Remember Pearl harbor!

An example of "preemptive" war

by John Lamperti

Pearl Harbor! On December 7, 1941 Japanese forces attacked United States naval and air bases in the Hawaiian Islands, and scored a major victory. Over 2300 U.S. military personnel lost their lives--almost half of them crew of the battleship Arizona which was blown up and sunk in the harbor by bombs and torpedoes--and the U. S. Pacific fleet was devastated.1 The next day President Franklin Roosevelt called for a declaration of war, and described the Japanese attack as "a date which will live in infamy." Over the years few Americans have disagreed with that judgment.

Just why was Pearl Harbor "infamous"? The Japanese planes attacked strictly military targets and there were relatively few civilian casualties.2 The battle was a terrible defeat for the American armed forces, which were taken completely by surprise. But a surprise attack is not infamous in wartime; every military commander would attack by surprise if possible. Nor did the bitter facts of U.S. defeat and heavy losses make the raid criminal. There is just one reason the operation was infamous: because it was an act of military aggression. Japan and the United States were not then at war, although their conflicting interests were threatening to turn violent. The attack turned a dispute into a war; --Pearl Harbor was a crime because the Japanese struck first.

Sixty years later, the administration of President George W. Bush has made "preemption" a part of U.S. national policy. According to this doctrine, the United States claims the right to use military force whenever it thinks that its security or economic interests may be threatened by another nation in the future. The Bush National Security Strategy of 2002 states that "The greater the threat, the greater is the risk of inaction--and the more compelling the case for taking anticipatory action to defend ourselves, even if uncertainty remains as to the time and place of the enemy's attack. To forestall or prevent such hostile acts by our adversaries, the United States will, if necessary, act preemptively." In other words, if it is to our advantage we will strike first--begin a war--when we see a potential threat.

That is exactly what Japan did in 1941. There is no question that the United States posed a huge threat to what Japanese leaders considered to be vital national interests. The U.S. Navy, in particular, was potentially a major obstacle to Japanese expansion in China and Southeast Asia. Moreover, the United States had imposed an embargo on oil and steel shipments to Japan, a nation that depended on imports and had oil reserves sufficient for only about two years. By November 1941, negotiations to resolve or defuse these issues, although seriously undertaken, were going nowhere. Japanese military planners, who by then were in control of their country's government, saw armed conflict with the United States as inevitable. Despite some doubts, the top leaders decided that since war was coming, a high-risk, high-gain surprise attack, intended to disable U.S. naval power in the Pacific, would give Japan the best chance to achieve its goals. In other words, they chose preemption.

Judged by the Bush doctrine, therefore, that 1941 attack at Pearl Harbor was not "infamous" after all. By the rules of the U.S. 2002 National Security Strategy, what Japan did was just an act of preemption. That is something to ponder when we recall the tragic December 7 which brought our country into World War II.

When the war ended, the United States did not accept the legitimacy of Japanese or German claims of "preemption." U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson was the chief allied prosecutor of major Axis war criminals. In August 1945 Jackson wrote: "We must make it clear to the Germans that the wrong for which their fallen leaders are on trial is not that they lost the war, but that they started it. ... our position is that no grievances or policies will justify resort to aggressive war. It is utterly renounced and condemned as an instrument of policy."3 During the next few years, officials and military officers of both Germany and Japan were tried and convicted for planning and carrying out aggression committed by their countries' armed forces. There was no exception for "preemptive war," although some of the accused tried to use such arguments in their defense.4 The Bush administration's doctrine thus represents a reversal of long-standing principles of international law, principles that the United States has championed in the past.

For President Bush and his administration allies, if they would be consistent, there was nothing wrong in what the Japanese did on December 7, 1941. For the rest of us, that attack on Pearl Harbor remains a "day of infamy," as the war crimes tribunals concluded. Preemptive war was not legitimate for the Japanese in 1941, and it is not legitimate today. Any policy that allows for "preemptive" or "preventive" war to promote national interests has to be considered criminal, for the same reasons as was the attack on Pearl Harbor. The United States must again "renounce and condemn" preemptive war as part of its policy and planning.



1) In addition to the Arizona, the battleship Oklahoma was lost, three others were sunk or beached but later salvaged, and three more were damaged. In all 18 ships were sunk or seriously damaged, 188 U.S. aircraft were destroyed, and 158 other planes were damaged. The Japanese lost 29 planes in the raid. (From Walter Lord, Day of Infamy, first edition 1957.)

2) 68 civilians were killed and 35 others wounded. There were some 40 explosions in the city of Honolulu, but all except one were caused by U.S. antiaircraft fire. (Lord, page 212.)

3) Department of State Bulletin, June 10, 1945.

4) Nazi leaders claimed, for example, that the 1940 German invasions of neutral Denmark and Norway were preemptions needed to "protect" them from an imminent British attack and occupation.

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