Roberta Wohlstetter, 94; wrote Pearl Harbor study

Times Staff Writer

Roberta Wohlstetter, whose prize-winning 1962 study of intelligence failures leading to Japan’s 1941 surprise attack on Pearl Harbor has reverberated in national security discussions for decades and influenced the final report of the 9/11 commission, died of complications of pneumonia Saturday in a New York City hospital. She was 94.

A longtime resident of Los Angeles, Wohlstetter was a researcher for Rand Corp. when she wrote “Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision,” a classic in its field that explained why the United States and its leaders were caught unawares by the catastrophe that drew the nation into World War II.

Forty years after its publication, the book was cited by the 9/11 commission to draw parallels to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist strikes, which raised similar questions about military preparedness, intelligence and politics.

Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld often recommended the book -- before and after the 9/11 attacks -- for “laying out the difficulty of sorting through conflicting intelligence reports and coming to judgments about what one ought to do” about them.

Wohlstetter described a predicament in which the government was unable to distinguish important “signals,” including decoded Japanese cables and ship movements, from “noise,” the blizzard of conflicting or erroneous information that confronted policymakers, military leaders and intelligence officials in the weeks and months preceding the bombing of Pearl Harbor.


“There was as much noise as there were significant sounds,” she wrote in an analysis so forceful that in national security circles the dilemma is called simply “the Roberta Wohlstetter problem.”

“It was a superb book,” said Thomas Schelling, the Nobel Prize-winning political economist and foreign affairs expert who wrote an elegant foreword to “Pearl Harbor.”

Schelling, who described the book as “a unique physiology of a great national failure to anticipate,” recalled this week that it was published at a time when responsibility for the Pearl Harbor attack was still hotly debated. Some analysts, for example, accused President Roosevelt of knowing of the impending strike and allowing it to occur so that he could push the United States into the war. That theory, among other conspiratorial scenarios, was never proven.

“Roberta put Pearl Harbor into a very reasonable context that not only deflated a lot of the controversy about whose fault it was,” Schelling said, “but was a wonderful reminder that there was no reason the same thing couldn’t happen again.”

The year after the book’s publication, Wohlstetter won Columbia University’s Bancroft Prize for American history and was named a Los Angeles Times Woman of the Year.

In 1985, she received the Medal of Freedom from President Reagan along with her late husband, Albert, a nuclear strategist with whom she shared a profound interest in nuclear deterrence, intelligence and terrorism.

Reagan praised them as “two of the finest strategic analysts and security specialists our country has known” and called Wohlstetter “a generation ahead of her time” as a woman in a male-dominated field.

The Wohlstetters collaborated on research, particularly about Cuba and nuclear threats in Third World countries. A report they co-wrote with others in 1976 called “Moving Towards Life in a Nuclear Armed Crowd?” was credited with strengthening nonproliferation policies in the Ford and Carter years.

“The Wohlstetters were to national security what the Durants were to the history of Western civilization. They were a team,” said Henry Sokolski, a longtime friend and executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, a Washington think tank. But Wohlstetter’s style was very different from her husband’s.

“He was very voluble, a dominating character,” said Rand Chief Executive and President Jim Thomson, who knew both of them for 30 years. “She was equally as smart but ... much quieter, more interested in people and what they thought of things.”

Born Aug. 22, 1912, in Duluth, Minn., Wohlstetter was the daughter of Elsie Sears and Edmund Morris Morgan Jr., a noted lawyer and scholar who helped draft the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

She earned a bachelor’s degree at Vassar College in 1933 and two master’s degrees -- the first in criminal psychology from Columbia University in 1936 and the second in English literature from Radcliffe College in 1937. She met her husband at Columbia and they married in 1939.

She is survived by their daughter, Joan Wohlstetter-Hall of New York; a step-granddaughter; and a brother.

She taught at Barnard College and Howard University before moving to Los Angeles in 1948 to work at Rand, which had been established two years earlier by the U.S. Army Air Forces to conduct defense research. After Albert joined the think tank, the couple produced a series of studies that resulted in improvements in the Strategic Air Command’s management of intercontinental manned bombers, said Robert Zarate, who is writing a biography of the Wohlstetters.

She began to work on the Pearl Harbor study in the mid-1950s, drawing largely on 39 volumes of congressional hearings on the attack published in 1946. Meticulous in its detail, it offered a convincing argument against simplistic blame-laying, even though, as Wohlstetter wrote, “Never before have we had so complete an intelligence picture of the enemy.”

The problems included Army-Navy rivalries that hindered communication, a decentralized system of collecting and relaying intelligence, and errors of perception and judgment caused by as simple a phenomenon as wishful thinking. “After the event, of course, a signal is always clear; we can now see what disaster it was signaling since the disaster has occurred,” Wohlstetter wrote. “But before the event it is obscure and pregnant with conflicting meanings.”

The latter passage was quoted in the 9/11 commission report, which concluded that one of the chief failures leading to the 2001 attacks was that of “imagination.” It echoed Wohlstetter in asking whether “insights that seem apparent now would really have been meaningful at the time, given the limits of what people then could reasonably have known or done.”

Critics praised the Pearl Harbor book as the definitive work on the subject. Admirers included former Secretary of State Dean Acheson, who called it “perfect in its scholarship and presentation.”

It offered no magic bullet. “If the study of Pearl Harbor has anything to offer for the future,” Wohlstetter wrote, “it is this: We have to accept the fact of uncertainty and learn to live with it. No magic, in code or otherwise, will provide certainty. Our plans must work without it.”