A Matter of Honor: Pearl Harbor: Betrayal, Blame, and a Family's Quest for Justice

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Release Date: 
November 14, 2016
Harper Collins
Reviewed by: 

“a tragic tale that has been a long time coming and 75 years in the telling.”  

As with many a controversial event, the tale is in the telling, and sometimes it takes a while to tell said tale. Considering the shock to the American psyche by the attack on Pearl Harbor and its multiple myths, mysteries, and unknowns, many authors have attempted over the past 75 years to wade through the mountain of material available on one of the seminal events of World War II.

These authors have covered the attack itself or even just an aspect of it. In this case, Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan have undertaken to provide the story behind the story of just who should bear responsibility for the virtual total unpreparedness of the United States prior to the attack.

It is primarily a story of intelligence failures, command failures, laying blame, scapegoating, and long sought and anticipated redemption on the part of the family of Admiral Husband Kimmel who was in command of the Pacific Fleet on December 7.

It is fairly common knowledge that the United States had cracked a variety of the codes used by the Japanese to encrypt their communications. Having, by and large, knowledge of the presumed enemies’ plans, one would think that it would be a simple thing to put two and two together. Yet when one considers that pieces of intelligence are like pieces of a puzzle, sometimes one does not see the forest for the trees.

Having all or many of the pieces doesn’t necessarily mean that the puzzle will be solved. Much like the case of 9/11, there was a failure to add two and two and reveal the big picture.

Even with much of the information to ascertain the enemy’s intentions, it also becomes a matter of what to do with said information without compromising the source. Cracking the Japanese codes also meant having to keep the enemy from knowing that and changing them, meaning that that knowledge had to be restricted to those with a need to know.

Admiral Kimmel was excluded from the need to know about the so-called “Purple” source of the information, and he was only kept informed, in a vague or roundabout way, by the chain of command that the Japanese were on the move, even possibly in the direction of Pearl Harbor, and to imminently expect an act of war. What information he did receive was sometimes vague or misinterpreted on the receiving end.

With the success of the attack, and humiliation and anger of the American public as to how this could have happened in spite of assurances to the contrary, Kimmel (and the Army’s commander in Hawaii, General Walter Short) became victims of political expediency in the search to lay blame, find a scapegoat, deflect criticism of Franklin Roosevelt’s administration, and protect the fact that the aforesaid codes had been compromised.

Consequently, Kimmel was forced, if not tricked, into retirement (as was Short) and spent much of the remainder of his life attempting to redeem himself and his reputation—the “matter of honor” referenced—yet was largely unsuccessful in dispelling the public’s impression that he was responsible for the debacle.

Since his death in 1968, the Kimmel family—his sons and grandsons primarily-- has continued to fight for his vindication, lobbying Secretaries of the Navy and Defense and Presidents to do the right thing in terms of the verdict of history. Their efforts continue even with the publication of this book.

The bibliography is somewhat short on government and other public documents, understandable perhaps given the actions of the military and Federal government officials in this instance, compared to secondary sources of other authors on Pearl Harbor and its various related aspects. Otherwise, it is well researched with extant materials. The notes reference a name, word, or short quote in the text as to the source of information.

In any event, Husband Kimmel was hung from the yardarm, so to speak, by superiors who failed, willfully or not, to provide the precise intelligence that he needed to properly discharge his duties, even without revealing the exact source. They came up short as well in the provision of the requested and requisite defense resources to counter the Japanese threat and protect the U.S. Pacific Fleet, resulting in our Day of Infamy.

His is a tragic tale that has been a long time coming and 75 years in the telling.