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"Caught off guard: why didn’t America see Pearl Harbor" Topic

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Comments or corrections?

Tango0125 Jun 2020 9:25 p.m. PST


"The US knew, in the second half of 1941, that Japan was preparing for war in the western Pacific and south-east Asia. Tokyo needed to secure material for its military operations in China – principally oil, tin, bauxite and rubber. But Washington was never aware of the final details of these plans.

US strategists knew, of course, that a Japanese offensive would chiefly target Dutch and British possessions in south-east Asia, because it was there that the raw materials required to fuel Japan's imperial ambitions were located. They knew, also, that the US's military presence in the Philippines would at some point come into the crosshairs. For some time, it had been clear that Japan was war-minded. Emperor Hirohito's expansionist regime had been beating the war drum in Asia since it had entered Manchuria in 1931, and had begun military operations elsewhere in China in 1937. The world had seen the alacrity with which it had forced a humiliated France to submit to its demands in Indochina in June 1940, and had watched Japan sign the Tripartite Pact on 27 September 1940 with the European fascist aggressor nations, Germany and Italy…"
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Skarper26 Jun 2020 5:15 a.m. PST

Basically – they did see it coming and ignored the threat. Some kind of attack was expected and to an extent engineered.

That the attack fell on Hawaii and was so destructive [though not actually successful] was less foreseeable.

I thought that was more or less established now?

FWIW – Imperial Japan had been waging aggressive war since 1933 and was never going to be stopped by sanctions or rhetoric alone. So pushing them to make the first attack was probably essential and justifiable.

donlowry26 Jun 2020 10:36 a.m. PST

Because of the distance from Japan and because the shallow water in the harbor made ordinary torpedo attacks impossible.

Tango0126 Jun 2020 12:48 p.m. PST



Mark 126 Jun 2020 12:52 p.m. PST

Because conventional naval wisdom, since the dawn of the age of cannons, was that shore defenses dominate ships. Defended harbors were typically successfully attacked only by means of sabotage or landing sizeable forces on un-protected shores and marching inland to make a shore-ward land attack.

And naval hierarchies are typically studied in naval history, and steeped in the conventional wisdom such study imparts.

They were fully prepared for sabotage. And they were reasonably well prepared for a battle fleet sailing into view and challenging the harbor entrance.

And then … something else happened. The Japanese didn't do what the defenses were prepared for. How could such a thing happen?

Well, it happens all the time. You are very seldom taken by surprise by issues you prepare for. It is far more often the issues you do NOT prepare for that take you by surprise. In conflict it's almost predictable -- because if your adversary wants to surprise you, they are probably going to be very deliberate in choosing an approach that you have not demonstrated that you are prepared for.

I don't know why so many people fall into so many conspiracy theories for things that are easily explained by common behavior.

(aka: Mk 1)

Personal logo Mserafin Supporting Member of TMP26 Jun 2020 1:36 p.m. PST

The Japanese learned lessons from the Taranto raid, the US ignored them.

Legionarius26 Jun 2020 2:13 p.m. PST

20/20 hindsight works like a charm! Seriously, intelligence reports are analyzed at multiple levels and are assessed for their likelihood. In this case there was failure to interpret certain indicators at multiple levels. Such is war!

Bill N26 Jun 2020 3:50 p.m. PST

I think there is a difference between seeing the possibility of Japan initiating a war with a surprise attack and foreseeing that Japan would initiate it on December 7 with an air attack on Pearl Harbor along with attacks on the Philippines, Guam and Wake, while also initiating an assault on the British in Malaysia.

Skarper27 Jun 2020 6:03 a.m. PST

It was expected the Japanese would attack at some point and that this attack would use surprise to the maximum degree possible.

Looking back, attacking Pearl Harbour was probably a mistake. We know they sank battleships when they should have prioritised fuel depots and repair facilities. But I would go further.

Had they focused their efforts on other targets that could be more useful and not made such a high profile attack that could be portrayed as 'infamous' it might have made more sense.

Swarmaster1 Sponsoring Member of TMP27 Jun 2020 6:35 a.m. PST

This has been a research area for me for years. When stationed in PH I worked at many of the sites attacked that still showed damage (1970s). There were mistakes made by the US commanders that properly resulted in their dismissal, but there were also political games being played at the national level. Coupled with deceptive testimony by some officials in the inquiries, conspiracy theories were spun up. There are some recent books that are more factual, and balanced, than what we read in the 1960s-70s. Happy to make some recommendations, if people are interested. BTW, I'm (slowly) playtesting a series of what-if scenarios for December 1941 air combat that show the Japanese were really taking a tremendous series of risks with their attacks. Some basic Allied military competence, not hindsight, would have greatly lessened the damage, and significantly hindered the territorial gains Japan made.

thomalley27 Jun 2020 8:03 a.m. PST

Also, having broken the code didn't mean they were reading everything. They weren't even intercepting everything.

donlowry27 Jun 2020 8:43 a.m. PST

The Japanese learned lessons from the Taranto raid, the US ignored them.

Quite true.

Lee49427 Jun 2020 4:12 p.m. PST

Pearl Harbor was a set up plain and simple. The fleet was moved to Pearl from the West Coast as Bait … Japan would never have attacked the West Coast. The Oil Embargo and The Bait were designed to get the US into the war before Germany beat Russia. Recall that in late 1941 the Germans were at the gates of Moscow and it looked like Russia was through. Nobody was predicting the successful Russian Winter Counter Offensive.

So Roosevelt fervently hoped that the Japs would strike the Bait. The US carriers being at Sea was no convenient coincidence it was planned … if you doubt me Google Search Halsey Battle Order #1 … line one of which states the Enterprise is operating under wartime conditions … ON NOVEMVER 28 a full ten days before The Attack. We knew.

What we didn't know was that the Army would be so useless in defending a major base. Just to prove how pitifully they were prepared they let the same thing happen in the Philippines a day AFTER PEARL HARBOR. The only reason the Japs didn't sink more battleships there is that there were none there to sink.

So Roosevelt got his attack. His Day of Infamey. His War.

Albeit the resukts were way more costly that he had probably planned. But in the event the ships were sunk at anchor and so most were eventually raised and repaired. And thousands of crew who would have perished had the battleships been sunk at Sea were spared to crew new ships coming out of the shipyards. As and added boon the Japs spared our oil reserves, machine shops, dry docks and submarine pens and facilities, i.e. they left Pearl a functioning naval base for our Carriers and Subs.

Roosevelt desperately needed a way to get us in the war. Pearl Harbor was that way. Not a conspiracy THEORY. The hard TRUTH.

Mark 128 Jun 2020 4:34 p.m. PST

Not a conspiracy THEORY. The hard TRUTH.

Not truth. Simple conspiracy theory. Well, not simple, actually -- fairly convoluted. If you want to sell your conspiracy claptrap, please try making some sense first.

Pearl Harbor was a set up plain and simple…. designed to get the US into the war before Germany beat Russia. Recall that in late 1941 the Germans were at the gates of Moscow and it looked like Russia was through. Nobody was predicting the successful Russian Winter Counter Offensive.

Yeah, right. Nobody was predicting the successful Russian Winger Counter Offensive. I'll grant that. But another thing that nobody was predicting was that Germany would declare war on the US after Japan attacked. Nobody, not the Americans, the British, not even Hitler's own staff, were expecting that.

So how exactly was the master chess player Roosevelt supposed to turn a war between the Japanese and the Americans into a way to save Russia from the Germans?

Come on, I'd love to hear that one.

Have you ever read (or listened to) Roosevelt's address to the joint session of Congress on December 8? If you have, you might notice that it does not have the word "Germany" in it anywhere. Not even a single mention of the war in Europe, of the desire to protect Russia or Britain or even to protect America by stopping the Germans. Nope, not a single word.

The only reason that Pearl Harbor brought the US into the war against Germany was because Hitler decided to declare war on the US within the week

Even IF the master genius Roosevelt could mystically predict Hitler's response (like ANYONE had been able to predict Hitler up to that point?), what exactly did a war with Japan do to protect Moscow from the Panzers in December of 1941? After Roosevelt's master play, how many US M6 37mm AT guns were shipped to Russia in time to defend Moscow? How many M2 Medium Tanks were used for their winter offensive?

How many? Hmmm? Anyone? Ferris?

See for the conspiracy theory to work, you have to accept a US government that is so clever that it can fully predict how the Japanese and Germans will react at each and every point, so that the Washington can maneuver the Japanese and the Germans into doing their exact bidding … but at the same time you have to accept a US government that is completely unable to get US forces to prepare for the result. So the Japanese did exactly what we bid them to do, and the Germans did exactly what we bid them to do, and we knew exactly what they would do and when … but the US Navy and Army just stumbled along unprepared, and Washington had no guess about whether they would or wouldn't be ready.

Silly. Just plain silly.

Google Search Halsey Battle Order #1 … line one of which states the Enterprise is operating under wartime conditions …

That was Halsey's order to his crew. Not an order from Washington to Halsey. Halsey was a no-nonsense commander, and while his order may appear dramatic, it succeeded in getting his crew to pay attention. Pearl was a plum assignment, lots of liberty, lots of sunshine and pretty girls, and he wanted to shake his crew out of their lethargy.

And by the way, it is interesting that you make a big deal about line 1 stating the Enterprise was operating under war conditions, but make no mention that the ONLY threat mentioned to the crew in the order, under line 3, was the threat of enemy submarines … as in there was not one word about any risk posed by hostile aircraft, or any extra measures to be taken to defend from such. And his Order #2 gave explicit instructions to open fire and begin maneuvering in the case of unidentified submarine contact, but very explicitly NOT to open fire on unidentified air contacts until consulting with the captain (or when under deliberate attack).

So please explain to us, was the great conspiracy actually to get the Japanese to attack the US Pacific Fleet in Pearl Harbor by submarine?

The word from Washington was encapsulated in the war warning issued to Kimmel. Has nothing to do with Halsey, one of Kimmel's many subordinates.

The warning to Kimmel, on November 27, BEFORE Halsey sailed, was:

So yes, tensions were high. Naval intelligence picked up many indications that the Japanese were going to get more aggressive against US interests, or those of European nations we were trying to support.

After the war warning, Kimmel decided to immediately re-enforce his distant outposts. Is that somehow remarkable? Or is it simply what you would expect a commander to do?

In that case, why should Halsey's order be a surprise? Why should it be evidence of anything other than a no-nonsense commander doing his duty? If you were in command of a mission to re-enforce an outpost, and had been warned by your superiors that conflict seemed imminent, why would it be at all remarkable that you tried to shake the sleep out of the eyes of your crew?

And so TF-8, with Enterprise, was ordered to ferry a squadron of Marine fighter planes to Wake, and to return to Pearl by December 6. And TF-12, with Lexington, was ordered to depart on December 5 to ferry a squadron of Marine dive bombers to Midway.

Now seriously, if you actually knew the Japanese were going to strike at Pearl Harbor, how does that even make a single bit of sense? First, the USN did not consider the carriers to be their most important ships. Those were the battleships, and the battleships were ordered to stay in port under all those defenses.

And if there was some super-secret never documented unspoken unwritten protocol not disclosed to the USN fleet commanders that considered carriers to be more important than battleships, why would the carriers have both been ordered out with ONLY ONE DAY of overlap between their deployments? Halsey delayed his return and arrived on mid-day on December 7. There were no oders sent to him to instruct him to delay his return, so are we to believe the ubermaster chessplayers had secret mind-meld communications to let him know he must delay his return? Exactly how fine-tuned was the knowledge of the Japanese attack? To the day? To the hour? I mean, I can hardly imagine a worse scenario, if you wanted to defend your carriers, than having one of them steaming INTO the harbor at the time of the attack. So they must have known to the hour right? Sure, you believe that, don't you?

Not only must the conspiracy define why the carriers were sent out in such piecemeal fashion, but also why they were sent north-westwards, TOWARDS Japan, and even TOWARDS the Kido Butai striking fleet, rather than towards safety to the East. So let's hear the explanation for that.

If you wanted to protect your carriers but just accidentally sent them out in the wrong direction, or even if you sent them that was deliberately to ambush the Japanese, WHY would you send them out with their decks full of Marine planes whose pilots where not carrier-qualified? Yeah, that's the first thing I'd do, send my "oh I have to keep them safe" assets towards an enemy that outnumbers them 3-to-1, but send them out one at a time so they can actually each be outnumbered 6-to-1, after first placing them in a condition in which they could not fight a naval engagement.

Sure, it all fits into the perfect plan, in someone's imagination. Not in the real world.

(aka: Mk 1)

Tango0128 Jun 2020 9:30 p.m. PST

Quite interesting….


Personal logo deadhead Supporting Member of TMP29 Jun 2020 1:35 a.m. PST

The whole story still carries an important message of multiple system failure, because of complacency and lack of preparation.

In my former work we often had new monitoring systems (eg a device that watched out for risk of facial nerve damage) introduced, which never actually went off. Until one day they did, but no one could see any problem. So what do you do, when it keeps doing this? You switch it off.

Just like a radar set that sees nothing day after day, until one day it does.

Mark 129 Jun 2020 2:53 p.m. PST

The whole story still carries an important message of multiple system failure, because of complacency and lack of preparation.

Quite agree.

But I would add, that there are a few more issues than just complacency and lack of preparation, that are found behind most cases of multiple system failures.

First, as anyone who has ever worked in a large organization probably knows, it is exceedingly difficult to get any organization of more than 30 or 40 people to behave as a monolith. Individuals wander off in their own directions in their daily work. Keeping them all on the same path, on the same track, on a daily basis is very challenging. So there are always individual weak links in a complex system solution that involves actual human beings.

Second is that, as you have noted, sensor inputs (or any type of inputs) may be easily seen as important after the fact, but are often not obviously important before the fact. There are typically hundreds and even thousands of inputs, and 2 or 3 are picked out after the fact for those who want to point fingers and say "see, it was obvious!". Well, when you are sorting through hundreds of inputs, it isn't obvious. Having data triage mechanisms becomes important -- here are the 20 most significant data inputs out of 200. OK, with 20 maybe you can actually pay each one enough attention to discern that 2 or 3 might be important enough to raise the alarm. But then, how good are your data triage mechanisms? Have you filtered OUT the important inputs rather than highlighting them?

Third is the management of information flow in hierarchies. Everyone in a hierarchy, even (and perhaps particularly) those who are very conscientious about their duties, will want to add value to communications that cross their desks. With that, every level of the hierarchy will add "delay" and/or "noise" to the signal. The technical rating sees something on the radar. Does he put enough attention into it raise the alarm to his NCO? If he does, does his NCO recognize the importance of this one rating's observation to report it to the officer of the day? And does he add his own interpretation? If he does, does that officer, who sees perhaps dozens of NCO inputs, see this one as important enough to pass it up the line? And if he does, does he pass it up the line immediately and urgently, or just as another item buried in the routine information package that flows each day. Does he add his own comments on how he interprets the observation? By the time anyone with the authority to do something about the observation gets the observation, is it too late to do anything about it, and does the information have any resemblance to what was originally observed?

All of these issues are commonly understood now, after so many decades of work on organizational behavior and technology management in so many business and engineering schools. But in the 1930s these were not topics that were studied and taught at universities across the country.

(aka: Mk 1)

Blutarski29 Jun 2020 7:24 p.m. PST

Lee494 makes a perfectly cogent argument. Is it correct? We will NEVER know. But the US government (i.e., FDR's inner circle) was well aware that the US had it within its power to very quickly collapse the Japanese economy at any time of its choosing; they assured the British government of this fact as a means of placating their concern about possible aggressive moves by Japan towards Malaya and Singapore. Furthermore, they had to know that the forward positioning of the US Pacific Fleet from the US west coast to the Hawaiian Islands could not be viewed by Japan as anything other than a direct military provocation. We can argue about what FDR's people really anticipated as the likely Japanese response, but it appears (to me at least) that they were not terribly concerned one way or the other. To imagine that the US failed to consider an outbreak of war as a distinct possibility is IMO impossible to swallow.

Read "The History of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in World War II – The War Against Japan".


Marc33594 Supporting Member of TMP30 Jun 2020 6:07 a.m. PST

Second is that, as you have noted, sensor inputs (or any type of inputs) may be easily seen as important after the fact, but are often not obviously important before the fact. There are typically hundreds and even thousands of inputs, and 2 or 3 are picked out after the fact for those who want to point fingers and say "see, it was obvious!". Well, when you are sorting through hundreds of inputs, it isn't obvious.

Every curriculum for training new intelligence analysts for every US Intelligence agency I know of has always either required or highly suggested Roberta Wohlstetter's "Pearl Harbor: Warning & Decision". The concept of "signals" to "noise" ratio (freely borrowed from radar concepts) is critical not only to Pearl Harbor but the intelligence profession as a whole.

If you are going to argue the signs were clear and you have not read this work or, at the very least, have a firm grasp of the main concept then your argument is built on a poor foundation at best.

Personal logo deadhead Supporting Member of TMP30 Jun 2020 7:31 a.m. PST

Mark I that is a superb analysis 0f system failures. You expressed it far better than I did.

Marc335944, I have just ordered from Amazon UK!

Marc33594 Supporting Member of TMP30 Jun 2020 8:01 a.m. PST

You won't regret it. For others here is an older book review by the CIA:

Tango0130 Jun 2020 3:03 p.m. PST



Lee49430 Jun 2020 4:10 p.m. PST

Mark 1. Life is too short to respond to all of your criticisms of my post so I'll stick to the major ones. And the answers are obvious so I'd have thought you knew them. But here goes.

1. War with Japan did not guarantee war with Germany. True. But being at war was one giant step closer than sitting on the sidelines. Roosevelt was astute enough to realize that once at war including Germany as an opponent would be infinitely easier than otherwise. It doesn't take much imagination to see the many ways that goal could have been readily accomplished.

2. Pearl Harbor doesn't help Russia in 1941. Well of course not! With less than a month left in 1941 nothing would help. The real help came in 1942. No intention here of rearguing the impact of Lend Lease, but again the US position to aid Russia was much stronger as a participant than a bystander. It also meant that Russian had no worries about a possible Second Front with Japan. They say Stalin knew Japan WOULD not attack. After Pearl Harbor they COULD not attack. Major difference.

3. Ferrying the planes to Wake and Midway. A Ruse. They were out there looking for the Japanese Fleet albeit in the wrong places. Hence Halsey's order to the crew … BTW I never claimed it was from Washington.

The US Top Brass were not stupid. The Old Slow Dinosaur Battleships at Pearl could not fend off a major Japanese Air Attack AT SEA. Their best shot was under the protection of the AAC planes at Pearl.

Approach this like a gamer. According to American Thinking at Pearl you have over 100 fighters for air cover (at sea less that half that number). You still have all the ships AA. The enemy can't use Torpedos. If a Battleship gets sunk in harbor most of the crew survives and you simply refloat it. And with your carriers out on patrol maybe you discover and thwart the attack or at least blunt it without losing your Cause for War.

If I had needed to get into WWII moving the fleet to Pearl, goading the Japs into attacking it and making sure it was IN PEARL when attacked is exactly what I would have done to provoke WWII with the least damage to our forces. That the Army was so inept at defending Pearl even with the War Warnings, that the Japs figured out how to use torpedoes and cause massively more damage than anticipated, and that a lucky hit would blow up the USA Arizona just proves how a Perfect Plan can go awry.

Consider this though … The Jap Plan was to take the US out of the War. The US Plan was to get the US into the war. Fast forward which plan worked better? Short term and long term.

Roosevelt was a genius. Pearl was planned. Fact not Fiction.

donlowry30 Jun 2020 6:05 p.m. PST

To imagine that the US failed to consider an outbreak of war as a distinct possibility is IMO impossible to swallow. </>

But an outbreak of war and starting it with an attack on Pearl Harbor are two different questions!

Blutarski01 Jul 2020 10:47 a.m. PST

donlowry wrote – "But an outbreak of war and starting it with an attack on Pearl Harbor are two different questions!"

Hi don,
I suggest that it is necessary to view this in the context of the US domestic political situation at the time. Given the strong isolationist sentiments among the American public, an unprovoked US declaration of war against anyone was HIGHLY unlikely to pass Congress. Roosevelt required some dramatic military provocation against the US to wave as a bloody flag in order to enrage the American public into supporting a war. Roosevelt got what he needed through a rapidly escalated campaign of economic provocations against Japan until they provided him the necessary excuse.

Japan's only other option was to surrender its entire national strategy to achieve status as a independent major power (like Great Britain, for example), and accept a future as a vassal or glorified client state of the West.

Strictly my opinion, of course.


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