Is it negligence or an impossible task?
How this journalist became "part of the story"
when war clouds gathered;
Deng's Legacy: China "Stands Up"
By Frederic A. Moritz
Assisted by Andy Chan of

March 9, 1979 cover

Vietnamese troops fight Chinese invaders

February, 1979: twenty nine days indirectly shook the world - by some estimates
up to forty thousand Chinese and Vietnamese died when China "unexpectedly" invaded Vietnam:
How China 
risked wider war to build a "strategic alliance"
with America and open a "new Cold War" against the Soviet Union;
Building an umbrella for modernization and opening the way
for today's confrontation with Islamic extremism

Amid doubt that China would invade, Deng Xiaoping travelled to Washington to brief
 President Carter on China's attack plans.
Carter approved the Chinese invasion,
"protected" China from Soviet counterattack and pushed China for restraint.

The "worst possible case" of a nuclear war between China
 and the Soviet Union
was averted.

The War China Seeks to Bury
Check  NYT and AFP to see how

The psychology of intelligence analysis;
How intelligence can be compromised
by the "fog" of reality, by failure to communicate,
or by political blinders at "the top."
"Unexpected attack" and 9/11

All of the statistical and strategic data in the world
can be meaningless without an understanding
of emotion, culture, spirit, and mind.



"and we are here as on a darkling plain
swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight
where ignorant armies clash by night."

By: MATTHEW ARNOLD (1822-1888)

"If you can stay calm, while all around you is chaos...then you probably
 haven't completely understood the situation."  


Reporting the seeds of war
China invades Vietnam: a
Sino-American alliance?
"Killing a chicken to scare the monkeys"
Unraveling the mystery of "surprise" attacks:
From Pearl Harbor to Twin Towers:
Sixty years of intelligence miscalculation
Kennedy: seeing "Pearl" in Cuba
The "Wohlstetter factor" and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein
Reporting war, genocide: the same old trap
Bush's "New Pearl:" negligence in predicting attack?




Deng Xiaoping

Deng Xiaoping was a giant in modern world history.
He helped restore one of the world's great civilizations -- and laid the groundwork
for China's emergence as an economic power to give its people a promising future.

The death of as many as 40,000 young Chinese and Vietnamese 
in a forgotten war was, perhaps, not an unreasonable price to pay.
Still, some wonder thirty years later: was the war necessary?
Go direct to "My Story" or explore graphics, videos and links below:

Video of 1979 war, including 1984, 1986, border footage;
begins with the Chinese text of:


"Perhaps I should say farewell, never to come back.
"Do you understand? Do you understand that?
"Perhaps I should fall, never to rise again. Do you have to wait forever?
"If that is that, please do not grieve, the flag of the Republic has our bloodstained glory

- from a
Chinese folk song written in 1987.
Originally used to commemorate those who died during the 1979 China Vietnam War,
the song instead became popular for its commemoration of those who died
during the
Tiananmen Square protests
of 1989.

Yunnan Mengzi martyrs cemetery: the inscription on the main monument
of "Eternal glory to the People's Heroes" was done by
invsion planner Deng Xiaoping himself.

9/11: one of many intelligence failures


"We Chinese do not have nervous breakdowns
when we go to war."

- Deng Xiaoping: to Time magazine
correspondent Marsh Clark, as recounted
to this writer

"Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream"

My daughter Kara recently called me to ask if I were a spy working for the CIA back in the 1970's when I covered Asia for The Christian Science Monitor.

A Vietnamese refugee, her nail technician, had told her all foreign correspondents then in Asia were CIA spies.

I told Kara I was a "semi-spy" -- exchanging information with the CIA.  A journalist using the techniques of an intelligence analyst to unscramble Chinese intentions.

It was then that I broke the "Chinese code of warning" and learned that as China reached for diplomatic relations with U.S. it was planning an invasion of Vietnam.

The year was 1978. I was caught up in an "intelligence game" of what is today called "connecting the dots." China was planning its lighting punishing attack on Vietnam, an attack which caught many by surprise.

I was my own spy walking a danger line in Beijing -- from which I reported the coming invasion. My aim was to get the word out quickly so that diplomacy might prevent a wider war.

And so it came to pass a 29 day war in which 40,000 died. The rumor, as later revealed to me by a Chinese immigrant in Rhode Island, was that Soviet bombers were heading toward the Chinese city of Shanghai -- when compromise and pullback prevented a widened war.

So China pushed off the encroaching, encircling power of the Soviet Union by invading Soviet backed Vietnam -- then built itself into a great power.

I am "The Semi-Spy Who Came in From the Cold."


Yes,  few in the West few remember that as many as 40,000 Chinese and Vietnamese died in 29 days of fighting during the lightning Chinese assault across Vietnam's northern frontier.

Few Americans know of that brief bloody war when Chinese troops set out to quickly kill as many Vietnamese as possible.

I "saw" the attack coming and reported from Beijing that it was about to occur.

Based on breaking the "code" of Chinese warnings,  probing Chinese sources, and years of studying Chinese history.

It was an effort to ensure that diplomacy might lesson the destruction and make less likely escalation into a Chinese/Soviet nuclear war.


There were no television cameras and Western reporters on the China -- Vietnam border. Today, only Asia specialists remember the "Third Indochina War." (The first was Vietnam against France; the second was Vietnam against the United States).

February 17, 1979, 85,000 Chinese soldiers streamed through 26 border points. Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping had risked a wider war with the bombers and tanks of Vietnam's protector, the ever bolder Russian Bear -- then busily expanding its influence in Southeast Asia.

As the battle raged, I was recovering in a Hong Kong hospital -- filing reports from wires and short wave radio buttressed by three months of background interviews.


By attacking his small Vietnamese neighbor after it occupied Chinese supported Cambodia, Deng showed his willingness to stand up against the Soviet giant. The Chinese attack also brought revenge for months of persecution by Vietnam of its Chinese minority, many of whom fled the country to become refugee "boat people."

In 29 days of fighting a cocksure Vietnam "paid the price" for pinning its hopes on Soviet protection when it defied China to swallow up Cambodia in December 1978. Vietnamese tanks had installed a pro-Vietnam government in Cambodia after years of bloody border fighting with the brutal China-backed Khmer Rouge regime.

After 29 days a poker faced Deng withdrew his forces -- far too quickly for the Soviet Union to be forced to retaliate with tank strikes across China's northern frontiers. Militarily the war was a draw, but China had taught Vietnam a "lesson." Chinese armies frequently bogged down, and Beijing learned its own "lesson:" that its military and supply systems were greatly in need of modernization.

On February 17, 1979, 85,000 Chinese troops penetrated 26 border points into Vietnam.
Deng's armies seized Lai Chau, Lao Cai, Ha Giang, Cao Bang, and Lang son.
Twenty thousand died in 29 days of fighting. View the rugged battleground by


When the Chinese Tiger and the Soviet Bear wrestled together in Asia, I was Asia Correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor. Based in Hong Kong and traveling the region from Korea to India with a central focus on China and Southeast Asia.

The Americans had withdrawn from Vietnam -- and much of Asia seemed "off the radar."

I had arrived in Asia just as a generation of Vietnam war correspondents headed in the other direction. I winged my way over most of Asia from my base, first in Hong Kong and then in Singapore. There were not yet diplomatic ties between Beijing and Washington. There were no American correspondents based in China.

From 1976 to 1981 much of the region entered a peaceful new chapter, a peace which grew from the ashes of the Vietnam War. Yet peace can have within it the "seeds of war." War comes often, but not always, as a "surprise."

In looking ahead how does one penetrate the "fog" of confused "signals," of subjective interpretation, of bureaucratic blinders, of political bias, of fanciful imaginings, of wishful thinking?

All of the statistical and strategic data in the world can be meaningless without an understanding of emotion, culture, spirit, and mind.


It was a late December evening. I was in Beijing to report on normalization of diplomatic relations between China and the United States, scheduled for January 1, 1979.

Time magazine correspondent, former Saigon bureau chief, Marsh Clark and I joined a handful of cheerful American journalists to wander through Tianamen Square. We joined to sing, myself in Chinese, "Long live the historic friendship of China and the United States."

The air was full of hope as Jimmy Carter and
Deng Xiaoping danced their waltz toward diplomatic relations. In late December 1978 I flew from Hong Kong to Beijing to to report on "normalization." Part of the common agenda: China and the U.S. sought to block what they agreed was an aggressive Soviet Union.

Chinese society was bubbling in ferment as a nationwide network of dissenters in the
Democracy Wall Movement penned large character posters to challenge Maoist orthodoxy. Deng used the movement to attack his enemies and consolidate his power.


During the day I had watched a smiling Deng shuffle down the stately, richly carpeted halls. Invasion plans were in his mind: a small man who planned a small war. I marched to my own drummer as I puzzled to penetrate the "fog" which hung over Deng's plans to invade Vietnam.

Months later Deng would crush the Democracy Wall Movement after he himself came under attack -- for, among other things, irresponsibly invading Vietnam.

Deng Xiaoping

When China invaded Vietnam, it joined the United States in a growing "new Cold War" which was to rage throughout the 1980's from Indochina to Afghanistan to Central America, first under President Jimmy Carter, then under President Ronald Reagan. Renewed Soviet aggressiveness met increasingly determined American and Chinese response.

This American--Chinese partnership became part of Washington's global strategy to bleed and weaken Soviet expansion. It included American support for Islamic insurgency against Soviet occupation of Afghanistan -- as well as American campaigns to defeat Soviet backed governments and rebels in Nicaragua and El Salvador.

China's forces continued to threaten Vietnam's northern border. China and the United States united to "bleed" both the Soviet Union and Vietnam by supporting anti-Vietnamese guerrillas in Vietnamese occupied Cambodia.

China's invasion of Vietnam became part of the overall American--Chinese strategic alliance which over stretched and drained an expansive Soviet Union. The ultimate result: stresses which contributed to Soviet collapse, beginning in 1989.

None of this was clear in January 1979.

Ahead was what would be a little remembered "small war."


Now, with Deng Xiaoping gone from the scene, let us consider this part of his legacy:

His decision to "stand up" and risk war with the Soviet Union in order to
invade and "punish" Vietnam. China was determined to prevent Vietnam from becoming, under Soviet protection, a "regional hegemon" defying Beijing to dominate China's Southeast Asia "backyard." Deng had concluded Vietnam must suffer the consequences for invading and swallowing up neighboring Cambodia.

Killing a chicken to scare the monkeys" is an old Chinese proverb which "guided" Deng in the invasion of Vietnam. Deng would teach the the Soviet Union and the rest of the world that China would not be intimidated.

A decade later the first Bush administration would throw Saddam Hussein's armies out of Kuwait to prevent Iraq from becoming another kind of "regional hegemon" -- in the strategic, oil rich Middle East. Two decades later the
"son of Bush" would plan and publicly proclaim for months a coming "preemptive" invasion of Iraq -- using as justification the need to protect the United States from a future surprise attack.

In 29 days of fighting a cocksure Vietnam "paid the price" for pinning its hopes on Soviet protection when it defied China to swallow up Cambodia in December 1978. Vietnamese tanks had installed a pro-Vietnam government in Cambodia after years of bloody border fighting with the brutal China-backed Khmer Rouge regime.

After 29 days a poker faced Deng withdrew his forces -- far too quickly for the Soviet Union to be forced to retaliate with tank strikes across China's northern frontiers. Militarily the war was a draw, but China had taught Vietnam a "lesson." Chinese armies frequently bogged down, and Beijing learned its own "lesson:" that its military and supply systems were greatly in need of modernization.


On January 1, 1979 Deng Xiaoping and American officials symbolically ended the bitter legacy of China's human wave assaults on American troops in Korea, beginning in October 1950. The Peoples Liberation Army took on US forces marching north toward China after the North Korean army invaded South Korea in June 1950.

As I gathered and analyzed the "signals" indicating a possible Chinese invasion of Vietnam, I could not help but remember the issues of failed intelligence around both China's entry into the Korean War and Japan's attack on
Pearl Harbor.

I flew to Beijing in December 1978, a decade before
Saddam Hussein caught President George Bush off guard by invading Kuwait. Just a year later, in December, 1979, a lightning Soviet invasion of Afghanistan caught some high American officials off guard, although CIA analysts had repeatedly sounded warnings.

Indeed in mid 1979, after returning to Hong Kong, I had the pleasure of hearing an American intelligence analyst (reputed to be C.I.A.) just recently posted to Hong Kong from Afghanistan play guitar during a family dinner at his Hong Kong flat.

As we sang together folk songs by Quaker peace activist
Joan Baez, "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?",  he confided to me that a Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was on the horizon.

It was a time when the answers seemed, in the words of the Jewish singer-prophet Bob Dylan, "
Blowin' in the Wind."

Many wars later, while President Obama was escalating the occupation of Afghanistan,  Joan Baez visited the White House to sing "We Are Not Afraid Today."



Few Americans know of that brief bloody war when Chinese troops set out to quickly kill as many Vietnamese as possible.

There were no television cameras and Western reporters on the China - Vietnam border. Today, only Asia specialists remember the "Third Indochina War." (The first was Vietnam against France; the second was Vietnam against the United States).

China's invasion was a prelude to the "lesson" scarcely anyone forgets.

In 1989 Deng Xiaoping turned his army guns away from foreign enemies and against Chinese student activists.

Western television and other media etched in our minds the "massacre" near Tiananmen Square. Deng taught a related "lesson" near Tiananmen Square - this time to China's children instead of to rebellious Vietnamese.

China's "ungrateful" privileged student activists learned the hard way that no amount of Western sympathy or television coverage could save them from tanks and bullets if they dared to tweak the Tiger's tail.
Killing a "few" would warn the "many." China would keep its own house in order to modernize and ward off chaos.

Both Vietnam and Tiananmen Square showed the same ruthless gambler's calculation. Deng was both a Chinese and a communist. And wasn't it Stalin who once said, "You can't make an omelet without breaking a few eggs?"

"China Must Stand Up."


The night before China and the United States established diplomatic relations on January 1, 1979, I wrote from my Beijing hotel room a
dispatch which was to appear on page one of the next day's Monitor.

Summing up several months of reporting and writing, I outlined how China was building ties with the United States partly to help protect itself from the Soviet Union as Deng moved toward an invasion of Vietnam.

In the months before China had made concessions on Taiwan, concessions which helped make possible "normalization" with Washington, concessions which came at the same time that China's relations with Vietnam and the Soviet Union spiraled downward.

Obscure reports dimly circulated: of Chinese troops withdrawn from the south China coast across from Taiwan, shifted north for defense along the Soviet border -- and of Soviet troop and tank reinforcements concentrating along China's northern border -- sending a message of possible attack.

My aim was to sound a balanced, non-sensational warning, to help raise the issue for discussion. I had no way of knowing if American policy makers knew of China's war plans. I had no way of knowing if diplomatic preparations were underway to prevent a limited war from widening.

I knew that even if some intelligence analysts "at the bottom" suspected an attack, disagreements among analysts might cancel out the impact of their conclusions. Policy makers "at the top" might not take such obscure reports seriously. By contrast a journalist's report can sometimes jump a concept to "the top."

The Monitor had a strategic readership: government officials all over the world.


I could not really be certain a Chinese attack was about to begin. Could I be caught up as a "tool" in some kind of propaganda game? As far as I knew, no other journalist was reporting on the nature or the existence of Chinese invasion plans. Nor was I sure that I was not in some kind of self imagined fantasy. If I were the only one who knew of a coming invasion, could it really exist?

It was the "mirrors within mirrors" challenge to judgment a journalist or intelligence analyst must sometimes face in the
Kafkaesque theater of war and peace. So the dispatch I decided to type on my Olivetti portable typewriter was an "analytical" piece dealing with both possibilities and probabilities. It could not be "confirmed" by any "official source," either American or Chinese.

It was based on my own efforts to break the "code" of Chinese warnings; intuitive, free flowing conversations with official and unofficial Chinese; my reading of Chinese history; my analytical breakdown of the unfolding of regional and global events; and perhaps, above all, my perception of Chinese culture and the mind of
Deng Xiaoping.


(For an exploration of the mental basis of intelligence judgment where information is incomplete, see Chapter 4 of Richards J. Heuer, Jr., Psychology of Intelligence Analysis, Center for the Study of Intelligence, Central Intelligence Agency, 1999. For a stimulating treatment of the mental challenge of exploring best case/worst case scenarios, see this analysis in M.J. Taylor modeling language. Another approach to intelligence analysis is explained in Intelligence Analysis and the Intelligence Cycle. Download in MSW Intelligence and Policy Making: a Bibliography.)


A few days earlier I had put the finishing touches on my reporting. I sought out and joined with a Radio Australia correspondent based in Beijing to "brainstorm" the chronology of events in many parts of Asia and elsewhere: events which formed the backdrop for China's decision to invade.



Trans-Siberian Railway

Thinking ahead to the next step of reporting I planned a possible train trip from Beijing, China through the Soviet Union on the Trans-Siberian Railroad to see if I could detect signs of growing Soviet military preparedness in the area north of the Chinese border.

I visited the Soviet embassy in Beijing to make preliminary arrangements -- and sat down for a long talk with a Soviet diplomat.

"Will there be war?" he asked.

"Only God can tell" was the way he answered his own question. He then began a long diatribe against "dirty" Islamic extremists stirring up trouble in the southern Soviet Union. On he went to refer to the growth of Islamic anti-American fundamentalism in Iran.

"Ah yes," he seemed to say. "Both our countries have problems with these people."

As the Soviet diplomat and I talked in Beijing, Moscow was moving to control Islamic fundamentalist unrest in Afghanistan by supporting a pro Soviet government there. Soviet backed Marxists had seized power in April 1978.

In July 1979 President Jimmy Carter would authorize covert CIA operations against the Soviet backed Afghan government.

December 1979 the Soviet army would invade to install and more directly control the government of Babrak Karmal.

In the years ahead the U.S. would back Islamic fundamentalist insurgents to undermine Soviet rule in Afghanistan. From that, in part, would come the
"blowback" of Islamic fundamentalist 9/11 attacks by Bin Laden's Afghanistan trained al-Qaida now targeting America rather than a collapsed Soviet Union.

Estimated dead would be as high as one million Afghans between 1979 and 1989, along with about 15,000 Soviets killed.

As we talked, opposition to Iran's ailing pro American
Shah was on the verge of driving him from his country on January 16, 1979.

Just one month later China and the U.S. became defacto allies against the Soviet Union when the U.S. indirectly supported China's invasion of Soviet backed Vietnam.

Iranian Islamic fundamentalists, enraged by the American admission of the Shah for medical treatment in October, would storm the American embassy in Tehran in
November 1979 -- to hold 66 Americans hostages for 444 days.

The U.S. would be forced into a humiliating retreat from a major region of American influence in its greatest defeat since Vietnam.

Iran would turn "enemy" in a confrontation which resurfaced after President George Bush invaded Iraq in
March 2003 in a bid to regain American preeminence in the area.

President Ronald Reagan had triumphed in 1980 elections over a Carter embarrassed by his seeming impotence in the hostage crisis, including a
failed rescue attempt.

Iraq's Saddam Hussein, whom America would two decades later drive from power, would attack Iran in a
war which would last from September 1980 to August 1988.

Soon it would be time for Washington to
channel chemical weapons technology to Saddam for use against suicidal Iranian counterattacks. The Reagan Administration adopted the old principle "an enemy of an enemy is my friend."

Casualties in the Iran/Iraq war are estimated at one to two million with at least 300,000 dead.

My editors approved the Trans-Siberia plan, but I withdrew it. I concluded I was slipping too far down the road from journalist into "spy."


After finishing my dispatch I got up from my hotel room desk, re-read and pondered my copy for some minutes...then carried the stapled sheets down the red carpeted hallway to the Chinese operators of the special telex facilities set up for reporters who had converged on Beijing to cover the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between China and the U.S.

Within minutes my words reappeared on the spooling paper of a clattering telex machine behind the Monitor's Boston newsroom.

As I handed my copy to the Chinese telex operator, I knew it was quite possible the Chinese wanted me to file a story about "war plans."

Chinese strategy going all the way back to intervention in the Korean war was to send out measured warnings through a variety of channels as part of a strategy of "deterrence." Silly, though, to imagine that I was important enough to be a "pawn" in such a strategy!

Then, again, could I be ruffling the Chinese feathers by reporting a possible warlike hidden agenda behind Beijing's reconciliation with Washington? With academic degrees in Chinese studies, had I, a "friend of China," wandered into some other category in the Chinese official view? Was I revealing something they did not want revealed?

Or was my reporting an inconsequential "blip," one more page in an avalanche of speculation and analysis in which earnest journalists profess to know more than they actually do?


I walked back to my hotel room after drinking what seemed a dozen cups of coffee. My mind began to race and sputter. I placed a call to my editor in Boston, told him I was in trouble, said a "good bye," and asked him to give my love to everyone.

"Save the children. Save the children," I remember muttering into the room lamps I assumed were bugged. "Seek some way other than war" I thought I was telling the Chinese authorities who watched over foreign journalists.

I collapsed.

An American journalist who discovered me on the floor of my hotel room said he found my body rigid in a trance. I was muttering, "save the children."

(On February 21 1972 my two month old son Eric had died of crib death.)

When I awoke, I was in a Chinese hospital, where I dimly remembered my journalist colleagues had helped carry me. Among them was Time magazine's Marsh Clark.

"Do you have a heart condition?" I remembered asking him. "Yes, but you need to worry more about yourself, Fred," he replied.

I stayed a week in the care of the kindly Chinese doctors of the
Beijing Union Medical College Hospital, founded in 1917 by the Rockefeller Foundation. An official of the American consulate visited me periodically, bringing me a volume of my favorite poet, the Australian Henry Lawson.

See "wounds to the mind" on the longer term legacies of post traumatic stress.


Beijing Union Medical College Hospital

An American consular official, a personal friend, escorted me out of China by airliner a week later -- back to Hong Kong, where I rested in
Matilda Hospital on Victoria Peak preparing to report the coming Chinese invasion of Vietnam.

"A Chinese official told me they wanted you out of China as fast as possible. They wanted nothing to happen to you in China because they had already been embarrassed by the assassination of Malcolm Caldwell," a colleague recalled to me years later.


In December 1978, just before I flew to Beijing, Vietnamese armies began their invasion of Cambodia to throw out of power the brutal Pol Pot Khmer Rouge government supported by China.

Just before the Vietnamese attack began, China had sponsored a visit to Cambodia by three journalist/writers: Elizabeth Becker of the Washington Post, Richard Dudman of the Saint Louis Post -Dispatch and the British Marxist writer Malcolm Caldwell, a leading apologist for Khmer Rouge atrocities.

After a late night December 22 meeting between Pol Pot and Caldwell one or more assassins broke into the guesthouse where the three writers stayed. When morning came, only Caldwell was dead, the other two survived. It appeared that the target had been Caldwell.

Mystery shrouded the attack. Some said it was to embarrass China, which sponsored the visit. Some speculated that in that late night meeting with Pol Pot Caldwell did or learned something which put himself out of favor with his Khmer Rouge hosts. Another interpretation was that internal opponents of Pol Pot killed Caldwell to embarrass the Cambodian leader.

Caldwell's corpse was flown to Beijing.

For graphic details, read this passage from Elizabeth Becker's
When the War Was Over.


correspondent Marsh Clark sat by my side. The sky flashed with lighting and thunder, as I flew aboard a Chinese jet from Hong Kong to Beijing in late December 1978. I pondered Vietnam's ongoing invasion of Cambodia, including the assassination of Malcolm Caldwell.

I looked ahead to wonder: if China retaliates for Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia, how severe and long lasting will be the attack?

Might it lead to a wider war if the Soviet Union felt compelled to retaliate with bombing or a tank attack along China's northern border? And was the U.S. government sufficiently "awake" to deal with this possible consequence of "normalizing" relations between Beijing and Washington?

Because there was a possibility of an American intelligence failure, I felt it my duty to use my reporting to raise the profile of the issue to help fill any gap.

I was raised a Quaker, but I was not a pacifist. Still, it seemed my responsibility to spotlight the growing probability of Chinese attack. Planning and diplomacy might be necessary to prevent a war from spreading, to limit the loss of lives.

Other reporters covering China seemed oblivious to the possibility of a coming Chinese attack. Many academics, diplomats, and journalists focused on China's hunger for the economic benefits of normalization with the United States. Surely, said some, China would not risk war with the Soviet Union by an attack on Vietnam.

American officials I talked to were either unaware of a coming Chinese attack - or unwilling to acknowledge to me that they were aware of what might be ahead.

If an attack were in fact on the way, I thought to myself surely the American government with all its resources must know about it. And yet perhaps there had been a failure in analyzing China's intentions.

In a Beijing hotel room I settled in for a chat with a Chinese foreign ministry official whom I had met on a previous trip. Once soft-spoken and polite, he now turned angrily and animatedly expressive as he discussed China's ability to inflict deadly casualties on Vietnam. "We helped them against the French. We know how to punish them," he said.

When I pressed him on possible negative consequences of a Chinese attack on Vietnam, his voice rose in an aggrieved tone:

"Mr. Moritz. I am surprised at you. I thought you were our friend."


In the fall of 1978 Deng had relaxed China's stand on Taiwan and paved the way for the golden bonds of commerce. Within years shiny modern factories would flood China and the finest of Chinese products would inundate American stores at cut rate prices. Visions of friendship, openness, academic exchange, and clinking cash registers dominated the American view as "normalization" approached.

My reporting that fall took a different track: to explore the similarity between China's warnings against Vietnam and China's warnings against the United States just before China entered the Korean War. Chinese warnings against Vietnam had picked up in the summer and fall of 1978.

I remembered the work of political scientist
Allen S. Whiting, formerly director of the State Department's Office of Research and Analysis for the Far East during the Kennedy Administration. He had analyzed the contents and style of these warnings in a number of brilliant writings.

Whiting had been able to correlate the language of specific Chinese warnings with decisions and actions such as mobilizations to attack. I had read his work in the 1960's while a graduate student in political science and Chinese studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Earlier, as an undergraduate in government at Oberlin College, I had "interviewed" him in 1962 at the State Department in Washington, DC.

So one morning I rushed off to Hong Kong's public library to pick up copies of Whiting's
China Crosses the Yalu (1960) and The Chinese Calculus of Deterrence (1975). As weeks passed, the unfolding language of Chinese warnings to Vietnam uncannily matched almost to the word the sequence of Chinese language and warnings toward the United States just before China's intervention in Korea three decades earlier.

(Material based on once secret Russian archives may be visited at the Cold War International History Project. See new evidence on the Korean War from the
Cold War International History Project.  Historian Chen Jian offers extensive research and conclusions in his book  China's Road to the Korean War.)


All of the statistical and strategic data in the world can be meaningless without an understanding of emotion, culture, spirit, and mind.

"Can we have lunch in an hour?" he asked me.

In mid-December 1978 a "Chinese source," with whom I lunched periodically in Hong Kong, responded to my telephone inquiry about the latest Chinese warnings.

It was a lunch I will never forget.

"Mr. Moritz, would America help China if we have a war with the Soviet Union,"
my lunch partner asked.

His voice quivered with emotion. His face reddened. (This same man, reputed to "have links with" intelligence circles in southern China, had been unfailingly unflappable, unemotional, indirect and "inscrutable" in months of earlier lunches)

"Mr. Moritz, you must understand that if we are forced to we must fight... Remember how the British humiliated China with the opium trade in the 1840's... If we don't fight now, we can never look our children in the face. China must
stand up"

A century and a half of Chinese humiliation at the hands of British, Japanese, and Americans spilled out on that luncheon table. Soon that anger would erupt on the battlefield against an ungrateful Vietnam. As in Korea three decades before, the time honored image of the humble, shuffling, cowardly, easily intimidated "China man" would die amid the fearsome assault of China's "human wave" attacks. China would "put to death" the image of backward degradation projected by the foreign military intervention brought on by the Boxer Rebellion of 1900.

I later learned that on December 11, just a few days before that lunch, General Wei Guoquing, head of the Chinese army's General Political Department, had told a meeting in south China that Beijing would "teach Vietnam a lesson."

It was the same General Wei who, back in the 1950's, had helped Ho Chi Minh throw the French out of Vietnam. The speech signaled China's final preparations for attack.


At the time I had no certainty as to whether I was being used as a propaganda "tool" to deliver a Chinese warning -- or was opening up a "tea leaf" the Chinese did not want opened. Or might I be simply led astray by the speculations of my mind?

My "source" himself was a bit of a mystery. The scuttlebutt: he was linked with intelligence circles in South China, assigned to follow the thinking and actions of Western scholars and journalists in Hong Kong.

Was he deliberately posturing to send an officially approved "message?" Or had a changed Chinese policy simply allowed his own emotions to come to the surface in an unexpectedly dramatic outburst?

From lunches I knew he was familiar with what appeared in American newspapers. I knew he was familiar with my own paper, The Christian Science Monitor. "Mr. Moritz, your columnist Joseph C. Harsch is anti-Soviet, is he not?" he once asked.

My "source" was most likely familiar with my own writings in the Monitor, although we never specifically discussed them. I had been reporting the growing confrontation between China and Vietnam. We had discussed the topic at lunch several times.

At these meetings we had many polite, thoughtful, "gentle" exchanges. Unlike some journalists, my style was not abrasive or confrontational. I had lots of experience in honoring "face." For whatever reason my "source" would tell me things such as "Mr. Moritz, your thinking is not like the others."


To do intelligence analysis while reporting for a newspaper is different from working in government. More "information" may be available in government, but different conclusions can "cancel each other out" -- or simply not be able to "be heard" since the middle level of bureaucracy may screen out their substance or their urgency. Intelligence administrators and even analysts out to promote their careers may tend to provide what is politically acceptable at the top.

Top government leaders often act out of political necessity, ingrained assumptions -- or are handicapped by conflicting priorities and limited attention span. Possibilities may be understood, but probabilities not. Even if those "at the bottom" have a sense of what is happening, those "at the top" may be too busy or find it inconvenient to believe. Those at the bottom may be cautious about risking loss of credibility by overstating their warnings.

Bureaucracy and politics may filter out or downplay the most important probabilities.

These are reasons why large amounts of money spent on government intelligence sometimes seems wasted. The "data" collected from satellites, documentary analysis, and informants becomes of doubtful use if not brought together, analyzed, communicated and taken seriously at the top.

Journalism can play a vital part to bring buried conclusions to the public eye, to bring buried conclusions to "the top."

A journalist can jump through the hoops and get quick attention if a "gate keeper" editor opens the door to publication. Journalism can override the filtering maze of government bureaucracy. The tendency for journalism to emphasize conflict, entertainment, and the sensational can build a hunger to distort in the opposite direction by spotlighting the "worst possible case scenario."

Indeed lower civilian or military officials who want their views heard or read with greater urgency "at the top" may sometimes leak them to journalists to jump over bureaucracy, political opposition, and grab attention for their views.

This gives journalism great power to escalate possibilities into probabilities -- and also enormous capacity for exaggeration or misinformation.

As with China's intervention in the Korean War, Washington appeared to have largely ignored Chinese threats of military action as Deng prepared for war in the fall of 1978.

Satellite photos showed Chinese forces moving toward Vietnam's borders, but visions of commerce and strategic cooperation seemed to dazzle government, academic, commercial, and journalistic eyes.

Some U.S. policy makers did hope closer American ties with China would help the Soviet Bear think twice as its armies, navies, and "proxy" revolutionaries pawed their ways into Afghanistan, Central America, and the South China Sea.

Still, the conventional wisdom was that China would never risk war with the Soviet Union by invading Vietnam.


On January 28, 1979. a month after I filed my dispatch, Deng Xiaoping traveled to Washington to inform President Carter of his plans to attack. The United States ordered naval maneuvers to support China against possible Soviet retaliation, but also urged Chinese restraint.
"When Deng Xiaoping, the diminutive but dangerous leader of China...came to Washington, he impressed Carter, as he had earlier impressed me in Beijing, with his quickness of mind, his acerbic tongue, and -- above all -- his cold and even ruthless appreciation of power. His discussion with us of the Chinese plans for a military operation against Vietnam, and of possible Soviet moves against China and of China's reactions, was the single most impressive demonstration of raw power that I encountered in my four years in the White House."

Zbigniew Brzezinski, National Security Advisor to President Jimmy Carter,
Power and Principle, (memoir) page 25.

On September 25, 2006 Brezezinski gave these further details at a Washington, DC conference on U.S. China relations during the Cold War.

Deng requested a special one on one meeting with Carter. At that meeting he outlined his plan for a "lesson" against Vietnam along the line of China's 1962 attack on India. Carter showed concern over possible side affects.

Deng said "we have thought about that." He outlined four actions the Soviets could take:

1) They could do nothing, knowing the invasion was temporary. No problem.

2) They could supply weapons to Vietnam. "We've thought about that. We can handle it because the invasion will be limited in time."

3) They could respond with a 22 tank division attack along China's northern border. "We have thought about. that We can can draw them in and wage
'peoples war.'"

4) They could respond with nuclear weapons. "We've thought about that. We, too, have nuclear weapons. We could attack a Soviet industrial/logistical area -- or even a major city. For example Moscow."


Who won? Perhaps it was the China America alliance.

It could be argued this was a Chinese military defeat, a costly military campaign which left Vietnam in Cambodia -- and solidified many years of continued Soviet backing for Vietnam.

Yet by "standing up" and risking war with the Soviets, China demonstrated once again that it could not be intimidated by a nuclear armed adversary.

China's leaders could feel they had established a security umbrella of strength for economic modernization, an umbrella including both economic and military cooperation with the United States.

China's forces continued to threaten Vietnam's northern border. China and the United States united to "bleed" both the Soviet Union and Vietnam by supporting anti-Vietnamese guerrillas in Vietnamese occupied Cambodia.

When China invaded Vietnam on February 17, 1979, it thus joined the United States in a "new Cold War" which was to rage throughout the 1980's from Indochina to Afghanistan to Central America, first under President Jimmy Carter, then under President Ronald Reagan. Renewed Soviet aggressiveness met increasingly determined American and Chinese response.

This American--Chinese partnership became part of Washington's global strategy to bleed and weaken Soviet expansion. This included American support for Islamic insurgency against Soviet occupation of Afghanistan -- as well as American campaigns to defeat Soviet backed governments and rebels in Nicaragua and El Salvador.

China's invasion of Vietnam became part of the overall American--Chinese strategic handshake which over stretched and drained an expansive Soviet Union. The ultimate result: stresses which contributed to Soviet collapse, beginning in 1989.


In the 1950's Mao Zedong's communist China had helped Ho Chi Minh's fighters defeat French colonial armies to establish in 1954 a communist state in Vietnam's North. In the midst of the Cold War China replayed its centuries old history as a kind of "big brother" to its sometimes rebellious smaller neighbor.

Despite Chinese assistance, Vietnamese communist leaders had reasons to distrust the reliability of their northern ally. To counter the Soviet Union, Mao opened the door of limited friendship to Nixon in 1971, while the United States was still fighting Vietnamese communists. (For more on the frictions between big and small communist brothers see online reviewers' comments on Qiang Zhai's
China and the Vietnam Wars, 1950-1975. Check this Vietnam War timeline.)

By 1978 China's leaders saw Vietnam as an ungrateful upstart, flushed with arrogance after it defeated the United States and unified America's south Vietnamese client state with the north in 1975. In the Chinese view Vietnam defied its generous patron in a bid to dominate Southeast Asia.


Six weeks after "normalization" with the U.S., Chinese artillery opened the assault, as reconstructed by journalist Nayan Chanda in Brother Enemy; The War After the War. Hundreds of 130-mm and 122-mm long-range guns and 140-mm multiple rocket launchers poured shells into Vietnam, at the rate of almost one a second. (Read or listen to a 2001 conversation with Nayan Chanda on journalism and international conflict)

Chinese troops, supported by armor but not by airpower, streamed into Vietnam. Vietnam held back its major forces to protect them from the onslaught, but China inflicted major damage.

(See Stephen J. Hood's
Dragons Entangled: Indochina and the China-Vietnam War for a a detailed account of the overall outlines of this struggle between China and Vietnam. Satellite images in graphic color give one indication of the ruggedness of the contested border terrain.)

(See Elizabeth Becker's
When the War Was Over: Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge Revolution for a history of the period by a journalist who was present in Phnom Penh as Vietnam began its invasion and China planned retaliation from the north.)


Secret data available to governments, but usually not to journalists, are of doubtful use if not evaluated and transmitted to decision makers in the context of an understanding of the broader strategic and cultural situation of which they are a part.

By mid and late 1941 Hawaii-based military intelligence officials sometimes seemed ill equipped to analyze the secret intelligence "signals" they received (and decide on appropriate levels of alertness). In part this may be because Washington leaders had failed to adequately brief them on just how bad relations with Japan had become.

By 1940 Washington had finally begun to retaliate for the Japanese military conquests in China which had begun in 1937. President Franklin Roosevelt gradually tightened the screws on scrap metal and oil for Japan.

On September 19, 1940, after hearing of Tokyo's ultimatums to gain influence in French Indochina, the President banned all scrap iron and steel exports to Japan. Just eight days later Japan widened the breach by completing a project begun in July. It formally joined Italy and Germany in a Tripartite Pact aimed at the United States.

Roosevelt's toughening stance toward Japan in behalf of China went hand in hand with his stepped up campaign of Atlantic convoy supplies for the British war effort against Germany. By late 1941 the President was demanding that Japan give up its imperial ambitions in China as a precondition for removal of increasingly tough American restrictions on metals and oil supplies.

American officials decided stepped up sanctions and a military buildup were necessary partly because of growing signs Japan planned to move into French Indochina, British ruled Malaya and Singapore, as well as the Dutch East Indies.

Some American policy makers hoped sanctions would strengthen the hand of Japanese "moderates;" that Japan might restrain itself in China to preserve good relations with the U.S.

In 1941 Japan's leaders made exactly the opposite choice. More dependent than ever on raw materials from China, they concluded American sanctions were threat to their nation's power and standard of living.

Japan's alliance with Germany and Italy encouraged Tokyo to compensate for the growing American sanctions by doing exactly what the American sanctions were designed to prevent.

Japan decided to send its army and navy to seize access to rubber, oil, tin and other resources in British Malaya, French Indochina, and the Dutch East Indies. Japan's military planners concluded this required first crippling American naval power in the Pacific by an attack on Pearl Harbor.


Intelligence officials in Pearl Harbor often depended on the Hawaii press for their broader knowledge on these matters. Local media carried much less than was available by newspaper in Washington, D.C.

Roberta Wohlstetter's classic study of an intelligence failure,
Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision, 1962, notes on page 169:

" make good use of secret signals, the recipient must first be able to observe and analyze public information. Indeed, in comparing the top-secret Intelligence evaluations of enemy intentions with estimates in the contemporary press, one is struck by the relative soundness of the less privileged judgments. It is hard not to conclude that general knowledgeability in the world of international affairs, and close observation of overt developments, are the most useful ingredients in making such estimates."

Wohlstetter also makes clear that for reasons of security local American commanders lacked direct access to the decoded Japanese military and diplomatic messages known as "Magic." American intelligence tightly guarded these messages for fear the Japanese would learn their codes had been broken.

(Breaking of secret codes played a major part in the Allied war effort against the Axis powers. See the
PBS Nova documentary on how the British broke the German Enigma code.)

In hindsight "Magic" gives dramatic insights into Japan's increasing preparations for war as negotiations with Washington stalemated in late 1941. The messages were "looked at" in Washington but never systematically analyzed for emerging patterns -- nor were conclusions of such analysis passed to commanders in the field.


Just as fundamental to successful intelligence analysis is an understanding of the other party's state of mind. All of the statistical and strategic data in the world can be meaningless without an understanding of emotion, culture, spirit, and mind.

It is often difficult for one country's leaders to penetrate the minds of another country's leaders. Assumptions about the possible behavior of others are shaped by our own experience -- which may be far different from that of the people with whom we deal. It is normal and predictable that despite large amounts of intelligence data, leaders are often blind to each others' plans and intentions.

Japan's surprise attack on Pearl harbor provides a dramatic illustration. Gordon W. Prange paints the picture in his classic study,
At Dawn We Slept: The Untold Story of Pearl Harbor.

Prange makes it clear many American military were aware of the possibility Japan (or even the U.S.) would start a war as the conflict between America and Japan deepened throughout 1941. The question of how and when a war might begin was on the minds of many American political and military leaders as the U.S. moved in 1941 to back Russia against Germany and to block Japan's ambitions in French Indochina.

The tactic of "surprise attack" was clearly part of the history of Japanese strategic doctrine. The
Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5 began on Feb. 8, 1904, when the main Japanese fleet launched a surprise attack and siege on the Russian naval squadron at the Manchurian harbor of Port Arthur.


(Click here for the U.S. Navy's extensive online text and image collection. Examine the lineup of ships and planes from both nations on the morning of the December 7 attack. Explore movies concerning Pearl Harbor.)


In fact there were American proposals to beef up the Hawaiian air force so that it could aggressively scout out Japanese naval attack forces. Strategists had speculated on a possible Japanese attack against Hawaii since the 1920's.

Possibility or Probability? That was the question.

Prange addresses the issue on page 188 in a passage which demonstrates the dilemmas of intelligence analysis when it comes to "reading minds:"

"One notes the fundamental difference between American and Japanese planning in connection with the defense and the attack, respectively, of the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. In theory the American plans could scarcely have been improved. They were clear-cut, farsighted, almost inspired, and revealed a solid understanding of the tactics the Japanese would conduct on December 7. But these studies lacked substance because they depended for their implementation upon aircraft which the United States did not have in sufficient quantity.

"They also lacked the psychological impetus which only a genuine belief can impart. The fact is, however frequently the defenders of Oahu expressed in writing their acceptance of the possibility of a Japanese attack, they considered it improbable.....

"In contrast, the Japanese plan appeared fantastic, an inadmissible risk, almost suicidal, justifying every one of the objections which Tomioka had presented so clearly to Kuroshima. Yet the task force carried it out because such men as Yamamoto, Genda, and many others breathed life into it by their dynamic faith. They counted on aircraft and ships either in existence or soon to be, and where they lacked weapons or techniques, they created them. Theirs was a triumph of spirit over matter, yes, even over intellect."


In general American planners minimized the probability of a Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. One glittering exception is the so-called Martin/Bellinger Report dated March 31, 1941. This appeared approximately the same time that Japan's reluctant Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto had his Combined Fleet staff begin work on a possible attack against Hawaii.

(See this
account of the Harvard University-educated Yamamoto's reluctance to go to war with the United States; also photos of his service as naval attaché in the United States, 1925-8). Check this analysis of Yamamoto's 1943 "revenge killing," reportedly ordered by President Roosevelt)

His was the daring execution of brilliant treachery"
Time, December 22, 1941, by Arthur Szyk

In retrospect the conclusions of Major General
Frederick L. Martin, commander of the Hawaiian Air Force and Navy commander Rear Admiral Patrick N. L. Bellinger seem truly prophetic.

This classic analysis highlighted a major recurring intelligence dilemma in the history of warfare, which may be paraphrased in this way:

Intensive surveillance may be necessary to uncover enemy movements, but it may be practical, achievable, or affordable for only limited periods of time. Other intelligence methods must be accurate enough and believable enough to trigger more intensive surveillance, which may inevitably drain resources from other missions.

In retrospect it can be said limited resources can force a choice, and faulty choices can lead to disaster.

Martin and Bellinger warned a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor ships and installations might
precede a Japanese declaration of war. They argued such an attack could prevent American offensive actions in the Western Pacific for a "long period."

Said the report, cited in Prange, page 94:

"It appears that the most likely and dangerous form of attack on Oahu would be an air attack. It is believed that at present such an attack would most likely be launched from one or more carriers which would probably approach inside of three hundred miles."

To counter this danger Martin and Bellinger suggested daily air patrols a full 360 degrees around the islands. The patrols would have to extend some 800 miles in order to report the presence of enemy carriers in time to intercept their aircraft.

Martin and Bellinger estimated 190 additional
B-17 long-range bombers would be needed for this mission, more than the entire number then in the United States (See Wohlstetter, page 13).

According to Martin and Bellinger: to run daily patrols of 360 degree scope to reduce the probability of surprise would be desirable, but:

"....can only be effectively maintained with present personnel and material for a very short period and as a practicable measure cannot, therefore, be undertaken unless other intelligence indicates that a surface raid is probable within rather narrow time limits." (see Prange, page 95).

(Read the text of the report itself).

Even after the November 27, 1941 War Department "War Warning" which pointed out that negotiations were over and that Japanese "hostile action" was "possible at any moment," American naval leaders at Pearl Harbor decided not to conduct expanded long distance aerial reconnaissance around Hawaii. (Check
documents from postwar investigations for details on the "War Warning" in relation to Hawaii.)

The Americans lacked the aircraft to do 360 degree surveillance, but they did have aircraft for limited patrols. Admiral Husband E. Kimmel refrained from ordering patrols over the critical northwest sector, apparently because he did not consider a Japanese air attack likely. (See Prange, page 410).

Both Admiral Bellinger and Admiral Kimmel appear to have concluded that because Japanese air attack on Pearl Harbor was improbable, it was too risky to divert limited available patrol airplanes away from important training missions needed to prosecute a coming war in the Pacific (Prange, page 419; Wohlstetter, page 13).

The B-17 long-range bomber could discover and bomb any Japanese carrier group aimed at Pearl Harbor:
But how many of these still scarce planes could be assigned for this purpose; for how long?
And what other missions would have had to be neglected?


There were intelligence reports which in retrospect could be interpreted as signs of impending Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. But given the prevailing assumptions about Japanese thinking, they were less likely to be taken seriously, transmitted urgently, and listened to at the "top."

This was especially true because President Roosevelt and American media focused major attention on German submarines in the Atlantic, the fighting in North Africa and the German invasion of the Soviet Union. Asian news was on the "inside pages."

Washington policy makers tended to conclude that any new Japanese military strike would aim at the Soviet Union or south to French Indochina. Another possible target was American bases at the Philippines. American commanders at Pearl Harbor assumed the most likely Japanese threat to their base would be sabotage.

All of this influenced how intelligence officials analyzed and transmitted to higher authorities secret "Message No. 83."

In early October 1941 the U.S. army intercepted and translated strictly secret instructions from Tokyo to Japan's Honolulu consulate. These instructed consular officials to divide Pearl Harbor into five letter identified subareas and to regularly report on what American warships were moored in each area. The message asked special attention be paid to situations where two or more vessels anchor along the same wharf.

Wrote Prange (page 249):

"In effect this message placed over Pearl Harbor an invisible grid whereon Yoshikawa and his assistants could plot the position of each individual ship in its specific anchorage. Heretofore Tokyo had been principally interested in U.S. Fleet movements. Now the Navy wanted precise information on the exact location of vessels in the harbor as well. This dispatch became famous as the "bomb plot" message...."

Col. Rufus C. Bratton of the War Department's G-2 Intelligence Division routed the message up to high level military leaders, including Secretary of War Henry Stimson "without apparently stirring a flicker of interest....." (Prange, page 249)

Although Bratton was convinced that war with Japan was inevitable, he did not think it logical for Japan "to go out of her way deliberately to attack an American installation." (Prange, page 250)

Commander Alwin D. Kramer of the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) "sped the bomb plot message through Navy channels" all the way to the White House. But he considered it worthy of one asterisk as an "interesting message" rather than with the double asterisk allotted to "especially important or urgent messages."

Kramer and others viewed the Japanese message as a call to simplify communications and cut down on expenses, rather than as a call for the kind of specific information which would help Japanese bombers destroy as many warships as possible as they lay berthed at Pearl Harbor.

"Subjective" evaluations of the Japanese mindset thus influenced how particular intelligence data were interpreted, how urgently conclusions were transmitted to "the top," and how much emphasis was put upon it by ranking officials in charge of American defenses.


The Japanese state of mind was a mystery which eluded understanding.

The whereabouts of Japan's carrier and escort assets was unknown to the Americans as the task force glided across a northern "vacant sea" normally unused by civilian or military traffic, moving toward "Pearl" under radio blackout. Superior American power in Hawaii outgunned the approaching task force. Japan's chance for success depended on achieving surprise. If discovered, the orders were "turn back."

Only when Japanese carriers, bombers, and torpedo planes attacked that Sunday December 7 morning did American officials fully understand how the mindset of the warrior code of
Bushido gave extraordinary power when combined with the technology of modern long distance naval and aviation warfare.

See Robert W. Coakley's
Against Japan, reprinted from American Military History, United States Army, for a summary of how Japan's "limited" aims in World War II led to total war with the U.S.:

"Japan entered World War II with limited aims and with the intention of fighting a limited war. Its principal objectives were to secure the resources of Southeast Asia and much of China and to establish a "Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere" under Japanese hegemony. In 1895 and in 1905 Japan had gained important objectives without completely defeating China or Russia and in 1941 Japan sought to achieve its hegemony over East Asia in similar fashion.

"The operational strategy the Japanese adopted to start war, however, doomed their hopes of limiting the conflict. Japan believed it necessary to destroy or neutralize American striking power in the Pacific --the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor and the U.S. Far East Air Force in the Philippines --before moving southward and eastward to occupy Malaya, the Netherlands Indies, the Philippines, Wake Island, Guam, the Gilbert Islands, Thailand, and Burma. Once in control of these areas, the Japanese intended to establish a defensive perimeter stretching from the Kurile Islands south through Wake, the Marianas, the Carolines, and the Marshalls and Gilberts to Rabaul on New Britain. "


"Revisionists " have argued President Roosevelt deliberately, cynically and manipulatively provoked Japan into an attack in order to lead a reluctant America into World War II.

These analyses run the gamut from "mother of conspiracy" assertions that Roosevelt
welcomed an attack on Pearl Harbor and deliberately let it go forth to analyses he knew American ultimatums to Japan would end negotiations, "force" Japan to attack the U.S., but did not guess Tokyo would choose Pearl Harbor as target. John T. Flynn, newspaperman, radio commentator, and author of books during the New Deal and World War II period, argued this thesis.

The President understood, as 1941 unfolded, that the militarists led by General Tojo had won control. It seemed clearer with each month that Japan planned to expand into Southeast Asia. Despite earlier hopes for a change in Japan's direction, Roosevelt knew that continuing to confront a militaristic Tokyo with tough sanctions would stalemate negotiations and likely bring hostilities.

War came as "no surprise" to either nation. The two were on a collision course. Each used nine months of negotiations prior to Pearl Harbor first to seek some accommodation, but increasingly as a delaying tactic, as a cover under which each could build up its military power to be in a stronger position once war came.

Neither wanted to provoke a war prematurely, from a position of weakness. Each side had its "hawks" and "doves" in assessing risks and deciding how to deal with the other. As the months passed, both governments concluded war was increasingly unavoidable. Each grew bolder and felt stronger to confront the other. The President knew negotiations had failed well before the Japanese attack.

Roosevelt led a deeply divided country where public opinion counted. He clearly hoped that if a Japanese attack came, it would help rally public support. Still, as war approached, his Administration's directive to local commanders stressed the need for vigilance so that a Japanese attack would do only limited damage.


Twenty one years later, the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor hung heavily over the Kennedy Administration during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Kennedy, like other "cold warriors" who had "cut their teeth" in World War II service, was determined to avoid both "another Pearl" and "another Munich."

In 1962 U.S. military strategists sometimes seemed obsessed with the possibility that "Pearl" could be repeated if the Soviets decided they could succeed in a surprise nuclear attack. American nuclear strategy focused on preventing another "Pearl."

It is no coincidence that Roberta Wohlstetter's
Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision first appeared in 1962. This classic is neither diplomatic history, nor a political treatise on who was responsible for the Pearl Harbor fiasco. Rather it speaks to the American foreign policy "establishment" to clinically and supportively dissect the nature of the intelligence process -- and explain why at "Pearl" it seemed to fail.

Roberta Wohlstetter and her husband
Albert, a nuclear strategist who specialized on issues of nuclear deterrence and how to prevent a nuclear surprise attack, were among the many who advised President Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Albert Wohlstetter had a
profound influence on a generation of hawkish foreign policy intellectuals. These include a major architect of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz.

Wolfowitz, the son of a mathematician, was, as was Wohlstetter, trained as a mathematician. The younger Wolfowitz studied political science at the University of Chicago when Wohlstetter, his mentor, taught political science there (See a collection of Albert and Roberta Wohlstetter's

Roberta Wohlstetter wrote with both eyes on the Cold War. Even today, with the Cold War over and the Soviet Union gone, her book is used as an aid in
planning by Bush Administration Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

Roberta Wohlstetter's study concluded that because of subjective human factors surprise can occur despite and even because of vast amounts of intelligence data. Its conclusions had a deep impact on some American military planners at the height of the Cold War.

If, as Roberta Wohlstetter argued, intelligence is inherently
flawed in detecting surprise attack, then the emphasis must be to deter an attack. If the enemy is not of the kind to be deterred, then the argument for preemptive attack grows stronger.

And so the thinking of the late Roberta Wohlstetter became one foundation for the doctrine of
"preemptive war" which justified the invasion of Iraq. For if surprise attack cannot be predicted, if Saddam Hussein cannot be reliably deterred, then so went the argument: "he must be taken out."

(Download in .pdf format a December, 2002 Brookings Institution study,
Policy Brief No. 113, of the Bush Administration's elevation of the doctrine of preemptive attack. Michael E. O'Hanlon, Susan E. Rice, and James B. Steinberg explore the potential gravity of embracing this new expanded understanding of preemption and its potential uses. For an historic survey of preemptive attack in American policy see the Congressional Research Service report U.S. Use of Preemptive Military Force, September 18, 2002, downloadable in .pdf format).

In Cuba the stakes had become so high that once the first reports arrived of the introduction of Soviet missiles, American hi-tech surveillance "locked on." The first evidence of Soviet nuclear tipped missiles in Cuba demanded the coverage be unrelenting, no matter what the cost. The crisis would be acute, short term, so that saturation intelligence gathering could be maintained, clearly pinpointed on an accessible target area only 90 miles from home.

The situation in October 1962 was fundamentally different from that of Japan in WWII, China in Korea, and later Iraq in Kuwait. In those cases U.S. officials downplayed possible "enemy" military action in favor of more pressing realities elsewhere. They neglected, minimized, or patronized the opponent's intentions and capabilities for political, racial, cultural, or bureaucratic reasons.

By contrast in 1962 American officials were deeply fixated on Cuba and the Soviet Union. They saw both Fidel Castro and Nikita Khruschev as reckless, unpredictable bullies. The conventional wisdom was the Soviets were aggressive and almost superhuman, ahead of the U.S. in space technology, with a lead in nuclear delivery capacity which might tempt them in extreme cases to a first nuclear strike.

The challenge of Cuba was not to determine if, how, and when the Soviet Union planned to begin a war. Placing of intermediate missiles in Cuba was viewed as tantamount to war, a changing of the balance of power which could open the way to Soviet military operations over West Berlin.

If the U.S. failed to keep Soviet missiles out of Cuba, then Khruschev might be tempted into a miscalculation in Germany leading to World War III.

The young (born 1917) and sometimes indecisive President John F. Kennedy could not afford to be viewed as "soft" on communism, especially after the failure of the the 1961 CIA-supported Bay of Pigs invasion by anti-Castro exiles. Kennedy's approval of that operation while denying critical American air support made him seem vacillating, weak -- vulnerable both to domestic political criticism and to overseas bullying by the Soviet Union.

Since "Pearl," the technology of intelligence had vastly improved. Technology could not read Khruschev's mind, but
U-2 aerial reconnaissance allowed close following of missile placement (Examine a variety of reconnaissance photos in the crisis). Also improved was the technical capacity to monitor radio signals. These combined with traditional "human" methods of intelligence gathering to alert the Kennedy Administration to Soviet intermediate range missiles in Cuba and monitor developments day by day.

(See a
simplified crisis timeline. Yale University's Avalon Project shows basic resources and a summary. The Library of Congress provides revelations from Russian archives. The National Security Archive of Georgetown University has useful documents. Audio recordings of President John F. Kennedy and other players are downloadable for realplayer).

With this knowledge the Administration could embargo Soviet ships and come to a
diplomatic settlement to withdraw the missiles. Kennedy assured the Soviets the he would not invade Cuba -- and as an informal, unstated quid pro quo American nuclear tipped missiles would be withdrawn from Turkey down the road.

Intelligence in this crisis could focus on what intelligence frequently does best: the tracking of "physical assets." High technology intelligence could do that job well when its mission was focused, when the eruption of crisis justified pulling out all stops.


Thomas Schelling wrote almost forty years ago the comments on intelligence and Pearl Harbor quoted at the top of this essay. They apply equally well to the challenge for governments to report, analyze, and act upon genocide plans.

The same bureaucratic fog, failure to evaluate, failure to believe, infighting, ingrained caution, and failure to act which plague decisions when faced with war can hamstring a government informed of genocide. Such was the case in Rwanda in 1994.

The US government, like other governments and international agencies, can be notoriously weak at evaluating evidence and taking action before hundreds of thousands die. Journalists and aid workers often are more likely to understand events despite the vast technical and financial resources available to governments.

Government failure is even more likely when the targets of genocide are distant, abstract, not on the "front burner" of American politics and "national interest." Unlike the case of Soviet missiles in Cuba, there was no "compelling" reason for American officials to "lock on" to rapidly developing events in Rwanda.

Samantha Power provides a gripping illustration of how this unfolded when the U.S. government and the United Nations failed to act as the Rwandan genocide of Hutus against Tutsis broke out.

account in the September 2001 edition of The Atlantic Monthly concludes the U.S. government knew enough about the genocide early on to save lives, but passed up countless opportunities to intervene. Power developed this and other aspects of U.S. actions toward genocide in her book A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide (2002).

The "fog factor" is graphically apparent in the now declassified U.S. government documents which can be downloaded in .pdf format from
The National Security Archive.

With the benefit of hindsight (and the use of these documents), Power reconstructs the unfolding of decisions and the failure of the Clinton Administration to deal with the escalating genocide.

These memos, briefing papers, and analyses now available on the internet demonstrate how the unfolding tragedy were obscured in the filter of bureaucratic reporting and daily decisions.

Some were written briefly for a busy official's crowded plate. Some are numbingly obscure in lengthy, convoluted bureaucratic format. All virtually guaranteed that high officials would neglect the unfolding situation as almost trivial, passing, not requiring action.

Power interviewed many involved in the decisions. In this article they "speak" with anguish and puzzlement on how so many talented people played a part in one of the greatest failures of American policy and international peacekeeping in modern times.

For a comprehensive listing of web links on Rwanda and genocide, see the United States Institute of Peace (USIP)
Rwanda Web Links.


To "see" what decision makers systematically screened out, check the many useful resources on the internet. The "Triumph of Evil" PBS Frontline website includes a chronology of one hundred days of slaughter and a chronology of the decades leading to the genocide.

A classic "on the ground" journalism account of the genocide in book form is
Philip Gourevitch, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda. Human Rights Watch provides online a comprehensive account, Leave None to Tell the Story. See primary sources for more general online materials on genocide.


An August, 2001 special report by the
government funded United States Institute of Peace, U.S. Human Rights Policy toward Africa, prescribes an eight point program to improve American human rights policy in Africa. Alison Des Forge of Human Rights Watch wrote the segment on Uganda with a nine point critique of U.S. policy during the genocide and a six point call for the future. View in summary form online and download the entire report in .pdf format.

Genocide, like war, catches governments by "surprise."
For the genocide and Rwanda today, see the
International Tribunal for Rwanda;
Amnesty International; Human Rights Watch; U.S. State Department


"Al Qaida's expected retaliation for the U.S. cruise missile attack against al Qaida's training facilities in Afghanistan on August 20, 1998, could take several forms of terrorist attack in the nation's capital. al Qaida could detonate a Chechen-type building-buster bomb at a federal building. Suicide bomber(s) belonging to al Qaida's Martyrdom Battalion could crash-land an aircraft packed with high explosives (C-4 and semtex) into the Pentagon, the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), or the White House.....

"If Iran's mullahs or Iraq's Saddam Hussein decide to use terrorists to attack the continental United States, they would likely turn to Bin Laden's al-Qaida. Al-Qaida is among the Islamic groups recruiting increasingly skilled professionals, such as computer and communications technicians, engineers, pharmacists, and physicists, as well as Ukrainian chemists and biologists, Iraqi chemical weapons experts, and others capable of helping to develop WMD. Al-Qaida poses the most serious terrorist threat to U.S. security interests, for al-Qaida's well-trained terrorists are actively engaged in a terrorist jihad against U.S. interests worldwide."

-THE SOCIOLOGY AND PSYCHOLOGY OF TERRORISM: WHO BECOMES A TERRORIST AND WHY? Report prepared under an Interagency Agreement by the Federal Research Division, Library of Congress, September 1999

The legacy of "Pearl" lives on more strongly than ever after the suicide hijackings which surprised the world and killed thousands on September 11, 2001.

These attacks raise long familiar issues about the nature of intelligence and surprise. As in the case of Pearl Harbor, the discussion of why the United States was caught napping may continue for years.

In mid May 2002 major American news media reported that although generalized warnings of Osama Bin Laden's plans to hijack American airliners reached the White House just weeks before 9/11, no specific warnings or preventative steps were taken. Opposition Democrat leaders quickly seized upon the reports to push for an investigation.Skepticism of official accounts, especially by families of 9/11 victims, led to establishment of the 9/11 Commission by the President and Congress, Novemeber 27, 2002. The Commission's
full report was issued on July 22, 2004.

Early press revelations suggested a pattern familiar in other successful surprise attacks, including Pearl Harbor:

A) Bureaucratic "filtering out" of what in hindsight appear as compelling specific early warning signs.

B) Failure to analytically link reports scattered over time and location by different intelligence groups, reports which, if pulled together, might suggest "new" enemy tactics of surprise attack.

C) An overburdening of analysis by multiple clouds of what later appeared to be misleading, inconsequential generalized warnings. This sometimes leads to emphasis on protecting the wrong possible targets.

D) A tendency for high policy makers to demand specific information on specific attack plans at specific times, rather than to take precautions based on general intelligence, possibilities, and probabilities. This demand for what may be impossible can hamstring defensive preparations by federal, state or local authorities.

Patterns such as these can be reinforced by bureaucratic disorganization, turf rivalries, and fragmented analyses left to gather dust on shelves or in computer databases. There can be emotional and intellectual "blind spots" at low, middle, or higher levels of intelligence gathering and policy making. Such blind spots can be most telling when multiple decisions and overwhelming emphasis on other matters rule the day.

Only the work of future historians is likely to reveal what happened before the September 11 attack. With an inexperienced new president and a sometimes "out of control" intelligence bureaucracy, the results are not in any way surprising.

Indeed it would have been a sharp break with the history of modern intelligence and modern warfare if the attack of September 11 had been successfully predicted and headed off by American intelligence and policy makers.

(For an analysis of surprise and the 9/11 attack see "
Strategic Insight: Surprise and Intelligence Failure," by Douglas Porch and James J.Wirtz, Center for Contemporary Conflict (CCC), the research arm of the National Security Affairs Department at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California.)



The following revelations gradually reached the American public. They are systematically dealt with in the July 22, 2004
report of the 9/11 Commission.
Some were highlighted by a joint Congressional committee staff report released September 18, 2002. It concluded the U.S. failed to act on warnings in 1998 of a possible plane attack.

An August 1998 intelligence report from the Central Intelligence Agency was just one of several warnings the United States received, but did not seriously analyze, in the years leading up to the Sept. 11 attacks, according to the study detailed at a Congressional hearing. The existence of the 1998 intelligence report was disclosed in a presentation by the committee's staff director, Eleanor Hill.

From 1998 to the summer of 2001, the C.I.A., the F.B.I. and other agencies repeatedly received reports of al Qaeda's interest in attacking Washington and New York, either with airplanes or other means. The threat level grew so high that by December 1998, the director of central intelligence, George J. Tenet, issued a "declaration of war" on al Qaeda, in a memorandum circulated in the intelligence community. Yet, Ms. Hill was quoted as saying, the intelligence agencies failed to adequately follow up on the declaration, and by Sept. 10, 2001, the F.B.I. still had only one analyst assigned full time to al Qaeda.

The 1998 intelligence report about the trade center cited plans by a group of unidentified Arabs, who the United States now believes had ties to al Qaeda, to fly an explosives-laden plane from a foreign country into the trade center. American intelligence officials were quoted as saying that despite the similarities, they did not believe that the 1998 report was related to the Sept. 11 attack.

While the joint committee made public several intelligence reports that had been received in the years before Sept. 11 that related to al Qaeda's intentions to launch an attack inside the United States and its interest in using aircraft for terrorism, Ms. Hill emphasized that the joint committee had still not found a "smoking gun" that could have helped prevent the Sept. 11 attacks.

"People have said there was no smoking gun," Ms. Hill said. "But there was still a lot out there that was never pulled together."

As with Pearl, "revisionist" interpretations of September 11 already emerge.
Critics argued President Franklin Roosevelt knew of the coming attack and allowed it to happen as a way of overcoming public opposition to joining a war against Germany and Japan. As of this writing, there are no serious accusations that Bush knew of the specific coming attack, but rather that he ignored warning signs presented to him.

A parallel line of revisionism is likely to open. Some revisionists with an isolationist bent argued Japan was
"forced" to attack at Pearl because President Roosevelt was moving aggressively to use an oil embargo to force Japan out of China and block its its plans for a Japan-dominated "co-prosperity zone" in Southeast Asia. Some on the Left have begun to interpret the September 11 suicide attack as a "preemptive strike" by Osama Bin Laden amid American plans to launch a worldwide offensive against the al Qaeda network.

Unlike Pearl Harbor, the Twin Towers attack was aimed at civilians, not military forces. The attack on the Pentagon was largely symbolic, with no serious aim to knock out US military capacity. By contrast Japan's December 7 attack was clearly targeted to disable American military forces in the Pacific long enough for Japanese armies to conquer China and Southeast Asia.

The Twin Towers attack was no doubt planned long before any final White House decision to step up actions against Bin Laden. But the September 11 attacks were clearly an escalation of a deeply rooted conflict waged between Bin Laden and the American government for
many years.

American plans to take a more aggressive approach toward Bin Laden's terrorist network were suggested in a May 16, 2002 MSNBC report by NBC's Jim Miklaszewski.

According to the report, which cited U.S. and foreign sources, President Bush was expected to sign detailed plans for a worldwide war against al Qaida two days before Sept. 11 but did not have the chance before the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.

The document, a formal National Security Presidential Directive, amounted to a game plan to remove al Qaida from the face of the Earth, one source was cited as saying.

The plan dealt with all aspects of a war against al Qaida, ranging from diplomatic initiatives to military operations in Afghanistan, the sources said on condition of anonymity.

In many respects, the directive, as described to NBC News, outlined essentially the same war plan that the White House, the CIA and the Pentagon put into action after the Sept. 11 attacks. The administration most likely was able to respond so quickly to the attacks because it simply had to pull the plans off the shelf, Miklaszewski reported.


In a detailed May 16, 2002 press briefing, as reported in next day's The New York Times, Condoleezza Rice, the president's national security adviser, said the government had received numerous reports of terrorist threats in summer, 2001. But she emphasized that the information seemed general and pointed toward potential attacks overseas. In addition, Ms. Rice said that the briefing Mr. Bush received from the C.I.A. on Aug. 6 did not mention a July memorandum from an F.B.I. agent in Phoenix who had warned that Middle Eastern men connected to Mr. Bin Laden might be receiving flight training in the United States

According to reporting by Bob Woodward and Dan Eggen in the Washington Post Staff, May 18, 2002, the top-secret briefing memo presented to President Bush on Aug. 6 carried the headline, "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.," and was primarily focused on recounting al Qaeda's past efforts to attack and infiltrate the United States, said the Post report, based on "senior administration officials."

The document, known as the "President's Daily Briefing," underscored that Osama Bin Laden and his followers hoped to "bring the fight to America," in part as retaliation for U.S. missile strikes on al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan in 1998, according to "knowledgeable sources."

According to this account, Bush had specifically asked for an intelligence analysis of possible al Qaeda attacks within the United States, because most of the information presented to him over the summer about al Qaeda focused on threats against U.S. targets overseas. But one source was cited in the Post as saying the White House was disappointed because the analysis lacked focus and did not present fresh intelligence.

Philip Shenon reported May 18, 2002 in The New York Times that law enforcement officials acknowledged that the F.B.I. never ordered a comprehensive investigation of flight schools before Sept. 11, even as individual F.B.I. offices were gathering compelling evidence about links between students trained at the schools and al Qaeda.

Shenon noted the Phoenix memorandum was not the first warning that terrorists affiliated with al Qaeda had interest in learning to fly. In his 1996 confession, a Pakistani terrorist, Abdul Hakim Murad, said that he planned to use the training he received at flight schools in the United States to fly a plane into C.I.A. headquarters in Langley, Va., or another federal building.

According to Shenon, since at least the mid-1990's, law enforcement officials have known that some terrorist organizations were considering suicide attacks using commercial jets.

In 1994, French investigators have said, a group of Algerian hijackers seized a Paris-bound Air France flight and planned to crash it into the Eiffel Tower or blow it up over Paris. The plot was foiled when French commandoes stormed the plane.

In 1995, Mr. Murad, the Pakistani pilot tied to Mr. Bin Laden, was captured, and under interrogation by
Philippines intelligence officers working with the F.B.I. and the C.I.A., American law enforcement officials said, he confessed on video to his role in the plot to bomb airliners over the Pacific.

The American officials said he also acknowledged he had planned to fly a plane packed with explosives into the C.I.A. headquarters or another federal building. Details of the plan had been shared with F.B.I. headquarters by the middle of 1996.

Mr. Murad's plot was noted in a September 1999 U.S. intelligence report suggesting that al Qaeda might hijack an airliner with the intention of crashing it into the Pentagon or another government building. The intelligence report,
The Sociology and Psychology of Terrorism: Who Becomes a Terrorist and Why was prepared for the National Intelligence Council by the Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress. It was widely shared within the government and has long been available to the public over the Internet.

(For an exercise in the ambiguities of intelligence analysis, pull up the above
voluminous report on the internet, search it on subjects of airliner hijacking and suicide terrorism -- then evaluate for yourself how compelling these "warnings" might have appeared AT THE TIME. Next, to see how this report looks with the "benefit of hindsight" examine a CBS TV news report from May 17, 2002, '99 Report Warned Of Suicide Hijacking.')


Conclusions of the 585 page
9/11 Commission Report, released July 22, 2004, largely dovetail with previous studies such as the Joint Congressional Report, released July 21, 2003. New is the graphic, extremely readable quality.

The Commission strategy was to produce a report which would be so widely read that enormous public pressure would build on the winner of the November presidential election to consolidate and streamline intelligence gathering and review. Critics have already argued such reorganization to increase bureaucratic and political restrictions on sound intelligence analysis and communication.

The Report proposed a Senate confirmed National Intelligence Director within the office of the President. The leader of a proposed National Counter terrorism Center (NCTC) beneath the intelligence director would have deputy cabinet secretary rank.

Surprisingly the 9/11 Commission Report places almost no emphasis on an understanding of history, culture, and mindset as a foundation for intelligence analysis of leaders of other countries and movements. There is no vigorous exploration of how politics and bureaucracy can undermine intelligence analysis built on an understanding of history and culture.

The 9/11 commission report devotes only eight of its 585 pages to historical and cultural context (page 47 to 55). There is almost no mention of American support for Israel, and is little explicit analysis of Islamic extremism as in part a "reaction" to or "blowback" from growing American power in the Mideast. Absent is any sustained analysis of the cultural and historical interaction between the U.S. and the Islamic world.

Here are some key points:

1) In the months leading up to 9/11 Osama Bin Laden's major priority was to strike INSIDE the US -- not outside. American policy makers understood in general terms that he wanted to attack inside the US but because they had more specific intelligence on his plans outside the US than inside the US, they failed to see that his CENTRAL PLAN was a crippling attack inside the U.S.

Lack of HARD intelligence of an attack inside the U.S. was interpreted as meaning LOW PROBABILITY when it really meant American intelligence had not penetrated Bin Laden's network, was unable to put together the limited evidence and speculation at hand -- and just did not know what was going on.

2) In the months leading up to 9/11 top officials focused mainly on the possibility that OVERSEAS Bin Laden operatives would strike at OVERSEAS American targets. They assumed that any attacks inside the US would be carried out by Bin Laden sleeper cells ALREADY inside the US. Because they were never shown compelling intelligence on ongoing infiltration, upper level officials never focused on what was happening: OVERSEAS operatives were slipping inside the U.S. largely unnoticed. Fragmentation of American domestic intelligence prevented the emergence of HARD evidence which might have gotten the ATTENTION of upper or middle level policy makers.

Policy makers thus did not consistently pushed for intensive, coordinated surveillance of infiltration into the US from outside, which would have required a shakeup of domestic intelligence procedures involving the FBI and the CIA.

3) While intelligence analysts had long speculated on hijackings which used airliners as weapons against government buildings, busy upper and middle levels of US government lacked the imagination, attention span, or "space" to understand the significance of this speculation - especially in light of absence of specific intelligence coordinated and communicated to the top.

Speculation, without hard evidence, is often dismissed, partly because upper level officials, confronted with all kinds of speculation, are reluctant to make it the basis of policy. But once a THREAT is emotionally and politically enshrined as valid, then speculation can become the basis of policy -- as for example the frequent focus on WORST CASE SCENARIOS during the Cold War.


Even before the hijack attacks, the "legacy of Pearl" was a major foundation for Bush Administration proposals to build an antiballistic missile system and ditch the 1972 Treaty on the Limitation of Anti-Ballistic Missile Systems.

(Review Clinton Administration
ABM policy.)

Bush Administration officials clearly understood the danger of surprise, but they focused on sophisticated missile, space and communication technologies, rather than on simpler tactics of disruption open to clever, determined "low tech" adversaries.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had distributed Roberta Wohlstetter's classic 1962 study,
Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decisions. to members of the House Armed Services Committee. One purpose: to gain support to make defense against surprise attack a major aim of American military planning.

The Wohlstetter study, with its classic
forward by Thomas C. Schelling, concludes that because of subjective human factors surprise can occur despite and even because of vast amounts of intelligence data. Its conclusions had a deep impact on some American military planners at the height of the Cold War.

In his work Clausewitzian Friction and Future War defense analyst Barry D. Watts has labeled the inherent difficulty of predicting surprise attack the
"intractability of strategic surprise." (Download .pdf version).

This analysis draws on concepts of "friction and fog of war" derived from the Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz to suggest why attack so frequently comes as a surprise despite advances in information technology.

Wohlstetter's study, influenced by Cold War concern that the Soviets might repeat a "Pearl," has reemerged as a briefing paper for the new century, even after the Soviet Union has gone.

Rumsfeld was only one of those who warned that planners must consider new forms of possible surprise attack, such as those on sophisticated computerized information systems which support transportation, communications, finance, and utilities.


In January 2001, just months before 9/11, Donald Rumsfeld released a report by a commission he chaired dealing with the danger of a future
Space Pearl Harbor. A future surprise attack could target, among other things, American civilian and military communication systems based on satellite technology.

"We found that the US in general, the DOD (Department of Defense) and the intelligence community, in particular, are not very well arranged to meet the national security space needs of the 21st century," said retired admiral David Jeremiah.

Jeremiah took over the chairmanship of the commission from Rumsfeld the previous month when the latter was picked by President-elect George W. Bush as his nominee to head the Pentagon.

He said the country was becoming increasingly vulnerable as it faces growing needs for communication satellites for cell phones, Global Positioning System equipment, spying and ground infrastructure.

The report gave no price tag for new technological systems, but the cost of replacing obsolete military satellites over the next decade is estimated at 50 billion dollars.

It cited several examples of vulnerability to attacks. In 1998, 80 percent of US pagers broke down because of a problem with the Galaxy IV satellite. Early the previous year, the United States lost contact for three hours with several satellites because of computer problems at its ground stations.

"Increasingly, people like (suspected terrorist mastermind) Osama Bin Laden may be able to acquire capabilities on satellites" and will be able to threaten US ground stations, Jeremiah added.

The commission said that while it appreciated "the sensitivity that surrounds the notion of weapons in space for offensive or defensive purposes," it believed the US president should "have an option to deploy weapons in space to deter threats to and, if necessary, defend against attacks on US interests."


President Bush's
choice of Air Force Gen. Richard Myers as new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff had reflected this Administration's emphasis on high technology, space, and cyber war. Gen. Myers, a former head of the Air Force's space programs, had headed a major study of strategy commissioned by Rumsfeld. One of his tasks was to be to balance the new hi-tech concepts of war with more traditional missions.

The Gulf War and NATO operations in Kosovo had reinforced this emphasis on high technology: the lesson that a critical part of future war may be the battle to attack and defend satellite-based systems of command, control, communications, and information (C3I).

Implicit in the planning for such surprise attacks was the question: who is, or is likely to become America's new enemy? How much spending for this is "prudent" -- or will all the talking and spending for military preparations in space create a new, unnecessary arms race?

After September 11 many of these questions seemed academic. The nation would have to place immediate emphasis in the short-term, at least, on preparing for terrorism and biological warfare.


All this seems quite peaceful, a long way from China's massive "human wave" attacks against American soldiers in Korea.

The intelligence failures of Pearl Harbor seemed quickly repeated when the Truman Administration failed to anticipate, deter or detect North Korea's coming
invasion of the South in 1950. (Check the analysis of intelligence failure relating to the North Korean attack in James F. Schnabel, United States Army in the Korean War; Policy and Direction: The First Year, Center of Military History, United States Army.)

The Americans followed up with still another "intelligence failure" when they failed to take seriously early enough China's many open warnings it would directly intervene. (Check Schnabel's
analysis of how Chinese intervention caught the Americans off guard.)

For who would have thought the Chinese would dare to make war on America as U.S. troops confidently swept to the Chinese border after repulsing a North Korean invasion? Americans had the atomic bomb. Surely no Chinese in his "right mind" would dare risk an American nuclear attack!

Then, as with Deng Xiaoping in 1979, China's leaders were determined that "China must stand up."

Chinese like Deng were not in their "right minds." They gambled they could face down American nuclear blackmail to demand China be treated with respect. They issued a carefully escalating series of warnings which American policy makers largely ignored. Whatever the cost, China would
stand up.

Beginning in October 1950, thousands of poorly armed, poorly trained Chinese young men went to their deaths in attacks on the American soldiers marching across North Korea to the Chinese border. The Americans reeled southward. Thousands died on all sides in two years of wintry stalemate.

Nearly three decades later, in January of 1979, Deng Xiaoping and Jimmy Carter consigned the Korean War legacy to history's dustbin by establishing full diplomatic relations.

As they opened the door to peace, the brief but violent "Third Indochina War" was about to erupt.


Thomas C. Schelling, forward to Roberta Wohlstetter, Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision. 1962:

"There is a tendency in our planning to confuse the unfamiliar with the improbable. The contingency we have not considered seriously looks strange; what looks strange is thought improbable; what is improbable need not be considered seriously.....

"Surprise, when it happens to a government, is likely to be a complicated, diffuse, bureaucratic thing. It includes neglect of responsibility, but also responsibility so poorly defined or so ambiguously delegated that action gets lost.....

"It includes gaps in intelligence, but also intelligence that, like strings of pearls too precious to wear, is too sensitive to give to those who need it. It includes the alarm that fails to work, but also the alarm that has gone off so often that it has been disconnected...

"It includes the unalert watchman, but also the one who knows he'll be chewed out by his superior if he gets higher authority out of bed. It includes the contingencies which occur to no one, but also those that everyone assumes somebody else is taking care of...

"It includes straightforward procrastination, but also decisions protracted by internal disagreement. It includes, in addition, the inability of individual beings to rise to the occasion until they are sure it is the occasion -- which is usually too late."



Joseph E. McCammond
Intelligence Analyst, USMC (Retired):

"To start with in collection of information there is always too much data and at the same time too little data. There is too much data both because of our vigorous exertions to obtain data and enemy deception operations. This large amount of extraneous, semi- germane, and deceptive data is called in intelligence lexicon 'noise.'

"Finding the good data is like trying to pick out a whispered conversation in a room where a rock band is playing. Even when good data is gleaned from the ether or by human intelligence, there is another 'potential pitfall': the human factor in analysis.

"If the analyst is on the ball and he or she sends a warning, there is always reticence on the part of the policy makers to heed it. If the alert is accurate and timely and the precautions taken against attack sound, the attack simply may not occur. This is success! After enough of these invisible successes, the hero of this story is going to be told that he is over reacting to the indicators and is seeing threats where none exist.

"Then the policy makers and those in the hierarchy of the intelligence community become desensitized even to credible warnings. This is called the 'Cry Wolf Syndrome.'"


February 27, 1997
Last updated,  March 20, 2010


Copyright ©1997 Frederic A. Moritz
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