Roberta Wohlstetter, Codebreaker

R.A. Hettinga rah at
Tue Jan 9 07:12:00 PST 2007


The Wall Street Journal


Roberta Wohlstetter, Codebreaker
January 9, 2007; Page A18

When Roberta Wohlstetter set out, in the early 1960s, to explain why the
U.S. had been surprised by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, she
confronted a puzzle that to some seemed like a conspiracy.

Unlike classic military surprises, the U.S. had received ample intelligence
that the Japanese were prepared to attack the Hawaiian base. That nothing
was done to remove American ships to safety was proof, for Clare Booth Luce
among others, that Franklin Roosevelt had "lied us into war because he
didn't have the courage to lead us into it." But Wohlstetter, who died
Saturday at age 94, knew better, and she spelled it all out in "Pearl
Harbor: Warning and Decision," perhaps the most important book ever written
on military intelligence.

Yes, the U.S. had intelligence that Pearl Harbor was a potential Japanese
target. But other intelligence suggested Siberia could be a target, or the
Panama Canal, or the Philippines. Previous indications of an impending
attack had served, like so many false alarms, to lower America's guard. And
American planners had trouble believing the Japanese would launch a war
against the United States that they couldn't possibly hope to win.

>From this, Wohlstetter drew the essential conclusion that the U.S. failed
to anticipate the attack on Pearl Harbor because, amid mountains of
incomplete and often conflicting data -- what she called "noise" --
intelligence analysts couldn't distinguish the information that really
mattered. This tended to lead, as the future Nobelist Thomas Schelling
wrote in his preface to Wohlstetter's book, to "a routine obsession with a
few dangers that may be familiar rather than likely."

The lessons are timeless, and foretold the findings of the 9/11 Commission.
Contrary to the views of many so-called realists, nations do not always act
from rational calculations of their self-interests: They can be reckless
gamblers, something that should give pause to those who see nothing to
worry about in the prospect of an Iranian nuclear weapon. And contrary to
the instincts of many CIA "professionals," the best intelligence analysis
requires judgment and imagination, not simply the widest possible data set.

Wohlstetter was also remarkable not simply as a woman working in what was
then a "man's field," but also as the wife and intellectual partner of the
late Albert Wohlstetter, the legendary nuclear-strategy theorist. Both
Albert and Roberta were great friends of this page, as well as great

R. A. Hettinga <mailto: rah at>
The Internet Bearer Underwriting Corporation <>
44 Farquhar Street, Boston, MA 02131 USA
"... however it may deserve respect for its usefulness and antiquity,
[predicting the end of the world] has not been found agreeable to
experience." -- Edward Gibbon, 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'

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