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Book Review: Day of Lightning, Years of Scorn - Walter C. Short and the Attack on Pearl Harbor, by Charles R. Anderson
Book Review: Day of Lightning, Years of Scorn - Walter C. Short and the Attack on Pearl Harbor, by Charles R. Anderson


About the Reviewer

A former history professor, Tom Miller is a novelist and essayist. His most recent novel is Full Court Press (2000). His reviews and essays have appeared in numerous books, journals, and newspapers, including The Encyclopedia of Southern History, American History Illustrated, the Chicago Tribune, and the Des Moines Register. He also is a former Army officer and Vietnam veteran.

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February 2005
Review by Tom Miller

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Annapolis: Md., Naval Institute Press, 2005. $34.95, 264 pp. ISBN: 1-59114-011-0

Purchase Day of Lightning, Years of Scorn from Amazon.com

Despite warning signs, a determined enemy launches a surprise attack against the United States that leaves unprecedented death and destruction in its wake. After a brief period of mourning and as the initial shock wears off, the blame game, no matter how unseemly, begins. "How could this happen?" and "Who's responsible?" become the universal questions of the day. Soon, a major investigation is underway.

9/ll? Yes. But, also 12/7/41. In many ways, the responses to both attacks are remarkably similar. The desire to understand why and how it happened is laudable - in fact it is the key to preventing such attacks in the future. The need to point fingers and assess blame is unfortunate. In the end, the 9/11 Commission pulled back from assessing individual responsibility and pointed to the systemic failures - especially within the intelligence community - that contributed to the success of the attack.

The same restraint, however, was absent after the disaster at Pearl Harbor. President Roosevelt ordered an inquiry headed by Supreme Court Justice Owen Roberts. The commission seemed more interested in speed than a thorough investigation and within two months had finished its report. Blame was fixed firmly on Army Lt. Gen. Walter Short, the commander of the Hawaiian Department, and Navy Adm. Husband Kimmel, commander of the fleet at Pearl Harbor. Both were cited for "dereliction of duty" and were involuntarily retired.

The Pearl Harbor controversy did not end with the Roberts' inquiry. In fact, it continues to this day. Despite their best efforts, Short and Kimmel never managed to shake the blame for the disaster at Pearl Harbor. A post-war Congressional investigation spread the responsibility for the failure "far beyond Short's headquarters in Hawaii..." but it did not exonerate Short and Kimmel. Short declared that he was "deeply disappointed" with the verdict, but it was the closest he came to justice. He died three years later.

Pearl Harbor has spawned a cottage industry among writers and publishers. Even now, sixty years hence, the theories, counter theories, and conspiracy theories continue to spur interest. As a major character, Short has attracted plenty of ink - recent titles include Scapegoats by Edward L. Beach and Kimmel, Short, and Pearl Harbor, by Fred Borch and Daniel Martinez - but Day of Lightning, Years of Scorn is the first full-length biography of him.

The author, Charles R. Anderson, who died before the book's publication, clearly sympathizes with Short, but he does not excuse him. A Marine veteran of Vietnam and a historian at the U.S. Army Center of Military History, Anderson draws on a decade of research into the official record to conclude that the tragedy at Pearl Harbor was largely due to administrative failures. Short made mistakes that contributed to the disaster, but so did others - including Secretary of War Henry Stimson and Army Chief of Staff General George Marshall - who managed to avoid taking responsibility. But, such things as "a lack of interdepartmental coordination" loomed much larger in the equation. Anderson faults the early investigations for their rush to judgment, their whitewashing of powerful figures like Stimson and Marshall, and their unwillingness to consider larger, systemic issues.

The author of two earlier volumes on Vietnam - The Grunts and Vietnam: The Other War - Anderson seeks not only to set the record straight but also to judge Short in the context of his life and career. Thus, we follow Short from his youth on the Illinois prairie through his long and distinguished military career. Distinguished until December 7, 194l, that is. As a result, the reader gets to know and respect Short, the man and the officer, before the Pearl Harbor debacle. In that context, it is much easier to sympathize with his situation on December 7 and thereafter.

To his credit, Anderson appears to have scrupulously followed the evidence and the evidence points to a man who was neither hero nor villain on December 7. In an account that is lively and crisply written, Anderson sketches an evenhanded portrait of an honorable man who was treated unfairly.

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2005 All opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of Military.com.



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