Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941. (Photo: NationalArchive and Records Administration)
"Pre-emptive" war, then and now.
The name Pearl Harbor resonates in American history; it is synonymous with the U.S. entry into World War II. It stands for tragedy - and for treachery. On December 7, 1941, Japanese carrier-based aircraft attacked United States naval and air forces in the Hawaiian Islands, and scored a major victory. Over 2,300 U.S. military personnel lost their lives - almost half of them when the battleship Arizona was blown up and sunk by bombs and torpedoes. The U. S. Pacific fleet was devastated. The next day President Franklin Roosevelt called for a declaration of war, and described December 7, 1941, and the Japanese attack as "a date which will live in infamy."
But why, exactly, was the Pearl Harbor attack "infamous"? The Japanese planes attacked strictly military targets and there were relatively few civilian casualties. The battle was a terrible blow for the American forces, which were taken completely by surprise. But a surprise attack is not infamous in wartime; every military commander would like to attack by surprise if possible. Nor did the bitter facts of U.S. defeat and heavy losses make the raid criminal. President Roosevelt used the word "infamy" because the raid was an act of military aggression. Until that moment Japan and the United States were not at war, although their conflicting interests had been threatening to boil over. The attack turned a dispute into a war; Pearl Harbor was a crime because the Japanese struck first.
Sixty years after Pearl Harbor, the administration of G. W. Bush has made "preemption" an official part of U.S. policy. According to this so-called "Bush Doctrine," the United States claims the right to use military force whenever it determines 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 the Japanese did in 1941, when the United States posed a huge threat to their leaders' conception of Japan's national interests. With bases reaching across the Pacific, 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 had stalled. Japanese military planners, by then in control of their country's government, saw armed conflict with the United States as inevitable, and disabling U.S. naval power in the Pacific seemed essential for achieving their goals. They judged that a high-risk, high-gain surprise attack would give Japan its best chance for success. That is, they chose preemption.
After the war, the United States and its allies did not accept Japanese or German claims that their preemptive acts had been legitimate. 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." During the next few years, officials and military officers of both Germany and Japan were tried and convicted for planning and carrying out aggression by their countries' armed forces. There was no exception for "preemptive war," although some of the accused tried to use that concept in their defense. 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.
In the years since 2002, far from reconsidering its doctrine of preemption, the Bush administration has reaffirmed and extended it. The invasion of Iraq in 2003, for example, was supposed to preempt the use by that nation of "weapons of mass destruction," weapons which did not exist and could not in any case have threatened U.S. security. Moreover, the administration's policy now specifically includes the possible use of nuclear weapons. The new (2005) nuclear doctrine identifies four conditions in which preemptive use of nuclear weapons could occur, including "An adversary intending to use weapons of mass destruction against U.S., multinational, or allies' forces or civilian populations." The preamble states: "The US does not make positive statements defining the circumstances under which it would use nuclear weapons." This "calculated ambiguity" is said to "reinforce deterrence"; it is a sort of "mad dog" strategy meant to induce fear of our dangerous unpredictability. Such threats are both dangerous and immoral. Instead, there should be absolute clarity that this country will never attack another with nuclear weapons; starting a nuclear war would be an act that would truly "live in infamy." A declared U.S. "no first use" policy is long overdue, as part of a genuine campaign for world-wide abolition.
The Bush administration has also broadened the scope of non-nuclear preemption, calling its policy an "expansive new definition of self-defense." Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and other officials recently cited this doctrine to justify attacks such as the October 26 raid inside Syria and others inside Pakistan. The policy, they said, permits strikes on "militant targets" in a sovereign nation without its consent when that nation does not act on its own as the U.S. wishes.
If these standards are applied to the Japan of 1941, the Pearl Harbor attack can no longer be seen as criminal; certainly George W. Bush and his associates are in no position to condemn it. For the rest of us, December 7, 1941 will remain a "day of infamy" as the war crimes tribunals concluded and as virtually all Americans have believed ever since. And if Japan's attack on that day was infamous, the policy of preemption must be condemned as well. Preemptive war was not legitimate for the Japanese in 1941, and it is not legitimate for the United States today.
Any policy that plans for "preemptive" or "preventive" war to promote national interests must be considered criminal, for the same reasons as was the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. It is an urgent challenge for incoming U.S. President Barack Obama to repudiate the Bush Doctrine and correct this dangerous situation. The United States must once again "renounce and condemn" any policy of preemptive war.
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 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.)
 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.)
 The National Security Strategy of the United States of America, White House document, September 17, 2002, page. 19. Available on the web.
 Department of State Bulletin, June 10, 1945.
 Nazi leaders claimed, for example, that the 1940 German invasion of neutral Denmark and Norway was preemption, needed to "protect" them from an imminent British attack and occupation.
 The introduction of this terminology may have been intended to blur the distinction between chemical and biological weapons, which Iraq could conceivably have possessed in 2003 (although it in fact did not), and true weapons of mass destruction, i.e. nuclear weapons, which it could not have possessed.
 JP 3-12: Doctrine for Joint Nuclear Operations. Cited by Hans M. Kristensen in Arms Control Today, September 2005.
 Thom Shanker, "Gates Gives Rationale for Expanded Deterrence," New York Times, October 28, 2008.
John Lamperti is a Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at Dartmouth College. He is the author of several books on the theory of probability and on random processes. Since 1985 one of his main interests has been Central America and what the United States has been doing there. He is the author of "Enrique Alvarez Cordova: Life of a Salvadoran Revolutionary and Gentleman"(MacFarland, 2006).