Did a Soviet Agent Cause the Pearl Harbor Attack?


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The book is Operation Snow: How a Soviet Mole in FDR’s White House Triggered Pearl Harbor by popular history writer John Koster published by Regnery Press in 2012.  If you are among those people who still believe the Japanese assault on the U.S. Pacific fleet in Hawaii was the sort of cunning, unprovoked sneak attack that we could hardly have anticipated, then this book might be a palatable starting place to begin to disabuse yourself of that notion.  If, on the other hand, you are looking for solid, honest, well-reasoned history that persuasively makes the case of the book’s subtitle, you have unfortunately come to the wrong place.  For someone who is generally well-informed about the events surrounding December 7, 1941, the book has some fascinating odds and ends, which we shall talk about later, but Koster delivers poorly on his central thesis.


Yes, there was a Soviet plot called “Operation Snow” and it did take its name from the agent Harry Dexter White (changed from the Lithuanian Jewish birth name of “Weit.”).  Its purpose was to foment war between Japan and the United States to take the pressure off the Soviet Union, ensuring that Japan would not be a threat to its eastern flank.  One can get a more complete picture of this operation through a much more authoritative book that was also published in 2012, that is Stalin’s Secret Agents: the Subversion of Roosevelt’s Government by M. Stanton Evans and Herbert Romerstein.  From the latter book we learn of the three prongs of Operation Snow through Soviet agents operating in Japan, China, and the United States.  The influence was exerted in Japan by the spy ring headed by Richard Sorge and Matsumi Ozaki.  In China it came through the man sent by the White House to advise Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, Lauchlin Currie, and in Washington primarily through White.  Koster makes no mention of Sorge or Ozaki and what little mention he makes of Currie is not in this context.


Assistant Treasury Secretary White, as pretty much the brains behind Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr., was well positioned to be influential.  White also did his insidious work well through memoranda arguing persuasively against all measures of rapprochement with the Japanese and finally through the suggestion of a number of demands to be made upon the Japanese that bore a very close resemblance to the ultimatum that Secretary of State Cordell Hull presented to the Japanese on November 26, 1941. 


Summing up the results of the work of all the Soviet agents, not just White, Evans and Romerstein say:


There is no way of telling whether Pearl Harbor would have happened anyway absent these machinations, as there were other forces at work pushing toward Japanese-American confrontation, a clash implicit in much that had preceded (particularly the oil embargo).  Nor is there any indication in this history that the Soviets knew Pearl Harbor would be Japan’s intended target.  From a Moscow perspective, the important thing was that Japan strike south rather than north against the Russians.  Where the southern blow was struck would have been, comparatively speaking, a matter of indifference.  (pp. 97-98)


Indeed, those “other forces” that were at work were very, very powerful as anyone knows who has taken a serious, dispassionate look at the situation.  Long before late 1941 Roosevelt had given every indication that he wanted to get into the war on the side of the British and against the Germans.  The British also very much wanted the Americans in the war, as did much of the same U.S. Jewish leadership that had been instrumental in getting the U.S. into the First World War on the side of the British and the French.  But the American public was heavily against involvement, Hitler could not be goaded into attacking us, and so precipitating an attack by Japan became the convenient “back door to war.”


A measure of Koster’s argument-in-a-vacuum method is that in his brief review of books on or related to Pearl Harbor that he sets up as straw men in his introduction, the magisterial Back Door to War: The Roosevelt Foreign Policy, 1933-1941 by Charles Callan Tansill is missing, just as it is missing from his bibliography.  Also missing are such important books as Pearl Harbor: The Story of the Secret War by George Morgenstern,  Pearl Harbor: The Seeds and Fruits of Infamy by Percy Greaves, and even the more recent and highly publicized Day of Deceit: The Truth about FDR and Pearl Harbor by Robert Stinnett. 


Concluding his list of straw man authors to shoot down, Koster writes, “Still worse was Harry Elmer Barnes.  In his account, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who supposedly inherited a deep love of China from his grandfather, deliberately planned the attack on Pearl Harbor.”  One may presume that Koster is attacking something said in Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace or perhaps in the article “Pearl Harbor after a Quarter of a Century,” but it is just conjecture because Barnes does not appear in his bibliography and Koster has no reference notes of any kind, either footnotes or endnotes.  Furthermore, I do not believe that Barnes argues that FDR’s love of China was his primary motivation for wanting war with Japan.


Koster, in service to his principal thesis, also inflates the importance of White’s boss, Morgenthau.  On page 113 he writes:


Roosevelt’s relations with the State Department had never been easy.  He generally snubbed Cordell Hull, whose appointment as secretary of state was a sop to conservative Southern Democrats.  FDR relied so heavily on his old friend Henry Morgenthau Jr. for guidance in international affairs that some people referred to Morgenthau as “the second secretary of state.”


If Morgenthau was the second secretary of state, one must wonder what that would have made FDR’s right-hand man Harry Hopkins.  Hopkins appears in the book only once, in a sentence beginning at the bottom of page 154.  It is the night of December 6, 1941, and we are in the White House as the decoded message of the Japanese government to its Washington negotiators is being examined, “As he read the thirteenth part of the decoded message, Roosevelt turned to his alter ego, Harry Hopkins—a communist sympathizer according to ‘Bill’ Akhmerov—and said bluntly, ‘This means war.’”


Conceding Koster’s point that the attack on Pearl Harbor was beneficial to the Soviet Union, one might easily surmise that the communist-sympathizing alter ego of the president could have had as least as much to do with making it happen as Harry Dexter White did.


As readers might already have gathered, in playing up the shrewd schemer White, Koster plays down the culpability of the biggest schemer of them all, Franklin Roosevelt, himself.  And Koster demonstrates a rather appalling degree of scholarly sloppiness in the process.  On page 21, describing the spilling of the beans in 1939 about the high-level spy network that included White, Currie, and Alger and Donald Hiss, Koster writes,


when [Communist defector Whittaker] Chambers filed a detailed report with Adolf Berle, an anti-communist liberal and the security officer of the State Department, White was one of the two contacts Chambers did not name.  Chambers believed at the time that Harry Dexter White had dropped out of the espionage network for good. 


But on pp. 169-170 we have this:


…on September 2, 1939, the day after Hitler invaded Poland, a Jewish anti-communist reporter, Isaac Don Levine, arranged a meeting between Chambers and Assistant Secretary of State Adolf Berle, the State Department’s internal security director.  Berle, though not a communist, was a man of the left, and his notes make no mention of White.  But Levine claimed afterward that Chambers had mentioned White by name.  Berle passed a four-page list of the Soviet agents and intense sympathizers whom Chambers had identified in Levine’s presence on to Roosevelt, who dismissed the accusation as “absurd.”  Unofficial sources indicate that the president used a more scatological term.  J. Edgar Hoover supposedly agreed with Roosevelt, or pretended to in order to hang onto his job.  This left White safe to conspire with Vitali Pavlov in 1941.


So which is it?  Was White ratted out in 1939 or wasn’t he?  Unfortunately, Koster fails to reference Levine’s 1973 book, Eyewitness to History: Memoirs and Reflections of a Foreign Correspondent for Half a Century.  Levine’s name is even left out of Koster’s index.  Levine’s account of Berle’s reaction when hearing White named by Chambers as a spy leaves no doubt that Levine is recounting what really happened.  Chambers had taken no notes at the meeting; Levine and Berle had.  When Chambers later testified before Congress and when he wrote his book Witness, he relied upon his memory and upon Berle’s notes.  Berle had exclaimed that White was a friend of his when he heard his name mentioned by Chambers and had a reason, then, to leave White off the list he gave to Roosevelt.


Koster writes further on page 170:


Loyal to the last to people who had been loyal to him—and remarkably vindictive to anyone who opposed him—FDR had unwittingly given cover to Harry Dexter White and other suspected communists in the State and Treasury Departments, refusing to question their private or secret politics as long as they flattered him and deferred to him.   


Berle might have left FDR unwitting about White, but he did not give him that excuse when it came to Lauchlin Currie, Alger Hiss, and a number of others.  We learn from Evans and Romerstein, in fact, that Roosevelt requested Hiss by name to accompany him to the vital Yalta Conference.


Koster’s Useful Odds and Ends


So, as we say, with its shallow and sloppy scholarship and poor documentation, Operation Snow is best consulted by the serious reader for its various fascinating and informative tidbits.  We shall mention three of them.  First, there is the subject of Chapter 10 entitled “The Korean Cassandra.” The chapter’s title character was a Korean-American by the name of Kilsoo Haan, who described himself as the representative of the “Korean Underground in America” in an August 1941 letter to President Roosevelt.  Haan’s sources working for the Japanese in Hawaii had determined that war with Japan was imminent and as the months passed he became more and more certain that the first target would be Pearl Harbor.  His last effort at a warning was in a telephone call followed by a memorandum to Maxwell Hamilton, the head of the Division of Far Eastern Affairs of the State Department on December 5 telling him that Pearl Harbor would be attacked that weekend.  He was ignored.  The government did not ignore him after the attack, though:


That afternoon [Dec. 7], Kilsoo Haan, who had been unable to get through to most of the federal officials he tried to reach, even with the help of Senator [Guy] Gillette, received a telephone call from Maxwell Hamilton.  If his December 5 warning of an attack on Pearl Harbor were released to the press, Hamilton warned Haan, he would be “put away for the duration.” On December 8, the FBI ordered him not to leave Washington, D.C., until further notice.


Then there is the case of the one dissenting member of the International Military Tribunal for the Far East that resulted in the execution of a number of Japanese government officials after the war.  He was from India and his name was Radhabinod Pal.  I am sorry to say I had never heard of him and, according to Koster and to Wikipedia, that is hardly an accident.  His book-length dissent has been blocked from publication in the United States and the United Kingdom.  Both sources also provide this notable quote from Pal: “Even contemporary historians could think that as far as the present war, the Principality of Monaco, the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, would have taken up arms against the United States on receipt of such a note as the State Department sent the Japanese Government on the eve of Pearl Harbor.”


The “note” to which Hull refers is that notorious November 26 ultimatum that Harry Dexter White might have had some influence in drawing up, but he was not the one who made the decision to keep the United States Congress, the American public, and even our commanders at Pearl Harbor in the dark about it. 


Koster also tells us that it FDR’s pro-Soviet wife Eleanor who put an end to the Venona intercepts, in which Harry Dexter White was later verified to be the Soviet agent “Jurist.”


The decoding operation, known as VENONA, was so secret that even President Roosevelt and Vice President Harry S. Truman did not know about it.  When Eleanor Roosevelt somehow learned that the U.S. Army was reading Stalin’s spy messages, she was horrified at the betrayal of trust and ordered the Army to stop.  The Signal Intelligence Sevice shrugged her off, but—apparently through trusted friends of Mrs. Roosevelt—the Soviets got wind of VENONA and infiltrated the project.  The Soviets changed their code books—the American code-breakers were ordered to return their half-burned copy—and the work of VENONA, still top secret, came to an end.  (p. 169)


These are some very important and, frankly, pretty amazing claims.  In no instance is Koster’s failure to give any reference more unforgiveable.  I have found nothing that begins to verify these claims about Eleanor Roosevelt.  From what I know of her, she had the sort of sentiments described by Koster, but I have some doubt that she had the degree of power and influence and inside knowledge described here, but I could be wrong.  If my preconceptions are indeed wrong, I wish that Koster would show me.  Similarly, nowhere in his book does Koster provide wrong-headed people about Pearl Harbor with enough information to show them that they are wrong.


David Martin

May 4, 2014




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