Book Review: Stanley Johnston's Blunder: The Reporter Who Spilled the Secret Behind the U.S. Navy's Victory at Midway


by Elliot Carlson

Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2017. Pp. xiv, 314. Illus., appends., notes, biblio., index. $29.95. ISBN: 1591146798

The "Leak" That Could Have Changed the Course of the Pacific War

On June 7, 1942, even as the U.S. fleet was retiring from its victory at Midway, an unsigned article on the front page of the anti-Roosevelt Chicago Tribune declared “Navy Had Word of Jap Plan”, and offered remarkably accurate details of the Japanese forces employed, thereby and putting at risk the tightly held secret the U.S. Navy had broken the Japanese fleet code. An investigation identified Tribune reporter, Australian-born Stanley Johnston (1900-1962), as the source of the leak.

In this, the first proper account of the incident, Elliot Carlson, author of Joe Rochefort’s War, on codebreaking during the Pacific War, explores the complexities of the case. Initially, President Roosevelt, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox, and for some and many high civil and military officials wanted to try Johnston for espionage. A grand jury chose not to indict, as the Navy refused to release confidential documents, and any efforts to pursue the case further were scotched when it was pointed out that any would have made the leak even worse. As it was, the Japanese never caught on to the leak.

Carlson explains how Johnston, who had been aboard the carrier Lexington at Coral Sea, learned the secret and evaded censorship. Following the carrier’s sinking, Johnson and the ship’s survivors were repatriated to the U.S. aboard a navy transport. By chance he was by accident of berthed with Cdr. Morton T. Seligman, the carrier’s former executive officer, who carelessly left some confidential papers lying around.

Carlson examines the effects of the leak on Johnston's career, arguing that the Navy probably saved his neck by refusing to release vital documents. He also includes some interesting insights into the actions of many of the principal players, including the Tribune, and look at the consequences of the incident for Commander Seligman; An officer of great promise, who had twice been awarded the Navy Cross twice, was never promoted, and forcibly retired within two years.

It’s interesting to note that in researching for this book, Carlson found it necessary to resort to not only to the Freedom of Information Act but also to a lawsuit in order to secure release of the grand jury proceedings, raising questions as to why documents from an event that occurred more than 75 years ago were still classified.

A useful read for anyone interested in Midway or the Pacific War, Stanley Johnston’s Blunder is an important read for those with an interest in codebreaking and the protection of secrets, and is particularly timely given the recent uptick in “leaks” of political and military information.

Note: Stanley Johnston’s Blunder is also available in several e-editions.


Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   

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