From Waterloo to Pearl Harbor: How We Understand National Security Events
Takuma Melber (translated by Nick Somers), Pearl Harbor: Japan’s Attack and America’s Entry into World War II (Polity Press, 2020).
Although there’s no shortage of hot takes and policy prognostications, it will be a long, long time before national security scholars can hope to derive enduring lessons about the start of the Russo-Ukrainian War. The historiography of major national security events unfolds as an evolving, multi-decade affair. The distance of time, growing availability of new sources, and interpretation of those sources advances and improves our understanding of such events — and reminds us of their complexity as we seek to learn enduring lessons from them. Though published eight decades after its subject, Takuma Melber’s history of Pearl Harbor is a useful contribution to our evolving understanding of the attack as an event and as a case study.
In the immediate aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the lesson that policymakers drew from the event as a case study seemed to be “firm resolve is the best approach.” After more became known, firm resolve was joined by “and hope you get lucky.” The Missile Crisis is an illustrative example of how historiography evolves following major events in national security. In its immediate aftermath, instant histories were limited largely to newspaper and magazine accounts. These were woefully incomplete compared with our modern understanding, not least because many details were either politically sensitive, formally classified, locked away in Soviet or Cuban files, or some combination of the three. Western accounts tended to repeat the official U.S. version of events: surprise Soviet aggression, determined U.S. response, Soviet capitulation. Correspondingly, lessons drawn from the crisis have shifted on the strength of new, more complete information. This was particularly true once more became known in the West about Soviet and Cuban leadership actions — and the presence of Soviet tactical nuclear weapons in and near Cuba. Robert Kennedy’s Thirteen Days claimed to offer the first truly comprehensive insider account of the political, military, and intelligence elements of the crisis just seven years on. Yet it would essentially serve as a key pillar of what Thomas Blanton calls the Cuban Missile Crisis “myth, midwifed by the Kennedy family and its hagiographers.” Various myths put forward in Thirteen Days and by other Kennedy administration insiders would sidestep, among other things, the direct quid pro quo agreement to remove U.S. missiles from Turkey and administration complicity in intelligence collection limits that forestalled American discovery of the missiles. Indeed, it would take (among others) Michael Dobbs’s One Minute to Midnight (2008) and David Barrett and Max Holland’s Blind Over Cuba (2012) to provide a thorough accounting for many of the omissions and errors of Thirteen Days.
The historiography of major national security events continues to evolve even after most primary source material has been uncovered. Any event will see newly uncovered primary sources, memoirs, and interviews in the years and decades that follow — but these eventually dwindle as the archives are thoroughly researched and protagonists pass away. There are likely not any narrative-shattering primary-source discoveries to be made regarding the Battle of Waterloo. Yet Waterloo’s story can be told better, more expansively, and more inclusively. Historiography evolves as previously unheard voices and perspectives are raised. Erik Larson’s 2015 Dead Wake, for example, did this for the story of the Lusitania. Few of the key facts or sources at the center of Larson’s work were fundamentally “new” — the majority were known to Lusitania historians and had surfaced in one venue or another in the century since the liner’s sinking. Yet Larson told the story in a new way — in his case, by constantly shifting perspectives among various participants (German submariners, Lusitania passengers, British signals analysts) as his chronology moved forward.
Always Something New
General histories of Pearl Harbor as an event have evolved significantly, from initial dramatic retelling of the event to focused study of the attack as a warning intelligence case study, to detailed, seemingly exhaustive histories drawn from the greatest breadth of archival materials, to highly readable, journalistic repackaging of the existing narratives 75 years on. The particular role of signals intelligence in this story has perhaps changed the most, as new sources have come to public light in just the past few decades, leading to serious reevaluation of initial assessments.
Melber, a lecturer at the University of Heidelberg, employs both his military history expertise and his Japanese language skills in this work. To be sure, if measured by quantity, the majority of Melber’s sources and data points are not presented here for the first time. Most of his historical narrative, verbatim quotes, and other facts and figures have appeared in one Pearl Harbor work or another over the past 80 years. Yet his work’s contribution to Pearl Harbor historiography is its folding of Japanese-language primary and secondary sources into an accessible, yet comprehensive, English-language narrative that weighs in at under 200 pages. (Melber published an earlier, German-language version in 2016.) In particular, Melber’s first 70 pages provide a fascinating look at the inner workings of Japanese political, military, and diplomatic circles. Drawing upon the Japanese-language memoirs of Japan’s ambassador to the United States, Nomura Kichisaburō, previously unpublished letters and diaries, and Japanese-language histories of the period, Melber paints a mosaic of hawks and doves, idealists and realists in Japanese circles, whose ultimate decisions were the result both of individual relationships and outside drivers.
Melber clearly outlines the outcomes of the actions on Dec. 7, 1941 as the result of large, geostrategic drivers: the complex (if not convoluted) inner workings of American and Japanese military, diplomatic, and political systems, as well as individual decisions made by individual actors that would have far-reaching consequences, especially in planning and executing the attack. Too much focus on any of these categories could lead a reader to under-appreciate the impact of the others. Pearl Harbor, like Larson’s Dead Wake, encourages readers to understand that no one category of action proceeded in a vacuum. The ultimate Japanese decision to attack, for example, was the simultaneous product of geostrategic realities (especially resource limits), previous political decision-making (the ongoing war in China), political upheaval in the Japanese government, military timetables (to successfully execute the necessary timeline of the plan for Pearl Harbor), and individual action (the bold planning of Isoroku Yamamoto and Minoru Genda).
Similarly, the failure of American intelligence to warn of the attack was the product of an institutional lack of focus on the Japanese threat compared to the war in Europe, a flawed American intelligence structure, and failings by individual analysts and commanders who should have been better postured against the threat of a Japanese air attack on Pearl Harbor. This kaleidoscope of drivers is not brand-new information — nor is it something that previous Pearl Harbor historians like Gordon Prange would challenge — but it is presented in a compelling, succinct, and well-sourced manner. Melber’s work reminds us that, as is so often the case, when we ask questions like “which was the most important reason for a major military attack?” or “which was the most important cause of a major intelligence failure?” the answer is correctly “yes.”
Melber’s work is not flawless. In recounting heightened tensions between the United States and Japan in the summer of 1941, he hints at a false equivalency between American and Japanese considerations of pre-emptive attacks, citing President Franklin Roosevelt’s authorization of sales of U.S. bomber and attack aircraft to China for use by Claire Chennault’s “Flying Tigers” American Volunteer Group to attack Japanese industrial targets. Melber frames this as “authorizing a military operation initiated by Chennault.” In point of fact, Roosevelt did no such thing — providing aircraft to the friendly Chinese government for use by the American Volunteer Group (regardless of what Roosevelt believed they might be used for) was not, as Melber puts it, “a pre-emptive American strike.” (Indeed, while not reflective of the larger character of Melber’s work, mischaracterizations like this illustrate the historiography challenge even decades on. General readers unfamiliar with the source material may be led to believe this is a widely accepted interpretation of the Roosevelt administration’s approach to possible preemptive attack — it is not, but may slightly bend the arc of Pearl Harbor’s evolving historiography in the wrong direction.) Later, in listing attack indications missed by U.S. intelligence, Melber notes a report from U.S. Ambassador Joseph Grew that a representative from the Peruvian embassy in Tokyo passed word that Japan’s opening attack in a future war with the U.S. would be a large-scale attack on Pearl Harbor. This report, widely addressed in existing Pearl Harbor literature, was rightfully ignored by U.S. intelligence: subsequent Office of Naval Intelligence research traced the source of the report to a rumor heard by a Japanese cook at the Peruvian embassy in December 1940, a month before Yamamoto had even proposed his attack plan to Japanese military leadership. The rumor, in turn, almost certainly originated from popular Japanese military fiction novels speculating about a future Pacific war rather than any insider knowledge of the attack. This cable from Grew has long fascinated Pearl Harbor historians, given what transpired nearly a year later — but, counter to Melber’s assertion that the War Department should be “reproached” for ignoring this report, U.S. intelligence was correct to discount it as having no clear basis in actual Japanese planning at the time.
One dynamic that Melber’s work helpfully illustrates is the elaborate, interwoven, interdependent nature of drivers when it comes to national policy as it moves forward in real time (rather than as we perceive it looking back). So many treatments of Pearl Harbor treat the Dec. 7 attack as an inevitable, singular conclusion toward which U.S. and Japanese foreign and military policy were marching together for months (if not years). Studies focused on the military and intelligence dynamics of the attack especially tend to start a clock running either in September 1940 (with the United States issuing major economic sanctions following Japan’s invasion of Indochina) or January 1941 (when Yamamoto secured approval to begin planning a carrier aviation strike on Pearl Harbor). Melber’s use of new Japanese primary sources and his book’s narrative focus on developments in the Japanese government in the summer and early autumn of 1941 make clear the terribly complex, often personal drivers behind Japan’s ultimate decision to move forward with the attack. Again, these dynamics have been addressed elsewhere — in general histories of World War II and the onset of the war between the United States and Japan — but Melber’s coupling of this deeper background to the specific attack on Pearl Harbor is what gives the book unique value.
A sub-element of these complex dynamics is the individual role played by each political, military, and diplomatic leader on both sides of the situation. While many individual details have appeared in other forums, Melber’s focused use of memoirs, individual correspondence, official government records, and sources previously unseen in English-language histories richly evokes the chaotic, incomplete, and confusing picture seen by individual diplomats and politicians. Just as Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali’s One Hell Of A Gamble tells a breakneck-pace tale of suspicion, intrigue, and misestimation during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Melber’s work provides a similar service for the months and weeks preceding Pearl Harbor. As the book culminates in parallel narratives of final Japanese attack preparations — and ultimate American failure to detect and adequately posture against them — Melber’s narrative approach reinforces and succinctly recounts the intelligence lessons for both the United States and Japan put forward by Prange, Steve Twomey, and others. Both the flawed American intelligence system and individual poor decisions abetted warning failure at Pearl Harbor. But similar systemic and individual failings led Japan to fundamentally misestimate the prospects for long-term military victory following any surprise attack on the United States in the Pacific.
My father — a history professor and U.S. Air Force Reserve officer — was asked in 1978 to assemble a case study on the topic of warning intelligence for what is now the National Intelligence University. Some colleagues felt he should use a contemporary example to connect with students, who were mid-career warning intelligence specialists. He decided instead to reach back nearly four decades to Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. The Tet Offensive (1968), Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia (1968), and 1973 October Surprise all seemed more fresh and relevant. As he and I have described elsewhere, however, Pearl Harbor avoided some of the deep emotions, bureaucratic biases, and source material limits that plagued the historiography of those other, more recent events. Pearl Harbor offered a better case for which more details were known — indeed, could be known — because of this distance of time, the resulting availability of primary sources, and the analysis and reanalysis of journalists, academics, and other observers that shaped, updated, and improved Pearl Harbor’s historiography. Looking back over the eight decades of Pearl Harbor historiography, while my father was correct about the relative historiographic viability of Pearl Harbor in 1978, he could not hope to have known just how much more we would learn — and how much perspectives would change — over the next four decades.
Historical examples and case studies form the bedrock of so much national security thinking. It is seen most often in the trope of comparative metaphors, usually grounded in one German city or another (e.g., is each new international crisis 1938 Munich or 1961 Berlin?) The historiography of events like Pearl Harbor offers a cautionary reminder of Francis Gavin’s recommendation to think historically: “many facts have to be collected, shaved down to look alike, then aggregated and analyzed to discover generalizable laws of the universe.” Our understanding of Pearl Harbor — and the lessons that we might reasonably draw from it — continues to evolve eight decades later. Given how much national security professionals and educators rely on such case studies as data and reference points for their work today, we all have a responsibility to stay current with the latest histories — and remind ourselves of their complexity as we seek to learn enduring lessons from them.
Joseph Caddell is an adjunct assistant professor with the National Intelligence University, where he teaches graduate courses on intelligence collection, geospatial intelligence, and U.S. intelligence history. His research and analysis has been published in Intelligence and National Security, the International Journal of Intelligence and CounterIntelligence, Studies in Intelligence, and War on the Rocks.
All statements of fact, analysis, or opinion are the author’s and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Intelligence University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.