Borch, Fred and Daniel Martinez. Kimmel, Short, and Pearl Harbor: The Final Report Revealed. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 2005.
by Jason Smith, Ph.D. student
On December 7, 1941, the American military base at Pearl Harbor was attacked by Japanese aircraft killing 2,403 American servicemen, sinking or damaging eight battleships, and precipitating American entry into the Second World War. While strong anti-Japanese sentiment plunged the United States into war, the American military, government, and public also sought to determine who was responsible for the disaster. Much of the blame fell on the shoulders of Admiral Husband E. Kimmel and Lieutenant General Walter C. Short (respectively, the Navy and Army commanders at Pearl Harbor). The Roberts Commission, a five-member investigatory committee established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt after the attack, found both officers guilty of dereliction of duty. They were relieved of command in 1942 and forced to retire from active service. In the years following the verdict, Kimmel and Short sought to clear their names by shifting much of the blame to the Secretaries of Navy and War and to the President for not providing them with crucial information that was necessary for the defense of Hawaii. After Kimmel and Short died, their families continued to seek vindication through the reinstatement of each officer’s prewar rank.
The most recent installment in the Kimmel/Short saga concerns the Dorn Commission, a 1995 Department of Defense inquiry that sought to conclusively determine whether Kimmel and Short shouldered an unfair burden of blame for the failure to defend Hawaii. Given the information at their disposal, could the commanders have mitigated the losses that their forces sustained? In Kimmel, Short, and Pearl Harbor, authors Fred Borch and Daniel Martinez present the Dorn Report and analyze its findings in order to settle this question of culpability. Unfortunately, this book neither presents much in the way of new evidence nor proposes new conclusions for debate.
The report concludes that Admiral Kimmel and General Short failed to “anticipate and prepare for the possibility of surprise aerial attack” (46-47). Despite sufficient information from Washington, neither man appreciated Japanese capabilities, nor made adequate defensive preparations with the information at his disposal. The crux of the verdict maintained that both commanders were aware of imminent Japanese aerial attack via aircraft carrier (American intelligence had lost track of four Japanese aircraft carriers), that Hawaii was a potential target, and that historical precedent emphasized the possibility of a surprise attack preceding a declaration of war. To these charges Borch and Martinez add that Kimmel had one hour of tactical warning when a Japanese submarine was depth-charged and sunk near the harbor entrance. Consequently, the committee recommended that Kimmel and Short not be restored to their former rank. Although the report reaffirms Kimmel and Short’s ultimate negligence, it emphasizes that responsibility should also be shared broadly by government and military officials who failed to forward crucial intelligence to Hawaii. Both Borch, a member of the commission, and Martinez, chief historian of the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial, concur with this verdict.
The real disappointment for scholars of Pearl Harbor is that the material used to support the report’s verdict is almost entirely gleaned from secondary sources, including Gordon Prange’s definitive At Dawn We Slept. The Dorn Commission failed to unearth any significant new material. Thus readers who are familiar with Prange’s work will find little new information in this book.
There are also some minor problems in terms of content. Borch and Martinez claim that the potential capability of radar was discounted because “Short believed in his heart that an attack on Hawaii was impossible” (62). However, new evidence uncovered by the Dorn Commission itself quotes Short as saying, “An attack upon these [Hawaiian] islands is not impossible and in certain situations it might not be improbable” (54). Thus the authors’ premise that neither Short nor Kimmel appreciated the possibility of a Japanese attack is problematic. In addition, Borch and Martinez tout the Dorn Commission as “the only inquiry to be done outside the Army and Navy” (107). This claim is only partially true. Of the four members of the commission, two (Army Colonel Borch and Navy Commander Roger Scott) are members of the military services. These criticisms are minor considering the ultimate soundness of the commission’s findings.
Despite little original analysis, the work still has value, especially for the lay reader who may find Prange’s tome (889 pages) more thorough than necessary. Newcomers to the historiography of the attack will find Borch and Martinez’s comprehensive annotated bibliography a welcome resource. The authors also convincingly debunk the conspiracy theories centered on the premise that Franklin Roosevelt and other officials in Washington knew about the Japanese plan prior to the attack and let it occur in order to mollify isolationist rhetoric and drag the United States into the Second World War (see John Toland, Infamy: Pearl Harbor and Its Aftermath, in which the author contends that the Dutch army in Java intercepted and forwarded to the US Japanese messages predicting the attack on Pearl Harbor). To refute Toland and others with similar theories, Borch and Martinez cite Roosevelt’s love of the naval service to which he had served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, the need for total cooperation among the intelligence community in order for the conspiracy to remain secret, and also the participation of Kimmel and Short to ensure that Hawaii would not be adequately defended. Ultimately, Borch and Martinez contend that “Roosevelt did not want war with Japan in 1941…war on a second front was the last thing he wanted” (76).
On the whole, readers will find no new evidence in Kimmel, Short, and Pearl Harbor to either shift responsibility away from the two commanders or to incite new debate. Consequently, Gordon Prange’s At Dawn We Slept continues to be the standard reference. The lay reader, however, will find considerable merit in this concise and authoritative work.