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The Pearl Harbor Attack

The 12/7/1941 Pearl Harbor Attack bears many superficial parallels with the 9/11/01 attack on Manhattan and Washington D.C. In both cases around 3000 Americans were killed in a devastating sneak attack against undefended targets. In both cases the sitting president used the attack to commit the nation to a war, a commitment that would have been almost impossible without the attack.

A closer look at the two attacks reveals more parallels. In both cases those at the top of the military chain of command knew of the attack in advance, and allowed it to proceed.

e x c e r p t
title: The Bombing of Pearl Harbor
authors: Kristi Richardson and Mark Fisher
On December 5 1941, at a Cabinet meeting, Secretary of the Navy Knox said, "Well, you know Mr. President, we know where the Japanese fleet is." "Yes, I know" said FDR. "I think we ought to tell everybody just how ticklish this situation is. We have information...Well, you tell them what it is, Frank", said FDR. Knox became very excited and said, "Well, we have very secret information that the Japanese fleet is out at sea. Our information is..." and then a scowling FDR cut him off.

On the evening of December 6, 1941, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the president of the United States, received a message intercepted by the U.S. Navy. Sent from Tokyo to the Japanese embassy in Washington, the message was encrypted in the top-level Japanese "purple code." But that was no problem. The Americans had cracked the code long before that. It was imperative that the president see the message right away because it revealed that the Japanese, under the heavy pressure of Western economic sanctions, were terminating relations with the United States. Roosevelt read the thirteen-part transmission, looked up and announced, "This means war." He then did a very strange thing for a president in his situation.


The Japanese secret declaration of war never reached the people who needed to hear it the most - Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, commander in chief of the United States Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and the unit's commanding general, Walter Short. Pearl Harbor, it was common military knowledge, was where the Japanese would strike. If they struck. At dawn the next morning a Japanese squadron bombed Pearl Harbor and the surprise attack was just that, a complete surprise. At least to Kimmel and Short and the 2,575 American servicemen who died.

It may not have been such a surprise to Generals George C. Marshall and Leonard T. Gerow and Admirals Harold R. Stark and Richmond Kelly Turner. They were the military's top brass in Washington and the only officers authorized to forward such sensitive intelligence to outlying commanders. But the decoded war declaration did not reach Kimmel and Short until the morning, with the attack well underway off in the Pacific. Marshall and Stark, supreme commanders of the U.S. Army and Navy respectively, later testified that the message was not forwarded to Kimmel and Short because the Hawaiian commanders had received so many intercepted Japanese messages that another one would simply confuse them. A pathetic lie.

Internal army and navy inquiries in 1944 held Stark and Marshall derelict of duty for keeping the Hawaiian commanders in the dark. But the military buried those findings. As far as the public knew, the final truth was uncovered by the Roberts Commission, headed by Justice Owen Roberts of the Supreme Court, and convened eleven days after the attack. Like another investigative commission headed by a Supreme Court justice on a different topic more than twenty years later, the Roberts Commission appeared to have identified its culprits in advance and gerrymandered its inquiries to make the suspects appear guilty. The scapegoats were Kimmel and Short, who were both publicly crucified, forced to retire, and denied the open hearings they desired. One of the Roberts Commission panelists, Admiral William Standley, would call Roberts's performance "crooked as a snake."

There were eight investigations of Pearl Harbor altogether. The most spectacular was a joint House-Senate probe that reiterated the Roberts Commission findings. At those hearings, Marshall and Stark testified, incredibly, that they could not remember where they were the night the war declaration came in. But a close friend of Frank Knox, the secretary of the Navy, later revealed that Knox, Stark, and Marshall spent most of that night in the White House with Roosevelt awaiting the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the chance for America to join World War II.

Admiral Kimmel, in a 1958 interview, articulated the reason he and General Short were kept in the dark about the impending attack -- Roosevelt needed the attack a pretext to enter the war.

My belief is that General Short and I were not given the information available in Washington and were not informed of the impending attack because it was feared that action in Hawaii might deter the Japanese from making the attack. Our president had repeatedly assured the American people that the United States would not enter the war unless we were attacked. The Japanese attack on the fleet would put the United States in the war with the full support of the American public.

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