Aftermath of Pearl Harbor: The Roberts Commission

August 10, 2017

What exactly had happened? How did a fleet of over 400 enemy aircraft make its way across the Pacific undetected and into Hawaiian airspace? Why, over the course of two hours, did the Pearl Harbor and surrounding airfields suffer such devastating losses?

These were just some of the questions that arose after the attack on Pearl Harbor. In light of the utter lack of preparation that would have enabled the US Pacific Fleet to deter such an attack—despite the fact that American cryptographers were keeping an eye on Japan’s military and diplomatic communications—they seemed like reasonable questions.

Getting answers to them, however, would prove to be more complicated. Officials in every branch of the government seemed to point fingers in a different direction. After the confusion and back-and-forth accusations, the blame eventually fell on two men – Navy Admiral Husband E. Kimmel and Army General Walter Short, the commanders at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

The Roberts Commission

Roberts Commission

The Roberts Commission. L-R: McNarney, Standley, Roberts, Reeves, McCoy


To determine exactly what had happened to allow the events of Pearl Harbor to unfold in such a disastrous way, US Supreme Court Associate Justice Owen Josephus Roberts was chosen by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to head a commission with the sole purpose of investigating the facts related to the Pearl Harbor attack as they were reported by those closest to the tragedy.

Joining Justice Roberts on the commission were Admiral William H. Standley, General Frank R. McCoy, General Joseph T. McNarney, and Admiral Joseph M. Reeves. To determine what lapses and breakdowns occurred for the naval base to have been so ill-prepared for an attack from a nation the United States was closely watching, the commission interviewed 127 witnesses. Between December 22, 1941 and January 10, 1942, the five-member commission believed it had narrowed down the list of those who were to blame. Accusing them of dereliction of duty, Kimmel and Short were relieved of their duties.

Adm. Husband E. Kimmel (left); Gen. Walter Short

The Roberts Commission determined that both men had failed to act according to orders received from higher commands, which allegedly would have allowed the base to be ready for the Japanese strike force and even mount a counterattack.

Not surprisingly, neither Short nor Kimmel agreed with the commission’s findings, and several military officials spoke out for them, asserting that neither of them was given adequate information needed to best prepare for the impending attack.

The report went on to discuss factors other than just Short and Kimmel, also blaming the success of the attack on Japanese spies. No specific names were mentioned, instead generalizing them as “consular agents and other persons.” It’s believed that this, together with the accusations against Kimmel and Short, contributed to General John L. DeWitt’s decision to relocate Japanese Americans along the western coast of the United States, to prevent future blame from falling on him.

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