A Pearl Harbor Conspiracy?

November 29, 2010

If you’re a history buff like me, a good historical mystery or controversy can make for excellent reading, even if you have doubts as to how mysterious or controversial the subject is. For example, did the American Government and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt have advance information about Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and was this fact later suppressed, either to conceal incompetence or because the President wanted an act of aggression to force American into war with the Axis Powers?

One of the most written-about pieces of this historical puzzle is the so-called “West Wind Execute” message, Japan’s code phrase to advise its diplomats abroad that an attack on America was imminent. In West Wind Clear: Cryptology and the Winds Message Controversy – a Documentary History, the National Security Agency’s Center for Cryptologic History has tackled the complex history of this message, when it was sent, and why its existence or non-existence has exercised the imaginations of academics, amateur historians, and conspiracy buffs since the 1940s. Crucially, it includes many key documents, some never before published, dealing with the voluminous Japanese signals traffic leading up to the Pearl Harbor attack and the timing of signals interception and decoding.

The thrust of West Wind Clear, which is backed up by meticulous and extensive research and documentation, is that the Winds messages did exist, but they were only one string among many Japanese communications instructing diplomats to burn their code books and take other 11th hour measures to prepare for war. In fact, the actual West Wind Execute message was broadcast after the attack began. The authors state that the main source of continuing debate over the “who knew and when” question resulted from a number of contradictory statements by a well-respected American cryptographer, Captain Laurence Safford, USN, whose reliability as a witness was undermined during the hearings of the 1946  Joint Congressional Committee investigation of the Pearl Harbor debacle. He was unable to produce any documentary evidence and was shown to have changed his story of a pre-December 7 West Wind Execute message numerous times.

Despite these findings from a committee whose members included some who gladly would have found neglect or malfeasance at the root of the Roosevelt Administration’s handling of the run-up to war, the West Wind controversy has persisted in popular accounts that lent credibility to the stories of Safford and Ralph Briggs, a radio operator who many years after the fact claimed to recollect a West Wind Execute message before the attack.

West Wind Clear makes a strong and well-documented case against a suppressed warning of war. For conspiracy theorists, who tend to operate within a closed intellectual system, no evidence is convincing enough, but to me, this story of bureaucratic confusion, stress, and misunderstanding seems much more authentic (and common) as an explanation for “the fog of war” surrounding the Winds messages. You can read this book here, order your own copy here, or find it in a library.

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