For the Good of the Service: Husband E. Kimmel and the Aftermath of Pearl Harbor

By John G. Keegan

Millersville University, 2010

Millersville, Pennsylvania

Directed by Ronald B. Frankum, Jr., Ph.D.

This analysis places Admiral Husband E. Kimmel’s actions before December 7, 1941 and his actions in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor into historical context. Without the distortion of hindsight, his decisions based on available information and resources were reasonable. Kimmel’s only error in judgment was underestimating Japan’s capability to conduct carrier operations. That error was shared by others in the military, President Roosevelt, and Congress. Although Kimmel’s treatment in the immediate aftermath of Pearl Harbor was unfair, it was perfectly legal and Kimmel was not unjustly punished by being relieved of command. Additionally, the Hart Inquiry, Naval Court of Inquiry, Hewitt Inquiry and the Joint Congressional Committee Investigation to varying degrees corrected the injustice of the Roberts Commission charge of dereliction of duty. Ultimately, therefore, Kimmel was not denied due process.

Nevertheless, the conclusions of all of the investigations lack the force of a court-martial verdict. By voluntarily waiving the statute of limitations, Kimmel gave away any leverage he had to force the government to try him under the statute. Thus he participated in denying himself such a verdict. It was not until August 1945 that the Judge Advocate General of the Navy Thomas Gatch concluded there was insufficient evidence to sustain a conviction on the charges of Neglect of Duty and Culpable Inefficiency in Performance of Duty. That same month, Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal offered Kimmel trial by general court-martial. Kimmel never accepted. Thus, Kimmel chose not to be court-martialed.

Examination of prevailing opinion and United States strategy reveals that the United States considered Germany a greater threat. Thus with the nation’s attention was focused on Europe the Pacific Fleet was denied the necessary men and materiel to carry out its mission. Recognizing that the Germany first strategy caused the shortages with which Kimmel had to contend in no way brings into question the wisdom of that strategy. It simply recognizes the cost of that choice. Prevailing opinion illustrates the American people’s reluctance fully to involve themselves in the war. It also revealed an overestimation of American military capability and a misunderstanding of the appropriate use of air power. Those factors were reflected in Congress’s failure to appropriate sufficient funds or provide, in a timely manner, the manpower necessary for the military to be sufficiently prepared at the beginning of the conflict.

Setting aside the historiography that maintains the Japanese were willing and able to attack the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor and analyzing prevailing opinion about Japan’s abilities as well as United States strategy demonstrates Kimmel’s errors in judgment were not unique. They were shared by the civilian and military leadership. Additionally, Kimmel’s decisions before December 7, 1941 were reasonable and he did the best he could with the resources available to him. Kimmel was not derelict in the performance of his duty.

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Included in the Hawaiian Collection, University of Hawaii at Manoa Library March 2013.