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The Pearl Harbor Conspiracies: Did Someone Have Foreknowledge of the Attack?

Only days ago, December 7th, 2016 marked the 75th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack, which led the United States into World War II. As was famously said of the attack by then-president Franklin Roosevelt, it would be, and has remained, “a date which will live in infamy.”

But even 75 years after what, prior to the September 11th 2001 terror attacks, remained the worst attack on American soil in U.S. history, a number of questions still remain about this pivotal date. For instance, had there been significant foreknowledge of the event, and does this bolster various conspiracy theories that allege Pearl Harbor was “allowed to happen”, or other similar notions that run contrary to the traditional narrative of an unprovoked attack?

There is, in fact, some truth to the idea that foreknowledge existed of an imminent attack by the Japanese. Perhaps the most compelling evidence of this involves a 20-page memo, found within FDR’s own declassified FBI files in 2011. On December 4, just three days before the Pearl Harbor incident, the Office of Naval Intelligence sent a memorandum to FDR stating that, “In anticipation of open conflict with this country, Japan is vigorously utilizing every available agency to secure military, naval and commercial information, paying particular attention to the West Coast, the Panama Canal and the Territory of Hawaii.”

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Apart from this newly recovered memorandum, there had been existing reports already which indicated that Americans had observed the mobilization of Japanese military forces in the Pacific, and that FDR believed conflict was virtually unavoidable. However, the presumption at the time had been that such an attack would likely occur in the Philippines, and hence why American Forces in Hawaii were blindsided when the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor actually occurred.

There are more unusual things, however, which have been offered as evidence that someone might have had foreknowledge of an attack. One of the strangest occurred on November 22, when The New Yorker featured a number of unusual advertisements in its pages for a game called “The Deadly Double”. The copy associated with the ad read as follows:

“We hope you’ll never have to spend a long winter’s night in an air-raid shelter, but we were just thinking…it’s only common sense to be prepared. If you’re not too busy between now and Christmas, why not sit down and plan a list of the things you’ll want to have on hand…Canned goods, of course, and candles, Sterno, bottled water, sugar, coffee or tea, brandy, and plenty of cigarettes, sweaters and blankets, books or magazines, vitamin capsules…And though it’s no time, really, to be thinking of what’s fashionable, we bet that most of your friends will remember to include those intriguing dice and chips which make Chicago’s favorite game: THE DEADLY DOUBLE.”

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Interestingly, the ad in question also depicted a pair of six-sided dice, which displayed the numbers 12 and 7… numbers which obviously wouldn’t normally appear on a die with only six sides. Sine the numbers coincided with the date of the Pearl Harbor attack, some who took notice of this “coincidence” began to question whether it might actually be evidence, in one form or another, of a coded warning in advance of the attack.

LA Times writer Chapin Hall had been one such individual, who managed to track down the game’s creator, a man named Roger Paul Craig. When asked about the significance of the imagery, numbers, and the cryptic terminology in the ad, Craig denied any kind of foreknowledge about the Pearl Harbor attack, adding further that, “nothing travels as far and fast as a grossly inaccurate and malicious rumor.”

Maybe some coincidences, however stark and unusual they seem, really are just coincidences.

As for foreknowledge of an attack by the Japanese, history seems to tell us that, while we had no such specific information, there was nonetheless an expectation that conflict would shortly ensue. As Joseph Persico wrote in the New York Times in 2004, “Given the information in his possession, if asked if Japan was going to attack, Roosevelt would doubtless have answered yes.”

However, not as much can be said for theories that the Pearl Harbor base was already recognized as a specific target, or that entry into the war might have been seen as advantageous to FDR (which had probably been true, at least to some extent).

The rest, as they say, is history… though few would argue that the Pearl Harbor attack remains among the most pivotal moments in American history, and one in which the shadow of conflict will forever seem to linger.

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  • Dave Down Under

    Wasn’t one of the stories that the British suspected an attack but Churchill didn’t warn the USA in order to be more sure of bringing them into the war?

  • American Hawkman

    I don’t normally go for conspiracy theories, but coincidences like the Deadly Double bit and the disappearance of Thomas C. Latimore immediately prior to the attack makes me a believer in this one.

  • Martin Roy Hill

    The 20-page memo mentioned here is nothing new. The Roosevelt administration was well aware of Japanese aggression and the growing possibility of war. The possibility of war with Japan had been growing since the end of WWI. The administration ordered US Pacific forces onto a war alert but, unfortunately, the Army and Navy leadership in Hawaii didn’t take it seriously. Their racist thinking convinced them there was no way the Japanese could reach Hawaii. Even though the Army and Navy in Hawaii were supposed to be on war alert, soldiers and sailors were granted weekend leave. Those on duty were operating on holiday routine. Shipboard weapons and ammunition were stowed and secured, instead of being prepped. The same negligence on the part of the Navy would occur a few weeks later when the Germans launched Operation Drumbeat, the U-boat attacks on the east coast. Again, the Navy leadership refused to believe the Germans could attack the east coast even though they made U-boat attacks in US waters in WWI.

  • St Kos

    I remember a story in one of Frank Edwards books about graffiti that appeared on December 7th, 1940 that said, “Remember Pearl Harbor. I’ll have to see if I can find it.

  • Martin Roy Hill

    Capt. Eric Nave, an Australian Navy officer, broke the Japanese naval code in late 1939. Britain did not share the intel from the broken code with the US. http://www.nytimes.com/1993/07/13/obituaries/capt-eric-nave-94-broke-japan-s-code-before-pearl-harbor.html

  • Martin Roy Hill

    I don’t think the Latimore conspiracy theories make sense. As I said earlier, the FDR administration ordered the Pacific Forces onto a war alert; they were supposed to be expecting a Japanese attack. The local Army and Navy leaders poo-pooed the idea because they didn’t think the Japanese capable of such an attack–despite the fact Gen Billy Mitchell predicted such an attack on Pearl Harbor and a war with Japan back in the 1920s (one of the reason he was court-martialed). I think it more likely Latimore simply became lost in the outback, or fell, or suffered heat stroke, etc. I spent many years on a wilderness search and rescue team, and I know a lot of people who go missing are never found–especially in Latimore’s day when wilderness SAR wasn’t as much as a science as it is today.

  • Tyler Slauson

    War was inevitable and most officials knew this. The problem is that they did not know where the aggression would begin exactly. Clues were there but when you have tens of thousands of communications coming through, many simply disinformation, it makes it difficult to pinpoint. AT that time, aircraft carrier warfare was still new and not many people thought such an attack was possible. Prior knowledge was there but not the kind conspiracy theorists like to claim in regards to an exact date, time and place.

  • Dave Down Under