What Biden and Pelosi can learn from a 1941-1942 presidential commission

Thomas Balcerski teaches history at Eastern Connecticut State University. He is the author of “Bosom Friends: The Intimate World of James Buchanan and William Rufus King” (Oxford University Press). He tweets @tbalcerski. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.

Formal congressional hearings into the deadly January 6 attack on the Capitol start this week. However, the federal criminal investigation is already underway and more than 200 people have now been charged by the Justice Department for their alleged roles in the attack.

Thomas Balcerski

In addition, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has called for a “9/11-type commission” to investigate the attack on the Capitol. Subsequently, congressional Democrats have drafted an initial plan to create a bipartisan commission that would examine the security failures at the Capitol to ensure that something similar never happens again. Under this plan, the commission’s report would be due by the end of 2021 — a much faster timeline than the 21 months taken by the 9/11 commission.
A congressional commission will allow Congress to attend to its legislative responsibilities, while still providing a highly visible public forum to review the events of that day and promote accountability in a bipartisan manner. Given the highly polarized times that we face, Americans need an independent commission in order to learn the truth about the January 6 attack and, more importantly, to prevent a recurrence of the tragic events of that day.
    But as lawmakers on Capitol Hill weigh their options, the history of the Commission to Investigate and Report the Facts Relating to the Attack made by Japanese Armed Forces upon Pearl Harbor, commonly referred to as the Roberts Commission, cannot be overlooked. In a matter of mere weeks — not years — the Roberts Commission charged the base commanders at Pearl Harbor for failing to take “appropriate measures of defense required by the imminence of hostilities” on December 7, 1941.
    Following the terrorist attacks on 9/11, former Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman invoked its example: “We need another Roberts Commission,” he said. “We need to know the truth.” Yet the Roberts Commission has also been cited for its hasty rush to judgment. During the 9/11 Commission’s first public hearings, attorney Richard Ben-Veniste noted that the Roberts Commission contained “serious omissions” and suffered from “impaired conclusions.”
    The current commission should therefore adopt the best of the Roberts Commission, but avoid its pitfalls. To do so, the congressional commission needs to balance the need for swift accountability, on the one hand, with careful and thorough investigation, on the other.
    Compared to last month’s riot, the attack on Pearl Harbor was far more devastating in terms of physical destruction and loss of life — nearly 20 ships sunk, more than 300 planes destroyed, and 2,403 Americans killed, with another 1,000 wounded. In response, Congress voted with near unanimous consent to declare war against Japan on December 8, 1941.
    Then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt also decided to open a formal inquiry into the attack. On December 18, 1941, he issued Executive Order 8983 to establish a commission to investigate further. Roosevelt’s order cited the need to determine whether “errors of judgment on the part of United States Army or Navy personnel contributed to such successes as were achieved by the enemy on the occasion mentioned.”
    At the urging of then-Secretary of War Henry Stimson and others, Roosevelt selected Supreme Court Associate Justice Owen Roberts to lead the commission. The choice of Roberts, a Republican nominee to the court who had reportedly favored joining the Allies in the war, may have been calculated to insulate the President from conservative criticism. In fact, Roberts had decided against the constitutionality of key components of the New Deal, only changing his views after Roosevelt’s election to a second term.
    In addition to Roberts, the commission consisted of top military brass: from the Navy, Admiral William H. Standley and Admiral Joseph M. Reeves, and from the Army, General Frank R. McCoy and General Joseph T. McNarney. The five-man commission swiftly conducted its review, interviewing 127 witnesses over the period December 22, 1941, to January 10, 1942.
    The Roberts Commission’s report was released on January 25, 1942. It found that Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, commander of the US Pacific fleet, and General Walter Short, commander of army forces in Hawaii, had failed to act upon orders for increased readiness against an air attack and were thus guilty of “dereliction of duty.”
    The Roberts Commission report also pointed to Japanese spies as well as “consular agents and other… persons” as further culprits, which added to some of the baseless claims against Japanese Americans already made by the administration. In February 1942, the Pacific Coast Congressional subcommittee on aliens and sabotage lobbied Roosevelt to order “immediate evacuation of all persons of Japanese lineage…whose presence shall be deemed dangerous or inimical to the defense of the United States from all strategic areas.” In response, Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 that responded to the committee’s request by effectively instituting Japanese-American internment.
    Ironically, at the direction of former President Jimmy Carter, another presidential commission — the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians — was established in July 1980 to review the impact of the internment on Japanese Americans and, in December 1982, determined that survivors should receive a formal apology and reparations. The Civil Liberties Act of 1988 subsequently provided the necessary legislation for financial remedy, though the legacy of this shameful episode lives on.
    The Roberts Commission was by no means the final word on the attacks on Pearl Harbor either. Multiple internal investigations, including at the end of the war, in 1945, when Congress established a joint congressional committee investigation that eventually released more than 40 published volumes of testimony and reports.
    The controversy over who to blame for the attacks also did not stop with the Roberts Commission though. Kimmel and Short disputed the Roberts Commission’s findings, and though a Naval Court cleared Kimmel of any failure of duty, he was denied four-star rank. Kimmel’s descendants continue to wage a campaign to reinstate his former rank, which had been downgraded from four-star to two-star. A parallel Army investigation said Short had failed, in part, to maintain adequate war preparedness. Several subsequent investigations concluded that the blame for Pearl Harbor should be broadly shared.
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    So, how does the proposal by congressional Democrats stack up? The current plan to create an 11-person committee, with the chair appointed by President Joe Biden, brings a bipartisan approach to the issue, while the goal of a final draft by the end of 2021 fits within the best practices established by the Roberts Commission.
      At the same time, the commission to investigate the events of January 6, no matter its final form, must not lead to scapegoating of Americans on mere partisan grounds. Speed in accountability — while critically needed to provide answers to the assault on the Capitol on January 6 — should not come at the expense of the rights of any class or group of Americans.
      Instead, the proposed commission — as did the Roberts Commission before it — should take as its mission the future protection of the nation and, by extension, American democracy.

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