A short comment is no place to settle the controversies that have raged ever since the attack about what Roosevelt and his chief subordinates knew in advance, but one thing has been known for a long time: however “dastardly” the attack might have been, it was anything but “unprovoked.” Indeed, even admirers and defenders of Roosevelt, such as Robert B. Stinnett and George Victor, have documented provocations aplenty. (See the former’s Day of Deceit: The Truth about FDR and Pearl Harbor and the latter’s The Pearl Harbor Myth: Rethinking the Unthinkable.) On December 8, the same day that Roosevelt asked Congress for a declaration of war against Japan, former president Herbert Hoover wrote a private letter in which he remarked, “You and I know that this continuous putting pins in rattlesnakes finally got this country bitten.”
On the basis of facts accumulated over the past seven decades and available to anyone who cares to examine them, we are justified in saying that Hoover’s characterization of the war’s provocation was entirely accurate – both with regard to the Japanese imperial government as “rattlesnakes” and with regard to the U.S. government’s “putting pins in.” Indeed, we now have a much firmer basis for that characterization than Hoover could have had on December 8, 1941. Countless lies have been told, massive cover-ups have been staged, propaganda has flowed like a river, yet in this one regard, at least, the truth has undeniably been brought out.
Most American historians, of course, no longer bother to deny this truth. They simply take it in stride, presuming that the Japanese attack, by giving Roosevelt the public support he needed to bring the United States into the war against Germany through the “back door,” was a good thing for this country and for the world at large. Indeed, some actually shower the president with approbation for his mendacious maneuvering to wrench the American people away from their unsophisticated devotion to “isolationism.” In no small part, Roosevelt’s unrelenting dishonesty with the American people (Stanford University historian David M. Kennedy tactfully refers to the president’s “frequently cagey misrepresentations”) in 1940 and 1941 – plain enough if one reads nothing more than his pre-Pearl Harbor correspondence with Winston Churchill – is counted among his principal qualifications for “greatness” and for his (to my mind, incomprehensible) status as an American demigod.
I have noticed, however, that in polls of historians or lay persons to determine which presidents were “great,” the dead never have a vote. Lucky for Roosevelt.