For 75 years the descendants of Admiral Husband Kimmel have fought doggedly to restore the good name of the commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet on Dec. 7, 1941, which President Roosevelt described as a Day of Infamy.
This book should be of particular interest to Herald readers. One of Kimmel’s grandsons, Manning Kimmel IV, is managing partner of WRHI and affiliate stations. As did his father and uncle before him, Kimmel wants the record to show that his grandfather was made what one high-ranking Navy officer called a “necessary scapegoat” for the attack that cost more than 3,500 American casualties.
Many books have been written about America’s failure to anticipate the assault on Pearl Harbor. Some purport to prove that FDR sacrificed the fleet because he knew it would precipitate war against Nazi Germany. Summers and Swan, a husband-wife team whose earlier book on the 9/11 attacks was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize, dismiss that theory.
While they document missed opportunity after embarrassing blunder, after egregious judgment lapse in the months leading up to Dec. 7, they build a more credible thesis. The authors argue that arrogance of our leaders, from the White House down, led to a consensus that the Japanese wouldn’t dare attack the United States. Such arrogance, combined with inadequate intelligence, set the stage for disaster.
Among extenuating circumstances the authors cite in Kimmel’s defense was that he and his predecessor, among others, had warned about the danger of concentrating the fleet at Pearl Harbor. Also, Kimmel’s requests for more personnel and planes repeatedly were rebuffed, even though there were only enough operable planes under his command to patrol a fraction of the surrounding ocean.
But the most serious wrong dealt Kimmel was that he was denied critical information that could have alerted him to an imminent attack. He wasn’t told that a secret cryptanalysis program, known as MAGIC, allowed us to eavesdrop on messages between Tokyo and its embassies and consulates.
Among exchanges Kimmel wasn’t privy to was that Japanese agents in Hawaii had been ordered to report the precise location of every ship moored at Pearl. And just hours before Dec. 7, messages were intercepted ordering Japan’s missions abroad to destroy sensitive files because peace negotiations between the two countries had broken down. Several high-ranking officials concluded that war was about to break out. Kimmel received this alarming news hours after his fleet had been laid to waste.
The only excuse given for this colossal communications breakdown was that everyone with access to MAGIC assumed Kimmel had been in the loop.
President Roosevelt established a commission that found Kimmel and his Army counterpart, Lt. Gen. Walther Short, guilty of dereliction of duty. Both men were pressured into resigning.
Kimmel, who had received four stars upon his promotion to Pacific commander in chief, retired as a two-star rear admiral. He wasn’t allowed to reclaim the higher rank even though other personnel were retired at the highest rank held during the war.
He was denied public vindication because acknowledgment that MAGIC existed would have alerted the enemy that its code had been broken. Meanwhile, he was disgraced, the subject of accusatory headlines and the target of death threats.
Perhaps worst of all, one of the Navy’s most accomplished officers, was forced to sit out the war while superiors who should have shared responsibility for the calamity at Pearl Harbor escaped blame.
Kimmel would spend the rest of his life, hoping to set the record straight. He died at age 86 without the Navy ever acknowledging the injustices that were heaped upon him during the jingoistic uproar following that fateful day.
Nearly eight decades later, his family continues the fight to restore his good name — that and the two stars they believe are his due.
Terry Plumb is the retired editor of The Herald
A Matter of Honor, Pearl Harbor: Betrayal, Blame and a Family’s Quest for Justice
by Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan
528 pages, $35