Wednesday, December 7, 2016

The forgotten man of Pearl Harbor

Not the USS J.O. Richardson
In 1940, Commander-in-Chief Franklin Roosevelt ordered the Pacific Fleet to base itself at Pearl Harbor. He also poured money into a crash program of fortifications in Hawaii, Guam, Wake Island, the Philippines, the Canal Zone and elsewhere in the Pacific.

Earlier, starting in 1937, he had begun the buildup to a two-ocean navy, against the squeals of both rightwingers (who liked Germany and didn't like to spend money on the military) and leftwingers (who liked to spend money at home and thought the world had learned a lesson in 1914-18). He was abetted by Georgia congressman Carl Vinson.

At this date, few people are aware of the political pressure on Roosevelt who was widely and wildly condemned as a warmonger. His policy counts, we now see, as among the very greatest acts of wise leadership in our history, equaled only by Lincoln's nurturing of national goals just before and during the Civil War.

It is a good thing FDR started when he did, because it takes a long time to build warships. It wasn't until mid-1943 that the aircraft carrier Essex, first of the modern carriers of the new fleet, sailed for the Pacific (with my father and about 1,500 other new ensigns aboard, catching a lift to their first ships; in Dad's example the destroyer Case).

The president is not only commander-in-chief, he is also he director of foreign policy; and, as Clauswitz told us, the military exists only to further foreign policy, not the other way round. Roosevelt's policy was to try to restrain Japan so that armed force could be directed at Germany, the more dangerous state.  This policy failed (See Book Review 375: "Bankrupting the Enemy"). But it was never certain to fail.

Basing the Pacific Fleet forward was intended to reinforce the commodity and financial sanctions, and diplomatic pressure, on Japan to deter it from wider war. As the Japanese now know, that was a lesson they should have taken seriously.

It was a risk. J.O. Richardson, commander of the Pacific Fleet, warned Roosevelt that the Hawaii base was underdeveloped, inconvenient and easier to attack than West Coast bases, mainly around San Diego. All this was true but irrelevant. Richardson should have said, "Aye, aye, sir," and gotten on with the assignment. (Dad admired Ray Spruance most of all wartime commanders, because unlike all the rest he didn't complain about the forces he was allotted; he went ahead with what he had and always won; the only great commander America produced in the war.)

Instead, Richardson wouldn't shut up, so Roosevelt fired him.

Richardson was right; if the fleet had been in San Diego, it couldn't have been attacked. But he was wrong, because an unbuilt fleet couldn't have been attacked either.

And that is why today's Navy has a carrier named USS Carl Vinson and not even a garbage scow named USS J.O. Richardson.

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