Harry Elmer Barnes: The Father of World War II Revisionism

December 7 is National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day, marking a time in which Pearl Harbor Survivors, veterans, and others honor and remember the 2,403 service members and civilians who were killed during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. A further 1,178 people were injured in the attack, which permanently sank two U.S. Navy battleships (the USS Arizona and the USS Utah) and destroyed 188 aircraft. 

The USS Arizona (BB-39) burning after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941. USS Arizona sunk at Pearl Harbor. The ship is resting on the harbor bottom. Public domain image.

Over the years, various interpretations of events leading up to the attack have been laid out and argued over. Academic scholar Harry Elmer Barnes held decidedly different views from those in the mainstream.

Until the 1950s Barnes was a highly regarded cultural historian and sociologist. Especially through his book The New History and the Social Studies (1925), he became a leading advocate of the New History, which sought a deeper understanding of the origin and development of Western culture through the integration and cross-fertilization of history and the social sciences. Another of his significant contributions was History of Historical Writing (1937), which was widely recognized as a monument of learning, universally praised in the United States and abroad as an indispensable source for all advanced students of history.

So, what happened to change Harry Barnes’ reputation?

Barnes had already proved himself a controversial figure with his views that the U.S. had fought on the wrong side in World War I. Although initially a strong supporter of the American war effort, interviews he conducted with German soldiers and leaders after the war led him to believe that Germany bore no responsibility for the outbreak of war in 1914 and had been instead the victim of Allied aggression. But it was his World War II perspectives that led to even greater controversy.

A strong ego steered Barnes into unyielding beliefs, including those about the U.S. entry into the Second World War. In the years following the war, he argued that President Franklin D. Roosevelt had deliberately provoked the attack on Pearl Harbor in order to promote his own political ambitions and to promulgate a deceitful foreign policy. Barnes devoted much of the remainder of his life creating a whole body of revisionist scholarship about Pearl Harbor and the origins of the war.

Notes by Harry Elmer Barnes on a statement by Admiral Husband E. Kimmel made in 1958 on a radio broadcast. Kimmel was commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet during the Pearl Harbor attack. Box 135, Harry Elmer Barnes papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

A colleague, Commander Charles C. Hiles, assisted Barnes in these efforts. Hiles was a career naval officer serving from 1914 to 1947 and was stationed at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked on December 7, 1941. Hiles believed that Admiral Husband Kimmel, who served as commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet during the Pearl Harbor attack, had been scapegoated for the attack by those Hiles believed were really at fault – Kimmel’s superiors in Washington. 

Notes shared between Harry Elmer Barnes and C. C. Hiles regarding “The Kita Message,” a reference to Nagao Kita who was a Japanese Consul stationed in Hawaii. Instructions Kita received in March and September 1941 from the Japanese government regarding the American fleet in Hawaii were intercepted by U.S. Intelligence but did not raise alarms. Box 135, Harry Elmer Barnes papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Barnes last word on the topic was his book Pearl Harbor After a Quarter Century which was completed just before his death in 1968. Barnes never stopped believing that the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor was the fault of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In the book, Barnes concludes “Roosevelt’s success in producing a surprise attack was an immensely, even uniquely, adroit achievement in piloting an overwhelmingly pacifically-inclined country into the most extensive and destructive war of history without any threat to our safety through aggressive action from abroad.”

You can learn more about these views of the Pearl Harbor attack in the papers of Harry Elmer Barnes and Charles C. Hiles at the American Heritage Center. Additionally, the AHC houses the papers of Husband E. Kimmel.

Post contributed by AHC’s Simpson Archivist Leslie Waggener.


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