The Congressional Pearl Harbor Investigation
May 14, 2018
Almost from the moment the Japanese planes returned to their ships after their devastating attack on Pearl Harbor, there were all kinds of conspiracy theories about how they could have pulled off such a large operation that took the United States by complete surprise. Some of these put President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the spotlight, claiming that he wanted war badly enough that he baited the Japanese into attacking an insufficiently-prepared Pearl Harbor. The Roberts Commission, which began its Pearl Harbor investigation immediately after the attack, placed the blame on the Commander of the US Pacific Fleet Husband E. Kimmel and Army General Walter Short, who was responsible for the defense of Hawaii. Despite this, the finger-pointing continued throughout the war, and so on September 11, 1945, while the nation still celebrated the victory over Japan, the Senate and House of Representatives approved a motion by Senate Majority Leader Alben Barkley (D-KY) to establish a committee to look into the events that unfolded on the eve of the war.
Known as the Joint Committee on the Investigation of the Pearl Harbor Attack or the Pearl Harbor Committee, the 10-member group was charged with sorting through the facts and circumstances that led up to the December 7, 1941 attack. The committee included an equal number of Senators and Representatives, and was chaired by Senator Barkley.
Though the committee was originally supposed to announce its findings by January 3, 1946, it was still calling witnesses up until May 1946. In total, from November 1945 to the following May, the committee had heard from 44 witnesses.
Among those called to testify were both Kimmel and Short, as well as former Secretary of State Cordell Hull and former US Ambassador to Japan Joseph Grew. When transcribed, the testimony ran to more than 5,000 pages, while supporting documents accounted for another 14,000.
Investigating the Attack
The Pearl Harbor Committee wasn’t the first investigation to look into the facts about the attack on Pearl Harbor and it wasn’t long into the inquiry before that became an issue. Committee members quickly became divided on whether or not documents that had been missing from other inquiries be located for the current examination.
Senator Owen Brewster (R-ME) pushed to have all documents pertaining to the attack available to the committee for further review, fearing that relevant information would be withheld. So long as it was relevant to the analysis of the Pearl Harbor attack, Brewster wanted access to it and his proposal included allowing committee members a chance to review all records.
In the end, most of the committee disagreed, and his resolution was denied in a party-line vote. Brewster wouldn’t give up, however, and together with Senator Homer Ferguson (R-MI), continued to fight for full disclosure of all records. The two took their concerns to the Senate floor, complaining that, unlike prior investigations, they weren’t being “granted the same latitude in the examination of governmental records that was always afforded without question [to other commissions of inquiry].”
As often happens in political investigations, the committee began to be less focused on determining who was at fault for the Pearl Harbor attack and more about protecting party interests. In response to Brewster and Ferguson’s demands, Senator James Tunnell (D-DE) spoke out against them, stating that the open access to records was really a means to “dig up something” against the late President of the United States Franklin Roosevelt. Brewster fired back, vehemently asserting that his only desire was to explore all available files to come to a conclusive resolution.
The bickering among committee members caused the Pearl Harbor investigation to stall frequently, specifically when it came to procedures. The committee wound up debating the processes of reviewing documents more than they seemed to actually review anything about the attack.
According to the final report filed by the Pearl Harbor Committee, “[t]he ultimate responsibility for the attack and its results rests upon Japan.” The committee found multiple errors in judgement, but dismissed the accusations of dereliction of duty that had been placed on Kimmel and Short in the findings of the Roberts Commission.
Senators Brewster and Ferguson produced their own minority report. As expected, the two dismissed the majority’s findings, claiming that “[w]hen all the testimony, papers, documents, exhibits, and other evidence duly laid before the committee are reviewed, it becomes apparent that the record is far from complete.”
Though the Congressional Pearl Harbor investigation didn’t produce any blockbuster findings, recommendations from its final report led to the passage of the National Security Act of 1947, the creation of the CIA, and the foundation of the modern Department of Defense.