Preventing Pearl Harbor
Admiral J.O. Richardson prepares to testify before the first Pearl Harbor commission in early 1942. A former Commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, Richardson was fired by President Roosevelt for telling him the fleet was unprepared for war, and should be redeployed to its home port in San Diego (U.S. Archive photo)
Today marks the 70th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. It's a particularly poignant remembrance, since it will be the last major commemoration for the dwindling band of Pearl Harbor survivors; the youngest of those men and women are now in their late 80s and many won't be with us for future anniversaries. On this day--and every day--they deserve our thanks and gratitude for their heroism and sacrifice on that horrific Sunday morning in Hawaii, so long ago.
Pearl Harbor observations also reignite a long-running historical debate: could the attack have been prevented, sparing the lives of 2,000 Americans who died on that fateful December day in 1941. While war clouds had been gathering for years before the Japanese strike, supporters of FDR claim that neither the President, nor his senior advisers, had any direct knowledge of a pending attack on Pearl Harbor, and could not provide definitive warning to Admiral Husband Kimmel and Lieutenant General Walter Short, the senior Navy and Army commanders in Hawaii.
Still, there is plenty of evidence that U.S. intelligence was aware the Japanese fleet was on the move in late 1941, and might carry out a strike against American possessions in the Pacific. In his book Day of Deceit, journalist Robert Stinnett debunked the myth that Japanese commanders maintained strict radio silence as they crossed the Pacific. In fact, American SIGINT sites intercepted scores of messages in late November and early December, linking them to Japanese carrier groups at sea. One source even claims that a location "plot" on enemy forces (maintained at ONI headquarters in Washington, D.C.) showed suspected Japanese carriers west of Hawaii on the evening of December 6th.
Additionally, radio direction finding assets on the U.S. West Coast (and in the Pacific region) placed Japanese naval formations northwest of Hawaii within 48 hours of the Pearl Harbor attack. There were similar warnings from British and Dutch cryptanalysts, who had some success in breaking Japanese military codes before the attack; they issued reports that Japanese carriers were heading towards Hawaii in late November 1941. There is also evidence that U.S. signals intelligence posts in Hawaii and on Corregidor provided similar reports in the weeks leading up to the attack.
Pearl Harbor was clearly at the top of Japan's potential target list, but raids on the Philippines, Alaska, Wake Island and Guam couldn't be ruled out. So, U.S. commanders in the Pacific faced the daunting challenge of locating the Japanese fleet, across millions of miles of open seas. That task was further complicated by a long-standing directive from Washington to limit air searches north and west of Hawaii--the most likely approach corridors for an approaching Japanese fleet --and the fact that Kimmel and Short were denied access to the most sensitive intelligence information, including analysis from station HYPO in Hawaii.
These facts (and others) have fueled speculation that FDR used his Pacific fleet as bait, inviting a Japanese attack that would push American into World War II, on the side of the allies. Supporters of Mr. Roosevelt, including many historians, have dismissed such speculation as little more than conspiracy theories, despite the discover of such documents as the McCollum memo, prepared by a senior analyst in the Office of Naval Intelligence, that advocated a provocative strategy towards Japan that might lead to war. The McCollum strategy was implemented in the months leading up to Pearl Harbor, affirming that the memo was circulated--and adopted--at the highest levels of U.S. government.
While the debate over FDR's actions continues to rage, there is one incontrovertible fact: the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor could have been easily prevented, had President Roosevelt followed the advice of his previous Pacific Fleet commander, Admiral J.O. Richardson. During his tenure as CINCPAC, Richardson repeatedly warned of his fleet's vulnerability at Pearl Harbor, and requested that most of his ships return to their home port in San Diego. When FDR refused, Richardson stuck to his guns and paid a high price: he was fired as CINCPAC in early 1941 and replaced by Admiral Kimmel.
Today, few Americans remember J.O. Richardson, but he was a key player in the Pearl Harbor saga, a voice of military reason that was completely ignored. A 1902 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, Richardson was considered the service's leading expert on the Japanese fleet, its strategy and tactics. After rising steadily through the ranks, Admiral Richardson was hand-picked for the CINCPAC job by FDR in late 1939, as Europe plunged into World War II.
Almost from the start, Richardson clashed with his superiors over their plans for the Pacific Fleet. In January 1940, Admiral Richardson advised the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Harold Stark, that existing plans for war with Japan were unrealistic; his warning to the CNO was reprinted in Richardson's memoir, On the Treadmill to Pearl Harbor, published in 1974:
" You [Stark] are the principal and only Naval Adviser to the boss and he should know that our Fleet cannot just sail away, lick Orange, and be back at home in a year or so. Also the probable cost (human and physical resources) of any war should be compared [with] the probable value of winning the war."
Richardson was also concerned about the lack of readiness in his command. Admiral Robert Carney, who served as CNO during the Eisenhower Administration, recalls a meeting with Richardson in the summer of 1940, when Carney was executive officer on the battleship California. Carney was among a group of mid-level officers summoned by the CINCPAC; Richardson knew they would play a critical leadership role in the coming war with Japan, and he wanted them to know the actual condition of their fleet. As Carney later recalled:
"Pointing out the lack of advanced bases, the the slow pace of updating the fleet's offensive and defensive characteristics, the fact there were fatal shortages in ammunition replacements and backup stocks of fuel, spare parts and essential supplies and the tenders and logistical ships needed to support an advanced-positioned fleet--he was saying, in plain and understandable language, that the Navy wasn't ready for war. Step by step, he dismantled my confident belief that the U.S. Navy could win a quick decision. Instead, proceeding from our deficiencies, he foresaw the United States hanging on for a couple of years while the country and the service built the strength necessary for an offensive campaign, then a hard fight of a year or two before victory could be won."
Admiral Richardson offered this dire prediction while members of Roosevelt's inner circle (including Navy Secretary Frank Knox) were asserting that the U.S. fleet could finish off the Japanese in only three months.
Along with his written warnings, Richardson also made two trips to Washington for meetings with President Roosevelt. During those sessions, Admiral Richardson repeated his grim assessment for the Commander-in-Chief. But FDR quickly became irritated and decided to make a command change. In October of 1940, an administration source told The Kiplinger Letter that Richardson would be replaced in the coming months. Admiral Richardson was relieved as CINCPAC in February 1941, after only one year on the job. His successor, Admiral Kimmel, proved to be more malleable, and voiced no major objections to keeping the fleet in Hawaii, setting the stage for the ensuing debacle at Pearl Harbor.
Richardson was back in Washington, serving as an adviser to the CNO, when the Japanese attacked. His retirement date had been set for 1 October 1942, but with America's entry into the war, he remained an adviser on naval affairs before finally leaving the service in 1947. Admiral Richardson passed away in 1974, fully vindicated by the events of December 1941, and by historical information that emerged after the war.
Sadly, only World War II buffs and naval historians are familiar with the courageous stand of J.O. Richardson. At the cost of his own career, Admiral Richardson stood on principle, trying to avert a military disaster that he believed could be averted, by returning the fleet to San Diego and engaging in the preparations needed to ready the Navy for war.
Richardson's integrity and candor offer an important lesson for military leaders--or anyone in a position to advise decision-makers. Even in that rarefied air, it is essential to tell "the boss" what they need to hear--not what they want to hear. Admirlal Richardson did just that, realizing his advice might fall on deaf ears and result in his dismissal. It's regrettable that so many of his peers failed to follow his shining example in the days before Pearl Harbor.