The best books to understand why America was unprepared for the attack at Pearl Harbor

Who am I?

I'm a lawyer (Harvard Law School) who loves to write. My books reflect my eclectic interests. I've written nonfiction books about John Kennedy’s presidency, Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis, CBS Founder William S. Paley, Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series between the New York Yankees and the Brooklyn Dodgers, and Pearl Harbor. Each of my nonfiction books tries to focus on something with respect to a particular person or event that had not been addressed in detail in any other book. I've also written a thriller (Deadly Risks) which revolves around JFK’s assassination and can be likened to John Grisham’s book, The Pelican Brief.

I wrote...

In the Cauldron: Terror, Tension, and the American Ambassador's Struggle to Avoid Pearl Harbor

By Lew Paper,

Book cover of In the Cauldron: Terror, Tension, and the American Ambassador's Struggle to Avoid Pearl Harbor

What is my book about?

My book traces the efforts of Joseph Grew, America’s ambassador to Japan, to orchestrate an agreement between Japan and the United States to avoid the war he saw coming. The book also explains how – when he saw those efforts would fail – Grew tried to warn Secretary of State Cordell Hull and President Franklin D. Roosevelt about the imminent conflict with Japan, including a telegram on November 3, 1941, saying that Japan was prepared to launch a “suicidal” war with the United States and that armed conflict could come “with dangerous and dramatic suddenness.” There are countless books about Pearl Harbor. In the Cauldron is different. It is the first book to tell the story of the build-up to Pearl Harbor from Grew’s perspective.  

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of At Dawn We Slept: The Untold Story of Pearl Harbor

Why did I love this book?

Gordon Prange spent more than three decades in the research and writing of this book, first as the chief historian for General Douglas MacArthur during the occupation of Japan and then as a history professor at the University of Maryland. He used his position to interview many Japanese officials – both military and civilian – who were engaged in the planning and execution of the attack at Pearl Harbor. The book was a landmark achievement in addressing the planning of the attack, the attack itself, and the subsequent investigations in the US about how and why American forces were so unprepared. Sadly, Prange died in 1980, only months before the book was published.

By Gordon W. Prange,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked At Dawn We Slept as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Revisit the definitive book on Pearl Harbor in advance of the 78th anniversary (December 7, 2019) of the "date which will live in infamy"

At 7:53 a.m., December 7, 1941, America's national consciousness and confidence were rocked as the first wave of Japanese warplanes took aim at the U.S. Naval fleet stationed at Pearl Harbor. As intense and absorbing as a suspense novel, At Dawn We Slept is the unparalleled and exhaustive account of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. It is widely regarded as the definitive assessment of the events surrounding one of the most daring and brilliant naval…

Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision

By Roberta Wohlstetter,

Book cover of Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision

Why did I love this book?

In this book, Roberta Wohlstetter, a military intelligence analyst at the RAND Corporation, tries to explain why American intelligence services failed to predict the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor. The book homes in on the many missed signals that, at least in retrospect, should have been given greater attention.  Wohlstetter’s findings are a testament to the subjective factors that can affect military analysis. The book won the prestigious Bancroft Prize for History in 1963.

By Roberta Wohlstetter,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Pearl Harbor as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

For decades the controversy has raged: Was the Pearl Harbor disaster a result of criminal negligence by military officers in the Pacific theater? Was it, as some have claimed, a deliberate plot by the President in Washington?

It seems unlikely that a country could have so many warnings pointing to the danger, and yet be so unprepared for the event itself. American intelligence could read top-secret Japanese codes and the U.S. was therefore in a posistion to transmit vital information to American commanders throughout the world. Most of the time Washington was able to predict both Japan's diplomatic moves and…

Tojo and the Coming of the War

By Robert Joseph Charles Butow,

Book cover of Tojo and the Coming of the War

Why did I love this book?

Tojo Hideki, a general in Japan’s army, became the country’s Prime Minister in October 1941, was still at the helm when the Pearl Harbor attack occurred on December 7, 1941, and remained in power until 1944. Although Tojo was later vilified as a war criminal, he did take to heart Emperor Hirohito’s request in October 1941 that he explore ways to avoid war with the United States – but soon convinced the Emperor that there was no alternative to war. Butow, a professor of US-Japanese relations at the University of Washington, shows how Tojo rose to power in Japan’s convoluted system of government, how the decision to proceed with the Pearl Harbor attack unfolded, and how that decision affected Tojo.

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

Why did I love this book?

Admiral Husband Kimmel, the Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Fleet, was stationed in Honolulu in 1941 (and planning to play golf with Army Lieutenant General Walter Short, commander of US military installations, in the early morning of Sunday, December 7, 1941). In response to the outcry in the United States after the Pearl Harbor attack, Kimmel was relieved of his command and publicly accused of dereliction of duty because American forces were so ill-prepared for the Japanese attack. In this well-researched book, Summers and Swan conclude that military commanders in Washington and elsewhere failed to share intelligence information with Kimmel (and Short) and that Kimmel’s dismissal was nothing more than an attempt to find a scapegoat.

By Anthony Summers, Robbyn Swan,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Matter of Honor as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

On the seventy-fifth anniversary, the authors of Pulitzer Prize finalist The Eleventh Day unravel the mysteries of Pearl Harbor to expose the scapegoating of the admiral who was in command the day 2,000 Americans died, report on the continuing struggle to restore his lost honor-and clear President Franklin D. Roosevelt of the charge that he knew the attack was coming. The Japanese onslaught on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 devastated Americans and precipitated entry into World War II. In the aftermath, Admiral Husband Kimmel, Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Fleet, was relieved of command, accused of negligence and dereliction of…

Book cover of Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America's Fight Over World War II, 1939-1941

Why did I love this book?

Although not technically about the Pearl Harbor attack, Those Angry Days is an excellent companion to understand the mood in America in those months before the attack.  While Grew was focused on avoiding an almost inevitable conflict between Japan and the United States, Olson shows that Americans in general and President Roosevelt in particular were far more focused on whether and how to engage in the ongoing conflict in Europe.

By Lynne Olson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Those Angry Days as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


From the acclaimed author of Citizens of London comes the definitive account of the debate over American intervention in World War II—a bitter, sometimes violent clash of personalities and ideas that divided the nation and ultimately determined the fate of the free world.

At the center of this controversy stood the two most famous men in America: President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who championed the interventionist cause, and aviator Charles Lindbergh, who as unofficial leader and spokesman…

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