Post Hoc Prioritization

For a while, there has been a contrarian school of thought in historical study of WWII that FDR, wishing to have the US enter the way against a strong isolationist streak in the general population, purposefully ignored evidence of an impending Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor in order to create a casus belli.  A few historians have used some intelligence warmings combined with the insane un-preparedness of Pearl Harbor as their evidence.   Instapundit links to a new declassified memo that warns of Japanese interest in Hawaii just three days before the attack.

This is a fun but generally foolish game.  The same game was played after 9/11, pointing to a few scraps of intelligence that were "ignored."  But the problem in intelligence isn't always lack of information, but too much information.  In late 1941, the US government was getting warnings from everywhere about just about everything.   It is easy as a historian to pick out four or five warnings and say they were stupidly (or purposely) ignored, but this fails to address the real point -- that those warnings were accompanied by a thousand false or misleading ones at the same time.  The entire Pacific theater had already had a whole series of alerts in the months leading up to Dec 7, one false alarm after another.  It is Monday morning quarterbacking that strips the intelligence problem of its context.  To prove that something unusual happened, one would have to show that these warnings were processed or prioritized in a manner that was unusual for the time.

And sure, the readiness issue at Pearl Harbor is inexcusable.  But while historians can always find a few people at the time who argued that Pearl Harbor was the most logical attack target, this ignores the thousands in and outside the military who thought the very idea of so audacious an attack that far from Japan was absurd.   Historians are failing in their job when they strip these decisions of context (if you really, really want to get on someone about preparedness, how about McArthur, who allowed most of his air force to be shot up on the ground despite having prior notification of the Pearl Harbor attack hours before).


  1. Xmas:

    That's one of my favorite parts of "Tora! Tora! Tora!". The secretary of of the Navy acting all confused when the telegram about an attack at Pearl Harbor is occurring. He replies back "You mean the Phillipines!"

  2. steve:

    I think it is quite clear Roosevelt wanted a casus belli. I find it unconvincing he chose to sacrifice half the pacific fleet to get it. The embargoes and supplies to Britian would have provided one sooner or later. I suspect he wanted something more like the Lusitania. A few dozen dead Americans to whip up hysteria without actually impacting any war making capability.

  3. Bryan:

    One of my favorite authors has a quote about this which I have paraphrased (I keep a word file full of quotes on my desktop).

    "It seemed a law of nature that any intelligence service always had the critical data in its grasp . . . and didn't know it. After all, how did you cull the one, crucial truth from the heap of untruth, half-truth, irrelevant truth, speculation, and plain lunacy? Answer: hindsight invariably recognized it after the fact. Which, of course, was the reason the intelligence community was constantly being kicked by people who thought it was so damned easy."

  4. Shylock Holmes:

    Quite right. The best approach I've seen to deal with this type of question generally is Niall Ferguson's paper,Political Risk and the International Bond Market Between the 1848 Revolution and the Outbreak of the First World War.

    The basic idea is that he shows that there was a big spike in bond prices around the outbreak of the First World War, from which he infers that investors at the time were surprised by the news, and thus that war was largely unexpected. Frankly this is better than a thousand essays on the subject that all suffer from hindsight bias.

  5. Ian Random:

    I have my suspicions that all is forgiven for FDR, but never for Bush.

  6. marco73:

    Back during the Reagan administration in the 1980's, the KGB had what they believed to be lead pipe cinch evidence that Reagan was going to launch a full scale preemptive nuclear strike against the USSR.

    (Many available links; here is a detailed example:

    So if the Soviet leadership had blindly followed their intelligence agencies and launched their own strike, instead of concerning ourselves with alleged AGW and over-population, if there were any humans left alive, today the survivors would be living in a scavenger existence that would make the dark ages look like a picnic.

    Draw a parallel to today: there are probably a couple scraps of data that if looked at through the correct prism tell us exactly what the mad mullahs in Iran are going to do. What scraps are valuable and what scraps are just noise won't be known until after the mullahs act. About the best we can do is be prepared and vigilant.

  7. Dan:

    Good post, Marco73.

    Speaking of McArthur, I just read McCullough's bio of Truman, and until then I had never had realized what a pain in the ass McArthur was. Not only was he a constant thorn in the side of the administration by saying things in public that the administration didn't want said or were simply fanciful flights of McArthur's imagination, he also convinced Truman that China wouldn't get involved in the Korean war, and once China did, wanted Truman to use nuclear weapons against the Chinese. A total loose cannon, and Truman was right to fire him, though he probably waited too long.

  8. Ted Rado:

    Hindsight re the causes of wars is an interesting topic. For example, at the end of WWI the Allies made the Germans sign a document assigning full blame to the Kaiser. A study of European history suggest that this is nonsense. Napoleon I invaded Germany and beat the Germans repeatedly. As a result, the Prussians instituted military reforms that resulted in the Prussian Army becoming the most efficient in the world. The French (Napoleon III) declared war on Prussia in 1870 and were thoroughly whipped. From then to WWI they formed alliances and subsidized Russian military expansion with a view to gaining revenge. One can very easily construct a case that all the European wars from Napoleon through WWI were mainly due to the French.

    After WWI, the Treaty of Versailles (mainly a French thing) pretty much guarqanteed that a demagogue would rise in Germany (even Marshal Foch thought so). The result was WWII.

    In our history books, the French and Brits are the good guys, the Germans the bad guys. This certainly has an element of truth to it, but is a gross oversimplification of history.

    A broader reading of military history suggests that the Brits rather than the Germans were the most predatory militarists in modern history. (Read about the first and second Boer wars, for example).

    History is always distorted by the "white hats vs black hats" thing. The fact is that most hats are a shade of grey. One must read extensively from all points of view to gain an evenhanded account of historical events. The US Civil War is an excellent example.

    Without going into detail, one can always find justification for the actions of each combatant, including the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the US civil war, etc. Unfortunately, the usual textbooks are an extension of wartime propaganda. After the war, the government can hardly announce that everything we were told was BS to get us riled up. They have to perpetuate the story. Thus, much study is needed to get a true version of historical events.

  9. Mark:

    This digresses from the subject a bit, but the same thing is done in medical care arguments. You hear all the time that we could save tons of money if we just didn't do major medical procedures for people in their last six months of life.

    The only problem is that you can only really know it was their last 6 months of life after the person has died, and then go back and tally expenses. You couldn't really tell most of the time before hand.

  10. Walmart Hater:


    "The same game was played after 9/11, pointing to a few scraps of intelligence that were “ignored.” "

    They knew Bin Laden was planning attack, possibly a hijacking, and they had 80+ investigations. When 4 (3 FBI, 1 Pentagon) investigations identified the locations and activities of the future hijackers, that is trying to attend flight school while acting suspiciously, all four were quashed from above. Coincidence? Just a "few scraps of intelligence"???? The Pentagon had identified Atta for crying out loud!!!

    Another damning piece of evidence: year before 9/11, 64 times the jets were scrambled because flights deviated slightly from their course. The year after, roughly 460. On 9/11, when 4 planes completely disappeared for extended periods of time, 0 until it was too late. Coincidence?

    And then Condaleeza Rice told us that no one had any idea at all. Uh huh.

  11. Matt:

    Walmart Hater:

    The problem is that you can't just look at what data we had in hand which predicted the attack that did also have to look at the data we had in hand which predicted the hundreds (thousands? maybe? not impossible!) of attacks that didn't happen.

    The problem is not acquiring the facts. It's sifting the true facts from the raging torrent of bullshit in which they are inevitably submerged.

  12. Ted Rado:


    You are so right. Even with the biggest computers and armies of analysts, it is impossible to match up every piece (almost infinite in number) of info with all the others and figure out what is going on.

    There is also a lot of background noise out there that could be interpreted in various ways. For example, I frequently voice my displeasure with the performance of the USG. I am also a gun collector. Someone with a computer could easily put that together and suspect me of being a potential terrorist. I imagine that almost anybody could be in the same boat. Who has not complained about the government, bought ammonium nitrate for their lawn, etc? If all of these things were pursued by the authorities, the system would be swamped. Thus, it is inevitable tht much will fall though the cracks and bad things will happen.

    An interesting historical anecdote on this point. The German Army, which at the time was the most efficient in the world, was caught flatfooted when asked to aid the Italians in North Africa. They had no maps, no tropical uniforms, etc. and had to quickly improvise. There is no possibility of checking everything and planning for every contingency. When it happens, let's try to avoid crucifying someone. All people can do is their best.

  13. John David Galt:

    If you'd read "Day of Deceit", you'd know that there's a lot more to this theory than "Monday morning quarterbacking" or conspiracy. FDR deliberately provoked -- indeed, economically forced -- Japan into making the attack by imposing an oil embargo against them after the Rape of Nanking (when the US was the world's leading oil exporting country, and the Arabs weren't capable of shipping any to the Pacific).

    Don't get me wrong: this was certainly a justified action with regard to Japan. But it's not at all clear to me that deceiving the American people about it in order to get a declaration of war was similarly justifiable, or ever can be.

  14. IGotBupkis, Evoluted Biologist:

    Another key argument is that it's just not a simple issue. It's a really, really big choice even IF he did it. And if so, it was clearly the right choice, from all we can determine.

    Who knows, for example, how many more Jews would have died if America had entered the war just six months later... Would any of them have been alive in Europe?

    Would England, or Russia, have collapsed without the concern over the entry of the USA into the war and any affect it may have had on longer-range German war plans? The collapse of Russia OR England would have been a very, very major problem for American prosecution of the war. Moscow, then Stalingrad, both very near-tun things -- what would have been the effect if Rommel had been at the latter, and not, along with his personnel and equipment, been tied up in Africa attempting to fend off Patton?

    The Germans, at Moscow, got to the very edge of the inner city before having to retreat as a result of developing winter conditions. In Stalingrad they got inside the city and had almost pushed all the way through to the factory district, which would have badly hurt the Soviet capacity for further resistance to the Germans. While the USA may not have had much of a fighting presence this early on, it almost certainly had an effect on German strategic planning, and may have caused caution where the kind of swift, bold, and daring strikes that had brought them success early in the war was now to be avoided.

    Much has been made of how the USA tore apart the Germans in Europe, but the real fact is, the Germans broke their teeth on the Soviet bear well before Normandy. It cost the Soviets 20 million citizens to repel the Nazis, but it cost the Nazis a huge mass of both their war materiel as well as many of their best-trained veterans of the Blitzkrieg. By the retreat from Stalingrad the Nazis were largely dependent on many of their less effective and less capable allies for many of their operations.

    WWII might have been very, very different had we not entered when we did. The decision was much too big to second guess in hindsight, much like Truman's decision to use the Bomb. It's unfair to the decision maker, and unrealistic on the part of the critic.

  15. IGotBupkis, Evoluted Biologist:

    >>> It’s sifting the true facts from the raging torrent of bullshit in which they are inevitably submerged.

    That would be the same one WH has his head submerged in. He's too close to that problem to see it.

  16. Mike S:

    President Hoover documented what FDR did to provoke Japan as it happened his book Freedom Betrayed: Herbert Hoover's Secret History of the Second World War and Its Aftermath.

    A quick summary is here: