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At Dawn We Slept cover At Dawn We Slept: The Untold Story of Pearl Harbor

by Gordon W. Prange

Published by Penguin Books


Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

At Dawn We Slept is the most extensive and exhaustive historcal study available to date of the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. As such it is an indispensable source for those who would seek the fullest possible understanding of those events in their historical context.

The author, Professor Gordon Prange, was a trained historian as well as a former intelligence officer. In the course of his research for this book he went far beyond the usual sources. In addition to examining the archives and official documents of both the United States and Japan, he conducted a large number of interviews with individuals on both sides who were involved in the attack and its consequences. As the passing years have taken its toll on their number, it has become difficult or outright impossible to conduct similarly exhaustive research.

The result of Professor Prange's thirty-five years of research is this substantial volume, over eight hundred pages, fully footnoted and indexed. There is also a lengthy appendix on his source material, reproduced verbatum from a letter Prange wrote when first approaching publishers about his life's work. There is also a selected bibliography and lists of the persons involved in both the attack and the subseguent investigations.

Prange's prose is clear and lucid, providing a depth of detail without becoming bogged down in it. Events are placed within the larger context of the War as a whole, so the reader understands how they formed a part of a much larger historical drama. Each major historical figure is fully introduced upon first appearance, and Prange's delving into their backgrounds serves to more fully humanize these individuals, to illuminate their beliefs and motivations.

Prange's account begins in the Japanese political and military organizations in which the plans for the attack were first articulated and developed. Step by step the preparations unfold, from the initial decision through the selection and training of those who would be involved in the attack. At all points the actions and decisions of the Japanese high command are placed within the context of the expectations and imperatives of Japanese culture.

However, the American side of the story is by no means slighted. Prange's narrative delves deep into the inner workings of the US military command structure and the systemic weaknesses that led to such a catastrophic failure as the sheer level of unpreparedness that was in evidence on that fateful day. Prange was probably the first historian to attach major significance to the role of Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner in obstructing the smooth flow of intelligence reports from Washington to Hawaii.

Prange's description of the execution of the attack is equally impeccable. The actions of Japanese and American forces alike are chronicled in superb detail. The prose is vivid, even cinematic, without lapsing into unsubstantiated reconstructions that an naive or uninformed reader may mistake for historical fact. Even in the chaos of such a complex event as the bombings, it is always clear as to where any given event occured.

Prange's history does not stop with the attack and the subsequent declaration of war. In the third and final part of this volume is one of the first comprehensive studies of the aftermath of the attack, and in particular of the various investigations held over the following years. It also includes his examination of the arguments of the revisionists, which for the most part he has found wanting.

In sum, this is the most comprehensive historical study of the attack on Pearl Harbor currently in print. It should be on the shelf of every person who would be a scholar of those events.

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Review posted March 26, 2001

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