Surprise Attack: The Lessons of History
Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, there has been an understandable preoccupation with how to reform the nation’s intelligence system in order to prevent the recurrence of such an event. But the issue has been considered in a historical vacuum. The history of surprise attacks composes a pattern to which the 9/11 attacks conformed. Once this pattern is grasped, it becomes apparent that reforming the intelligence system has serious limitations as a means of defending against international terrorism. Overselling intelligence can cause us to slight other, potentially more effective avenues of defense, such as making our borders less porous.
Before 9/11, the biggest surprise attack against the United States had been the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. The question of why we were surprised is the subject of a large scholarly literature dominated by Roberta Wohl-stetter’s Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision. Since this book’s publication more than 40 years ago, additional documents have been declassified or have otherwise become available, and a stubborn revisionist school continues to argue that Roosevelt or Churchill or both knew the attack was coming but kept mum in order to lure America into the war. Nevertheless, Wohlstetter’s study is generally and rightly considered authoritative.
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