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.  

The books I picked & why

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At Dawn We Slept: The Untold Story of Pearl Harbor

By Gordon W. Prange,

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

Why 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.


Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision

By Roberta Wohlstetter,

Book cover of Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision

Why 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.


Tojo and the Coming of the War

By Robert Joseph Charles Butow,

Book cover of Tojo and the Coming of the War

Why 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.


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

By Anthony Summers, Robbyn Swan,

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

Why 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.


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

By Lynne Olson,

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

Why 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.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in World War 2, the Pearl Harbor attack, and Japan?

5,309 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about World War 2, the Pearl Harbor attack, and Japan.

World War 2 Explore 886 books about World War 2
The Pearl Harbor Attack Explore 20 books about the Pearl Harbor attack
Japan Explore 299 books about Japan

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like December 1941: 31 Days That Changed America and Saved the World, Day of Infamy: The Classic Account of the Bombing of Pearl Harbor, and Rising Sun, Falling Skies: The disastrous Java Sea Campaign of World War II if you like this list.