Roundup: Media's Take
This is where we excerpt articles from the media that take a historical approach to events in the news.
Edward Epstein, in the San Francisco Chronicle (April 28, 2004):
The special committee formed to investigate what the president called an"unprovoked and dastardly attack" on the United States waded deep into controversy, interviewed dozens of witnesses and produced a 10 million-word record.
It issued a final report, blaming many involved in U.S. national security for failing to do their jobs and recommended sweeping changes to prevent a similar attack in the future.
In many ways, this sounds like the current bipartisan commission investigating the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, which is due to report by late July. But it's the tale of Congress' Joint Committee on the Investigation of the Pearl Harbor Attack, which in 1945-46 conducted the last of a host of inquiries, and the most complete, into Japan's Dec. 7, 1941, bombing of the U.S. Pacific fleet in Hawaii.
The similarities between the reports of the two commissions are striking. If a reader substitutes the words"Sept. 11" for"Pearl Harbor," at times the voluminous final report of the Pearl Harbor inquiry can induce a serious case of deja vu, raising the question of how much a nation caught napping in 1941 -- and again 60 years later -- has really learned.
"The committee has been intrigued throughout the Pearl Harbor proceedings by one enigmatical and paramount question: 'Why, with some of the finest intelligence available in our history, with the almost certain knowledge that war was at hand, with plans that contemplated the precise type of attack that was executed by Japan on the morning of December 7 -- why was it possible for a Pearl Harbor to occur?'" the final report asked.
The committee's report told a tale of complacency, poor communications between government agencies and officials' stubborn refusal to contemplate the seemingly impossible, even though an attack on Pearl Harbor had been the subject of military war games.
Flash forward to 2004, and the 10-member bipartisan commission has heard what previous inquiries into the Sept. 11 attacks learned -- that the FBI and CIA failed to share information with each other or within their own agencies, that investigators in the field were frustrated in getting their concerns heard by higher-ups, that Presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush might not have done all they could to pursue al Qaeda and its leader, Osama bin Laden, and that virtually everyone ignored indications that commercial planes could be hijacked and used as flying suicide bombs.
"We were drowning in a sea of intelligence both times," said Stanley Weintraub, author of"Long Day's Journey Into War: Pearl Harbor and a World at War."
"It was a matter of connecting the dots," he added.
The intelligence failure was much greater on Sept. 11 because"there were rather specific threats and the FBI knew of people training to fly planes, but not land them or take off," said Weintraub, a professor emeritus of history at Penn State University.
In contrast, Washington knew in 1941 that Japan was planning military action somewhere in the vast Pacific because Tokyo's diplomatic code had been broken. But no specific intelligence about the attack on Pearl Harbor was captured. Despite that, on Nov. 27, 1941, the commanders at Pearl Harbor, Navy Adm. Husband Kimmel and Army Gen. Walter Short, were sent a"war warning."
A series of inquiries that began just days after the attack found that the two didn't do enough to prepare for the attack that eventually killed 2,395 Americans and wounded 1,178.
In the face of the warnings,"the Japanese attack was a complete surprise to the commanders and they failed to make suitable dispositions to meet such an attack. Each failed properly to evaluate the seriousness of the situation. These errors of judgment were the effective causes for the success of the attack," the joint inquiry said. President Franklin D. Roosevelt sacked the two men days after the attack.
In interim reports and questioning by members, the current commission has been highly critical of the FBI and CIA, but it isn't clear yet what the panel's final report will say about the agencies or their leaders. The 1945-46 inquiry panned the government's performance before Dec. 7 but went out of its way to praise top leaders.
"The president, the secretary of state and high government officials made every possible effort, without sacrificing our national honor and endangering our security, to avert war with Japan," the report said.
As has happened since Sept. 11 with the criticism of Bush, conspiracy theories about what Roosevelt might have known before the attacks surfaced after Pearl Harbor and have become a cottage industry ever since.
Stanford historian David Kennedy, in his book"Freedom from Fear, The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945," had a simple explanation for such theories after Pearl Harbor, one that could just as easily apply to Sept. 11, 2001.
"Conspiracy theories proliferate, as they often do in the face of the improbable," he wrote.
The Pearl Harbor congressional inquiry dealt with the theories head-on.
"The committee has found no evidence to support the charges, made before and during the hearings, that the president, the secretary of state, the secretary of war or the secretary of Navy tricked, provoked, incited, cajoled or coerced Japan into attacking this nation in order that a declaration of war might be more easily obtained from the Congress," the report said.
One big difference between today and the 1940s is that none of the Pearl Harbor inquiries, which included a 1942 commission headed by Supreme Court Justice Owen Roberts, ever asked Roosevelt to appear before them, on or off the record.
In contrast, after protracted wrangling, Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney are scheduled to appear Thursday before the Sept. 11 commission in a private White House session."Roosevelt was such a Godlike figure," Weintraub said, that no one would think to question his judgment.
Since FDR had died in April 1945, the joint inquiry couldn't have questioned him anyway. In an arrangement that appears positively quaint by today's standards, the inquiry allowed Grace Tully, FDR's secretary, to go through White House files and"furnish the committee all papers in these files for the year 1941 relating to Japan, the imminence of war in the Pacific and general Far Eastern developments," it said.
John Nicholas, in the Nation (April 24, 2004):
History usually provides a roadmap for the present. Unfortunately, leaders fail to consult the map. That's certainly been the case as the 9/11 Commission has prepared to hear behind-closed-doors testimony from Vice President Dick Cheney and President George Bush at the same time.
Members of the commission and, for the most part, members of congress, have accepted the secret-testimony arrangement. But why?
Presidents have testified before investigatory committees before. And they have done so on comparable issues. Former US Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman reminds us that in 1974, amid the national firestorm that followed President Gerald Ford's pardon of former President Richard Nixon, Ford voluntarily appeared before a House subcommittee that was reviewing the pardon.
"The President came before the subcommittee, made an opening statement and was questioned by the House members. Although each of us had only five minutes, I was able to ask the President directly whether there had been a deal with Nixon about the pardon. The public could determine by Ford's demeanor and his words whether to believe his emphatic denial of any deal," recalls Holtzman, who as a young member of the House was a key player in the Judiciary Committee's investigation of the Watergate scandal.
"The fact that important questions could be posed directly to the President and the fact that the President was willing to face down his severest critics in public were healthy things for our country. And, not even the staunchest Republicans complained that the presidency was being demeaned."
By recalling the history, Holtzman reminds us that President Bush could, and
should, simply appear before the 9/11 Commission. There is no Constitutional
crisis here. There is no dangerous precedent that could be established. And
there is no question of proportionality--certainly, the intensity of the demands
for an explanation of the Nixon pardon can appropriately compared with those
for an explanation of how the current administration responded to terrorist
threats before and after the September 11, 2001 attacks. "As with the Nixon
pardon, the events of 9/11 have caused huge national concern," explains
Holtzman. "The victims' families--as well as millions of others--have asked
why it happened and what if anything could have been done to avert the tragedy.
These are simple, reasonable questions."
Eric Posner, professor of law at the University of Chicago, in the NYT (April 28, 2004):
The decision by the Coalition Provisional Authority to ease its policy barring former Baath Party members from Iraqi government jobs has generated widespread criticism in Iraqi political circles. Ahmed Chalabi, America's onetime favorite member of the Iraqi Governing Council, said that giving jobs to former Baathists was like "allowing Nazis into the German government immediately after World War II." But that's precisely the point the history of the last 50 years shows that countries trying to make transitions to democracy must inevitably bring back at least some members of the ousted regime.
After World War II, the allies resolved not only to punish Nazi war criminals but also to purge Nazism from German public life. Yet even before the Nuremberg trials had concluded, the Americans realized that they could not rebuild Germany without the help of at least some former Nazis who had dominated the bureaucracy, industry and the military. Although the worst Nazis were punished, most others were eventually given amnesty and went to work on reconstruction.
Simultaneously in Japan, transitional justice was even more perfunctory. From the beginning, the Americans decided that Emperor Hirohito would have to be retained so that the United States could exert control over the populace through him. His absence from the Tokyo trials of war leaders weakened that tribunal's impact, and soon enough many members of the wartime regime were allowed to help get the country back on its feet.
In both cases, the decisions to ease the purges were partly, but not entirely, realpolitik. Yes, America needed Germany and Japan as allies against the Soviet Union. But it also realized that neither place could become a functioning liberal democracy without the cooperation and expertise of the vast majority of those tainted by the previous governments. An endless occupation was not an attractive prospect just as it is not in Iraq now. The compromise in both Germany and Japan was a series of high-profile trials of the worst war criminals, followed by amnesty for most everyone else, many of whom were not only complicit in the old regime but responsible for some of its ugliest decisions.
This set the pattern for the next several decades in Spain, Greece, Portugal, Argentina, Chile, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland, the former East Germany, the Philippines, South Africa and elsewhere. Although in some cases moderate transitional justice measures were carried out including truth commissions, reparations, purges of leaders and collaborators, and trials of some lower-level officials like border guards most holdovers from the old regime were permitted to take part in the new.