Home News Stories 2003 December Pearl Harbor Attack Mobilizes FBI War Plans

Pearl Harbor Attack Mobilizes FBI War Plans

A Byte Out of History
Pearl Harbor Attack Mobilizes FBI War Plans


On December 7, 1941—as bombs fell on American battleships at Pearl Harbor—Robert L. Shivers, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI's Honolulu office, was on the phone. Headquarters relayed his anxious call to New York, where Director Hoover was visiting.

"The Japanese are bombing Pearl Harbor. It's war," Shivers said. "You may be able to hear it yourself. Listen!"

Director Hoover immediately flew back to Washington, mindful of the plans that his agency had made for this eventuality. Some 2,400 brave U.S. sailors had already died in the early hours of that fateful Sunday.

The attack was a surprise; that Japan was readying war against America was not. Contingency plans had been made throughout the U.S. government, and they were immediately implemented to ensure American security in the weeks, months, and years after the surprise attack.

And what about FBI plans? What had the Bureau set in place in the event of war?

  • It had made the investigation of sabotage, espionage, and subversion a top priorityand agents made surveys of industrial plants that were vital to American security in order to prevent sabotage and espionage.
  • It had expanded its intelligence programs, including undercover work in South and Central America to identify Nazi spies.
  • It had performedand continued to performexhaustive background checks on federal workers, to keep enemy agents from infiltrating the government.
  • It had been directed to draw up plans for a voluntary board, turned over to and headed by a newspaperman, to review media stories in order to prevent information from being released that might harm American troops. Mindful of free speech protections, this independent board operated with the voluntary cooperation of the media.
  • It had expanded the number of professionally trained police through its National Academy program to aid the Bureau in times of crisis. This cadre of professionals effectively forestalled well-meaning but overzealous civilian plans to "help" law enforcement with vigilantism. The FBI had learned a lesson from World War I when groups like the American Protective League abused the civil rights of Americans in its efforts to identify German spies, draft resisters, and other threats.
  • And it had identified German, Italian, and Japanese aliens who posed a clear threat to the United States in the event of war so that when President Roosevelt ordered itand he did, on the evening of December 7the Bureau could immediately arrest these enemies and present them to immigration for hearings (represented by counsel) and possible deportation. A fewlike Bernard Julius Otto Kuehn, the German national involved in signaling the Japanese invasion fleet headed for Pearl Harborwere arrested and prosecuted for espionage and other crimes against the U.S.
  • Now, on December 7, it immediately implemented a 24/7 schedule at Headquarters and in its field operations.

What was the upshot? By war's end the FBI had captured hundreds of Axis agents, investigated more than 16,000 sabotage cases, and handled all of its other criminal responsibilities besides. It had played a significant role in keeping Americans safe and free.