INTERVIEW WITH DR. JOHN PRADOS
John Prados, PhD, is the author of Islands of Destiny: The Solomons Campaign and the Eclipse of the Rising Sun is a Senior Research Fellow at the National Security Archive at the George Washington University in Washington, DC. He is author of over twenty books and has three times been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. He has graciously agreed to respond to questions today.
Please tell us about the National Security Archive and your work there.
We’re located in the Gelman Library of George Washington University here in DC. The National Security Archive is a private, non-profit organization which works to get secret U.S. government records declassified. Once they’re opened to the public we make them available to whomever wanted to use them. We also advocate for government accountability by recommending changes in regulations that control the classification of documents, hence secrecy. We may be the largest user of the Freedom of Information Act in the country. Probably 80 percent of the time, when you read in the newspaper of newly declassified U.S. documents changing our previous understanding of recent history, it’s based on papers the Archive has had a hand in bringing to the public. I’m a senior fellow at the Archive. I work on Vietnam, on intelligence issues, and on conflict, most recently Iraq and Afghanistan; plus the openness issues.
Explain what primary source documentation is and why it’s important.
Good question. Primary source documentation is material in which there is no intermediary between the source and the user/reader, and where the source is directly involved in events. It is the stuff of history—and most analysis too. Primary sources are fundamental and they are authentic. They contrast with “secondary sources,” which are works that compile and synthesize other material. Islands of Destiny is a secondary work, a history built upon primary source material. Government documents like the ones I was just talking about are primary sources but so are a lot of other things. People sometimes confuse “primary source” with “archival document” but that’s actually misleading. An interview is a primary source, for example. So is a memoir or a diary. A biography would be a secondary source. Sometimes a source can be primary and secondary at the same time. For example, a newspaper article would be a primary source for what the journal was reporting at that time but secondary for the content of the article. The best histories reach beyond secondary accounts to present new primary source material. Islands of Destiny does a lot of that.
As one who toils to release and archive government secrets, how do you feel about Edward Snowden and his recent release of data about the National Security Agency (NSA)?
Islands of Destiny actually presents a story from the same world of communications intelligence in which Mr. Snowden worked. It’s an important historical account that shows the value of this very kind of information. I have a great appreciation for the NSA—and I have studied its work not only in World War II, but in Vietnam and the Cold War. I believe—and so does the Archive—that there are legitimate government secrets that need to be kept. But I will tell you that the strictures supposed to protect American citizens from NSA monitoring actually result from previous abuses—in the 1960s and 70s when the NSA was caught eavesdropping on Americans who opposed the Vietnam war. The regulations were not simply made up. In the period after the 9/11 attacks the regulations were thrown away in the heat of the counterterror war, and in a fashion that breaches the constitutional rights of citizens. In 2004 the entire top echelon of the Justice Department, including James Comey, recently nominated to be the next director of the FBI, were ready to resign over this program. It continued. Mr. Snowden reacted to that in the manner of a classic whistleblower. He felt that eavesdropping which threatens constitutional rights is not a legitimate secret. Efforts to demonize Snowden really represent attempts to “shoot the messenger” rather than to fix the problem. I think we need to deal with the problem, not paint a black hat on the leaker.
In your book Islands of Destiny you are dismissive of Army Air Corps efforts in the Solomons Campaign. The interface between General MacArthur’s Area of Responsibility and Admiral Nimitz’s was through the Coral Sea, yet the “Cactus Air Force” flew Navy, Marine and Army aircraft, and coordinated raids with long range bombers from Australia and New Guinea. Was this an unusual example of “jointness” for that era?
I’d have to differ. I would say that Islands of Destiny is very appreciative of the Army Air Corps itself—especially in the Solomons. And, yes, I agree that the South Pacific Command represents a fine, early example of the advantages of “jointness.” I also think Army air was great over New Guinea. Where I would differ is at the command level. On the face of the evidence General George Kenney, leader of the Fifth Air Force, the aerial component of MacArthur’s theater, was inclined both to claim more than he actually achieved, and was less committed to inter-theater cooperation than he advertises. Islands focuses on the Solomons campaign, whose ultimate objective—MacArthur’s objective under the relevant JCS directives—was Rabaul. You don’t have to go much farther than to look at the level of Fifth Air Force bombing sorties aimed at Rabaul to see that Kenney was not doing that much to assist his comrades in the South Pacific theater. Now, he offers various reasons for this, and they can be debated, and his November 1943 effort against Rabaul was a real one, but the fact remains that between the August 1942 landing on Guadalcanal and the Fortress Rabaul battle, for fifteen months the Fifth Air Force was mostly a missing quantity in the South Pacific theater. Equally telling is the fact that after November 1943 the level of Fifth Air Force effort against Rabaul quickly trailed off to practically nothing.
I was surprised at the level of involvement of Emperor Hirohito. I recall being taught that the emperor “didn’t know” of the aggressive plans of his army and navy. Clearly, he did. Was he just a tool, or was he the architect of Japan’s expansionist plans?
Hirohito’s involvement surprised me too. But the diary of his naval aide-de-camp makes clear his growing concern over the war situation. Nevertheless Emperor Hirohito was stymied by a governmental system, dating from Meiji days and even the Tokugawa shogunate, that sought to protect the emperor by divorcing him from actual decisions. This made military affairs the province of the Imperial Army and Imperial Navy commands and ministries. Hirohito could express preferences but, unlike Hitler, say; he could not issue orders. Islands of Destiny documents Hirohito’s preferences in some detail. I would not go so far as some historians—David Bergamini most prominently—and cast Hirohito as the architect of expansionism. I’d say my position is now somewhere between the view of Hirohito as figurehead and the emperor as mastermind.
Islands of Destiny is a beautifully crafted book; cover, maps, pictures, index, bibliography. It’s a first class product. What was it like working with Penguin on a big project like this?
It was very good to work with Penguin on Islands of Destiny. Our collaboration was smooth and very effective. On one piece of the book—the presentation of the carrier air strike on Rabaul in November 1943—I worked hard to meld the narrative with the photos plus a map in what I liked to think of as an “interactive” format. Editor Brent Howard at Penguin made a suggestion there which perfected our presentation. Before that we must have gone through half a dozen iterations trying to get it right. That’s just one example of our efficient functioning. This was a fine project and Islands of Destiny is a worthy book.