Why You've Never Heard About The Intelligence Failure That Led To Pearl Harbor

Why You've Never Heard About The Intelligence Failure That Led To Pearl Harbor

Did State Department employees falsify the historical record to cover up evidence that would blame them for intelligence failures before the Pearl Harbor attack?

Shaffer: “Yes, I did. I got so tired of retyping those damned, long documents on those clumsy typewriters. Not only that, but they revised parts of the Foreign Relations Series. I finally asked for a transfer out of the Division.”


Thomas: “But what they did was a crime! How could they have done that?”

Shaffer: “Well, I guess they felt that was the only way they could absolve themselves of blame.”

Shaffer’s remark about “what happened to Frank” involved a memo that became the underpinnings for Frank Schuler’s unrelenting search for the truth. Three months before Pearl Harbor, on September 13, 1941, Schuler and five others in the Far Eastern Affairs office who had recently been in Japan drafted a memo that stated Japan’s negotiations with the United States were a bluff and that war was imminent.

The six who signed the memo were Cabot Coville, John R. Davies, Herbert Fales, Joseph M. Jones, Frank A. Schuler, and E. Paul Tenney. Although the memo did eventually reach Secretary of State Cordell Hull, the five were reprimanded for their insubordination by Maxwell Hamilton, the chief of their department. Of the six signers, only Schuler would not apologize.

That September 13 memo changed the course of Schuler’s life. While the fate of Schuler’s five other colleagues is unknown, his career was damaged from then on, and the repercussions were serious.

Perhaps in retribution he was transferred to the island of Antigua in the Caribbean, ostensibly to establish a consulate there. Despite his appeals for an assignment that would draw on his Japanese language skills and background in the national effort against the Japanese, he remained on Antigua until 1943. He was then transferred to the U.S. Consulate in Windsor, Ontario, Canada. In 1944, Schuler was informed that he would be transferred again, this time to Noumea, New Caledonia, in the South Pacific, to work with the Office of War Information (OWI).

But when he arrived in Noumea on June 27, 1944, he discovered that OWI had never maintained any operations in Noumea and that he was in fact expected to replace the resident American consul there. Disgusted with his treatment by the State Department, Schuler decided to resign from the Foreign Service that day, and on the following day he sent a telegram to the Secretary of State with that message.

In a telegram that reached Schuler on June 30, the chief of the Division of Foreign Service Personnel directed him to remain at his post, but when the Secretary of State did not reply to the resignation message by July 4, Schuler left Noumea. He was terminated for “abandoning his post.”

In 1976, Schuler brought a suit against the Department of State seeking “both correction of his State Department personnel file and an award of monetary benefits lost due to the government’s allegedly improper treatment of him between 1944 and 1953.”

In the suit, Schuler’s lawyer asserted that “on September 13, 1941, a memorandum signed by Schuler and five associates was circulated at the State Department. The memorandum reportedly called for a re-evaluation of our policy toward Japan and warned of the nation’s hostility toward [the U.S.].

“The chief of the Division of Far Eastern Affairs strongly reprimanded the authors of the document and demanded an apology, which Schuler says he did not offer. On November 7, 1941, he was transferred to the Caribbean to establish a consulate on the island of Antigua.”  (Schuler’s request to restore his pension was also denied.)

Although Schuler was defeated in the courts, he hit pay dirt at the National Archives, where he discovered altered documents. The January 26, 1977, Washington Postarticle by Michael Kernan, “The Schuler Files: Life Under a Cloud,” described finding these documents.

Kernan writes, “Last year, with the aid of his youngest son Peter, 27, a recent graduate of William and Mary Law School who is devoting full time to the cause, Schuler made a telling discovery: In the [National] Archives at Suitland, Maryland, the nearly 100 volumes of State Department records covering 1936-40 and the loose material for 1941 had been chopped up so badly that when one held a book by the binding, bits of paper rained out like confetti. The Schulers were so excited they had a picture taken of the sight. They also found evidence that other papers had been rewritten and revised.”

Olive Schuler also remembered: “The foregoing activity of attempting to retype documents became clearly evident as a result of comparison with numerous originals and their ‘superseded’ versions obtained from the Archives in the search that was conducted by my son, Peter, and my husband, Frank in 1976.”

In several July 2016 email messages this author exchanged with Peter Schuler, he remembered the research: “I saw the records at the National Archives and they were indeed quite obviously either ripped out of the ’41 volume or, from my father’s telling, key despatches skillfully altered to present disingenuous views that the majority of Embassy staff, Ambassador Grew and others, were actually prescient, ever watchful, and fully appreciated the Japanese threat.”

In a follow-up email, Peter Schuler recalled, “I’m amazed I remembered the name but it was the late Fred Maroon, one of the top Washington news photographers of the time and a close friend of Helen Thomas [UPI White House correspondent], who took the photos at the National Archives facility in Suitland, Maryland.”

Evidence of missing papers can be traced back to 1941. Foreign Service officer Max W. Bishop (later U.S. Ambassador to Thailand, 1955-1958), who was involved in assisting Secretary of State Cordell Hull, recalled the disappearance of pre-Pearl Harbor files in this 1993 interview conducted by Thomas F. Conlon:

Conlon: “Well, then you returned to the Japan Desk, and, as I recall you saying, you were involved in taking notes or otherwise assisting Secretary Hull in the negotiations with Admiral [Kichisaburo] Nomura [ambassador to the U.S. in 1941] and, later, Ambassador [Saburo] Kurusu, in 1941?

Bishop: “Yes, that was my principal job. I kept all of the pre-Pearl Harbor files in my office in a filing cabinet which had a lock on it, the same as almost every filing cabinet in the Department of State and throughout the government.”

Conlon: “Was this a combination or a key lock?”

Bishop: “A key lock. When you left the Department, you took your keys down to a board near the front door of the State Department and hung them up there.”

Conlon: “There was nobody watching the keys?”

Bishop:  “Oh, yes, there was somebody there all the time, but nothing was well-protected. And I don’t think that anybody particularly cared. Classified material was protected—it wasn’t left out in the open, or anything of that sort. I don’t know whether we had Communist agents in the Department at the time. As you know from the ‘Pumpkin Papers….’”

(Note: The 1938 Pumpkin Papers consisted of 65 pages of retyped secret State Department documents, four pages in Hiss’s own handwriting of State Department cables, and five rolls of undeveloped film. They were dubbed the Pumpkin Papers because FBI informant and ex-communist Whittaker Chambers kept them hidden in a pumpkin in his garden. During Senator Joseph McCarthy’s hunt for communists within the government, Hiss was accused of being a Soviet spy in 1948. He was convicted of perjury regarding testimony about his alleged involvement in a Soviet spy ring before and during World War II. He spent four years in prison.)

Conlon: “Well, this could have been the time when those documents were taken from the Department.”

Bishop: “Alger Hiss was in the Department. Whenever Alger Hiss went on leave, I took his place, in Stanley Hornbeck’s office, where he was principal aide to Hornbeck. [Hiss] was a very fine man, a person you would enjoy talking with. But I noticed that, once in a while, he had some dubious, Left Wing characters in the office. But that’s another story.” [Note: From 1939 to 1944, Hiss was an assistant to Stanley Hornbeck, a special adviser to Secretary of State Cordell Hull on Far Eastern affairs.]

As noted in the December 16, 1941, State Department memo, the arrangement was for “three or four men to work upon compilation of documents in United States-Japanese relations for the period September 18, 1931 to December 7, 1941.” Joseph Ballantine, Alger Hiss, and Stanley Hornbeck were three of the four individuals named in the memo whose job it was to “keep in close touch with this work as it proceeds.”

“Bally, [Joseph Ballantine] as he was referred to, would eventually become useful in the cover-up activity,” wrote Olive Schuler in a later memo.

Although the Schulers had a vested interest in Bally’s Project, there were other colleagues of Frank’s, though they had nothing to gain, who confirmed this. The following document (from the Schuler Papers held at the Roosevelt Presidential Library), identified “As tho’ from hindsight in 1945,” addresses the falsification of documents:

“Schuler had been told by a colleague (Bill Turner) (about five years after Pearl Harbor) that the documents exchanged between State and the Embassy in Tokyo re pre-Pearl Harbor negotiations and relations with Japan had been ‘amended, rewritten, destroyed, etc.’