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Tuesday, November 15, 2016

“Pearl Harbor: The Verdict of History”, by Gordon W. Prange, with Donald M. Goldstein and Katherine V. Dillon

699 pages, McGraw-Hill, ISBN-13: 978-0070506688

Why America was surprised so completely on December 7th 1941 by the forces of Imperial Japan is a question that has provoked continuous study and argument. Pearl Harbor: The Verdict of History by Gordon W. Prange, Donald M. Goldstein and Katherine V. Dillon confirms that the story behind the attack on Pearl Harbor – perennial symbol of unreadiness – can match a good detective yarn for suspense and complexity, bringing to mind those traditional mystery novels in which the gifted hero flaunts his knowledge in the last chapter before the assembled suspects, summarizing the case for or against each. And the authors prove themselves to be first-rank historical gumshoes: Prange studied Pearl Harbor for nearly four decades until his death in 1980, the year before publication of his magnum opus At Dawn We Slept, while his associates Goldstein and Dillion admirably edited both that volume and this, adding the results of new research to this latter book. Pearl Harbor was to have been Prange’s grandly analytical climax to everything he had learned and thought about the attack. As with the earlier volume, he and his collaborators identify no hidden American villain or secret in their scholarly follow-up; rather, they contend that culpability can be shared easily among nearly every involved civilian and military leader and subordinate, both in Washington and Hawaii.

The numerous pre-attack mistakes made by the Americans at Pearl Harbor are each accounted for here: weak responses to repeated Japanese aggression and espionage; confusion over command responsibility; misunderstanding of mission; poorly worded and misinterpreted messages and warnings; inadequate resources; improper use of intelligence data and radar; and underestimation of Japanese capabilities. Goldstein and Dillon have uncovered no startling new information about these blunders – individually tolerable but collectively tragic – since At Dawn We Slept was published, yet Pearl Harbor is still a valuable companion, even improving on its famous predecessor in many respects. While At Dawn We Slept is a massively detailed narrative of Japanese preparations for the attack (with parallel U.S. actions), the assault itself and the tangled aftermath of eight investigations, its chronological structure and churning torrent of events and characters sometimes make it hard to follow the ramifications of a single controversy and the successive, occasionally inconsistent, post-attack testimonies of key figures. By contrast, Pearl Harbor clearly divides important topics into separate chapters to illuminate specific responsibility. It is a sensible approach for the general reader (regrettably absent, however, is a needed introductory chapter assessing the highly variable methods and accomplishments of the investigative bodies so often quoted in the text). Pearl Harbor also convincingly refutes recent statements by the persistent revisionist school of history, whose adherents blame President Franklin D. Roosevelt not only for having manipulated Japan into attacking but also for having known of Tokyo’s plan in advance.

The authors do include FDR in their extensive lineup of suspects, and he gets no favored treatment; in fact, nobody in the cast is spared cool scrutiny, although most are cited for bottom-line competence and dedication. But basic ability and intelligence did not prevent U.S. defeat at Pearl Harbor. Among its blunt conclusions, Pearl Harbor warns that a totalitarian power able to strike first will do so if opportunity occurs, a lesson that was brought home so tragically by 9/11 and which we have yet to learn.

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