The McCollum Memo: Did the U.S. Provoke the Pearl Harbor Attack?


The Eight Action Memo, dated October 7, 1940, suggested that the United States should take action against the Empire of Japan in order to provoke them into commiting an "overt act of war."
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A War-Weary America

For those alive today who have witnessed national deliberations about whether to enter an armed conflict, they have seen nothing compared to what happened before World War II. At that time, the isolationists held real sway over public opinion. There was a strong perception that the war in Europe was Europe’s problem and the United States should do nothing about the spread of fascism and communism. Americans were already fatigued from the previous European war, a war that was supposed to end all war for all time. In addition, many Americans at the time felt outright animosity towards Britain and Europe as a whole. On the other side, there were interventionists who wanted the United States to enter the conflict.

After World War II began in 1939, the American people had a strong revulsion to the political ideologies that were developing in Europe. These extreme philosophies were were set in stark contrast to the American way of life. For as much as Americans might have worried about the spread of fascism and communism overseas, there was a stronger sentiment to not once again put our troops in harm's way. In the ancient fashion of Sun-Tzu, where all war is deception, the United States would need to be attacked by an enemy belligerent in order to change public opinion and galvanize the people into supporting American sacrifice in the conflict.

Plan of Attack

Sometimes, history is shaped by people who have never been known to the public. Most American have never heard of Lieutenant Commander Arthur H. McCollum. He worked for the Office of Naval Intelligence as the head of the Far East Desk. McCollum wrote a memo, dated October 7, 1940, that he gave to two of President Roosevelt’s close military advisors. The premise of the memo was that, in order to justify American involvement in World War II, Japan would have to be provoked into attacking the United States because political opinion did not currently support war. The public outcry that would result would be too much to ignore. The United States would be forced to declare war, with nearly unanimous support from the American public.

The McCollum Memo laid out eight steps that the U.S. would have to take in order to provoke a Japanese response. For example, according to the memo, the United States should fully support the Chinese government under Chiang-Kai-Shek. Whether or not President Roosevelt was taking action based on the memo is something that has never been proven, but the U.S. took all eight of those actions in the year preceding the attack on Pearl Harbor. The eighth step was an embargo on trade with Japan that the U.S. undertook in collaboration with Great Britain. After the U.S. took this step, the Japanese proceeded to attack Pearl Harbor.


President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said that December 7, 1941--the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor--is a date that will live in infamy.
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President Roosevelt declared the day on which Pearl Harbor was attacked to be “a date that will live in infamy.” After the revelations of the McCollum Memo came to light, it is an open question now that perhaps that 'infamy' was intended to manipulate public opinion in America. Whether or not the McCollum Memo proves that the United States government knew about Pearl Harbor in advance, it does show that the possibility of provoking an attack was definitely contemplated.

It is unlikely that such a memo could be given to two of President Roosevelt’s military advisors without at least the contents being shared with him. Certainly there is room for some to argue that if the United States did not know in advance of the Pearl Harbor attack, then it at least seemed to have furthered the agenda of those who wanted the United States to enter the war.