Roberts Commission report


Report by the commission that conducted the first inquiry into the attack on Pearl Harbor that was released on January 24, 1942. The Roberts Commission was appointed by the president and chaired by Supreme Court Justice Owen J. Roberts. Despite containing only a vague passage of spying by "Japanese consular agents and other... persons having no open relations with the Japanese foreign service," the report was widely believed to implicate local Japanese Americans and was a turning point in public opinion in favor of mass removal of Japanese Americans from the West Coast.

After the devastation of the attack on Pearl Harbor (see December 7, 1941), President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed a fact-finding commission on December 18 to be chaired by Supreme Court Justice Owen J. Roberts. The other members of the committee were all active or retired military officials: Admiral William H. Standley, Admiral Joseph M. Reeves, General Frank R. McCoy, and General Joseph T. McNarney. The committee met in Washington, D.C. and then proceeded to Honolulu to continue its investigation from December 22 to January 10. In all, the commission interviewed 127 witnesses.

The Roberts Commission issued its report on January 23, 1942, and it was released to the public the following day. Its key finding was its assignment of much of the blame for the devastation caused by the attack to General Walter C. Short and Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, the top army and navy commanders, charging them with "dereliction of duty" for their lack of preparedness.

The report did not specifically mention the Japanese American community in Hawai'i at all but did contain a passage about "Japanese spies":

There were, prior to December 7, 1941, Japanese spies on the island of Oahu. Some were Japanese consular agents and other [sic] were persons having no open relations with the Japanese foreign service. These spies collected and, through various channels transmitted, information to the Japanese Empire respecting the military and naval establishments and dispositions on the island....[1]

Despite the vagueness of this passage—the "spies" could be anyone from Caucasians working for the Japanese to Japanese spies brought in under the guise of being diplomats—the national and West Coast media vilified the local Japanese community as if they had been implicated in espionage. In combination with other factors, the timing of the report proved to be a turning point in public opinion concerning the mass removal of Japanese Americans from the West Coast. When General John L. DeWitt, head of the Western Defense Command, met the California governor Culbert Olson shortly after the report came out, Olson reported "Since the publication of the Roberts Report, they [the people of California] feel they are living in the midst of enemies. They don't trust the Japanese, none of them."[2]

In addition to inflaming the public opinion, the report may also have had a specific impact on General DeWitt. The blame placed on his Hawai'i counterparts Short and Kimmel for their lack of preparedness no doubt influenced him not to be caught in the same way and may have had an impact on his willingness to remove all Japanese Americans from the West Coast.

In 1943, the President appointed Justice Roberts to chair the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas, also known as the Roberts Commission. This second Roberts Commission worked with the U.S. Army to protect cultural and artistic treasures captured by the Axis Powers and had nothing to do with the first Roberts Commission or with Japanese Americans.

Authored by Brian Niiya, Densho

For More Information

Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. Personal Justice Denied: Report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. Foreword by Tetsuden Kashima. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997.

Robinson, Greg. By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001.

U.S. Congress. Senate. "Attack upon Pearl Harbor by Japanese Armed Forces" or "The Roberts Commission Report." http://www.ibiblio.org/pha/pha/roberts/roberts.html.

Footnotes

  1. Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, Personal Justice Denied: Report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997), 57.
  2. Greg Robinson, By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001), 96.