THE DOCUMENTARY “Pearl Harbor: The Truth”
WHEN | WHERE Wednesday at 4 p.m. on History
WHAT IT’S ABOUT On the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor many questions remain, notably, what did Washington know about the impending attack, and what did it do about it? A vast amount of radio traffic between Tokyo and its embassy was intercepted. This hour asks: Why didn’t the top officers in charge of Oahu’s defense know about any of it?
MY SAY Provocative name withstanding, “The Truth” does not get at the whole truth and nothing but the truth. At least it jettisons a 75-year-old conspiracy theory that refuses to die — that FDR knew of the impending attack, which he saw as an opportunity to draw America into the war. As historian Timothy Naftali concludes here, Washington was simply “listening to the wrong group of people.” Japanese diplomatic communiqués had been intercepted as opposed to naval ones. The rest is history.
“The Truth” instead has another intention — to exonerate Adm. Husband Kimmel, commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet at the time of the attack. This happens to be a 75-year-old argument that refuses to die: What did Kimmel know, when did he know it and what could he have done differently? Kimmel was relieved of duty 10 days after the attack, and a commission subsequently decided that both he and Maj. Gen. Walter Short — responsible for defense of the island — had been derelict in their duties. It was a humiliating and devastating blow to Kimmel, whose tragedy was just beginning. His son Manning was killed by Japanese forces in 1944, after the sub he commanded sank off Palawan in the Philippines. Kimmel, who died in 1968, would spend the rest of his life trying to restore his name and the four stars that were stripped from him.
“The Truth,” which is largely based on the book “A Matter of Honor” by husband and wife team Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan, makes the case that a vast amount of information was withheld from Kimmel, which was essentially the argument he also made. It locates a culprit, one Harold Rainsford Stark, chief of Naval Operations and Kimmel’s boss, who withheld the information — intercepts, for example, which directed a Japanese consulate employee to spy on ship traffic in Pearl Harbor.
Much of this is well-known to history buffs. What’s less well-known is the role of Stark, and his director of war plans, Adm. Richmond Turner (not mentioned here). The “whys” surrounding these two have piled up over the years, along with the books. This hour doesn’t even begin to address those, leaving the impression that something far more sinister was going on. What that is, exactly, is left to the imagination.
Another problem: A major character in this vast drama, Short, is barely mentioned. Short and Kimmel had a fraught working relationship, entangled in bureaucratic red tape. But the former was, in fact, responsible for defense of the military installations. Should he also be exonerated? No answer here.
And so, “The Truth” leaves us with more questions. They’re complicated ones but their irresolution has stoked a painful family drama that continues. (Kimmel’s grandson, Manning Kimmel IV, has worked tirelessly to clear his grandfather’s name). This well-intentioned, oversimplified hour — which wastes precious minutes by using dramatic recreations — will not end it.
BOTTOM LINE A complicated story that leaves far too many questions hanging.