Seventy-five years after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, some Americans have never stopped believing that President Franklin Roosevelt let it happen in order to draw the U.S. into World War II.
"It's ridiculous," says Rob Citino, a senior researcher at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. "But it's evergreen. It never stops. My students, over 30 years — there'd always be someone in class [who'd say], 'Roosevelt knew all about it.'"
Conspiracy theories, half-truths and full-on lies are getting new attention as they appear alongside real news and information on social networks — but that's nothing new. The official investigations into the Japanese attack started in the 1940s, and even now, each time new documents become declassified, a headline pops up asking whether Roosevelt allowed it.
No, says Roosevelt biographer Jean Edward Smith.
"He was totally caught off guard by it," Smith says. "The record is clear. There was no evidence of the Japanese moving toward Pearl Harbor that was picked up in Washington."
That's not to say that the White House might not have expected some kind of attack from Japan — possibly against U.S. bases in the Philippines. Roosevelt had been tightening the screws on Tokyo to hinder the Japanese conquest of China, "instituting a full embargo on exports to Japan, freezing Japanese assets in U.S. banks and sending supplies into China along the Burma Road," according to the State Department.
Citino says Roosevelt believed those economic restrictions could get Japan to reduce its ambitions in Asia.
"Sanctions are better than war — if you have time to let them apply, and if there's somebody sensible on the other side." But Roosevelt "was wrong in that assessment," Citino says, and the Japanese were mistaken in thinking they could remove the threat from the U.S. Navy to their operations in the Western Pacific.
"Pearl Harbor [brought about] unintended consequences for both sides," he says.
The U.S. didn't think the Japanese would retaliate militarily. And the use of then-new naval weapons such as aircraft carriers was still being explored. No one had sailed a fleet of carriers 4,000 miles across an ocean to raid an enemy's fleet while it sat at anchor.
For their part, the Japanese did not think the U.S. would have the stomach to rebuild its Navy and then launch a bloody fight, island by island, across the Pacific.
These kinds of bad assumptions and poor intelligence start wars, Citino says — an understanding that seems so obvious today even as the conspiracy theories outlive the eyewitnesses to the battle.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Seventy-five years ago tomorrow, the Imperial Japanese Navy launched a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, destroying much of the U.S. fleet and drawing America into World War II.
It did not take long for the conspiracy theories to spread, including one that continues today alleging that President Franklin Roosevelt knew of the attack beforehand and used it to steer public opinion in favor of going to war. It's World War II era fake news, as NPR's Quil Lawrence reports.
QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: The history of the attack is clear. There are even a few veterans left who saw it happen.
EARL SMITH: I was on the USS Tennessee. And we couldn't fire our guns because West Virginia was leaning over against us. So they put me on a motor launch and let me go out and wrestle the bodies out of the flame.
LAWRENCE: Earl Smith was 93 years old when he recorded this eyewitness account. The day before, he'd played a baseball game with sailors from the U.S. Arizona and the West Virginia.
SMITH: And the next day, every one of the Arizona players and half of the West Virginia ball club were killed.
LAWRENCE: The day after Franklin D. Roosevelt addressed Congress.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT: Yesterday, December 7, 1941, a date which will live in infamy, the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.
LAWRENCE: Roosevelt had been pushing for intervention in Europe against the Nazis for years. Historians debate whether he wanted to join the war against Japan. Conspiracy theorists debate what FDR knew and when he knew it in scary books and documentaries all over the internet.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Did President Roosevelt know in advance? And has a government-led cover-up continued to this day?
ROB CITINO: There is not a shred of evidence that President Roosevelt knew about an attack on Pearl Harbor.
LAWRENCE: Rob Citino is senior historian at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. He says the FDR-knew conspiracy never dies.
CITINO: It's ridiculous, but it's evergreen. It never stops. My students - over 30 years, there'd always be somebody in class - Roosevelt knew all about it.
LAWRENCE: Jean Edward Smith wrote a biography of Roosevelt. He says the intercepted intelligence that might have warned the president never made it to him or the U.S. fleet.
JEAN EDWARD SMITH: He was totally caught off guard by it. The record is clear. There was no evidence that the Japanese were moving toward Pearl Harbor that was picked up in Washington.
LAWRENCE: That's not to say the White House wasn't expecting some kind of attack from Japan, maybe against U.S. bases in the nearby Philippines. Roosevelt had been tightening the screws - strong economic sanctions on Japan - to hinder the Japanese conquest of China. Historian Rob Citino says FDR figured sanctions would work.
CITINO: Sanctions are better than war, if you have time to let them apply and if there's somebody sensible on the other side. He was wrong in that assessment. Pearl Harbor was kind of unintended consequences for both sides.
LAWRENCE: The U.S. didn't think Japan would attack, and Japan didn't think the U.S. had the stomach to rebuild its navy then launch a bloody fight, island by island, across the Pacific.
Citino says it's bad assumptions and poor intelligence like this that start wars - things that, in hindsight, look so obvious that the conspiracy theories outlive the eyewitnesses to the battle. Quil Lawrence, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.