Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Remebering George Kennan

George Kennan by John Lewis Gaddis: A Review
Dec 9, 2011 4:45 AM EST

The man who shaped America’s Cold War policy, George Kennan, finally gets the biography he deserves. Jacob Heilbrunn on the misunderstood visionary and what he got right.

Svetlana Iosifovna Alliluyeva—the only daughter of Josef Stalin—might seem like an unlikely friend of an American diplomat who devised the foreign-policy doctrine that helped bring down the empire her father had worked for decades to create. But Alliluyeva, who died on Nov. 22 in Wisconsin and came to see her old man as a “moral and spiritual monster,” sought out Kennan in March 1967 after she requested political asylum at the U.S. embassy in New Dehli. “I’ve been trying very hard to get in touch with Mr. Kennan. Can you tell me where he is?” she asked the CIA. Kennan met her in Switzerland. Alliluyeva was smitten. “George Kennan was tall, thin, blue-eyed, elegant,” she later wrote of their meeting at a safe house in Bern. “That hour proved that fantasies and dreams could sometimes come true.”

Kennan put her up in his version of a Russian dacha in a town in Pennsylvania called, of all things, East Berlin. The Kremlin claimed that it was all part of a plot by Kennan to besmirch the Soviet Union upon the 50th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. The truth was more prosaic. Kennan loved Russia. He wanted to do Alliluyeva a good turn and she provided him with a glimpse back into his own youth when he served in Moscow during the 1930s. Kennan had met Stalin. He had seen the gangsters around him. And so they had a lot to discuss. They became fast friends. His house reminded Alliluyeva of a prevolutionary Russian country estate. Where Kennan had analyzed Stalin decades earlier, so his daughter, as John Lewis Gaddis reports in his new biography, now turned the tables. She remonstrated in one letter, “You constantly do not allow yourself to be yourself. You’ve put yourself—and all your life—into the position of (pardon me, please!) that deadly Presbyterian Righteousness which looks `good’ only in pronouncements from the pulpit; which is based on human experiences of different era; different people; different social milieu, than yours.”

She was on to something. Kennan was perhaps the most brilliant intellectual of the past century. He was certainly the most tortured. For all the reams of books and essays written about George F. Kennan during his lifetime, it was a neighbor of his, one J. Richards Dilworth, who divined his true character: “George is ultra-conservative. He’s almost a monarchist.” Yes, the man who invented the doctrine of containment that saved the West from Stalinism in the late 1940s and prepared the road for victory in 1989 when the Soviet empire came crashing down was himself less than a democrat. He was as old school as it gets. He pined for an older, pristine America, one that wasn’t enraptured by automobiles, suburbs, commercialism, and choked by pollution and greed. He opposed American recognition of Israel and didn’t feel it was America’s duty to interfere abroad to spread democracy. He felt that America was behaving like a schoolmaster, handing out report cards to various countries, when it had no right or obligation to behave in such a high-handed fashion. It should mind its own knitting. His dream was that an elite might run America, but he probably knew that it would never happen.

In a lengthy interview with George Urban in Encounter magazine Kennan thus declared, in 1976, the year of America’s bicentennial, that “this country is destined to succumb to failures which cannot be other than tragic and enormous in their scope.” Europe, Kennan added, wasn’t in much better and could perhaps be whipped into shape if the Russians took it over: on a recent visit, he had to his horror witnessed a Danish youth festival “swarming with hippies—motorbikes, girlfriends, drugs, pornography, drunkenness, noise—it was all there. I looked at this mob and though how one company of robust Russian infantry would drive it out of town.”

And so Kennan despaired of the very country he served for decades as a foreign service officer, including stints as ambassador to Moscow and Belgrade. George H.W. Bush bestowed upon him its highest civilian award, the Medal of Freedom. Yet he never felt that his counsel was much appreciated.

How to fashion a coherent biography out of such a contradictory figure? John Lewis Gaddis has, against all the odds, written what surely amounts to the best study of Kennan. Gaddis, who teaches at Yale, has earned fame as a Cold War historian, but this is by far the best of his books. The writing is crisp and penetrating. His judgments are fair and astute. To a greater extent than any previous Kennan scholar, Gaddis has unpacked the man. Gaddis has performed prodigies of archival research, including drawing extensively on Kennan’s diaries, and his account is unlikely to be surpassed any time soon. Perhaps even as acerbic a critic as Kennan might have been pleased by the result.

Kennan’s melancholy was rooted in his nostalgia for the America of his youth in Wisconsin with its dirt roads, horses, and lack of telephones. Kennan was born on Feb. 16, 1904. A month later his mother died of a ruptured appendix. He missed her all his life, noting in his memoirs that he had been “deeply affected, and in a certain sense scarred for life” by her death. His father, a lawyer, was an austere and distant presence who shipped his son off to a local military academy. The ancestor that young George identified with was his namesake—George Frost Kennan, who had traveled through Siberia in the 1865 and earned renown as a Russia expert. Kennan wrote, “I feel that I was in some strange way to carry forward [his] work.”

As an undergraduate at Princeton, the shy Kennan didn’t really fit in with the young swells. When he asked a fellow freshman at the first students assembly what time it was, Gaddis writes, “the young dandy took a puff on his cigarette, blew some smoke, and then walked away, searing himself into George’s consciousness.” Kennan blossomed when he entered the Foreign Service. Here his facility with languages helped him immeasurably. He was stationed in Germany, where he experienced the tumult of the Weimar Republic. A stint in the Baltics, where he learned Russian, prepared him for his big break. After Franklin Roosevelt’s election, America established diplomatic relations with the U.S.S.R. in 1934. Kennan served at the embassy under Amb. William Bullitt, who arrived with high hopes for good relations with the Soviet Union, but soon became a hardened anti-communist. Bullitt was followed in 1937 by the pro-Soviet American businessman Joseph E. Davies, who admired Stalin and said that the purge trials were legitimate. Kennan cringed at his imbecilities. He left Moscow for Prague, just as the Nazis were about to annex it. After the invasion of Poland in 1939, Kennan was transferred to Berlin, where he got to see the Nazi regime up close until Germany declared war on America. He was stuck in an internment camp until May 1942.

It was the new American ambassador to Moscow, W. Averell Harriman, who insisted that Kennan return to the besieged city in 1943 to assist him in his duties. Harriman played a key role in dealing with Britain and America’s wartime ally. Kennan regarded Harriman as too conciliatory in dealing with Stalin. As Kennan saw it, Franklin Roosevelt harbored illusions about the true nature and character of the man he liked to call “Uncle Joe.” Kennan knew that he was most unavuncular.

To vent his frustrations, Kennan would periodically pen attacks on American policy toward the Soviet Union. One such was a eight-page personal letter he sent in 1945 to his friend Charles “Chip” Bohlen, who was with FDR at Yalta, the next to last meeting of the “Big Three”—Stalin, Roosevelt, Churchill. Kennan clearly saw the looming division of Europe. Why not, he mused, cut a deal with Stalin and divide Europe into “spheres of influence—keep ourselves out of the Russian sphere and keep the Russians out of ours?” Of course that's what was happening even if the Americans did not want to admit it.

Still, Kennan was convinced that the Soviet Union could swallow but not digest Eastern Europe. His reading of Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire had convinced him of that. He liked to cite Gibbon’s line about the “unnatural task of holding in submission distant peoples.” Kennan expounded upon his views in what became known as the “Long Telegram” of February 1946. At a moment when official Washington was casting about for a coherent response to Stalin’s bellicosity, Kennan’s lucubrations were almost miraculously well timed. They hit like a thunderbolt. Kennan’s message was simple—don’t try to be chummy with the Soviets. Kennan added that from the Soviet perspective war with the capitalist West was inevitable. Indeed, Russia had become a dangerous compound of medieval authoritarianism combined with a chiliastic Marxist-Leninist ideology. Kennan expanded upon this message in what became his famous “X” article in Foreign Affairs, published in 1947. But for all his stern language, Kennan was not espousing war with Moscow. Instead, his point was that panic about Stalin was misplaced because Soviet Russia could be contained.

Kennan would later complain that his idea was debauched by the Truman administration. He didn’t mean for America to become a global empire. The military didn’t have to be the prime means of countering the Soviets. But Secretary of State Dean Acheson took a harder line. Kennan became an outsider, a critic of the nuclear arms race that began under the Truman administration and seemed to take on a life of its own, as each side amassed more and more atomic weaponry. As Kennan saw it, more efforts should have been made to bring about a reunification of Germany in the early 1950s. Stalin, for example, had submitted a note in 1952 suggesting that the question of German reunification should be addressed. But the West Germans saw it as a dangerous ploy to create a neutral Germany, one that would have been shorn of its membership in NATO and permanently vulnerable to Soviet blandishments and threats. Most historians now agree that the note was not meant seriously.
For all of Kennan’s misgivings about Truman administration policies, he had served as head of the policy planning staff. What’s more, it was the Republican right that truly loathed containment, which it saw as tantamount to appeasement. Dwight Eisenhower’s Secretary of State John Foster Dulles accepted Kennan’s resignation in 1953 and thundered about the rollback of communism. Kennan was crushed. He had thought that the new administration “would still attach value to my opinions and to the preservation of a mutual relationship of cordiality and understanding.” But this was out of the question after Kennan delivered a talk before the Pennsylvania State Bar Association in January in which he denounced the idea of the “liberation” of Eastern Europe. It was, he said, “replete with possibilities for misunderstanding and bitterness.”

At bottom Kennan was a realist. He didn’t believe in demonizing other countries. What he believed in was a 19th-century balance of power. But his was essentially a negative view of international relations as a permanent struggle for power. It was Ronald Reagan, Gaddis suggests, who managed to move from containment to a true understanding with Moscow. Kennan, Gaddis writes, “despaired constantly, whatever he was doing. So Kennan turned himself into a complication, leaving it to Reagan to bring his strategy to a successful conclusion.”

Perhaps so. But Kennan would doubtless be alarmed by the current state of American foreign affairs in which triumph in the Cold War was soon converted by neoconservatives into a vainglorious triumphalism that led to Iraq. Kennan, as Gaddis tell us, saw further into the future than his peers. He helped win the Cold War for a country that he would probably now disown more than ever.

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Mystery of Jan Msaryk's Murder in Czechoslovakia 1948

Born: Sept. 14, 1886, in Prague
Father: Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, the first president of Czechoslovakia
Office: Served as foreign minister during World War II in the London-based exile government of President Edvard Benes. Returned after the war and continued to serve as foreign minister.
Died: March 10, 1948. Found dead after falling 14.5 (47.5 feet) meters from his bathroom window at the Cernin Palace.
Cause of death: After 55 years police have officially ruled his death a murder.

Masaryk death theory draws fire
Prague Post
Posted: January 15, 2004
By Kevin Livingston

Investigator claims he's proven murder; critics reject conclusion

Three years ago police investigator Ilja Pravda was handed the most important case of his career. His task: Solve one of Prague's great, tragic mysteries, the 1948 death of Jan Masaryk.

Just before the New Year the wiry, middle-aged detective announced his findings. Stating what many already believed but none were able to state categorically, Pravda asserted that Masaryk, the former foreign minister and son of the father of Czechoslovak independence, was pushed out of his apartment window at the Cernin Palace in the wake of the 1948 communist coup.

Pravda's conclusion has startled a country that for 55 years has lived in the shadow of Masaryk's death and the communist legacy it symbolized. But if the detective is convinced he has closed the case, not everyone is prepared to go along.

Since Pravda went public with his conclusion, historians and the media have attacked him for carrying out what many say was a flawed and hasty investigation. Pravda's inability to identify Masaryk's murderer has also put his probe under suspicion.

Pravda shakes off the criticism. Looking over his files in his spartan space at the Office to Document and Investigate Communist Crimes, he says his findings are based on direct and indisputable evidence and have been accepted by the state attorney's office. Having brought to bear on the case the science of forensic biomechanics - the study of how a body falls - he says, "It was without a doubt murder."

Falling down

Just how Masaryk came to fall 14.5 meters (47.5 feet) from his bathroom window has raised questions for more than half a century.

The official 1948 autopsy ruled Masaryk's death a suicide. Many close to Masaryk, including his private secretary, have never wavered in their belief that the son of Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, the first Czechoslovak president, jumped in a fit of depression.

But the prevailing theory has always been that Jan Masaryk was pushed, most likely by secret police officers. Even Rude Pravo, the official Communist Party newspaper, editorialized in 1968 that the circumstances surrounding the case were suspicious.

Masaryk was the only non-Communist minister who did not resign when the party, led by Klement Gottwald, seized power in 1948. Masaryk's death just two weeks after the putsch would forever label him the first victim of the country's totalitarian dictatorship.

Pravda's is the fourth official investigation into Masaryk's death and the only one to assert foul play. The first, in 1948, ruled the death a suicide. Another carried out during the Prague Spring thaw of 1968 and a post-revolution probe in the early 1990s did not alter that finding.

Pravda says he believed it was a case of murder but lacked the hard evidence to prove it. "There was still the possibility that it was a suicide," he says. "I could not exclude it at the beginning."

Lacking surviving witnesses, Pravda turned to Jiri Strauss, a forensic expert at the nation's police academy. For a month Strauss studied Masaryk's fall, concluding that at least one other person had to be involved.

Among the indicators: Masaryk was facing the building as he fell, a circumstance inconsistent with suicide. Pravda says there were also signs that Masaryk might have been killed before being dumped out the window. He says sperm found on Masaryk's body and traces of feces found on the windowsill were consistent with death by suffocation, which causes a loss of control of bodily functions.

Masaryk's feet-first departure from the window and the lack of signs of a struggle indicate that he was rendered unconscious first, Pravda says. "The fall was definitely from a push," he says. "I agree with the forensic expert that it was a murder."

Although Pravda is confident he has pinpointed the cause of death, it will likely never be known who was responsible. Although the names of four secret police officers have been bandied about in connection with the case, Pravda says there is no evidence to prove who was behind Masaryk's fall: "I don't have a murderer."

Not a detective story

The absence of a perpetrator is just one reason critics have called for a cautious assessment of Pravda's report. Newspapers and historians have argued vehemently since Pravda released his findings that the forensic evidence is not sufficient to label the case a murder, and that the investigator was too quick to rule the case a homicide.

Writing in Hospodarske noviny, historian Pavel Kosatik said it is impossible to conclude strictly from the forensic evidence that Masaryk was killed. Kosatik points out that the body was moved after impact, making it difficult to pinpoint exactly how Masaryk fell.

Noting that Pravda actually carried out two forensic analyses of the fall and that one concluded that Masaryk was not pushed (which Pravda has acknowledged), Kosatik asked why the detective chose to base his announcement on only one of the studies. And he pointed out that investigators have not had access to documents in the Russian archives that could clear up the mystery.

While it is possible that Masaryk was killed, Kosatik wrote, it can't be concluded from Pravda's report, which he termed "shameful."

"It is not a detective story where everyone can come up with their own fantasy," the historian wrote. "It is an important and tragic event in our history."

Did the Czech Foreign Minister Jan Masaryk commit suicide in 1948?

Posted in Communism, Famous crimes, Historical articles, History, Politics on Tuesday, 7 August 2012

This edited article about Jan Masaryk originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 760 published on 7th August 1975

One of the most horrifying forms of assassination, once well known in mid-Europe, is called by the rather ugly name of defenestration. It means simply that the victim is hurled to his death through an open window. And it was a word that leapt back into the minds of the Czechoslovak people when they heard that their popular Foreign Minister, Jan Masaryk, had been found dead beneath the windows of his ministerial apartment in the Czernin Palace, in Prague.

“Jan Masaryk committed suicide during the night,” announced the new Communist cabinet of the Czech government. No one believed it. Masaryk was not a communist and was known to be very concerned about the way the Communists were seizing power in Czechoslovakia. Everyone guessed that he did not fall, but was pushed.

While the Czechs wept openly in the streets for the loss of a much-loved statesman, the Communist government laid out the body for an official lying-in-state and a funeral with full national honours. Filing past the open coffin, the mourners noticed a bunch of snowdrops placed close to Masaryk’s right ear.

Who put them there? The dead man’s secretary announced that they had been set in position to hide the stitching marks after the autopsy. Other people whispered darkly that the flowers concealed a bullet hole.

But the newspapers all over the world in that early spring of 1948 were treating Masaryk’s death as the Czech government hoped they would – as an unfortunate case of suicide. It was not until many years later that all sorts of questions began to be asked – questions which led to the suspicion that assassination was much more likely than suicide.

Jan Masaryk was a complex man. He was 61 and the son of Thomas Masaryk, the first President of the Czechoslovak Republic. From his father he had learned his ideals of liberal democracy and individual freedom, over which the new Communist regime was trampling like an elephant.

The events that were to lead to Masaryk’s death, however, began in September, 1938, when the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, sought to avoid the oncoming Second World War by handing Czechoslovakia over to the Nazis by agreeing to their invasion of the country. Britain’s failure to go to war for his country grieved and angered Masaryk, and the Munich crisis etched deep lines of worry into his face.

Britain and France had failed to defend the Czechs against Hitler, but a year later had to declare war on the Nazis.

All through that bitter war, Masaryk and other free Czechs toiled to liberate their country. The peace of 1945 seemed to be the harbinger of a return to democratic freedom. But that was not to happen. The Russians, who liberated the Czechs from Nazi rule in the last year of the war, and ravaged it while doing so, left in their wake a Communist influence which grew more and more powerful.

Back in Prague, his capital, Masaryk became Foreign Minister. But in place of subservience to Berlin he found that the new Czech government, which included seven highly-placed Communists, was becoming daily more and more subservient to Moscow.

It was from Moscow that the Czech Government was told what to do. It was from Moscow that the order was given for the Czechs to break with the free Western world.

Then, in February, 1948, the Communists staged a complete take-over of the country by purging all non-Communists from power. It began when the Communist Prime Minister, Klement Gottwald, dismissed all the senior police officers and replaced them with Communist Party members.

Gottwald knew that this would cause a furore of protest from among the non-Communist ministers. He was right. Twelve of them tendered their resignations.

“There will have to be a new Government,” he told the feeble old President Eduard Benes; and when he formed it, it was, of course, a Communist-dominated one. The way was now open for all non-Communists to be purged from the country’s administration.

What was Masaryk to do now? He was surrounded by danger. Although he had agreed to join Gottwald’s new Government, he knew that the Prime Minister did not want him and only offered him a ministry because of his popularity with the people. And Masaryk was aware that in this situation a non-Communist who was popular with the people would be regarded as a danger to the government.

On 9th March, a month after Gottwald’s coup, Masaryk was told he would be expected to attend the swearing-in of the new Cabinet the next day. Sadly he told a secretary: “I’m afraid I won’t go there any more.”

What did that mean? The Communists later alleged that Masaryk was planning to flee to the West. Although he must have known that flight was the only way to save his life, there would have been no-one left to fight for democracy in Czechoslovakia.

Another view of that cryptic remark was that Masaryk was already planning suicide in despair at the campaign that had been organised against him in the West for joining the Communist Government.

That March 9 was a day of meetings and political business with the Communists and in the evening Masaryk went home to his ministerial apartment in the Czernin Palace. In the pale morning light of the next day his smashed body lay on the courtyard flagstones.

In the months that followed the Foreign Minister’s State funeral, ten people who were supposedly connected with “the Masaryk affair” died mysteriously. Two were executed, one shot, one tortured to death, one sentenced to 25 years imprisonment and three died suddenly.

Not surprisingly, therefore, anyone who knew anything wasn’t eager to talk. In fact, 20 years passed before Karel Straka, a former clerk at the Czech Foreign Office, told how he had found Masaryk’s body in the courtyard.

“It was clear to me that it was neither an accident nor suicide,” Straka said. He recalled that, during the night of Masaryk’s death, telephones at the palace had suddenly gone dead for no apparent reason. Then, just as suddenly, they had come back to life. A whole fleet of cars had been heard arriving in the driveway, and hours later they left.

Straka had been on duty that night. He recalled it well because suddenly his room at the palace had been locked on the outside. Later, someone had unlocked it. All this had happened only hours before Jan Masaryk, the man most feared by the Communists, had been found dead.

Someone else remembered that night, too, someone who later testified to an enquiry but who insisted on remaining anonymous. According to this witness, Masaryk was leaving the Czernin Palace on the morning of 9th March when a tall man in a leather coat approached him and urged him not to return to the palace that evening.

“I am to take you to safety,” he told Masaryk.

“Where is safety?” Masaryk asked.

“I have to fly you to England,” was the reply.

Masaryk shook his head. “I was in England long enough,” he said, “My place is here now and I shall either win or be destroyed.”

That evening, when Masaryk returned to the palace, the leather-coated man was still there. “For your own safety, I beg you to leave with me at once,” he said. “Tell your driver to take us to the airport now!”

Masaryk replied: “I am still a Minister of State, and I have to go to the Czernin Palace. Come and see me tomorrow.”

The man answered: “That will be too late.”

Hours later, some time after 11 p.m. when Masaryk had drunk a cup of tea before going to bed, the final drama began. What happened can only be pieced together by an analysis of the evidence.

Masaryk’s dead body, it has since been revealed, was a mass of bruises, cuts and scratches. There was physical evidence that moments before his death he was in a state of extreme terror.

If Masaryk had jumped from the window in order to commit suicide, he could not possibly have landed 12 feet (over 3 metres) away from the wall of the building, which was where his body was found.

A doctor later testified that he found a bullet wound in Masaryk’s head, caused by a 7.65 calibre revolver. There were scorch marks around it, indicating that it had been fired at close range.

But no revolver was found in Masaryk’s apartment, nor was there a suicide note. Instead, there was a state of disarray.

The window from which Masaryk was supposed to have jumped was ominously closed. And observers quickly noted that it would have been impossible for a man of Masaryk’s size to have fallen accidentally out of a window that was so much smaller than he was.

At 7.30 a.m. on 10th March, the day the body was found, the autopsy was conducted under the supervision of three secret policemen, who formed a ring around the corpse during the examination. The doctor who conducted the post mortem was chosen by the police and was a Party member. The wording of the post mortem report was dictated to him.

It was not until 1968 – 20 years after Masaryk’s death – that a new Czech Communist government which was attempting to “liberalise” Czech Communism under Prime Minister Anton Dubcek, held an enquiry to establish these facts and to cast extreme doubt on the official suicide verdict. Dubcek and his government, however, did not last for long, and the new mood of liberalism was hastily obliterated by orders from Moscow.

Enough was already known by then, however, to make an inspired rational estimate of how Jan Masaryk was assassinated by the Soviet Secret Police – and how he became one more victim of the tyranny of Russian imperialism.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Pearl Harbor Day: How did Adolf Hitler react to the attack?

Pearl Harbor Day: How did Adolf Hitler react to the attack?

At the time of the attack, Japan was already one of the Axis powers, but Adolf Hitler did not know of its plans. On Pearl Harbor Day, a look back at the Führer's response - and subsequent miscalculation.

By Peter Grier, Staff writer / December 7, 2011


Exactly 70 years ago Japan hit Pearl Harbor with one of the most stunning surprise attacks in history. At the time Japan was already one of the Axis powers, linked with Italy and Germany. Given that, how did the Führer, Adolf Hitler, react?

Hitler did not know of the Pearl Harbor plan beforehand. When informed in his headquarters on the evening of Dec. 7 of the strike and the damage suffered by US forces, he was “delighted,” according to British historian Ian Kershaw.

“We can’t lose the war at all. We now have an ally which has never been conquered in 3,000 years,” a jubilant Hitler said, as recounted in Mr. Kershaw’s authoritative biography of the German leader.

This comment was typical of Hitler in that it was both grandiose and a touch self-delusional. In fact, Hitler viewed the Japanese through the lens of his own racial prejudice. In “Mein Kampf” he patronizingly wrote that Japanese scientific and technical progress would cease without “Aryan” influence. His top lieutenants recalled that he accepted Japanese gains in the Far East with some resignation, and occasionally warned that eventually Germany would find itself in a showdown with what he called the “yellow race.”

But for Hitler, the Japanese triumph at Pearl Harbor came at an opportune time. Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union, had stalled. On Dec. 6, the Soviets had launched a counterattack that would eventually save Moscow and doom Hitler’s dream of an empire in the East.

Thus Hitler seized on Pearl Harbor as a light in the general gloom. His assumption was that the Japanese would now tie down the United States in the Pacific and weaken Britain by threatening its Asian possessions, according to Kershaw.

Germany and Japan had already agreed on a strengthening of their existing Tripartite Pact, which would bind each to declare war on a power attacking the other. This provision had not been formally signed, however, meaning that Hitler by treaty was required only to aid Japan, not enter the war against the United States.

But for Hitler this was a foregone conclusion – he wanted to ensure that Japan would stay in the war, and perhaps invade Russia from the east. He also felt that war with the US was inevitable, and he wanted to take the initiative. On Dec. 8, he ordered German U-boats to sink US ships on sight.

In a lengthy speech to the Reichstag on Dec. 11, Hitler recounted recent military events, excoriated President Roosevelt, and declared war on the United States. Given that US public opinion was far harsher about Japan than Germany, this was a mistake, writes British journalist and historian Max Hastings in his history of World War II, “Inferno.”

“Four days after Pearl Harbor, [Hitler] made the folly of the strike comprehensive by declaring war on the United States, relieving Roosevelt from a serious uncertainty about whether Congress would agree to fight Germany,” writes Mr. Hastings.

The Japanese, for their part, had begun the war with the US in the belief that Nazi Germany was an unstoppable force that would soon conquer the Soviet Union and end the war in Europe. So the Axis powers lurched forward, each blind to the particular strategic situation they now faced.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

3 Enduring Mysteries of Pearl Harbor


Pearl Harbor Day 2011: three enduring mysteries

On Pearl Harbor Day, historians continue to debate the mysteries of Pearl Harbor. The Japanese attack created some of the great unanswered questions of military history.

Pearl Harbor. In the United States, the name alone means surprise, defeat, and the rise of common purpose from ashes. Seventy years on, the Japanese surprise attack on US forces assembled in Hawaii remains one of the American people’s most powerful historic memories.

Every year on Dec. 7 the nation pauses to remember the 2,400 US personnel who died that day, and the generation of ordinary citizens which picked up Pearl Harbor’s fallen flag and fought to victory in World War II.

“We look to December 7, 1941, to draw strength set by the example of these patriots and to honor all who have sacrificed for our freedom,” said President Obama in his proclamation for Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day 2011.

But seven decades later, Pearl Harbor also remains a mystery. More specifically, it remains an event that has produced some of the great unanswered questions of military history.

Why did the Japanese attack a nation whose industrial might was an order of magnitude larger? Why didn’t the US see the signs that a strike was coming? Who in the US chain of command was most responsible for American unpreparedness?

Today, historians continue to debate many of Pearl Harbor’s puzzles, producing new evidence and theories. Here are just a few of those continued conundrums.

Why weren't US bases on alert?

The first wave of Japanese aircraft hit Pearl Harbor at about 8 a.m. local time on Dec. 7, 1941. Within hours, Japanese forces also struck the Philippines, Wake Island, Guam, and other Pacific targets. US units everywhere were taken by surprise.

“The nakedness of America’s Pacific bases continues to puzzle posterity,” writes British journalist and historian Max Hastings in his gripping new history of World War II, “Inferno.”

Mr. Hastings dismisses claims that President Franklin Roosevelt allowed Pearl Harbor to be attacked to draw the US into war. But he says it is nonetheless “extraordinary” that the US political and military leadership did not ensure that Pearl Harbor and other Pacific bases were on full precautionary footing.

The late Gordon Prange, a University of Maryland professor who was perhaps America’s foremost authority on the attack, believed that the core problem was that the US government did not in its heart believe that its own warnings about imminent Japanese aggression were true.

“This fundamental disbelief is the root of the whole tragedy,” concluded Mr. Prange in his book, “At Dawn We Slept.”

A congressional committee conducted extensive hearings into the Pearl Harbor disaster after the war ended. Among its conclusions were that Army forces were so focused on training they lost sight of possible attack – and that Army commanders were so worried about sabotage they locked up anti-aircraft ammunition rather than distribute it to gun sites. The Navy did not maintain aircraft patrols at sea due to lack of equipment – but neither did commanders order a picket line of surface ships instead.

In the current issue of Naval History, a journal of the US Naval Institute, historians Jonathan Parshall and J. Michael Wenger argue that an overlooked answer to the question of why the US was surprised is that US commanders did not understand how quickly aircraft carrier warfare was evolving.

The Pearl Harbor strike plan involved the melding of planes from many carriers into a hornet swarm of attackers. That was a skill the US did not know the Japanese military possessed.

“The US Navy had no real inkling of Japanese carrier warfare capabilities and therefore could not accurately assess likely operational targets,” write Messrs. Parshall and Wenger.

Why didn't the Japanese press their advantage?

After two waves of aircraft devastated Pearl Harbor’s Battleship Row and US air bases, Japanese pilots returned to their carriers in triumph. Adm. Chuichi Nagumo then led a discussion on whether another attack was feasible. Many air commanders supported such a follow-up, believing that fuel dumps, repair shops, and other US logistical sites were now vulnerable.

A cautious commander, Nagumo decided against more action. It would have required reloading aircraft on deck at sea at a time when the location of US carriers and submarines was unknown. Japanese forces had already won a spectacular victory. Why waste that gain?

“Nagumo’s decision to turn back came as a disappointment to many of his airmen, who wanted to exploit their opportunity,” wrote Prange.

Destruction of Pearl Harbor’s infrastructure might have forced the US to withdraw its naval forces to the US West Coast. For decades, some historians have argued that Nagumo missed an opportunity that maybe, just maybe, could have turned the course of the war.

However in his book, “Inferno,” Max Hastings argues that new research shows a follow-on attack was not feasible.

“The winter day was too short to launch and recover [another wave of aircraft], and in any event Japanese bomb loads were too small to plausibly wreck Pearl’s repair bases,” Mr. Hastings writes.
What would have happened if the US had won the battle?

How would the world have been different if US forces had been on alert that Sunday morning in December? After all, it would have taken only a few hours' early warning to perhaps reverse the battle’s decision. US fighters would have been aloft and anti-aircraft batteries alerted. They could have taken a large toll on Japan’s incoming planes.

Today’s conventional wisdom is that Japan, in winning the battle, lost the war. Many of the ships destroyed at Pearl were refloated and rebuilt for later fights. Most important, a US public that had been divided over entry into the war became united at a stroke.

“No more did Americans ask whose fight it was or question what they should do about it,” wrote Prange.

As Prange also notes, it is likely that the US would have entered World War II at some point even if Pearl Harbor never happened. Whether US civilians would have universally supported such a move in the absence of a surprise attack is a great historical unknown.

As to what might have happened if the Pacific Fleet had repulsed its attackers, it’s quite possible that the fleet’s commander, Adm. Husband E. Kimmel, would have launched his battleships and carriers out on a mission to catch and destroy the Japanese, writes Ohio State University military historian Mark Grimsley.

Kimmel was an offensive-minded commander who dreamed of replicating the victories of the great British admirals of the past. Within several weeks he could have gathered US naval power near Wake Island for a possibly decisive encounter.

Both sides would have had eight battleships available for a fight, writes Mr. Grimsley. The Japanese would have had a slight edge in aircraft carriers, but the US would have benefited from land-based planes from Wake Island bases.

The outcome would have been impossible to predict. A US victory could have greatly shortened the Pacific War. But “a decisive American defeat would have been far worse than the historical Pearl Harbor attack,” writes Grimsely. “Most of the vessels damaged or sunk [at Pearl] were subsequently repaired and returned to action, whereas any warships lost in the Central Pacific would have disappeared beneath thousands of feet of water,” writes Grimsley on Military History magazine’s website.