What are the successful preemptive attacks?

In a recent thread, Plan B asserted that “sometimes the preemptive attacks are the best way to go.” This question is for Plan B or anybody else who wishes to defend the Bush doctrine, or some other philosophy that supports preemptive warfare. Now I’m only aware of two instances of preemptive attacks being used as a justification for a shooting war.

In WWII, Hitler claimed that almost every time Germany invaded another country, it was necessary to defeat a massive conspiracy which intended to encircle and destroy Germany.

For the second war in Iraq, George W Bush claimed the invasion was necessary to prevent Saddam Hussein was giving weapons of mass destruction to Al Queda.

Neither of these instances does much to build up my confidence in the doctrine of preemptive war. Firstly, in boths cases the justification for preemptive action was based on falsehoods. Secondly, in both cases it was intended to provide cover for a different motive. Thirdly, in both cases the nation doing the preempting ended up losing the war.

But perhaps I’m rushing to judgement without first receiving the full facts. So, Plan B (or anyone else), please inform me of the instances in which a preemptive attack successfully headed off a real threat.

Whatever one may think of the handling of the aftermath, I believe the Six-Day War (aka the 1967 Arab-Israeli War) is a fine example of preemptive war. It has several of the conditions where I would consider initiating a war just: massed troops along your borders, leaders of other states talking about how they’ll wipe you out, and having a situation where your country lacks sufficient strategic depth and where a loss of a single battle could potentially end up with your country gutted and completely destroyed. Additionally, Israel was vastly outnumbered in terms of airplanes and waiting to be attacked would not have been wise.

All this adds up to a good example IMO. I have a difficult time imagining a situation like the above which could apply to a major power like Russia or the United States. As you point out, in these cases it’s almost always an excuse to pick off weak targets and would tend to, in my view, constitute a war crime. Don’t even bring nuclear missiles into the picture. Imagine such a doctrine being applied to the Cuban Missile Crisis (as it almost was) – all of the USSR, Europe, Cuba, and half the U.S. would be a radioactive wasteland. It’s usually good to play nice, even when the other guy is making you uncomfortable.

I was all set to respond…and Marshmallow beat me to it.

The six day war, IMO, is the textbook definition of a successful (and justifiable) pre-emptive attack.

Can I just mention the irony of someone called Plan B advocating preemptive attacks?

Sure…it was propaganda BS though. This is probably a better example of when a preemptive attack WOULD have saved millions of lives…had the allies attacked Germany early on instead of appeasing Hitler at every turn until they had no choice, and then backing into the war (and basically waiting for Germany to strike).

I would say that Bush’s reasons were more plausible than those of Hitler, but still not exactly a compelling case.

Um…so, your judgment on whether something is valid or not hinges on if its successful? And only ultimately successful…i.e. over the long haul?

As for the two cases you give, certainly they were trying to cover their real motives. I’m not sure how two examples shows whether or not something is valid…especially when you are comparing apples (at tactical preemptive attack) to oranges (the long term strategic value of any given war).
marshmallow’s example earlier is a good example however of a successful preemptive attack where the country attacking won. So, if thats the criteria (that you have to both launch a preemptive attack, have that attack be successful AND ultimately win at the strategic level), then there you go. Other preemptive attacks I can think of off the top of my head: Alexander’s entire Persian campaign. Romes preemptive attack on Carthage in the final Punic war (that ultimately destroyed Carthage as a major power). Napoleon’s various preemptive campaigns before he became emperor of France, and before his disastrous attack on Russia (which would be an example of a preemptive attack gone wrong). The US’s preemptive attack on the Spanish to seize Florida (well, it worked anyway which seems to be the main criteria). The British preemptive attacks on the French fleet after France fell to Germany in WWII and a similar attack on the Italian fleet.

Some of those examples are apples to oranges too (talking about campaigns vs tactical preemptive strikes), but I’m typing this on my cell phone and don’t have the energy to look up specific examples…just going by whats rattling about in my head.


No, that was one of three items he listed. The others were whether the claims were true and whether the aims are just (as I read it). Hitler could claim various things, but as a point of fact Poland was not attempting to overthrow Germany’s government. They had neither the capability or the desire. Even if they did somehow attempt such a thing, killing thousands of civilians and conquering the country is probably not the best course of action as a response.

It’s not even really preemptive war if there’s no credible threat, is it? Neither is the Iraq example.

The bombing of France’s navy is a good example. Obviously, Germany showed itself to be a serious threat to Britain and they had access to France’s not too shabby navy, so sending it to the bottom of the ocean is a correct course of action.

I fail to see how Napoleon would be an example of preemptive war, at least in the strategic sense. Spain, for example, represented no threat to France. Nor did many other countries. Napoleon’s various campaigns were just an old fashioned land grab for empire’s sake. IIRC, he invaded Russia because it wouldn’t follow France’s decree about not trading with Britain (who he also thought about conquering, at one point). I’m sure there were many examples of tactical preemption, but in the bigger picture it seems to me like Mr. Bonaparte was just a bully. He could claim various things about the nations he added to his empire for propaganda purposes but they simply didn’t represent a threat to France, the strongest nation in continental Europe at the time.

Posting using a cell phone while adhering to normal English? You have remarkable patience.

Certainly Hitlers claims were BS wrt Poland…and earlier. His campaign was a classic example of naked agression by a state bent on conquest.

I don’t see what credible threat has to do with preemptive war to be honest. Only if you are trying to JUSTIFY a preemptive war would credible threat have any meaning. Also, there are various forms of threat. While I don’t think Iraq posed a credible military threat, it is plausible that they posed a strategic threat to US interests in the ME. I don’t think thats a good enough reason to invade the country, but its certainly more plausible than the BS Hitler used to launch his various wars of aggression.

In 1799 (IIRC) Napoleon launched a series of lightning offensives that basically netted France most of western Europe…AND prevented THEM from attacking France again (as they had done earlier during the revolutionary period). I’m unsure how this is not a classic example of preemptive war in the strategic sense…though I guess if we are looking at the ultimate outcome, and thats all that matters, ultimately France went down in flames…in 1814 (over a decade later). And Napoleon could be said to be a counter example later on in his attempt to launch a preemptive strike after regaining power.


Even if not earlier, an invasion following the military reoccupation of the Rhineland would not have been a preemptive strike. It was a major violation of a key point of the peace treaty, and fully justified a response. If I understand my history correctly, Germany’s generals were quaking in their boots about such a response, stating that they could not have resisted the thrust of even a single division.

Completely agree…Hitler’s pretext for invasion was total fabrication. And in case I wasn’t clear on the Iraq thing, I think that Bush’s pretext was pretty much bull shit too. Looking back at what I wrote it came across as a tone of defending the invasion…thats not what I intended.


Obviously with the perspective of history we can tell which “preemptive” wars were, in fact, preemptive, and which ones weren’t. But at the moment when the war is starting, it’s less easy. Also, government usually has some control over the sources of information, which can further cloud the issue.

In short, it’s not possible for an average citizen to support all the real preemptive wars while not supporting the BS ones. And if there are many people who follow a preemptive war doctrine, than that give warmongers a motivation to try justifying any attack they want as a preemptive attack.

Israel preemptively attacked Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1983. It is impossible to know if there was a real threat from Saddam to use nukes, but the attack was certainly successful in preempting their use., and enabling the US to head off a real threat to Kuwait’s oil fields in 1991.

Certainly. I think to a certain degree however that both the German public and the US public were leaning toward war anyway…so it made it much more easy for their respective governments to ‘convince’ them it was necessary. By and large I think the majority in both nations were ALREADY pretty much convinced that ‘action’ needed to be taken…and were waiting for someone to spoon feed them a target.

No, its not possible for the average citizen (or anyone else IMHO) to predict which wars will be ‘good’ and which ones ‘bad’, when a preemptive strike or attack is necessary and when its not. People living at the time of these events are too close to them to make any kind of judgment on how history will perceive them…or on how such an event will ripple. We certainly have enough historical perspective NOW to see how WWII panned out for the Germans, how tossing their preemptive attack stone into Europe has caused a ripple effect on the Soviets and their course in history, on how Western Europe has progressed, on Europe’s overseas colonies, etc etc.

We are too close, and events haven’t progressed to enough of a climax in Afghanistan and Iraq yet to know how it will pan out…or how history will perceive it. I think we can be reasonably certain that history won’t look at the preemptive attack of the US on Iraq as justified…but other than that we just don’t know until events have progressed to some kind of conclusion in Iraq. Even then we won’t know for decades because we won’t be able to judge the ripples thrown up by the event, and how they will effect other nations in the region and throughout the world.