Review of “A Matter of Honor Pearl Harbor: Betrayal, Blame, and a Family’s Quest for Justice” by Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan

John Newlin



Most people of my generation know about Pearl Harbor only what they’ve seen on television newsreels—bombs falling on battleships in the harbor and destroying planes lined up at Hickam Field on the December 7, 1941; the US Navy and Army Air Force caught asleep at the switch that fateful Sunday morning.  And, while any number of books have been written about the events leading up to, during, and after the attack, none to date has been as thoroughly researched and described as succinctly as the highly readable and compelling book, A Matter of Honor: Pearl Harbor: Betrayal, Blame, and a Family’s Quest for Justice, by Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan.  The authors make it abundantly clear, once again, that the blame for the success of the attack lay principally with the military brass in Washington, D.C., not with the beleaguered commanders at Pearl, Admiral Husband E. Kimmel and General Walter C. Short.

This book, as has been the case with several other of their excellent earlier works—The Eleventh Day: The Ultimate Account of 9/11 (2011) (a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for History); The Arrogance of Power: The Secret World of Richard Nixon (2000); Sinatra: The Life (2005)—was a team effort, Swan doing painstakingly exhaustive research, she and Summers organizing the vast piles of materials in their Ireland studio, and Summers constructing narratives that read like a gripping thriller.  A Matter of Honor is their most recent accomplishment, one that bears close reading by all students of history and seekers of justice.

Summers and Swan recount how Japanese spies were planted to provide detailed information as to the comings and goings of the Pacific Fleet; how the strength of the fleet was systematically weakened by shifting ships to the Atlantic, even as the Japanese threat increased; how there was a total lack of serviceable reconnaissance airplanes to scan the seas for Japanese warships; how the Japanese Code which told of the coming attack was broken but not shared with the Pearl Harbor commanders; and finally, how Washington was so late when they sent a warning of the attack that it arrived AFTER the Japanese bombs were falling.

The authors spare no detail in spelling out the manner in which the hastily assembled Roberts Commission lay the blame at the hands of the two commanders, ignoring all proper military and legal protocol; the manner in which it was determined not to put into evidence that the U.S. had, before the attack, broken the Japanese code, evidence that would have fully exonerated the commanders; how, in effect, the government executed a cover-up to escape having the responsibility for the death and destruction at Pearl Harbor.  At the heart of the story is the way in which Admiral Kimmel was betrayed by a man he considered a good friend, Admiral Harold Stark, who withheld from his Pacific commander critical information preceding the Japanese attack and then was not forthcoming later.

From 1941 until his death Admiral Kimmel, the target of death threats for years after the war, sought to clear his name, appearing before a joint Congressional Committee in 1945, accompanied by one of his two surviving sons, Ned, himself a naval officer.  His oldest boy, Manning, like his father a USNA graduate and submarine Commander, died in 1944 while serving on the USS Robalo.  His other son, Tom, also a USNA alumnus, served with distinction as a career officer.  Kimmel’s reputation as a fine leader was later reinforced when, in 1986, the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association supported his posthumous restoration to his four-star rank.  In 2000, both houses of Congress passed a law urging the President to act on Kimmel’s behalf.  Seventeen years later, no president, not Bill Clinton, not George W. Bush, nor Barack Obama have acted, for reasons that defy rationality.

With the passing of their fathers, third generation Kimmels, Tom and Manning IV, have continued the fight.  Descendants of Admiral Kimmel continue to live in the hope that some President (now Donald Trump) will sign the Executive Order that restores both commanders to their highest wartime ranks, that of four-star Admiral and General.  As Kimmel stated later in life, “It’s not a question of military rank; it’s a question of honor.”  As a sequel, Swann and Summers participated in a late 2016 event, in Henderson, Kentucky, Admiral Kimmel’s birthplace, where the citizens erected a statue of him to honor their native son.

As Kimmel testified in 1946, “History, with the perspective of the long tomorrow, will enter the final directive in my case.  I am confident of that verdict.”  Swan and Summers have provided the world with all the evidence needed to reach a verdict.



A Matter of Honor Pearl Harbor: Betrayal, Blame, and a Family’s Quest for Justice

Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan