Thorough and detailed look at the historical event and its background.

Pearl Harbor: From Infamy to Greatness - Craig Nelson

Thanks to Net Galley and to Scribner for offering me a free ARC copy of this book in exchange for an unbiased review.

I am not a historian but like most people I’ve read novels and watched films about the events and was intrigued by the possibility of learning more about Pearl Harbor. This book definitely delivers.

This volume is extremely detailed and right in time for the 75th anniversary it reviews previous research and testimonies, and leaves no stone unturned to offer us as wide and knowledgeable a version of events as possible. The variety of sources is impressive, from communications at the time, messages, phone calls, coded messages intercepted, eye-witness declarations, inquiries and investigations, everybody is a protagonist, pilots and military men on both sides, civilians living in Hawaii, politicians, nurses and doctors, unsung heroes and the less-heroic.

It is not a revisionist story trying to go back and explain what happened with the advantage of hindsight (although it notes the prejudice and misunderstandings in the way each country saw the other), and it tries hard to not pass judgement and provide background to the situation, examining the political, economic and social circumstances of both countries, in the context of the world history and the events taking place at the time.

The book builds up to the attack piling up information and it takes us about half the book to get to the events of the day (probably a bit more as there are two appendixes, and a lengthy list of sources at the back of the book). Some individual readers might become impatient if they prefer to be immersed in the events, but others might prefer to get there fully informed and the tension mounts with each chapter.

Although it might be possible to read individual chapters if the reader is looking for specific information, sometimes the full picture only becomes clearer later on (we do not follow any character from beginning to end at the time of their first mention, at least not the ones who make repeated appearances. For instance, there is an early mention of General MacArthur with regards to the Philippines operation that is later developed in much more detail, including the trials and difficulties of the population and his men), and it pays off to keep reading.

The writer remains an impersonal observer until the last chapter, when he provides his own interpretation, not so much of the reasons for Pearl Harbor (he has offered us enough information throughout the book for us to make our own minds up), but of the role Pearl Harbor had in the history not only of the United States but also the world. I am not from the United States and as such, I can easily see that his conclusions might not be shared by everybody. He also compares the reactions and the evaluations of the events by the US and Japanese people today and tries to elaborate what the reasons for the differences are. This again might resonate with some readers more than others.

I read an ARC copy, and I did not have the advantage of having access to all the maps that would make some of the more detailed manoeuvres discussed easier to visualise, although I suspect a paper copy might be the best option for those who want to pour through all the details (although footnotes work well).

The appendices provide detailed and unedited documentation including the federal investigation of the events and a listing of the medals of honour awarded.

The book offers us the human everyday moments, from records playing to whisky being used to clean oil off the skins of wounded navy men, from horrifying moments (the description of the wounds and some of the experiences of the men are graphic and terrible, and this is not an easy book to read) to inspiring ones. It also gives us the information about the strategic and high-level political decisions, but it is not a novelisation or an easy read for somebody looking for a light introduction to the events. It is research heavy and full of names, dates, and details that will serve well somebody looking for further information on a topic they are familiar with, and it will be a welcome addition to the collections of those who want to have a thorough book to consult on the topic. I can see it complementing the libraries of lovers of US history and those looking for a solid and well-researched volume.