In the little more than four decades since the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, historians, journalists, and participants have produced a tremendous volume of literature on the subject. For thirty-seven of those years, Gordon W. Prange researched the Pacific war and the events leading to its outbreak on December 7, 1941. Unfortunately, he did not live to see the results of his labors brought to fruition. Nevertheless, his massive work on Pearl Harbor, At Dawn We Slept: The Untold Story of Pearl Harbor, was completed and published in 1981 by two of his former students, Donald M. Goldstein and Katherine V. Dillon. Drawing on Prange’s vast research collections, these two authors also collaborated to produce Miracle at Midway (1982) and Target Tokyo: The Story of the Sorge Spy Ring (1984). Now Goldstein and Dillon have completed the prodigious sequel to At Dawn We Slept, entitled Pearl Harbor: The Verdict of History.
During World War II, Prange served on the United States Army Historical Staff and afterward was chief of the Historical Staff in Japan under General Douglas MacArthur. In 1949, he joined the faculty of the University of Maryland and taught there until his death. A prolific researcher, Prange was steeped in the details of the Pacific war. He believed that there were no villains in the Pearl Harbor story. Many individuals made mistakes both of commission and omission, but they did not do so with the sinister motive of thrusting the United States into a world war. In Pearl Harbor, Prange thus rejects the premise of many revisionist historians who maintain that conspiracy alone suffices to explain the ineptitude of American defense and intelligence systems prior to Pearl Harbor. The lack of preparedness in Hawaii on the fateful morning of December 7 sprang not from the seed of conspiracy but from the seed of lethargy—a seed widely sown in the United States during the 1930’s.
As that troubled decade progressed and ominous clouds of war began to gather on the horizon, there seemed to be two distinct groups in the United States who had a clearly defined foreign-policy agenda—isolationists and interventionists—and both were minorities. The vast majority of Americans languished between these two positions, neither demanding nor desiring decisive leadership at a time when circumstances called for precisely that. It is not surprising that these divisions in society were projected into the Congress. Appropriations for the army and navy were consistently reduced. In fact, the latter service did not reach its 1934 authorized strength level until 1944. Even more astounding is the fact that in 1941 the House of Representatives approved extension of the military draft by only one vote.
Prange does not place all the blame at the door of Congress. Between 1937 and 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Bureau of the Budget regularly made reductions in defense spending before giving Congress a chance to act. Prange also believes that Roosevelt and most of his advisers were too preoccupied with events in Europe to comprehend fully what was happening in Asia. Fearing that hostilities in the Pacific would divert American resources away from the more important European theater, Roosevelt adopted what Prange describes as an “overly placating attitude” toward Japan.
Indecision on the part of Congress and the administration was unfortunate. For the military, it was disastrous. Prange believes that there was a definite connection between the two. He quotes approvingly from an editorial in the Chicago Sun that “the mentality that prevailed at Pearl Harbor was the mentality that prevailed at home.” Although Prange does not excuse the military for its mistakes, he does suggest that a fair evaluation of the military’s performance in the months immediately prior to Pearl Harbor must take into account the paralyzing ambivalence that was so pervasive at the time.
Prange recounts in great detail the numerous paradoxical and ironic events that occurred in the months and weeks prior to the Japanese attack. He cites several instances where high-level officials in Washington, D.C., withheld vital...
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