928 pages, Penguin Books, ISBN-13: 978-0140157345
At Dawn We Slept: The Untold Story of Pearl Harbor is Gordon Prange’s monumental achievement after years of accumulating information about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, information that includes interviews and military and government information from the USA and Japan before being boiled down into this final work, completed posthumously. While there have been many books and theories proposed about why and how the debacle at Pearl Harbor took place, Prange’s approach is well documented and includes details of the pre-attack politics of the USA and of Japan. His book also includes detailed information about the attack itself, gleaned from interviews with those on both sides who actually participated in the event – but, even with that level of detail, I must admit that the most compelling part of the book for me is the section that follows the actual attack, when the US government and the military were trying to figure out what actually happened, and who was to blame (the final series of chapters of the book provide insight into the thoughts and tactics of Adm. Kimmell, CincPAC, and Gen Short, Commanding General of army at Hawaii, the two primary “interested parties” in the event).
This is the single most detailed, objective and comprehensive account of the attack on Pearl Harbor ever written. The U.S. military did believe an attack was coming, but assumed it would be only in the Philippines and Southeast Asia, the assumption being that Japan could not do both at once. It turns out the Japanese Empire could, and made the US pay a severe penalty, but not one nearly so severe as it could have been, especially as American carriers were at sea and the submarine base and fuel farm were undamaged (history now shows it is more vital to hit bases than ships). If Pearl Harbor itself had been more damaged, the Pacific Fleet would have had to relocate back to the West Coast and, being short of tankers, would have been unable to intervene in any decisive way for some months; as it was, with the base intact, American carriers were able to strike back and within six months won a miracle victory at Midway.
Before reading At Dawn We Slept, I had a tendency to believe that there may have been something of a conspiracy by the Roosevelt administration to get us into WWII, but after reading this account of Pearl Harbor, I am more likely to believe that the great success – including complete surprise by Japanese naval aviation – was the result of a series of ill-advised decisions by the commanders at Hawaii rather than by any entity in Washington, D.C. If you are interested in looking at the repercussions from the attack at Pearl Harbor, or if you have an interest in thinking about the “whys” and “hows” of the US entry into WWII, I urge you to read this book.