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Book Review: “A Matter of Honor” (Harper, 2016)

a-matter-of-honorA dark cloud of conspiracy hangs over Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan’s book A Matter of Honor: Pearl Harbor: Betrayal, Blame, and a Family’s Quest for Justice (Harper, 2016). The authors make the wise choice, I think, in addressing it right off in an author’s note: various theories about the Pearl Harbor attack of December, 1941, hold that members of the American or British governments, up to President Roosevelt, had foreknowledge that the Japanese were going to attack the US fleet in Hawaii and allowed it to happen in order to bring America into the war. The authors contend that they researched all of the supposed evidence of a conspiracy and found none of it to be solid.

Instead, they found something more disturbing in some sense: many individuals at the highest levels of government should have known more than they did in the days leading up to the attack and failed more due to human weakness and error than duplicity. The results were catastrophic.

When the Imperial Japanese Navy attacked the US Naval fleet at Pearl Harbor on the 7th of December, they killed 2,403 Americans, wounded 1,178 others, damaged all eight battleships, sank or damaged eight other ships, and destroyed 188 planes. But the blitz also annihilated American invulnerability and erased the isolationist cause overnight. It could be said that what arose from the ashes of that horrible morning was the world of American power in which we live today, for better or worse.

Understandably, Americans wanted answers. Why was the Pacific fleet stationed in a harbor with such a narrow opening that the battleships could only leave in a single file? Some likened Pearl Harbor to a fishbowl that could be easily shelled from above. Why wasn’t there better reconnaissance? Why were Japanese losses so light and their mission so successful? Given that talks with the Japanese had recently broken down and the Pacific theater was so important for Japan’s expansionist aims, why wasn’t Hawaii on high alert? Above all, how such a thing could happen?

A great deal of the obloquy was fired directly at the Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific fleet, Admiral Husband Kimmel. The Roberts Commission, convened by President Roosevelt, found Kimmel and Army Lieutenant General Walter Short guilty of dereliction of duty. The New York Times ran the headline:


Kimmel received letters urging that he kill himself, was stripped of his stars and command, and pushed to retire early. In Biblical terms, he was the goat sent into the wilderness after the sins of the people were laid upon it.

But was justice served? The authors contend that, in the aftermath of the day which will live in infamy, that infamy was unfairly distributed. In stark detail, they show the many ways the government failed Kimmel after he took command. He wasn’t given enough airplanes or materiel after numerous requests. The radar he was given was barely functional. The war plans he was given wouldn’t take effect until after war broke out. Military experts swore that torpedoes would be ineffective in water as shallow as the harbor, even with examples of successful bombing runs in shallower waters. They were convinced that a Japanese attack would be launched in the Philippines, instead of Hawaii. Most shocking of all, Kimmel wasn’t given access to the information gathered by the MAGIC cryptanalysis program, much of which strongly suggested that an imminent attack was planned for Pearl Harbor! In many cases, high officials simply assumed someone else informed him. No one had. The fleet was a floating target.

Summers and Swan do something remarkable in making the days leading up to Pearl Harbor into a nail-biter in which the tension is increased, rather than diminished, by the fact that we know how terribly it will end.

The authors do an exhaustive job, using a mass of documents and sources to show the numerous failures throughout 1941 in chapters that are darkly humorous, galling, infuriating, and very tense. Imagine a James Bond novel in which the spies and intelligence agents are either incompetent or altogether ignored. Summers and Swan do something remarkable in making the days leading up to Pearl Harbor into a nail-biter in which the tension is increased, rather than diminished, by the fact that we know how terribly it will end. It’s impossible to avoid the belief that the one man who did his job without error was the same who took the blame.

If I was to pick a nit, the book could use a bit more detail about Kimmel’s dishonor in the first chapters. We’re told that he was stripped of his stars and blamed for the attack to some extent, but without knowing the history, I wasn’t aware what a raw deal he was given until the final third of the book. Since, in the Internet future, we will all be infamous for fifteen minutes, (at least), the story of an outraged public responding with fury before the truth is in rings more than a little familiar.

With that said, the authors have done a mitzvah here: they’ve comprehensively exonerated a man who spent the last decades of his life trying desperately to clear his name. It’s extremely hard to read the book and not think the US President has a responsibility to restore Kimmel to his full rank.

[A Matter of Honor: Pearl Harbor: Betrayal, Blame, and a Family’s Quest for Justice will be released on November 15th. It is available for pre-order through Amazon.]

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Rufus is an American curmudgeon in Canada. He has a PhD in History, sings in a garage rock band, and does a bunch of other stuff.

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48 thoughts on “Book Review: “A Matter of Honor” (Harper, 2016)

  1. A lot of this sounds like info that has been around for a while. The military didn’t see all teh changes that were coming in modern warfare. It took the disaster to start to see how things were changing. Some of the criticisms only really make sense if you know how the future went. Sure they should have beefed up their radar but it is a very new technology that most didn’t really understand. Sure the Brits really whacked the Italian navy at Taranto ( with obsolete airplanes) but that was far away. In retrospect its easy to see the warnings they missed but it was much harder for old fashioned conservative military leaders to see what was changing. The not to subtle racism about the Japanese didn’t help the US leaders see what might happen either.

    It does sound like Kimmel got a raw deal but i think that has been a common thought for a while. The on rushing new tech and ideas steamrolled lots of perfectly fine armies and navies at the beginning of ww2.


  2. Agreed, this is old news. A few other points worth mentioning:

    Intelligence doesn’t work that way most amateurs think it does. It is easy, after the fact, to find all the clues that showed what was about to happen. Sometimes you can find a lot of them. The problem, though, is that BEFORE the fact, there is usually a blizzard of intel coming in. The challenge is to sort out the wheat from the chaff. In a blizzard of incoming stuff it takes a lot of talent to figure out what is important and what isn’t. The navy did an outstanding job of this at, for example, Midway.

    Second, ironically, the US was very lucky that the Japanese hit the ships in Pearl Harbor, which is generally less than 40 feet deep. All but two of the battleships were raised, repaired and back in action during the war. Had those ships been sunk at sea there is no way anything could have been recovered and the loss of life obviously would have been much greater.

    Third, there’s a long tradition in the US Army and Navy that the commander is responsible for everything that happens or fails to happen, no exceptions, doesn’t matter if the commander had too few resources or two little intel. Every commander wants more resources, all the time. This taking of 100% responsibility is part of the basis of leadership that allows a commander to send people into life threatening situations with a strong two-way bond with those s/he leads. That principle should never be compromised.


    • Your third point is a good one. I’ll note though that MacArthur handled his command in the Philippines somewhere between poorly and badly but he wasn’t cashiered.

      Correct about point one also. Sometimes you just need to give the other side credit for pulling off a complex and surprising move. The attack at PH was a spectacular and well done raid from the point of view of the Japanese. We could have done better but they just did very well.


      • MacArthur was already a legend, and the ordinary rules didn’t apply to him. This is why it was such a surprise to everyone when Truman cashiered him.

        Ditto to the various comments made. This may well be a worthwhile book, pulling together a lot of information into one place. Were this a particular interest of mine I would read it. But my reaction is that it is confirming stuff we already pretty much knew.

        More broadly, for all the screw-ups leading up to Pearl Harbor, the actual outcome arguably was the best possible for the US. This is when viewed from a political perspective. Had we entered the war through less dramatic means, there would have been a lot more opposition. Even as it was, search on a newspaper archive database on “Roosevelt’s War” and see what the America First wing was saying, even after Pearl Harbor. At the same time, our losses were simultaneously dramatic and militarily trivial, even if this wasn’t obvious at the time. This is the whole basis for the conspiracy theories about Roosevelt setting the whole thing up. Much like the current theories about Hillary Clinton as a criminal mastermind, if this were true I would definitely want this person on my side! Alas, I think Roosevelt simply got lucky.


      • I agree on MacArthur. It’s worth noting that Eisenhower (who was still, IIRC, a LTC at the time) thought that MacArthur absolutely should have had the guts to stay with his troops and die (bravely). But he didn’t. Ike knew Mac well and was no fan, but, even if he’d loved the guy, it was the correct course of action to take.


    • The third point can’t be emphasized enough. The book sounds interesting, but there is no way you can absolve or mitigate Kimmel’s responsibilty for what happened.

      (Plus, he had enough planes for the IJN to bomb a whole heck of lot of them still on the ground, in close proximity to each other so that the IJN was able to inflict maximum damage. And the Empire of Japan *did* attack the Phillipines later that day, along with about a half dozen other major military installations of the US and European powers)


  3. For my part, I’m not hugely conversant with this level of detail, at least not about the Pearl Harbor surprise attack. I did not know, for instance, that Admiral Kimmel was run out of the Navy. The whole point of a “surprise attack” is that the enemy be “surprised,” after all.

    So while history buffs may have known all about all of the reasons Kimmel might be plausibly excused for “allowing” the attack to happen (or to be as bad as it was), having them pooled together and presented coherently and critically evaluated is something that sounds pretty intellectually valuable.

    The theory I’ve heard about more often was that FDR knew but allowed the attack to go forward anyway for the purposes of rousting Congress out of isolationism and into the global war. I’ve always had a sense that the notion that there were lots of clues around, but not enough coordination to put them together was much more plausible than this.

    So if we’re going to excuse Roosevelt, then why pillory Kimmel?


    • So if we’re going to excuse Roosevelt, then why pillory Kimmel?

      There are different sorts of surprises. That Japan would attack us was not a surprise, nor roughly speaking was the timing of the attack. So on some level, the idea that Roosevelt knew it was coming is true, though we really should replace “knew” with “strongly suspected.” This is nearly entirely unlike the winger conspiracy theory that he knew the details: that he knew the time and place of the attack, and moved the carriers out to keep them safe while offering up the battleships and their crews as sacrificial lambs.

      Kimmel and Short’s position was simpler. Their jobs were of much more limited scope: to have the forces under their command as prepared as possible. Consider, as Kolohe noted above, the US airplanes that were caught on the ground. The conspiracy theory version is that this was all part of Roosevelt’s insidious plan, with the airplanes standing down on purpose. (Note the similarity to the Benghazi! stand-down order.) The grown-up version is that this was a fuck-up. Hence the commanders being cashiered. I don’t know enough to judge whether this was fair or not. It would be poor policy to blame the commander any time something bad happens. That is a sure strategy for having commanders playing not to win, but to not lose. But if it was a genuine fuck-up, then yeah, it’s the commander’s responsibility.


      • As i remember a war warning had gone out in the days previous to the attack so war wasn’t a surprise. They all though the Philippines would be the target and that land/guerrilla style attacks were more likely so they bunched their planes close together. This , unfortunately, made them more vulnerable to air attack. Those faults were only clear in retrospect.


    • So while history buffs may have known all about all of the reasons Kimmel might be plausibly excused for “allowing” the attack to happen (or to be as bad as it was), having them pooled together and presented coherently and critically evaluated is something that sounds pretty intellectually valuable.

      I agree with that. Sometimes historians focus on what’s new when synthesizing and presenting it clearly can also be valuable.


      • I agree with this too. This is a trade press history, so it’s aimed at readers like me who are history buffs, but not well versed in this particular field. If it was an academic book or one in the area of history that I wrote a dissertation about, I’d read it differently. I also think the writers do a fairly good job of acknowledging that theirs is a somewhat common interpretation of Kimmel, but one that hasn’t yet been made official.


  4. Of the fourteen warships damaged or sunk in the attack on Pearl Harbor, only two were not back in service by the war’s end. In fact, most of the battleships fought in the Battle of Surigao Strait, which was the last battleship-against-battleship fleet action in history. So they were sunk, but in a situation where they could be refloated and repaired. Oh, and all the crews were dispersed in the city rather than being onboard.

    Compare that to if the fleet had sortied from Pearl, met the IJN in deep water, been overwhelmed by torpedoes and air power, and sunk unrecoverably along with thousands of trained sailors.

    Everyone figures that the Navy could have avoided a disaster if they’d had advance warning of the Pearl Harbor attack, but maybe what we saw *was* them avoiding a disaster…


      • Well, yes and no. It is a lot harder to hit a ship on the open ocean, where it is a moving and dodging target, than it is to hit a ship when it is tied up in dock.


        • On the other other hand, this wouldn’t have been a “you are all green together” case, the Japanese Empire had been at war for over 8 years at that point. While probably close to 2/3 of US forces had been in uniform for less than a year.


          • Though to take the other side again just for the sake of doing so, the cruisers sucked because of the limitations of the Washington Naval Treaty (or rather, trying the game them). The battleships didn’t have the same inherent flaws created by artificial engineering constraints.


            • I know only the History 101 version of the Washington Naval Conference, so could you elaborate? Is it that the powers were allowed to have more cruisers than battleships? If so, wouldn’t they want to make the cruisers a lot better?


              • The cruisers were limited in size which meant compromises in armor, speed or weight of guns. The Japanese didn’t adhere to the limits so some of there cruisers were bigger than allowed but that wasn’t our problem in the bloody cruiser battles in 42-43 where we got thwacked hard. The compromises led to ships that had weaknesses that were avoidable. Essentially they couldn’t’ make the cruisers as good as they would have liked.


            • Our cruisers didn’t suck per se. The Japanese had excellent torpedoes and far more training at night fighting. Those two things led to disaster in the sea battles around Guadalcanal. Our ships were good enough but we hadn’t trained correctly.


    • Out of a matter of curiosity:

      Was the best use of dollars and manpower repairing the battleships? Or were there other, more useful projects that the Navy didn’t do but should have? I understand the issue of pride in getting them afloat, but trading pride for lives is a decision that I would not have wanted to make.


      • I’m in no way a military expert, but for what it’s worth, I’ve heard that aircraft carriers turned our to be much more militarily useful during WWII than battleships did. Whether that means it was “worth it” to repair the battleships sunk at PH or not, I really don’t have an informed opinion.


        • Aircraft carriers and subs turned out to be much more useful than battleships at the time. However, no one at the time really knew it. It just happened that that those two technologies came of age at that time. In some ways it worked out that the USA was forced to think outside the box.


          • As far as I know, the intention of the IJN when they sailed from the home islands was indeed catch the USN carriers in port, failure to do so was a minor intelligence failure on the IJN’s part. The Japanese obviously knew the transformative power of carrier based Naval Aviation (they had staked their entire empire on it, 18 in superbattleship construction notwithstanding)

            The huge blindspot was failure to bomb any of the sub base side of Pearl. The even more inexplicable error, because while tech changes, logistics is always a thing, was the failure to bomb any of the fuel storage depots right next to the sub base (which were still there until about 2002 or so). The loss of that fuel would have delayed the USN abilty to take the initiative by at least another 6 months, a delay that might have allowed the Japanese empire to create a sustainable defense and lines communication between the first and second island chains.

            There is a school of thought that the US got lucky in that most of what it had left after Dec 7 were the tools it needed to win the war, so there wasn’t as much of a possibility of the brass making strategic and operational mistakes were they still stuck with a battleship mindset – arguably they were, they just couldn’t indulge it.


            • I wouldn’t say the Japanese had really understood the shift to carriers, they were largely still in the same battleship center thought process as everyone else at the time, hence the counterproductive investment in gigantic battleships.

              The thing was that the Japanese were planning on winning the naval war in one big decisive battle in the West Pacific after luring the American to make a charge accross the Pacific. This was expected to be a battleship centered affair. Their carriers were considered to be a raiding/skirmishing force to weaken the opposing fleet prior to this decisive clash, thus were considered expendible to the cause of weakening the American battleship line.

              Subsequent American action demonstrates that the Japanese really hadn’t thought the whole thing through very well.


      • The decisive US advantage in the war is that it didn’t have to make that tradeoff, it had the capacity to repair the old and build the new at the same time.

        Plus, as said above, it was a faster turnaround to repair the old than build the new – plus most of the new stuff was built on the east coast, so you had the time and risk of interfleet transfer to take into account as well.

        Another possible bennefit to repairing all the ships damaged on Dec 7 was to build the institutional capacity to do such any such tasks quickly and well enough. Thus, it became possible to fix the Yorktown quickly and well enough after the Battle of Coral Sea to get the Yorktown into Midway – much to the surprise of the IJN.


  5. So if the command at Pearl Harbor had had, say, 5-6 hours’ clear notice that an attack was coming, what would have been the best course of action? Or, if our commanders wouldn’t have figured that out, the most likely course of action? A few comments almost seem to suggest that moving the fleet out to sea or scrambling the planes would have been even worse than doing nothing.


    • Great question. Just spitballing here but thing that could have been done with 6 hours’ notice would include:

      1. Getting all the sailors and soldiers out of their racks and out of the bars, on duty, sober and fed. Tell them exactly what is happening.
      2. Sortie all the ships that could sail. If the 6-hour warning included the location of the Japanese fleet, I’d guess the best thing to do would be to sail *away* from the threat. It’s not like any of these units was battle ready. Come back to fight another day.
      3. If the enemy location is not known: Get every bomber out there scouting for them. If known: get them prepared to bomb the Japanese fleet (I wouldn’t expect much success but you have to try, and it would at least keep the Japanese fleet busy).
      4. Get all fighters fueled, armed, pilots briefed and in their cockpits, ready to sortie and intercept.
      5. Get the hospitals ready.
      6. Any ships left in port, get them battened down and all AAA ready.
      7. Any planes on the ground dispersed.
      8. Smoke generators ready if available.
      9. Not sure what submarine assets were around at that point, but they could have been sent out to scout (if enemy fleet location is unknown) or attack enemy fleet.

      Historically, when you consider that the US armed forces were pretty much on a peacetime routine and had no warning, they did a fantastic job reacting. Pearl Harbor was a tactical disaster for the US for several reasons, but, the response of the ordinary sailors and soldiers was certainly not among them.

      Not sure where you’re coming from in thinking that sending up fighters would have been counterproductive. Historically I think two US P-40s or P-36s made it into the fight. I may be slightly off on that. Imagine how much damage a hundred P-40s might have done to the Japanese formations.


      • There had been an official war warning in the days previous to PH. They were alerted war was very possible. They didn’t foresee the kind of attack that was to come so they couldn’t prepare for it in the ways you list. In fact they saw guerrilla style attacks from the local Japanese/American citizens as a possibility so they didn’t’ want to disperse they planes. This fear was felt even in the Philippines where they thought war would come first. Even if they had a few hours warning of war they wouldn’t have seen the attack that was actually coming.

        If they knew about the actual attack, well we can imagine all sorts of possibilities but that is far out in left field. They wouldn’t have sailed away since that might leave the islands almost undefended which they wouldn’t do.


        • Right. I was responding to the question ‘what if they had 6 hours warning of the attack coming’ not the actual historical alert which was basically ‘war is imminent’ with, AFAIK, no other specific guidance.

          So of course everything I said was ‘left field’. ;)

          I suggest sailing the big ships out of harm’s way simply to protect them, since they were in no way ready to take on the Japanese fleet. They aren’t defending anything sitting in the harbor, nor could they fight effectively. We know the fighters could and I believe there were quite a few available.


  6. Much of the preceding discussion is based on the idea of command responsibility. I thought what the Army Pearl Harbor Board had to say on the subject might be of interest.
    Tom Kimmel (a grandson of Admiral Kimmel)

    “…where information has a vital bearing upon actions to be taken by field commanders, and this information cannot be disclosed…to the field commanders, it is incumbent upon the War Department then to assume the responsibility for specific directions to the theater commanders. This is an exception to the admirable policy of… complete responsibility upon the…field commanders. Short [and Kimmel] got neither form of assistance from the War Department. The War Department had the information. All they had to do was either to give it to Short [or Kimmel] or give [them] directions based upon it.”
    3PHA1444, 39PHA221-230


  7. Rufus F.,

    Your review of AMOH is so good, I request you post it on AMAZON. There it will get the attention it deserves, and serve the purpose of advancing my grandfather’s goal, and, accordingly, mine of getting the facts of the Pearl Harbor story to the American public.

    Thanks for your help.
    Tom Kimmel


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