Double agent Dusko Popov warned the U.S. about the coming attack on Pearl Harbor – but was ignored

Dusko Popov warned the United States in advance of the coming attack on Pearl Harbor. The Nazis thought he was their spy (he was a double agent) and they showed him Japanese requests for information on two topics – the attack by the British that sunk the Italian fleet at Taranto, and for any information on the ammunition dumps and mine depots on Oahu, (Hawaii), where Pearl Harbor is located. Dusko Popov realized what this meant, and traveled from Europe to America to deliver his warning.
Four months later, Dusko was on a ship from South America to New York on Dec 7, 1941 when the ship’s loudspeaker announced that all passengers were to assemble in the first-class lounge.
The captain said that the Japanese navy had attacked Pearl Harbor, and then one of the ship officers told the passengers that since the United States was at war, their boat could be attacked by a German submarine.
Popov writes (in his book “Spy Counter Spy”):


“The seriousness of the moment could be read on everyone’s face. Except mine.
It was the news I had been awaiting. I couldn’t say anything to relieve the tension of my fellow passengers, but I was sure the American fleet had scored a great victory over the Japanese. I was very, very proud that I had been able to give the warning to the Americans four months in advance. What a reception the Japanese must have had! I paced the deck, no not paced it, I floated above it exultantly….
Then the news started trickling in. Involuntarily, I shook my head till my brain felt as though it was coming unstuck. The bulletins simply were not believable. The Japanese had scored a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. How, I asked myself, how? We knew they were coming. We knew how they were going to come. Exactly like at Taranto. And that’s how they came, combined torpedo and dive-bomber attacks, exactly as employed by Admiral Cunningham against the Italians. Except that the Japanese planes hardly should have go off the deck.
More news. The battleships West Virginia and California had been sunk at their moorings. At their moorings, I moaned. They couldn’t have been at their moorings. They had to be steaming to attack the Japanese fleet. Then it was the Arizona. Blown up…In one and a half hours the mastery of the Pacific had passed from American to Japanese hands. I had the right information to forestall the attack. I had traveled thousands of miles to deliver the information, which would certainly have shortened the war by a year of more. And American red tape had stopped the information going through.


Popov tried to ascertain how the failure happened. His conclusion was the culprit was probably the head of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, who he had spoken with personally, and not the president of the U.S. Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR). About FDR he says

“For a while, there was what I believe to be a canard circulating that President Roosevelt deliberately allowed the attack to take place so as to draw the United States into the war….I have had to discount the Roosevelt theory on the basis of pure logic. Granted even that Roosevelt might have welcomed an attack as a means of coercing the American people to unity in a war he was sure must come sooner or later, he still could have accomplished the same result by alerting his armed forces to the eventuality….there was no need for a defeat to accomplish this. No need to sacrifice the American Pacific fleet and thousands of soldiers, sailors and civilians on 7 December.


Popov’s book raises various interesting issues. Whoever heard or read Popov’s warning must have discounted it. Why? J. Edgar Hoover had thrown Popov out of his office (partly because Popov had carried on with other women despite being married), but Popov did submit the documentation for his warning. Maybe since Hoover did not like or respect the person who was his source of information, he ignored the information. Another reason people dismiss evidence is that they have a rigid theory or expectation, and the evidence doesn’t fit their expectation. In the same war (World War II), Stalin, the leader of Russia, refused to believe his own spy that Germany would invade Russia. There is an entire blog unheededwarnings.wordpress.com that discusses this and other examples of disasters that resulted from not heeding warnings. (full disclosure, I am the author of that blog too).

We all discount information on a regular basis. For instance, the half of the voters in the U.S. that just voted for Joe Biden for president discounted reports that he enriched himself and his family by selling ‘access’ to foreign companies and governments. Some of those voters probably never heard of this accusation, but if they did, it did not prevent them from voting for him. There was disturbing information about Trump too, when he was first elected, and plenty of disturbing info on the candidate he was running against (Hillary Clinton). It was either discounted or it didn’t reach their voters.
Its an interesting issue.

Dusko Popov
Attack on Pearl Harbor, Dec 7, 1941

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