Sometimes books teach us things we never expected to learn. History can be a great guide to living our daily lives.
Countdown to Pearl Harbor: The Twelve Days to the Attack by Steven Twomey is a fascinating history book. I like to read about World War II. Most of my reading has been about the European Theater so Twomey’s keen insight into the Pacific taught me a lot.
The book confirms in spectacular detail the general impression many of us have that the U.S. could have or should have known the attack was coming in Hawaii.
Twomey, who is a Facebook friend I don’t know well at all, is a Pulitzer Prize winning feature writer and it shows. The book is terrifically written. Twomey’s words made me sweat the entire 12 days even though I obviously knew the attack was coming. You know it is a great book when you find yourself yelling at the men from 1941 for screwing the pooch.
It is how those men messed up that fascinated me. It dawned on me fairly quickly that every day many of us make the same mistakes that U.S. Army, Navy and political leaders disastrously made in 1941.
Twomey actually wrote a piece on the business lessons to be learned from his book. He has allowed me to append it to the bottom of this post. It is a good read and he is right on the mark.
But as I bumble through life, I think we would all do better in our social discourse if we learned from the Pearl Harbor errors.
The naval and military leaders at Pearl Harbor assumed ships could not reach Pearl Harbor. They assumed Japanese weapons were inferior. They assumed Japan did not have the courage to attack and on and on.
Many of us roll through the world making assumption after assumption about our spouse, children, friends or people we don’t like much.
Those assumptions are based on past behavior, stereotypes, tone of voice, etc. I know I jump to some pretty dumb conclusions sometimes simply because I react before I completely listen. I assume I know what’s coming and I really don’t like making an “ass out of u and me” as the old cliché about the word assume goes.
Belittling the other folks
The United States naval and army leaders held the Japanese in very low esteem. They belittled their intelligence, their flying ability and their naval acumen. Our leaders thought so little of the Japanese they believed it was impossible for them to attack us.
That’s exactly what is happening in our political discussions today and it also happens in our families today. Too often we judge people who disagree with us as stupid and ignorant.
They must be inferior if they don’t see our brilliance and insight.
My children and I used to have a rule. If we thought we had heard something outrageous and even stupid, we had to ask ourselves if we thought that person was stupid. The answer to that question was always no. That told us we had sold our family member or friend short and we probably needed to ask for clarification.
Not invented here syndrome
Too many of our military leaders believed in American superiority to the point of foolishness.
They could not imagine that anybody, especially the Japanese, could figure out solutions to problems that had vexed us. If we couldn’t figure out the solution, nobody else could either.
Pride and hubris have laid me low more than a few times. I have learned over and over since a high school debate competition that there is always someone smarter than I am. Still, I forget it way to often.
When I taught entrepreneurial thinking, I used to urge my students to spend a lot of time examining whether competitors actually had a better mousetrap. When I was an editor and story subjects insisted our findings were wrong I urged reporters to give every consideration to the fact that the objectors might be right.
In the same way our spouse, children or friends might be correct if we climb down off our high horse.
Dumb allegiance to your frame
The Japanese will not attack. The Japanese cannot attack. It is illogical that they attack and it is logical they do what we expect them to do. We have done nothing to provoke them.
That was the frame through which American leaders saw the Japanese prospects and possibilities. Our leaders never considered how angry the Japanese were, how belittled they actually felt and how squeezed for territory they felt. America never appreciated just how far the Japanese were willing to go.
We all have frames built by our upbringing, our faith or lack of it, our worldviews, our ethical values and even the role of love in our lives. Because our life experiences are different, our frames can be a little different to radically different.
We often have an innate inability to recognize our different frames. Doesn’t everybody think like I do?
I used to teach students about thinking differently by hoisting a Starbucks cup. I would hold the cup between two students. One student could see the green mermaid-like Starbucks insignia on one side. The other student saw a philosophical saying. Neither student was wrong about what they were seeing, but their frame was constrained. The truth is, few of us turn our cup around to see both sides of the cup and really focus on what the other person is seeing. So we make our decision with only half the story.
A little paranoia is healthy
The Americans at Pearl Harbor were so convinced they would not attack they never even looked for the Japanese. A wise man taught me early in my career that “paranoia is only heightened awareness.” My late wife’s secret to raising our children was “trust but verify.” That’s why my kids always knew that their Mom might call the other Mom just to make sure somebody was monitoring their actions. A little “trust but verify” at Pearl Harbor would have at least put some planes in the sky to see what was happening.
Steven Twomey’s book is a fine account of an important 12 days in our history. It can certainly teach us some things about national defense, but there are also important life lessons in it too.
Tim J. McGuire is the author of “Some People Even Take Them Home.”
bu Steven Twomey
November 7, 2016
Give Japan’s navy its due. It successfully ambushed Pearl Harbor seventy-five years ago because its commander was partial to gambles; its technicians eliminated a confounding quirk of torpedoes, and its seamen proved adept at sailing thousands of miles undetected. The Japanese got lucky, too. In the era before spy satellites, they had no way of knowing as they set out whether the Pacific Fleet would even be in Hawaiian waters on December 7, 1941. And, no, Franklin Roosevelt did not know they were coming.
But mostly, the Japanese were the beneficiaries of acute managerial breakdown. One of the most unexpected, self-image shattering events in American history may be receding into a misty other century, but it is the perfect primer of the mistakes that government and business – that all of us — make every day.
Lesson One: Make sure there’s no other way to read what you write.
As peace was fraying in late November, Washington alerted its forces in the Pacific to probable Japanese aggression. Or thought it had. In reality, when officers at Pearl Harbor saw the Navy Department’s unprecedented first sentence – “This dispatch is to be considered a war warning” – they concluded danger lay elsewhere, because the note immediately went on to list Japan’s likely objectives, and Hawaii was not one of them. Its writers knew what they had meant – that while the listed locales seemed especially threatened, no outpost should feel safe – but they hadn’t considered how recipients might conflate the parts. If he missed the point, the fleet commander said later, “Then there must have been something the matter with the message.”
Lesson Two: To assume is to regret.
That commander, Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, was not required to report he understood the warning, or what security steps he was taking. Those in charge on the sea frontiers had risen to their exalted positions by demonstrating smarts and judgment, and the Navy Department was certain they would do the right thing. It wouldn’t micromanage. Only too late did Washington ask Oahu if search planes had been out, only to learn the answer was no. It is wise to give subordinates the room to be creative; it is not to remain ignorant of their choices.
In contrast, the Army did order its Hawaii commander to report how he was responding to the warning. But the War Department then failed to grasp what General Walter C. Short wrote back: He was guarding only against sabotage by islanders of Japanese descent, not an attack from without. “I told them as plainly as I could,” Short said. The Army Chief of Staff blamed a deluge of work for not reading carefully a reply he had demanded personally.
Lesson Three: You can’t have multiple leaders.
The Navy and Army on Oahu did not compare notes after the warnings. Neither was subservient to the other. A congressman who was also a Marine reservist had spent a month of active duty on the island that summer, and concluded that one man ought to be in charge of both services there, someone to whom the crucial data and problems went, and from whom the big decisions emanated. To leave responsibility muddled “may prove dangerous and tragic,” the congressman wrote the Navy in October. Nothing had changed by December. As for whether Kimmel had begun a search after the warnings, which is what he thought might happen, Short said, “I did not pin him down.”
Lesson Four: Don’t let your desires color new facts.
Too often on Oahu the latest intelligence was interpreted in a benign way, which enabled everyone to avoid disrupting plans and routines. By December 2, the names of four Japanese aircraft carriers had vanished from intercepted radio traffic, but the conclusion was they most likely remained in home waters. By December 3, Japanese diplomats were destroying codebooks and machines in Washington and elsewhere, but that was seen as merely a precaution Japan was taking in case the United States attacked it. “I didn’t draw the proper answer,” Kimmel said later. “I admit that. I admit that I was wrong.”
This tendency to give information a sunny spin was especially costly in regard to torpedoes. Dropped from an airplane, a torpedo plunges deeply before running to its target. Pearl Harbor was but forty-five feet. In June, Washington advised that while an attacker would probably need considerably more water than that to avoid having its torpedoes plow into the sea bottom, no depth should be thought safe. The fleet did not take the caution to heart. No cumbersome protective netting was strung around the tethered battleships, which wound up punctured repeatedly by torpedoes the Japanese had modified for shallow waters.
Lesson Five: If you are given expert advice, remember it.
In March 1941, a general and an admiral on Oahu concluded that in a time of tension, a fast Japanese raiding force might reach island waters “with no prior warning from our intelligence services,” and prior to a declaration of war. Launched from one or more carriers, Japanese planes might catch the fleet unawares in port, the two officers said. Reconnaissance would be the only antidote.
But then, just about everyone relegated that dangerous scenario to their mental back pages. It was a box that had been ticked. Americans did not view the Japanese as particularly creative or capable. The Navy felt its own ships would have a hard time pulling off a comparable strike on Japan, and if our boys couldn’t do it, theirs couldn’t. In the days after the war warnings, with four enemy carriers unaccounted for, no one even mentioned the news to the admiral who had co-authored the March report.
That morning long ago, as warplanes with red balls on their wings swept down on his ships, Kimmel stood in his yard watching with a neighbor, who would remember the look on the commander’s face. He was “as white as the uniform he wore.”