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First Strike

First Strike: America, Terrorism, and Moral Tradition

Copyright Date: 2010
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 224
  • Book Info
    First Strike
    Book Description:

    Can the use of force first against a less-than-imminent threat be both morally acceptable and consistent with American values? In this timely book Mark Totten offers the first in-depth, historical examination of the use of preemptive and preventive force through the lens of the just war tradition.

    Although critical of the American incursion into Iraq as a so-called "preemptive war," Totten argues that the new terrorist threat nonetheless demands careful consideration of when the first use of force is legitimate. The moral tradition, he concludes, provides a principled way forward that reconciles American values and the demands of security.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-16864-8
    Subjects: History, Political Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-v)
    (pp. vi-vi)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-8)

    In stanley kubrick’s black comedy from 1964,Dr.Strangelove, a deranged General Jack Ripper, commander of the Burpleson Air Force Base, orders a wing of B-52s to drop nuclear bombs on targets across the Soviet Union. The order comes as “Plan R,” allowing a commanding officer to order nuclear retaliation in case of surprise attack that disrupts the normal chain of command. However, no such attack had occurred. With the planes racing toward their targets and unable to turn back without a three-letter code only General Ripper knows, President Merkin Muffley and his inner circle meet in the Pentagon’s War...


    • 1 The Turn Toward Prevention
      (pp. 11-34)

      America’s announced willingness to strike the first blow against emerging threats marked a decisive shift in the nation’s plan for protecting itself. One bold announcement at a West Point graduation ceremony cast off a consensus on the rule for striking first that nearly all nations, including the United States, had recognized since World War II. This rule limits the first use of force to cases of self-defense against animminentthreat: a coming attack so near in space and time that to prohibit a state from striking first would require it to take the first, and perhaps fatal, blow. To...

    • 2 “Against Our Traditions”?
      (pp. 35-73)

      The united states and the vast majority of nations have long claimed a right to use preemptive force against an imminent threat. Despite the unbending language of the UN Charter, this allowance is hardly surprising. No state would recognize a rule that damned it to take the first, perhaps fatal, blow. America’s sweeping claim to a right to use force against less-than-imminent threats, however, was a step on untrodden ground. Or at least terrain untouched in recent times—a closer look, and American foot-prints are faintly visible. Certainly since World War II and before 9/11 the United States never publicly...

    • 3 Just War at Home in America
      (pp. 74-96)

      The moral qualms americans felt about striking first—against Japan on the eve of Pearl Harbor, against the Soviet Union following the war, and against Cuba in 1962—reflected a shared intuition that, expedience aside, something about the national character placed the use of force under certain constraints. Most important, this intuition expressed the conviction that war should be a last resort. A preventive war at any of these moments, Americans and their leaders came to believe, would have crossed this moral line. It would have been un-American.

      This conclusion reflected a long history of experience with the exercise of...


    • 4 Early Modern Rivals
      (pp. 99-111)

      The threat of global terrorism is new, but moral reflection on the question of striking first is not. Beginning in the sixteenth century a distinct conversation on the use of anticipatory force emerged within the just war tradition. Although recognizing its perils, the moral tradition came to accept a limited right to strike first.

      In the last chapter I explored how the just war tradition has a certain hold on Americans: it is a fitting account of the legitimacy and limits of war for a nation dedicated to the proposition that all are created equal. That is not to say...

    • 5 Anticipation in a State of Nature
      (pp. 112-128)

      The rivalry between the two traditions continued into the seventeenth century in the writings of Hugo Grotius and Thomas Hobbes. Both likened states to individuals living outside the bounds of civil government, in what Hobbes would call a “state of nature.” Starting with the crude test Vitoria offered, Grotius crafted a nuanced, multifactor standard for when a state can strike first. At the same time, he grounded his understanding of force and its limits on a moral theory that only shakily supported the account of justice that the moral tradition had always required. The lines between the two traditions were...

    • 6 Evolution and Eclipse
      (pp. 129-146)

      From the publication ofleviathanin 1651 through the early twentieth century the story of the moral tradition is a narrative of both evolution and eclipse. Proponents of the tradition added further nuance to the standard for striking first. Hobbes remained an intellectual pariah that nearly every respectable philosopher felt compelled to denounce, but his notion of an international state of nature dominated by the singular right of self-preservation became an attractive account of the emerging order after Westphalia. Within this order, the dominant idea was that of a balance of power between the states of western Europe. While this...


    • 7 Behind Webster’s Rule
      (pp. 149-160)

      Despite the waxing of a hobbesian worldview, the eclipse of the moral tradition was never total. As we saw earlier, the tradition was on the rise throughout the twentieth century in America—an ascent so remarkable one can fairly conclude the moral tradition today provides the grammar for how most Americans talk about war. After World War II and with the efforts to regulate the recourse to force, Webster’s Rule took on a new role as a broad limit on the use of anticipatory force. This rule grants singular importance to the presence of an imminent threat. In Webster’s words:...

    • 8 Beyond Webster’s Rule
      (pp. 161-183)

      In chapter 1 I concluded that the new threat of global terrorism does not require merely a refocusing of energies; it demands a rethinking of the rules. Against an enemy that lacks a sense of measured risk, seeks to effect maximum devastation, has or may soon have the means to do so, and easily evades detection, an unyielding commitment to Webster’s Rule may bind us to take the first and perhaps fatal blow. At the same time, we must ensure revision does not violate America’s moral identity—that what we are willing to do in the name of security does...

  8. Conclusion
    (pp. 184-186)

    In the wake of september 11, preventive force—“preemption” in popular discourse—came to symbolize America’s quest for security in an insecure world. The terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., inaugurated a shift toward strategies of prevention at every level, and preventive force became the public face of this transformation. In the day-to-day fight against terrorism preventive force should be a tool rarely used, an option of last resort. By and large, success in this fight will depend on increased intelligence capacity, refined international coordination, tough diplomacy, the normal tools of law enforcement, interruption of the financial streams...

  9. NOTES
    (pp. 187-216)
  10. INDEX
    (pp. 217-218)