Stanley Johnston’s Blunder Cover

Stanley Johnston’s Blunder

The Reporter Who Spilled the Secret behind the U.S. Navy’s Victory at Midway

Elliot Carlson

Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Maryland, 2017, 352 pages

Book Review published on: October 25, 2019

America’s naval victory at the Battle of Midway is legendary and has been examined in countless books, magazines, and documentaries. Elliot Carlson, journalist and author of Joe Rochefort’s War, adds to this collection with his story of Chicago Tribune reporter Stanley Johnston, who may have exposed the U.S. Navy secret code breakers who made the Midway victory possible.

Stanley Johnston’s Blunder is more than the story of a journalist who leaked classified information. It describes the animus between President Franklin Roosevelt and the Chicago Tribune and its owner, Robert R. McCormick; the mishandling of classified intelligence by Navy officers; procedural failures for reviewing and censoring media articles; politicization of the investigation that followed; and the mysterious background of Johnston himself.

Carlson compels the reader to consider if the article alerted the Japanese to existence of the code breakers or the media sensationalism that followed. His extensive research reveals no compelling evidence if, when, or how the Japanese were alerted to the existence of the code breakers. He states that some Japanese intelligence officers feared that their code had been broken on several occasions but remained convinced that their code was impenetrable. The Japanese did amend its JN-25 cryptographic system from time to time, but they never abandoned it. The amending of it following the Battle of Midway led to speculation by members of the U.S. government and the U.S. Navy that the Japanese were indeed alerted to the code breakers and had taken appropriate measures to change its code. Carlson informs us that developing a totally new code and cipher structure would have required many months. It would then have taken the Japanese even longer to distribute it to dozens of sending and receiving stations scattered across more than four thousand miles of ocean.

Carlson’s research indicates that revelation of Johnston’s article angered senior British intelligence officials who already had concerns that American intelligence system was leaky and untrustworthy. Carlson reveals that Johnston may not have been the only reporter leaking classified information. He relates that British intelligence in India learned of an American correspondent associated with Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s staff passing on a great deal of secret intelligence shared by American staff officers. This led to a reduce sharing of information between the two allies.

Stanley Johnston’s Blunder is exceptionally well written and contains some invaluable lessons for military organizations handling embedded reporters and reminders for the handling of classified information. It is a must read for public affairs personnel and an excellent choice for readers looking for a nontraditional war story.

Book Review written by: Jesse McIntyre III, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas