Pearl Harbor was an unmitigated disaster. Taking the place of Husband E. Kimmel, then Commander-in-chief of the U. S. Pacific Fleet, would have made little difference in the management of the attack. There was simply not enough information available to Kimmel at the time to be able to avert the attack. We have to remember that the attack on Pearl Harbor occurred literally in broad daylight, in an era where communications and early detection systems were only a fraction as powerful as they are today.
Not only did this make effective reconnaissance extremely difficult, it opened people such as Kimmel to deliberate misdirection and a surprise attack by an enormous fleet of six aircraft carriers and over three hundred fifty aircraft. At least one theory exists that Kimmel was deliberately misled by the Pentagon and perhaps even President Roosevelt in order to allow the Japanese to attack the United States in a manner that would arouse public opinion in favor of war.
According to the version of events presented in Robert Stinnett’s book Day of Deceit, Commander Arthur McCollum had prepared a list of actions for President Roosevelt designed to provoke a surprise attack by the Japanese to allow the United States to join the war with public support. Stinnett’s suggestion would mean that the American government had been able to successfully gather intelligence revealing the plans of the Japanese – and then keep it a secret. Given the poor quality of information systems at the time, this is not impossible.
If this were in fact the situation, then nobody in Kimmel’s place would have been able to avert the disaster, as he had literally been set up for it. Even if Pearl Harbor’s susceptibility to Japanese airstrike had not been intentional, it would have been extremely difficult to create a scenario where the fleet would have been prepared for the attack. Simply due to the vastness of the Pacific Ocean and Hawaii’s sheer distance from the mainland States, a surprise attack could have come from any direction and with an enormous amount of manpower behind it.
Predicting it, with the limited aircraft available to the Pacific Fleet, would have been impossible. In fact, Kimmel himself was engaging in various standard military exercises, including a multiday expedition due west. The Japanese, despite being located mostly west of Hawaii, took a roundabout route and attacked from the north. Had the reconnaissance shortcomings been averted, and had Kimmel in fact been warned of the attack, there are two possibilities for action.
One would have been to move the fleet into the open sea and prepare for an engagement with the Japanese fleet. As it seems, this is the “valiant” thing to do when confronted with an approaching enemy, but unfortunately, I don’t think it would have been a very effective maneuver. The American fleet became aware of the Japanese attack only when it had already begun, once it had spotted a submarine periscope peering at the fleet.
There’s no way of knowing how long the submarines had already been there or how far in advance of the air forces they had been deployed. Mobilizing the fleet could have been a disaster for this reason, since submarines were a deadly force in the water throughout the war. Besides the threat of submarine, the possibility of being outmatched in the air is not difficult to imagine. Even without submarine support, a full contingent of carriers and the associated aircraft would have been nearly impossible to defeat with the anti-aircraft technology of the 1940’s.
We can all remember war movies where hundreds, if not thousands of rounds are fired to bring down just one enemy plane – and once the planes had been hit, it was standard Japanese practice to convert them into suicide bombs. This means that a sea encounter had the potential to be just as disastrous for the fleet, and much worse off for the men, as they would have been aboard the ships and impossible to rescue, unlike while they were in the harbor. Had I been in command that day, I would have allowed the attack to play out exactly as it did.
For such a major encounter, relatively few lives were lost, although the toll on equipment was high. Because mobilizing the fleet might have become an even worse defeat, as well as revealed the fact that the United States possessed advance knowledge of the attack, it would have made Pearl Harbor just another battle in the Pacific theatre – the first, to be sure, and possibly a disastrous one, but not the galvanizing surprise attack that it was. Instead, it became “a day that will live in infamy,” rousing the nation to a powerful counterattack.
This being the case, I find it unfair that Kimmel and his staff receive the primary blame for the events that transpired at Pearl Harbor. It is true that Kimmel could have done more aggressive reconnaissance had he suspected an attack, but long-range patrols were costly and time-consuming, and would not have revealed the Japanese position with certainty. And even had he had information about the attack, the alternative – stand and fight – was unattractive given the situation.
Following the event, Kimmel was demoted to the rank of two-star Rear Admiral, but in 1999, the US Senate recommended that he be exonerated and posthumously promoted to the rank of full Admiral. It’s not clear that this is undeserved. Bibliography “Reports of General MacArthur, prepared by his General Staff. ” Washington: US Government Print Office: 1996 ed. Stinnett, Robert. Day of Deceit: The Truth about FDR and Pearl Harbor. Touchstone: 2001