war.

In early September 1941, however, a U.S. destroyer, the Greer, tracked a German U-boat for three hours and signaled its location to British forces before the German submarine turned and attacked. The Greer had been issued secret orders to escort British convoys and aid in the effort to sink German submarines.

“I tell you the blunt fact,” President Roosevelt explained, “that this German submarine fired first … without warning and with deliberate desire to sink [the Greer].”

Without informing Americans how the ship had provoked the submarine, FDR used the alleged incident to step up U.S. participation in the undeclared war against Germany in the North Atlantic.

One month later three U.S. warships were torpedoed and one sunk, apparently by a German submarine while on convoy duty in the North Atlantic. One hundred and seventy-two men were lost. This enabled FDR to persuade an isolationist-minded Congress to repeal what remained of the 1930s Neutrality Acts proscribing aid to either side in either conflict, thereby treating the Allies and the Axis powers as moral and strategic equivalents.

In the case of easing America’s reluctant entry into the European war, the president’s guile-filled gamble was rewarded when, following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Germany declared war on the United States, thereby proffering an engraved invitation into the European conflict. Meanwhile, the United States and Japan had many incidents of conflict and near-conflict before the Pearl Harbor attack, albeit on a much lower level of conflict.

FDR’s deception is now considered to be benign given the threat the United States faced at the time and the failure of much of the nation to rise to meet it. But the principle of presidential deception soon became the norm rather than the exception. The combined threats of Soviet expansionism and potential nuclear attack, and the requirements for secrecy and vigilance they created, were deemed to be so compelling that Americans simply could no longer enjoy the luxury of leaders telling them the truth, lest this truth be exploited by a perfidious adversary.

This principle, later enshrined into law by a series of Supreme Court cases allowing the government to refuse to reveal information, and most recently asserted baldly as the right to lie for national security purposes by the FBI in a 2011 court case, would be neatly enunciated during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Arthur Sylvester informed Americans, “It’s inherent in [the] government’s right, if necessary, to lie to save itself.”

In 1795 American statesman and future president James Madison warned, “No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.” But in 1962 President John F. Kennedy found himself leading a nation in which “no war has been declared, [but] the danger has never been more clear and its presence has never been more imminent.

Even so, the idea that a president might tell the nation an outright lie remained a shocking one to many Americans, as President Dwight D. Eisenhower would learn to his considerable chagrin.

On May 1, 1960, when Soviet Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev initially disclosed that an American plane had been shot down inside Soviet territory, President Eisenhower’s minions were quick to issue denials. The White House stuck to its story that a NASA “weather research plane” on a mission inside Turkey might have accidentally drifted into Soviet territory, and identified the pilot as Francis Gary Powers, a civilian employee of Lockheed, an American aerospace company.

The White House fiction turned out to be Khrushchev’s cue to disclose, “Comrades, I must let you in on a secret. When I made my report two days ago, I deliberately refrained from mentioning that we have the remains of the plane—and we also have the pilot, who is quite alive and kicking.”

Howls of laughter followed as the premier added that the Soviets had also recovered “a tape recording of the signals of a number of our ground radar stations—incontestable evidence of spying.”

Eisenhower later admitted to his secretary, “I would like to resign.

The president’s staff scrambled to distance him from what was clearly an embarrassing lie. They put out the false cover story that the president had been unaware of the flights—though in fact he had been deeply involved in their planning, including even the targets upon which Powers had been assigned to eavesdrop. Yet Chief of Staff Andrew Goodpaster apparently told Secretary of State Christian Herter that the “president wants no specific tie to him of this particular event.”

While the president professed to “heartily approve” of a proposed congressional investigation of the incident, he privately instructed the CIA and the Joint Chiefs of Staff to do whatever necessary to try to thwart it and went so far as to order his Cabinet officers to hide his own involvement even if called upon to testify under oath.

Author James Bamford argues that Secretary of State Herter did lie to the committee, misinforming it that the U-2 flight program had “never come up to the president.” President Eisenhower, argues Bamford, was therefore guilty of the subornation of perjury, and Herter of perjury. (In 1977 former CIA Director Richard Helms would be sentenced to two years in prison for a similar offense.)

What’s more, they were committing these crimes not to protect “our intelligence systems,” as the president had instructed the National Security Council, but to protect President Eisenhower’s own political standing. Powers had already signed a confession and all of the plane’s eavesdropping equipment was already on display to the public in Moscow’s Gorky Park. But an election year was coming up and the president did not want to take any chances with exposure of the unflattering truth. Though his role in planning the flight and the deception that ensued was not revealed until decades after his death, President Eisenhower never fully recovered from the humiliation.

Two years after he left office, President Eisenhower was asked by reporter David Kraslov about his “greatest regret.” The ex-general replied, “The lie we told [about the U-2]. I didn’t realize how high a price we were going to have to pay for that lie.”

But back to Pearl Harbor. It is unarguable that FDR’s looseness with the truth ushered in an era when presidents felt free to mislead the nation. Employing this analogy, and speaking of the manner in which President Lyndon B. Johnson deliberately deceived the nation about the imaginary second Gulf of Tonkin incident and thereby entangled the nation in the unwinnable Vietnam War, Sen. J. William Fulbright would later remark that “FDR’s deviousness in a good cause made it much easier for [LBJ] to practice the same kind of deviousness in a bad cause.

President Johnson is clearly a cautionary tale in this respect, even more so than President Eisenhower, but Presidents Richard Nixon and George W. Bush took the logic to its brutal extremes in Indochina and Iraq, respectively.

A second legacy of the deception is the rise of a conspiracy culture in our politics. The circumstances leading up to the U.S. involvement in the Second World War, especially questions surrounding President Roosevelt and any previous knowledge he might have had regarding the attack at Pearl Harbor, have been the subject of considerable controversy for nearly 50 years.

Investigations by Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox immediately after that attack and by a distinguished panel of military experts, led by Supreme Court Justice Owen Roberts, in the months that followed both concluded that the U.S. Pacific Command was to blame for the unreadiness for the attack, despite what seemed, in retrospect, to be considerable intelligence and forewarning. In other words, no conspiracy. The Pacific command was already on its highest alert by the end of November and Pearl Harbor was only one of a number of potential targets for the Japanese.

Moreover, scholars such as Roberta Wohlstetter and David M. Kennedy have concluded, in Kennedy’s words, that the conspiracy notion is “a thesis that simply will not bear close examination in light of the president’s unwavering insistence on the priority of the Atlantic and European theaters and the unambiguous conviction of the naval and military advisers that not Japan but Germany was the truly dangerous adversary.” (Kennedy does, however, fault FDR for failing to pursue a diplomatic solution.)

Yet theories of President Roosevelt’s purposeful complicity in the attacks have endured, stoked repeatedly by his Republican opponents and the far-right isolationist press. There is no evidence, either available at the time or unearthed since, that demonstrates President Roosevelt acted negligently with regard to the Japanese threat. But the myth continues because, beginning with Pearl Harbor, Americans could no longer believe their president.

Rather than just pay tribute to the bravery of those who perished on that day 70 years ago, President Obama and his successors would do well to ponder the examples of presidents before them and make honesty a priority in all matters of war and peace. That would truly be a fitting honor for the sacrifices of those who lost their lives in that war and subsequent ones defending democracy.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He is also a columnist for The Nation, The Forward, and The Daily Beast. His newest book is Kabuki Democracy: The System vs. Barack Obama. This column won the 2011 Mirror Award for Best Digital Commentary.

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Eric Alterman

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