"What novelist could persuade a reader to accept the incredible activities during these two days Dec. 6 and 7, 1941 by America's military and civilian leaders?"

In an earlier book John Toland, not a novelist but a historian, concluded that the attack on Pearl Harbor had been "a largely unprovoked act of Japanese aggression." But now in "Infamy: Pearl Harbor and Its Aftermath" he has changed his mind and joined those who believe that President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Gen. George C. Marshall, Adm. Harold R. Stark and others comprised "a small group of men, revered and held to be most honorable by millions, who had convinced themselves it was necessary to act dishonorably for the good of their nation--and incited the war that Japan had tried to avoid."

In short, Toland now accepts the conspiracy theory that FDR provoked the attack to get the United States into World War II against Hitler's Germany "by the back door." Climactically, Toland attempts to prove that FDR and his top aides knew the Japanese fleet was en route to Pearl Harbor and deliberately let the attack occur.

The logic of this view is that the service chiefs in Hawaii, Adm. Husband Kimmel and Gen. Walter Short, were "innocent men" made "scapegoats" while Secretary of War Henry Stimson, Secretary of State Cordell Hull and Navy secretaries Frank Knox and James Forrestal "felt obliged to join in the cover-up."

But it simply doesn't wash. This is revisionist history revived and brought up to date. It flies against the evidence examined in three important recent books, Gordon L. Prange's "At Dawn We Slept," John Costello's "The Pacific War" and Ronald Lewin's "The American Magic." Toland's thesis depends on a collection of unverifiable conversations, lapses in memory, uncertain memoranda and fragmentary messages. He refuses to accept as explanation for the disaster human shortsightedness, service rivalries, American civilian and military mind-sets, obsessive concern for secrecy about the "Magic" intercepts of coded Japanese radio traffic or complacency born of the accepted wisdom of American superiority and Japanese inferiority. He might especially have been persuaded by the inhibiting and corroding effect on policies, plans and actions of the bitter and intense pre-Pearl Harbor division between American isolationists and interventionists.

The burden of Toland's evidence that Roosevelt and his top aides deliberately did not alert Kimmel and Short can be summarized this way:

The Japanese strike force called Kido Butai sailed from the Kuril Islands north of Japan proper on Nov. 26. Subsequently, the radio operator of the American liner Lurline picked up unreadable Japanese radio signals that he interpreted as coming from "north and west of Honolulu." When the Lurline docked in Honolulu Dec. 3 this data was given to naval intelligence. In the same period a "brilliant young man" who, Toland tells us, declines to be identified other than as "Seaman First Class Z" but who is "presently internationally renowned in his field" collated in Honolulu reports from the four American commercial wireless companies and, with his superior, "tracked the Japanese carrier force to a position northwest of Hawaii."

By Dec. 6 they had tracked it "to a position approximately 400 miles north-northwest of Oahu." All this was passed up the Navy chain of command. On Dec. 2 the Dutch naval attache' in Washington visited the Office of Naval Intelligence where he was "startled" when "one of the Americans pointed to a map on the wall and said, 'This is the Japanese task force proceeding east.' The position was halfway between Japan and Hawaii." This scene was essentially repeated on Dec. 6 with the locale now "300 miles or so north of Honolulu."

In sum, Toland concludes: "There was no doubt at all. Pearl Harbor was going to be raided the next morning." And because he could find no sustaining documentation of these incidents in Navy archives, there had to have been a widespread cover-up.

Then there is the "winds execute" message, a point of controversy ever since it was disclosed in congressional hearings at war's end that the United States had been decoding Japanese diplomatic and military messages. Toland accepts as fact interception of the "East wind, rain" message, signaling a break in Japanese-American relations. Even if true, and if it reached top officials, both of which remain doubtful, that message itself gave no hint that Pearl Harbor would be the target.

From this and other bits and pieces, Toland makes the incredible jump to writing: "Roosevelt and a small group of advisers, including Stimson, Knox and Marshall, were faced with three options. They could announce to Japan and the world word of the approaching Kido Butai; this would indubitably have forced the Japanese to turn back. Second, they could inform Kimmel and Short that Japanese carriers were northwest of Hawaii and order them to send every available long-range patrol plane to discover this force . . . And the third option . . . keep Kimmel and Short and all but a select few in ignorance so that the Japanese could continue to their launching point unaware of this discovery. This would ensure that the Japanese would launch their attack. If Kimmel, Short and others had been privy to the secret, they might possibly have reacted in such a way as to reveal to the Japanese that their attack plan was known." So Toland concludes that "the comedy of errors on the sixth and seventh . . . only makes sense if it was a charade, and Roosevelt and the inner circle had known about the attack."

Among the mass of contrary evidence the record shows most importantly that the Japanese fleet kept radio silence until the moment Commander Mitsuo Fuchida broke it with his triumphant "Tora! Tora! Tora!" as the planes swept in on their targets. When Toland's contrary contention recently became known in Japan, Minoru Genda, the key Japanese planner, now 77, declared that the fleet had "kept an absolute radio silence."

The Japanese victory at Pearl Harbor was one of the world's greatest in military terms, although a disaster in political terms. Every shred of acceptable evidence is that Washington, beginning with FDR, was trying to stall Japanese entry into the war. Washington expected that any attack would come in Southeast Asia and failed utterly to pick out of the mass of conflicting and contradictory intelligence reports those fragments which, in retrospect, shine as beacons pointing indubitably to Pearl Harbor as the target.

Toland reminds me of Eleanor Patterson, the isolationist, FDR-hating publisher of the Washington Times Herald, who on Dec. 7 called into her office several members of her staff, including me, to ask rhetorically: "Do you suppose he arranged this?" Toland's book would have convinced and pleased her; it fails to convince me and, worst of all, his pejorative prose and overreaching for proof will badly damage, I believe, his reputation as a historian.