A Matter of Honor

Title:                      A Matter of Honor

Author:                 Anthony Summers

Summers, Anthony (2016) and Robbyn Swan. A Matter of Honor: Pearl Harbor: Betrayal, Blame, And a Family’s Quest for Justice. New York, NY: Harper, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers

LCCN:    2017304855

D767.92 .S87 2016


An account of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the ‘scapegoat’ Admiral Husband Edward Kimmel, the failure of the top brass in Washington to provide Kimmel with vital intelligence prior to the attack, and the continuing efforts of the family to have Kimmel formally exonerated.

“We thought we knew the story well: On December 7, 1941, 2,403 Americans died when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, devastating the nation and precipitating entry into World War II. In the aftermath, Admiral Husband Kimmel, commander in chief of the Pacific Fleet, was relieved of command, accused of dereliction of duty, and publicly disgraced. The fact was, however, that—through sheer inefficiency—the top brass in Washington had failed to provide Kimmel with vital intelligence. Then, in the name of protecting the biggest U.S. intelligence secret of the day, they and top officials allowed the Admiral and the Army commander in Hawaii to be made scapegoats for the catastrophe. The Admiral fought to clear his name for the rest of his long life. After Kimmel’s death his sons—both Navy veterans—continued the fight. Both houses of Congress approved the posthumous restoration of the Admiral’s four-star rank, only to be blocked by the Navy bureaucracy. Today Kimmel’s grandchildren maintain the struggle—for them, it is a matter of honor. In this conversation-changing book, Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan go far beyond the fall and fight-back of one man. They unravel the many apparent mysteries of Pearl Harbor, clear President Franklin D. Roosevelt of the charge that he knew the attack was coming, and uncover duplicity and betrayal in high places in Washington. The authors, Pulitzer Prize finalists for their revelatory book on 9/11, The Eleventh Day, have conducted extraordinary research, with unrivaled access to documents, diaries, and letters. A Matter of Honor is a heartbreaking human story of politics and war—and epic history.”—Jacket.

LC Subjects

Other Subjects

  • Kimmel, Husband Edward, 1882-1968.
  • Pearl Harbor, Attack on (Hawaii : 1941)
  • World War (1939-1945)
  • 1939-1945
  • HISTORY—Military—World War II.
  • HISTORY—United States—20th Century.
  • Pearl Harbor (Hawaii), Attack on, 1941.
  • HISTORY—Military—World War II.
  • HISTORY—United States—20th Century.
  • Military campaigns.

Date Posted:      September 13, 2017

Reviewed by Peter C. Oleson[1]

The debacle of Pearl Harbor has been investigated, studied, and analyzed repeatedly over the last three-quarters of a century. Summers and Swan have brought a new perspective to the topic. Their book, largely focused on Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, the Navy’s Pacific commander-in-chief at Pearl Harbor in December 1941, is divided into two parts: Catastrophe—the events leading up to the successful Japanese surprise attack; and Consequence—the actions taken against Kimmel and Lieutenant General Walter C. Short, the Army’s Hawaii commander, subsequently. It is an engaging book with much detail not contained in earlier works. The declassification of some government records and access to the Kimmel family’s own archives makes A Matter of Honor well worth reading.

The attack on Pearl Harbor was both a strategic and tactical surprise. Kimmel’s family letters reveal he expected war, as did many leaders in Washington, including Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral Harold R. Stark. What few in leadership positions imagined was that Japan would attack the United States. In her seminal analysis of Pearl Harbor, Roberta Wohlstetter wrote that an attack was seen as unlikely as Japan could not expect to win such a war.[2] This preconception blinded many. When asked by Kimmel, his Battle Force Commander, Vice Admiral William Pye, advised that Japan would not attack, stating “we are too big, too powerful, and too strong.” (p. 228) While some expected a conflict it was the Philippines that concerned most, not Pearl Harbor. During 1941, the several warning messages sent to commanders in the Pacific never mentioned Hawaii as a possible Japanese target. Even when news of the Pearl Harbor attack reached Washington, DC, Secretary of the Navy, Frank Knox, initially thought the report in error—it must have been the Philippines. Such was the prevailing mindset.

Pearl Harbor was believed to be a strong bastion, impervious to attack. Even though Kimmel and his predecessor, Admiral James O. Richardson, had repeatedly requested additional resources to defend Pearl Harbor, including torpedo nets, barrage balloons, and patrol and fighter aircraft, none were forthcoming. In 1941, the priority for military equipment was for the Atlantic and Lend Lease for Britain. Kimmel was ordered to transfer ships, aircraft, and trained flying crews (which were in short supply) to the US mainland, weakening Hawaii’s defenses. In the Pacific priority was given to Lieutenant General Douglas MacArthur, and new equipment, including B-17 long-range bombers, were sent to the Philippines.

The Navy in Hawaii had too few long-range patrol planes. And they suffered from parts shortages. Consequently, it was only able to conduct limited patrols, most of which were concentrated south and southwest of Hawaii toward the Japanese occupied Marshall Islands. The Japanese attack force approached from the north. The Army’s radar was new “No one understood it,” and it was “not trusted at the time” (p. 77). While radar successfully detected the incoming Japanese aircraft on December 7, inexperienced personnel and a Sunday morning relaxed attitude contributed to a failure to provide tactical warning of an attack.

The authors, benefitting from long-delayed declassification of government records, lay out in considerable detail the mishandling of intelligence prior to the attack.[3] For intelligence professionals this detail is instructive. Extreme secrecy surrounding the interception and reading of Japanese codes, personal proclivities by some flag officers, the lack of cooperation between the Army and the Navy and their cryptologic units, the prevailing disdain for intelligence by higher-ups in both services, poor communication between the State Department and the military, the lack of cryptanalysis and language translation resources, and inefficient organization and procedures all contributed to the failure to warn of a possible attack on Pearl Harbor.

MAGIC, the codeword for the breaking of Japanese codes, was held to a small circle of Washington leaders. It was not shared with Kimmel or Short. Ironically, because there was a Navy cryptanalysis unit in the Philippines, MAGIC intercepts were shared with MacArthur and Asiatic Fleet commander, Admiral Thomas C. Hart. MAGIC was also shared with the British Royal Navy and the Government Code and Cipher School at Bletchley Park, Britain’s unified signals intelligence organization. Naval cryptanalysis station Hypo at Pearl Harbor was directed to focus on the Japanese Navy’s Flag Office code. It was never broken.

Japanese diplomatic messages (codenamed PURPLE) were broken in late summer 1940 by the Army’s Secret Intelligence Service. The Navy and Army vied for providing PURPLE to the White House. Eventually a compromise was reached with each service assuming responsibility for alternate days. However, no one knew who had seen what. There were problems with processing a heavy flow of PURPLE messages. Work was done in great secrecy due to the 1934 Communications Act making interception of messages illegal. Neither the Army nor Navy had many experienced cryptanalysts. Lack of Japanese language translators added to the problem; in 1941, the Navy had only six, the Army fewer. The process for handling MAGIC was inefficient. Sometimes messages were long delayed in being delivered.

Warning came from other sources as well. The American ambassador in Tokyo, Joseph Grew, reported in January 1941 of rumors of war plans. The Office of Naval Intelligence dismissed his reports. CNO Admiral Stark subsequently sent a message on February 1 to Kimmel stating, “no move against Pearl Harbor appears imminent for the foreseeable future” (pp. 63-4). (Curiously, the authors report that Grew’s messages were culled from the State Department’s files following the attack.)

Japanese intelligence had prepared well for the coming conflict.[4] The FBI and the counterintelligence elements of the Office of Naval Intelligence and of Army intelligence missed the implications of the intelligence they had. When the British made their double agent Dusko Popov, available to the FBI, Hoover’s reports to President Roosevelt addressed the new technology of microdots and how the FBI “discovered” them, not the substance of the Nazi’s extensive tasking for intelligence on Pearl Harbor. The arrest in California of Japanese spy Itaru Tachibana revealed a clear focus on Pearl Harbor, but the dots were not connected; no one in Hawaii was notified. While Honolulu Japanese consulate employee Takeo Yoshikawa was known as a spy, the consulate telegrams were not decrypted and analyzed routinely until after the attack, even though the US had broken the consulate code throughout 1941. Cryptanalysis priorities lay elsewhere.

One consulate message that was decrypted in Washington stood out. A September 24, 1941 tasking to Takeo Yoshikawa was to divide Pearl Harbor into sectors and describe which ships were in each. He was also tasked to increase the frequency of reporting. Office of Naval Intelligence personnel wanted to alert Kimmel but were overruled. In a turf war within the Navy Department, in the Spring of 1941 Rear Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner, the head of the War Plans division and a close associate of CNO Stark, had claimed responsibility for sending classified information to naval commanders. It is unclear whether he overruled sending the September 24 message. Regardless, Kimmel did not receive this intelligence.

The shallowness of Pearl Harbor led many to believe that airborne torpedo attack was impossible. Not the Japanese, who had studied the successful British air attack, using modified shallow water torpedoes, on the Italian fleet in Taranto. US Navy Lieutenant Commander John Obie, an undercover observer with the Royal Navy, reported on the British success. His reports were ignored by the Office of Naval Intelligence. Kimmel had requested anti-torpedo nets, but no one in Washington thought them necessary.

Whether one assigns the major cause of failure to warn Hawaiian commanders of a potential Japanese attack to the inability to detect appropriate “signals” from the background “noise,” or a deafness resulting from repeated but imprecise warning messages (the “Cry Wolf” syndrome), or lack of national preparedness, the authors identify multiple causes. One idea they debunk is the revisionist conspiracy theory that President Roosevelt and unidentified cronies conspired to lead the US into World War II by withholding warning of the Japanese attack.[5]

The unique part of Summers’ and Swan’s book is the examination of what transpired after the attack. Changes came rapidly. A week after Pearl Harbor the Office of Naval Intelligence took back responsibility to collate and disseminate intelligence from Rear Admiral Turner’s division. The Army took over the decryption of PURPLE diplomatic messages allowing the Navy’s cryptanalysts to attack the Japanese Navy’s operational code, known as JN-25. By early 1942 the Naval Communications Security section, OP-20-G, responsible for the interception and decryption of Japanese signals, had made progress in reading JN-25, which resulted in US advantages in the Battle of the Coral Sea (May 4-8, 1942) and the stunning success in the Battle of Midway (June 4-7, 1942). Admiral Stark was relieved as CNO and exiled to Europe, to be replaced by Admiral Ernest J. King. Both Admiral Kimmel and Lieutenant General Short were relieved of their commands in Hawaii.[6] At the insistence of Secretary of War Henry Stimpson their relief was simultaneous. Stimpson was concerned that relieving Short first would reflect blame on the Army, which was responsible for the defense of Pearl Harbor. President Roosevelt on December 16 announced a commission to investigate the debacle of Pearl Harbor.

The Roberts Commission, named after its chair-man, Supreme Court Associate Justice Owen Roberts, was almost immediately controversial. The authors describe it as “flawed.” No one interviewed initially in Washington was put under oath. No transcripts were kept. It remains unclear whether or how much the commission had access to MAGIC materials. Later when Admiral Kimmel testified he was denied any counsel. Roberts refused to correct stenographic errors. It was a “Star Chamber” proceeding. (p. 268) One commission member, retired Admiral William Standley, was prevented from dissenting only by the intervention of President Roosevelt. As Admiral King wrote in 1952 the Roberts Commission was to find “scapegoats to satisfy popular demand.” (p. 328) Its short report, produced in a month, accused both Kimmel and Short of failure to confer and dereliction of duty. It was only in April, 1942 that Kimmel learned of the existence of MAGIC and the fact that it had been withheld from him. In June 1941, he had traveled to Washington from Hawaii in part to obtain assurances that he was receiving all pertinent intelligence. He was so assured by Rear Admiral Turner.

In the summer of 1944 a Naval Board of Inquiry was held into the Pearl Harbor affair. Thanks to Captain Laurence Safford, one of the Navy’s principal cryptologists, Kimmel knew a lot about MAGIC. Navy Secretary Forrestal initially refused the board access to MAGIC, but relented under pressure. Astounded by what they learned about MAGIC and how it had not been shared the board members cleared Kimmel of any failures and faulted CNO Stark. But Forrestal directed the results be kept classified, and the public statements released were misleading. Not until September 1945, after the war, was the board’s complete report made public. The Army’s Pearl Harbor Board in 1944 was manipulated when Chief of Staff Marshall ordered Major General Sherman Miles, the Army’s G-2, not to disclose MAGIC-related information. 1944 was an election year. General Marshall intervened with Republican presidential candidate, Thomas Dewey, to not raise issues that might reveal the fact of the breaking of Japanese codes.

In September 1945 Congress announced a congressional investigation of Pearl Harbor, spurred in part by adverse news reports out of the naval and army inquiries. The Boston Herald had called the Naval Board of Inquiry the “American Dreyfus Case.” (p. 315) Admiral Kimmel testified for six days. In its July 1946 report[7] Congress criticized the Army and Navy departments for not sharing MAGIC. Congress also passed a law permitting the restoration to their highest rank of any retired flag officers. The Navy’s list omitted Admiral Kimmel, who had been forced to retire as a Rear Admiral.

In the post-war period, many voices have been raised advocating the restoration of rank for Admiral Kimmel, who died on May 14, 1968. The Pearl Harbor Survivors Association in 1990 resolved this should occur. The Naval Academy Alumni Association and the Admiral Nimitz Foundation have also so advocated. Most telling is the petition for restoration of rank signed by 36 navy admirals, including a former Chairman of the JCS, four CNOs, and 10 CINCPACs. A 1995 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the matter elicited the Department of the Navy response that there had been no effort to scapegoat Admiral Kimmel. An earlier 1991 Army Board of Corrections decision restoring Lieutenant General Short’s rank was overturned by a deputy secretary of defense. President Clinton failed to act on a provision of the Defense Authorization Act providing for Admiral Kimmel’s posthumous promotion. During the Obama Administration Kimmel family appeals to the Department of Defense and Department of the Navy were turned down. What is not known is the reasoning for these rejections. Summers and Swan make a strong argument that the Kimmel case remains a travesty of justice some three-quarters of a century after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

[1] Oleson, Peter C. in The Intelligencer: Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies (23, 1 Summer 2017, pp.113-116 ). Peter C. Oleson is editor of the popular “The Guide to the Study of Intelligence” article series released serially in Intelligencer, also online on AFIO’s website, and appearing in October 2016 as a 788-page printed book of the same name, available from Amazon and also on AFIO’s website store. Oleson is a formerassociate professor of intelligence studies, University of Maryland University College. Prior to his time teaching, he was assistant director of DIA, involved in policy, resource, and acquisition matters. He served as senior intelligence policy advisor to Under SecDef for Policy. Was one of eight charter members of Defense Intelligence Senior Executive Service. After leaving government worked in industry developing defense and intelligence systems. From 1990 to 2008 was President of Potomac Strategies & Analysis, Inc., a consulting firm specializing in technology applications, C3I systems development, and strategic planning. Has taught about intelligence extensively on the faculties of CIA University and the National Defense Intelligence College. He previously served as Director of AFIO’s Academic Exchange program.

[2] Wohlstetter, Roberta (1962). Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press

[3] It should be noted that not all records concerning Pearl Harbor have been declassified. For example, the authors note that some FBI files, despite a Freedom of Information Act request, have not been released. Other records, which may have reflected badly on the government were destroyed intentionally by the State Department and Army intelligence in the aftermath of the attack.

[4] See Oleson, Peter C. “From Axis Surprises to Allied Victories: The Impact of Intelligence in World War II,” in Oleson, Peter (2016), ed. AFIO’s Guide to the Study of Intelligence, Association of Former Intelligence Officers, pp 81-126. Also at http://www.afio.com/publications/Guide/index.html?page=1.

[5] The failure to separate the “signals” of a possible attack from the “noise” of all of the information available to analysts and commanders is a major point made by Wohlstetter in her 1962 study (referenced above). In a thoughtful study of Pearl Harbor, Lieutenant Colonel Robert F. Pacine, concluded that Pearl Harbor was more a failure of national preparedness than of intelligence. Pacine, Robert. Pearl Harbor: Failure of intelligence? Air War College, April, 1997.

[6] It is ironic that despite knowing of the attack several hours prior on Pearl Harbor, MacArthur had issued no alert to his forces. His air forces were caught on the ground and destroyed. MacArthur was not relieved of command; he was promoted and received the Medal of Honor.

[7] Joint Committee on the Investigation of the Pearl Harbor Attack, Congress of the United States (1946). Investigation of The Pearl Harbor Attack Report: A Concurrent Resolution Authorizing An Investigation Of The Attack On Pearl harbor On December 7, 1941, And Events And Circumstances Relating Thereto. Washington, DC: U. S. Government Printing Office.

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