Conspiracy theories are nothing new, nor is the term, despite an indefatigable claim the CIA coined the phrase after JKF’s assassination to make those arguing for them seem unhinged.
The differences today are how easy they are to spread and, stemming from that, how even trivial items can become the focus of conspiracy theories. Previously, they centered only on major events, such as assassinations, pandemics, and war.
For example, there was a belief by some that the Roosevelt administration had prior knowledge of the Pearl Harbor attack and allowed it to happen, perhaps to get the country out of the Depression by means of a wartime economy. This thinking falls flat because the U.S. could have still been on high alert, or better yet, launched a preemptive strike based on this supposed intelligence. In these scenarios, Roosevelt still gets his war and does so without the handicap of losing battleships, destroyers, aircraft, and the 2,459 service members who perished in the Japanese onslaught.
But let’s look at some of the specific arguments. One of the more repeated lines among theorists is that the only three U.S. aircraft carriers in the Pacific Fleet were away from Pearl Harbor the morning of Dec. 7, 1941. The theory holds that the U.S. could keep its carriers while still having a justification for war.
However, it was only during the following year’s Battle of Midway when the value of aircraft carriers were understood. At the time of the Pearl Harbor attack, the Pacific fleet featured three times as many battleships as aircraft carriers.
Besides, the idea that the three carriers were kept ensconced by being away from the Harbor is mistaken. Each was alone at sea in an area known to be vulnerable to unfriendly elements .The Saratoga was making the long journey back from Seattle at the time of the attack. Meanwhile, the Enterprise and Lexington were ordered away from Pearl Harbor at separate times for reinforcing missions to Midway and Wake. The Enterprise was scheduled to return by Dec. 5, at which time the Lexington would leave, so that at least one would be docked at Pearl Harbor at all times. The Lexington left on schedule, but bad weather kept the Enterprise at sea for two more days, one of those being Dec. 7.
Another theorist claim is that a Japanese midget submarine was spotted four hours before the attack, but was left alone. This is inaccurate. What really happened is that the USS Ward destroyer responded to the report, failed to find the submarine, but did locate and sink a second sub.
Conspiracy theorists are adaptable. While the failure to sink the first sub is considered evidence of a stand-down order, so too is the torpedoing of the second sub. With the latter incident, the assertion is that complicit U.S. officials wanted to hush the report of a lone sub so as to not alert American service members about the aerial onslaught about to commence.
However, as soon as Admiral Husband Kimmel, the Pacific Fleet Commander, heard about the sinking, he dispatched the USS Ward to the area to determine the submarine’s significance. But this was less than half an hour before the first bomb fell, so this mission led the destroyer into the invading enemy’s path. Had Kimmel been following stand-down orders, he would not have wanted the sinking investigated.
A third conspiracy theory point centers on the actions of 1st Lt. Kermit Tyler. Less than an hour before the attack, radar operators at Opana Point detected incoming Japanese aircraft and alerted Tyler, their supervisor. He failed to make any report of it, preferring to take his soldiers to breakfast. However, this misfortune was based on equipment shortcomings and inexperience.
According to Sketoid’s Brian Dunning, when operators detected incoming planes, the radar station was not yet fully operational and was, in fact, still being constructed. The Pearl Harbor Intercept Center on the Point was only partly activated. Further, it was staffed by those without training and the soldier manning the scope was using it for the first time. Meanwhile, Tyler was a fighter pilot, not a radar specialist, and was on just his second day at Opana Point. When underlings informed him of the inbound attackers, he assumed them to be U.S. B-17’s scheduled to arrive from the mainland, which is why his response focused on waffles instead of weapons.
Another point centers on U.S. intelligence expressing concern about just such an attack a year prior, yet still being unprepared for it. Indeed, in late 1940, Kimmel, wrote to his bosses in Washington that an attack “on Pearl Harbor is a possibility, and we are taking immediate practical steps to minimize the damage inflicted and to ensure that the attacking force will pay.” Then 10 days before the attack, Kimmel was ordered to a defensive deployment of the fleet.
Yet on the day that lives in infamy, service members were sleeping, ships were anchored in the Harbor, and most U.S. aircraft were in the open close together. All of these made for easy targets. Additionally, ships sunk in the harbor could be raised and repaired, whereas those lost at sea would not have this option. If wanting to be attacked but lessen the damage, this would be an avenue.
Also, U.S. cryptographers had broken Japan’s diplomatic code and were making progress on breaking its military code, giving American intelligence some access to Japanese secrets. Putting all this together, it seems possible that U.S. leadership knew. However, that’s only if these facts are viewed in isolation. As we look closer at these points, the conspiracy angle falters.
This was detailed in Henry Clausen’s book, Pearl Harbor: Final Judgement. In 1944, the Secretary of War ordered Clausen, then an Army lawyer, to investigate what happened in the months prior to the attack. He learned that the key to why the U.S. was unprepared was a lack of organization. With agencies acting independently and having no central oversight, decoded messages were more likely to be in a file drawer than in a military planning room.
Ten days after the attack, the Navy demoted Kimmel and removed him as Pacific Fleet commander. Conspiracy theorists consider this a scapegoating, insisting Kimmel was following stand-down orders from the Pentagon. However, U.S. action that fateful day resulted from Kimmel’s orders, not Washington D.C.’s
When Kimmel received the order to assume defensive positions on Nov. 27, 1941, the main threats were thought to be espionage and sabotage, not military attack. So Kimmel had aircraft move into the open and consolidate, which made for the best defense against infiltration.
The final point by theorists is that the war did indeed lift the U.S. out of the Depression and the economic boom lasted 15 years. The war also helped to cement Roosevelt’s fourth presidential election victory. However, this desire to connect unrelated dots is prevalent in conspiracy theory circles. Most large-scale tragedies are going to indirectly benefit some persons in some way. But that’s a separate issue from whether those persons orchestrated it.