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Admiral Kimmel’s Failure at Pearl Harbor

In the summer of 1941, as relations between the United States and Japan were rapidly deteriorating, Admiral Kimmel, Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet, received many warnings concerning the imminence of war. During this period, he worked out a plan in collaboration with his staff at Pearl Harbo , which gave priority to training key personnel and supplying basic equipment to U.S. outposts in the Far East. The plan took account of the possibility of a long, hard war with Japan and the difficulties of mobilizing scarce resources in manpower and material. At that time, Admiral Kimmel and his staff were keenly aware of the risks of being unprepared for war with Japan, as well as the high costs and risks involved in preparing for war. They appear to have been relatively optimistic about being able to develop a satisfactory military plan and about having sufficient time in which to implement it. In short, all the conditions were present for vigilance, and it seems likely that this coping pattern characterized their planning activity.

During the late fall of 1941, as warnings became increasingly more ominous, a dif- ferent pattern of coping behavior emerged. Admiral Kimmel and his staff continued to cling to the policy to which they had committed themselves, discounting each fresh warning and failing to note that more and more signs were pointing to Pearl Harbor as a possible target for a surprise air attack. They repeatedly renewed their decision to continue using the available resources primarily for training green sailors and sol- diers and for supplying bases close to Japan, rather than instituting an adequate alert that would give priority to defending Pearl Harbor against enemy attack.

Knowing that neither their own sector nor the rest of the U.S. military organization was ready for a shooting war, they clung to an unwarranted set of rationalizations. The Japanese, they thought, would not launch an attack against any American possession; and if by some remote chance they decided to do so, it certainly wouldn’t be at Pearl Harbor. Admiral Kimmel and his staff acknowledged that Japan could launch a surprise attack in any direction, but remained convinced that it would not be launched in their direction. They saw no reason to change their course. Therefore, they continued to give peacetime weekend leave to the majority of the naval forces in Hawaii and allowed the many warships in the Pacific Fleet to remain anchored at Pearl Harbor, as sitting ducks. Kimmel regularly discussed each warning with members of his staff. At times, he became emotionally aroused and obtained reassurance from the members of his in- group. He shared with them a number of rationalizations that bolstered his decision to ignore the warnings. On November 27, 1941, for example, he received an explicit “war warning” from the chief of naval operations in Washington, which stirred up his concern but did not impel him to take any new protective action. This message was intended as a strong follow-up to an earlier warning, which Kimmel had received only three days earlier, stating that war with Japan was imminent and that “a surprise aggressive movement in any direction, including attack on the Philippines or Guam, is a possibil- ity.” The new warning asserted that “an aggressive move by Japan is expected within the next few days” and instructed Kimmel to “execute appropriate defensive deploy- ment” preparatory to carrying out the naval war plan.



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