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Roberta Mary Morgan, better known by her married name of Roberta Wohlstetter, (August 22, 1912 - January 6, 2007), was one of America's most important historians of military intelligence. Her most influential work is Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision. The former Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, is said to have required that his aides read it. Indeed, it was brought up during discussions of intelligence failures leading to the successful al-Qaeda attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.[1]

She was the daughter of Edmund M. Morgan, Jr., a noted Harvard law professor who helped to simplify the federal rules of civil procedure and to modernize the U.S. code of military justice. Her husband was the late nuclear strategist Albert Wohlstetter.

She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Ronald Reagan jointly with her husband in 1985. Reagan said:

Roberta Wohlstetter, a generation ahead of her time, asserted her influence in areas dominated by and, in some cases, reserved for men. She rose above all obstacles and has had a profound influence. Her inquiries went to the heart of the system of our society, focusing on essential questions. Her analysis of the problems of terrorism, intelligence, and warning and, with Albert [Wohlstetter], the problem of nuclear deterrence broke new ground and opened new alternatives for policymakers. I daresay that she has blankly enjoyed posing the same penetrating questions to her husband that she has to the intellectual and political leaders of the country. And that is certainly one explanation for the clarity and persuasiveness of his own voluminous words on strategy, politics, and world affairs.

Wohlstetter worked for the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization based in Santa Monica, California, from 1948 to 1965 and continued to be a consultant through 2002.

Roberta Morgan Wohlstetter died at 4:00 a.m. on January 6, 2007 at New York Hospital in New York City. She was 94 years old. She is survived by her daughter Joan Wohlstetter-Hall.


Wohlstetter received her bachelor's degree from Vassar College and master's degrees from Columbia University and Radcliffe College.[2]

Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision[]

This classic study of military intelligence attempts to explain the causes of the U.S. intelligence failures that led to Imperial Japan's 1941 surprise attack. In the years preceding the attack, U.S. code breakers were routinely reading much of the Japanese military and diplomatic traffic. However, a Japanese attack came as both a strategic and tactical surprise. On the strategic level, U.S. intelligence analysts viewed the attack as unlikely because Japan could not expect to win the subsequent war (as it happens, Japanese planners had never completed a thorough strategic assessment. They were unwilling to abandon their expansion in east Asia and viewed the attack as the best way to start the inevitable confrontation). Furthermore, on several occasions during 1940-41 U.S. forces were put on high alert but no attack came, leading to fatigue. Finally, it was believed that the logical place for a Japanese attack would be in the Philippines. The book argues, in part, that intelligence failures are to be expected because of the difficulty identifying "signals" from the background "noise" of raw facts, regardless of the quantity of the latter.

On a tactical level, the attack came as a surprise because warning mechanisms - radar stations and patrol planes - were not deployed, although senior officers came to believe that they were.

The book has been praised for its high degree of scholarship. Military history writer Eugene Rasor wrote in 1998 that the book is "the best and most comprehensive study of the intelligence failure that led to the surprise attack".[3] The book's findings and implications for modern intelligence analysts were updated in 2013 in another volume published by Stanford University Press, Constructing Cassandra, Reframing Intelligence Failure at the CIA, 1947-2001. That volume outlines how the hypotheses that Wohlstetter identifies as the mechanism by which intelligence "signals" are sorted from background "noise" are neither uniform, entirely rational or random, but are instead functions of the culture and identity of the analytic unit.[4]

Academic career[]

President Ronald Reagan presents Roberta Wohlstetter with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Also pictured: Albert Wohlstetter and Paul Nitze (obstructed by Mr. Wohlstetter). The East Room of the White House, Washington, D.C., 7 November 1985. Photograph courtesy of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.

Wohlstetter taught at the University of Chicago, Barnard College and Howard University.[5]



Further reading[]

  • The Cold World They Made: The Strategic Legacy of Roberta and Albert Wohlstetter by Ron Robin, 2016, Harvard University Press


  1. Woodward, Bob (2002). Bush at War (1st Simon & Schuster trade pbk. ed.). New York, NY [u.a.]: Simon & Schuster. p. 20. ISBN 0743204735. 
  2. Washington Post interview
  3. Rasor, Eugene L. (1998). "The Japanese Attack on Pearl Harbor". In Loyd E. Lee. World War Two in Asia and the Pacific and the War's Aftermath, with General Themes. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 45. ISBN 9780313293269. 
  4. Jones, Milo L. and; Silberzahn, Philippe (2013). Constructing Cassandra, Reframing Intelligence Failure at the CIA, 1947-2001. Stanford University Press. ISBN 978-0804793360. 
  5. Washington Post obituary

External links[]

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