On This Day

pearl harbor, uss arizona, pearl harbor ship
Associated Press
The attack on Pearl Harbor

On This Day: McCollum Memo Delivered

October 07, 2011 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On Oct. 7, 1940, Lt. Cmdr. Arthur McCollum delivered a memo that proposed aggressive action against Japan, eventually raising speculation that the U.S. government tried to provoke the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Memo Advocates Action Against Japan

In the late 1930s, fascist states in Germany, Japan and Italy had begun annexing and invading neighboring countries. With the exception of Great Britain, their aggression went unanswered by the world’s superpowers. Russia and the United States remained neutral as Europe plunged into another world war.

The United States saw Great Britain as one of their strongest allies and provided as much support as they could, short of openly engaging in war. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt wanted to fight alongside British forces, but knew that American citizens wouldn’t consent to fight a foreign war.

On Oct. 7, 1940, Lt. Cmdr. Arthur McCollum of the Office of Naval Intelligence delivered a memo to Navy Capts. Walter Anderson and Dudley Knox, two of Roosevelt’s closest advisers.

McCollum wrote that it would be in the interest of the U.S. to go to war with Japan before Japan could provide support to Germany and Italy in their war against England, and before Germany and Italy could take action against the U.S. on behalf of Japan.

However, McCollum realized that it would be politically impractical for Roosevelt to declare war: “It is not believed that in the present state of political opinion the United States government is capable of declaring war against Japan without more ado; and it is barely possible that vigorous action on our part might lead the Japanese to modify their attitude.”

He presented an eight-step plan to provoke the Japanese to attack the United States. It included moving naval power toward Hawaii and the Philippines, and imposing trade embargos on Japan.

“If by these means Japan could be led to commit an overt act of war, so much the better. At all events we must be fully prepared to accept the threat of war,” the memo concludes.

Later Developments: Attack on Pearl Harbor

On Dec. 7, 1941, Japan launched an aerial attack on a U.S. Naval base in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Two waves of Japanese planes dropped bombs, torpedoes and other incendiary devices, sinking or damaging 21 vessels of the U.S. Pacific Fleet and destroying 188 aircraft within two hours. More than 2, 400 American military members and civilians died on the attack, according to the Naval Historical Center.

The next day, in a speech to Congress, President Roosevelt called Dec. 7, 1941, “a date which will live in infamy.” After the speech, Congress passed a declaration of war against Japan.

Opinion & Analysis: The Advance-Knowledge Debate

The McCollum memo was first introduced in Robert Stinnett’s 1999 book, “Day of Deceit,” which utilized the Freedom of Information Act to uncover the McCollum memo and other classified documents.

In a review for HistoryNet, Michael D. Hull praises the book. “Had the facts been released immediately after the war ended, the world’s view of American history would not have been ‘grossly distorted,’” he writes. “Highly detailed, reasoned and literate, Stinnett’s book is a triumph of historical scholarship and a valuable contribution to the record of World War II.”

Dr. Conrad Crane, research professor of military strategy at the U.S. Army War College, believes that Stinnett misinterpreted the McCollum memo and other intelligence documents, particularly decoded documents.

“Moreover, the McCollum proposal itself was designed to prevent war, not provoke it. A close reading shows that its recommendations were supposed to deter and contain Japan, while better preparing the United States for a future conflict in the Pacific,” writes Crane. “There is an offhand remark that an overt Japanese act of war would make it easier to garner public support for actions against Japan, but the document's intent was not to ensure that event happened.”

Most Recent Beyond The Headlines