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Monday, Jan. 29, 2001

THE VIEW FROM NEW YORK

Was Pearl Harbor really a surprise?


My young colleague at work, Donald Howard, comes to me and wryly asks: Why is this Japanese office having a Christmas party on Dec. 7? Impressed by his historical acuity, I only manage: Well, from the Japanese perspective, the Pearl Harbor assault didn't take place on Dec. 7, but on Dec. 8 in the predawn hours.

I remembered this exchange when I received from a friend of mine in Tokyo the bulletin of the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan carrying a transcript of historian Herbert Bix's talk, including questions and answers, at the FCCJ toward the end of last August. In response to one questioner, Bix, now famous for his book "Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan," says:

"The struggle over historical consciousness is heating up again in Japan today, and there are those who are recycling old FDR notions from the isolationist literature of the '30 and '40s, you know: FDR maneuvered to get the Japanese to fire first, and the Hull note was an effort to get Japan to attack. Some of the worst myths from that era appear all the time in Japanese journals like Shokun among others."

I have not read the Shokun article or others pertaining to this particular "myth" that Bix had in mind, but I have the feeling that in this instance Bix is putting the cart before the horse. It is hard to imagine Japanese willingly promoting the idea of their navy falling into a trap. That would require a twisted sense of nationalism. The Pearl Harbor attack led to Japan's overwhelming defeat, but it was tactically a spectacular success, or so most Japanese would like to think.

In point of fact, it is Americans, not Japanese, who are and have been "recycling" the notion of FDR entrapment.

I suppose Bix was thinking of some specific Japanese writers who brought up the "myth" in the early part of 2000. The impetus for them was most likely the publication toward the end of 1999 of Robert Stinnett's "Day of Deceit: The Truth about FDR and Pearl Harbor." Stinnett is described as "a World War II veteran who served with Lt. George H.W. Bush."

On the other hand, if Japanese do that "all the time," as Bix asserts, it is because Stinnett is only among the most recent American writers to suspect and conclude that U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt knew what was coming but for political reasons let it run its course. The suspicion goes right back to the first few days after the attack, if not before, as is familiar to anyone who has scanned the literature on Pearl Harbor.

In the first place, there were a series of government investigations. Counting the U.S. secretary of the navy's inquiry on Dec. 11 and 12, 1941, and U.S. congressional hearings shortly after the war, there were a total of nine of them in less than four years. But it was apparently felt that each was politically biased or distorted so none of them succeeded in allaying the suspicions. When it comes to books and articles, I cannot begin to imagine how many there are.

Such things, of course, are well known. Equally well known is the fact that there are any number of people who, like Bix, dismiss FDR's alleged maneuver as a "myth" or worse.

I have just taken the number of investigations from John Toland's "Infamy: Pearl Harbor and its Aftermath," a book representing a famous change of heart. As it happens, Toland is one of the two "distinguished historians," albeit "revisionist," that David Kahn cites by way of condemning "Day of Deceit" as "the most irrational of the revisionist books" in The New York Review of Books. The suggestion is that when it comes to Pearl Harbor, "revisionists" are altogether nuts.

Yet, the other historian Kahn cites is no less than Charles Austin Beard (1874-1948), at one time president of the American Historical Association. Beard published, in 1948, "President Roosevelt and the Coming of the War, 1941," and it is this book Gore Vidal mentions in the afterword to "The Golden Age," the first half of which is written to bring to life Vidal's observation: "It was well known within the whispering gallery [to wit, of those in the know, in Washington, D.C.] of the day that FDR had provoked the Japanese into attacking us."

Yes, Vidal is a novelist, and "The Golden Age" is a "historical novel." But about this category he has something to say for "those who mistakenly regard history as a true record and the novel as invention." Vidal fans will remember what has happened to his depictions of Jefferson and his slave in "Burr" and of Lincoln and his proposals for blacks in "Lincoln."

Is FDR's alleged maneuver a myth? I am in no position to do archival research or wade through mountains of diaries and such, but I do think much of history writing is a matter of interpretation and viewpoint.

For a minor example, compare how Toland treats Labor Secretary Frances Perkins' description of FDR after he was informed of the Pearl Harbor disaster, and how Doris Kearns Goodwin treats the same thing in "No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II." Goodwin, a Harvard historian turned TV commentator, apparently approached FDR and Pearl Harbor with the thought that "the charge is absurd that [FDR] somehow connived in the Japanese attack." The quote comes from historian Arthur Schlesinger.

What was Bix's angle? To use a phrase he employed in his 1980 article for the Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars, it was that the Showa Emperor spearheaded "Emperor-system fascism."

What in the end bothers me about Bix's remark is the reference to "the struggle over historical consciousness." The suggestion is that such a struggle, when it occurs in Japan, is dangerous or else nonsensical. Is it that Bix, having emerged victorious in the battle over the Showa Emperor's culpability as a war criminal, can't brook anything similar over FDR?

Hiroaki Sato is a translator and essayist who lives in New York.


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