Franklin D. Roosevelt was President of the United States when Pearl Harbor was attacked. The next day, he asked Congress to declare war on Japan. In his speech, Roosevelt mentioned the date of the attack—December 7, 1941—and called it “a date which will live in infamy.” He meant that in the future, that date would be remembered as a day when something terrible happened. Many decades after the attack, that date does indeed continue to live in infamy.
In his speech, President Roosevelt also said that the United States had been at peace with Japan and was hoping to maintain that peace. That hope was shattered on December 7. As a direct result of the attack, the United States entered World War II.
Roosevelt had made Pearl Harbor the headquarters for the US Pacific Fleet earlier in 1941. He did this as a sign to Japan that the America was preparing for war, a move that he was warned against making. Roosevelt knew moving the fleet could trigger an attack. But he thought it was more important to show that America was powerful and ready to stop Japan from continuing to expand its territories.
Many people believe that Roosevelt could have prevented the attack on Pearl Harbor. They say he failed to act on information he received about a planned attack, though this has never been proven.
The military at Pearl Harbor was under the command of Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, who worked alongside General Walter Short. Not long after Kimmel was put in charge, he voiced his concern about Pearl Harbor being at risk of a surprise attack. However, he didn’t make any changes to prepare for such an attack.
It has been said that both Kimmel and Short were given numerous warnings that an attack was possible, but neither one took any action. They were sent a message from General Marshall, Chief of Staff of the United States Army. The message stated that the military at Pearl Harbor should prepare for an attack in such a way as to avoid causing alarm among the civilian (non-military) population. However, no action was taken.
And on December 3, 1941—just four days before the attack—a final warning letting Kimmel know that war with Japan was close at hand was again ignored.
On the day of the attack, Kimmel and Short had planned to play golf. Instead they faced terrible destruction. Could it have been prevented? The question remains.
Both men admitted that they hadn’t expected an air attack. However, Short claimed that the government hadn’t provided the right resources. He stated that their ability to protect the base was limited, even if they had warning.
Kimmel and Short were removed from command ten days after the attack. The search for the truth about what happened at Pearl Harbor lasted for the rest of their lives. The two men kept trying to clear their names of any wrongdoing.
Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, who took command of the US Pacific Fleet after Kimmel, thought it was better that Kimmel hadn’t prepared for the attack. He said that if they had prepared, the fleet of ships would have left Pearl Harbor and gone out to sea. There, they all would have been destroyed, and more than five times as many American sailors would have been lost.
Short died in 1949, and Kimmel died in 1968. In 1999, both men were cleared of wrongdoing by the US Senate.