Title: Countdown to Pearl Harbor
Author Steve Twomey
Twomey, Steve (2016). Countdown to Pearl Harbor:The Twelve Days to The Attack. New York: Simon & Schuster
- Preface the boys at Opana — An end, a beginning — Hitokappu’s secret — The Admiral Chief of the Pacific Fleet — Betty — It doesn’t mean us — Machine gun short — Ambassador Joe and President Frank — Their mail, opened and read — The talents of Nippon — The ships that were not there — The smoke of secrets — A time to look — Out of their depth — Your Majesty — Dinner at the Halekulani — From the vacant sea.
- United States. Navy–Officers–History–20th century.
- Pearl Harbor (Hawaii), Attack on, 1941.
- World War, 1939-1945–Causes.
- Military intelligence–United States–History–20th century.
- World War, 1939-1945–United States.
- United States–Politics and government–1933-1945.
- United States–Foreign relations–Japan.
- Japan–Foreign relations–United States.
Date Posted: November 24, 2016
Review by Jonathan Martin
As we approach the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the story of how America could have been caught by surprise on Dec. 7, 1941, remains one of overly vague warnings, bureaucratic breakdowns and, as with the equally audacious attacks that came 60 years later, a failure of imagination.
When the Navy Department in Washington sent a “war warning” to the naval forces at Pearl Harbor 10 days before Japanese planes appeared over Oahu, the only direct order in the short communiqué was for the admiral in charge of the Pacific Fleet to “execute an appropriate defensive deployment.” That admiral, Husband Kimmel, had been more focused on planning for an eventual move against the Japanese elsewhere in the Pacific. He largely ignored the broadly worded instructions. After all, the assumption among government and military officials was that the Japanese would attack a United States—or British-held territory somewhere in the southwest Pacific—not thousands of miles to the east in Hawaii.
There would be neither fully functional radar nor any reconnaissance planes to detect the raid that came early on a Sunday morning. Nor would there be any metal netting in the harbor to protect the American fleet from the torpedoes that would claim lives, ships and, for a time, the country’s self-image.
All of America’s assumptions proved faulty. Pearl Harbor was not too shallow to be at risk of torpedo attacks; the Japanese were not constrained by the knowledge that they were unlikely to win a long war against a greater industrial power; and no, despite the crude racial stereotypes of that time, there was nothing in the ethnic makeup of the Japanese people that somehow made them incapable of piloting planes off aircraft carriers to unleash a punishing assault. German tutors had not, as one newspaper report speculated even in the days after the attack, been needed to instruct the Japanese how to plan the attack.
“There had never been anything remotely like it in the history of naval warfare,” Steve Twomey writes of the 353 Japanese warplanes sent aloft from aircraft carriers just 38 years after the invention of flight. They would claim over 2,400 American lives.
Infusing a well-known story with suspense, “Countdown to Pearl Harbor” reconstructs the military’s glaring errors of omission, the secret American effort to intercept Japan’s encrypted communication and the fruitless 11th-hour diplomatic negotiations between Tokyo and Washington. Twomey, a former Washington Post reporter, veers between the Japanese attack fleet, Pearl Harbor and Washington while adhering to the chronological order of events.
The effect can be dizzying at times, as Twomey introduces an enormous cast of participants, at least one major new figure seemingly brought forth in every chapter. But his day-by-day narrative is gripping. He does not uncover any fresh documents or offer a revisionist account. Rather, he relies heavily on the nine official inquiries into the assault and the oral histories, diaries and other papers from the actors who were unable to prevent what Franklin Roosevelt decided to call “a date which will live in infamy.” (Roosevelt wisely altered the original draft from “a date which will live in world history.”)
The record is damning. In the week leading up to the attack, Twomey notes, “clues of something massive underway” had made their way to Kimmel’s Pacific Command. The Japanese changed their radio call signs at an irregular time, their ships were on the move and American military intelligence had lost track of four of their carriers. And by Saturday the Navy Department was conscious enough of a threat that it radioed officials at Pearl Harbor authorizing them to instruct other American military bases in the Pacific to destroy secret documents.
But the prospect of an airborne attack on Hawaii itself? Unthinkable. After all, a few days before, on Nov. 27, Kimmel had asked his war plans officer if there was any chance the Japanese would be so bold. “None,” the officer replied. “Absolutely none.”
 Jonathan Martin, “On the 75th Anniversary of Pearl Harbor, a Look Back,” The New York Times (Npv. 18, 2016. Jonathan Martin is a national political correspondent for The Times. A version of this review appears in print on November 20, 2016, on page BR21 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline” ‘Something Massive Underway’”