USE OF PREEMPTIVE MILITARY FORCE:
THE HISTORICAL RECORD
By Richard F. Grimmett
National Defense Specialist
Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Trade Division
Congressional Research Service
This report reviews the historical record
regarding the uses of U.S.
military force in a "preemptive" manner, an issue
that has emerged from the recently released U.S.
National Security Strategy of the United
States. It examines
and comments on military actions taken by the United
States that could
be reasonably interpreted as "preemptive" in nature,
says Richard F. Grimmett, a specialist in the National Defense
at the Congressional Research Service.
In recent months the question of the possible use
of "preemptive" military force by the United States to defend its security has been raised by President
Bush and members of his administration, including possible use of such
force against Iraq. 1 This analysis reviews the historical record regarding
the uses of U.S. military force in a "preemptive" manner.
It examines and comments on military actions taken by the United States that could be reasonably interpreted as "preemptive"
in nature. For purposes of this analysis we consider a "preemptive"
use of military force to be the taking of military action by the United States against another nation so as to prevent or mitigate
a presumed military attack or use of force by that nation against the
States. The discussion below is based upon our review of all noteworthy uses
of military force by the United States since establishment of the republic.
The historical record indicates that
the United States has never, to date, engaged in a "preemptive"
military attack against another nation. Nor has the United States ever attacked another nation militarily prior to
its first having been attacked or prior to U.S. citizens or interests first having been attacked,
with the singular exception of the Spanish-American War. The Spanish-American
War is unique in that the principal goal of United States military action was to compel Spain to grant Cuba its political independence. An
act of Congress passed just prior to the U.S. declaration of war against
Spain explicitly declared Cuba to be independent of Spain, demanded that
Spain withdraw its military forces from the island, and authorized the
president to use U.S. military force to achieve these ends. 2 Spain rejected these demands,
and an exchange of declarations of war by both countries soon followed. 3 Various
instances of the use of force are discussed below that could, using a
less stringent definition, be argued by some as historic examples of preemption
by the United
States. The final case, the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, represents a threat
situation which some may argue had elements more parallel to those presented
by Iraq today -- but it was resolved without a "preemptive"
military attack by the United States.
The circumstances surrounding the origins
of the Mexican War are somewhat controversial in nature -- but the term
"preemptive" attack by the United States does not apply to this conflict. During, and immediately
following the First World War, the United States, as part of allied military
operations, sent military forces into parts of Russia to protect its interests,
and to render limited aid to anti-Bolshevik forces during the Russian
civil war. In major military actions since the Second World War, the President
has either obtained congressional authorization for use of military force
against other nations, in advance of using it, or has directed military
actions abroad on his own initiative in support of multinational operations
such as those of the United Nations or of mutual security arrangements
like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Examples of these
actions include participation in the Korean War, the 1990-1991 Persian
Gulf War, and the Bosnian and Kosovo operations in the 1990s. Yet in all
of these varied instances of the use of military force by the United States, such military action was a "response,"
after the fact, and was not "preemptive" in nature.
Central American and Caribbean Interventions
This is not to say that the United States has not used its military to intervene in other nations
in support of its foreign policy interests. However, U.S. military interventions, particularly a number of
unilateral uses of force in the Central America and
Caribbean areas throughout the 20th century, were not "preemptive"
in nature. What led the United States to intervene militarily in nations in these areas
was not the view that the individual nations were likely to attack the
United States militarily. Rather, these U.S. military interventions were grounded in the view
that they would support the Monroe Doctrine, which opposed interference
in the Western hemisphere by outside nations. U.S. policy was driven by the belief that if stable governments
existed in Caribbean states and Central America, then it was less likely
that foreign countries would attempt to protect their nationals or their
economic interests through their use of military force against one or
more of these nations.
Consequently, the United States,
in the early part of the 20th century, established through treaties with
the Dominican Republic, in 1907, 4 and with Haiti, in 1915, 5, the right for the United States to collect and disperse
customs income received by these nations, as well as the right to protect
the receiver general of customs and his assistants in the performance
of his duties. This effectively created U.S. protectorates for these countries until these arrangements
were terminated during the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Intermittent domestic insurrections against the national governments in
both countries led the U.S. to utilize American military forces to restore order
in Haiti from 1915-1934 and in the Dominican Republic from 1916-1924. But the purpose of these interventions,
buttressed by the treaties with the United States, was to help maintain or restore political stability,
and thus eliminate the potential for foreign military intervention in
contravention of the principles of the Monroe Doctrine.
Similar concerns about foreign intervention
in a politically unstable Nicaragua led the United States in 1912 to accept the request of its then-President
Adolfo Diaz to intervene militarily to restore political order there.
Through the Bryan-Chamorro treaty with Nicaragua in 1914, the United States obtained the right to protect the Panama Canal, and its proprietary rights to any future canal through
Nicaragua as well as islands leased from Nicaragua for use as military installations. This treaty also granted to the United States the right to take any measure needed to carry out
the treaty's purposes. 6 This
treaty had the effect of making Nicaragua
a quasi-protectorate of the United States.
Since political turmoil in the country might threaten the Panama
Canal or U.S.
proprietary rights to build another canal, the United
States employed that rationale to justify
the intervention and long-term presence of American military forces in
to maintain political stability in the country. U.S.
military forces were permanently withdrawn from Nicaragua
in 1933. Apart from the above cases, U.S. military interventions in the
Dominican Republic in 1965, Grenada in 1983, and in Panama in 1989 were
based upon concerns that U.S. citizens or other U.S. interests were being
harmed by the political instability in these countries at the time U.S.
intervention occurred. While U.S. military interventions in Central America and Caribbean nations
were controversial, after reviewing the context in which they occurred,
it is fair to say that none of them involved the use of "preemptive"
military force by the United States. 7
Although the use of "preemptive" force by the United
States is generally associated with the
overt use of U.S.
military forces, it is important to note that the United
States has also utilized "covert
action" by U.S.
government personnel in efforts to influence political and military outcomes
in other nations. The public record indicates that the United
States has used this form of intervention
to prevent some groups or political figures from gaining or maintaining
political power to the detriment of U.S.
interests and those of friendly nations. For example, the use of "covert
action" was widely reported to have been successfully employed to
effect changes in the governments of Iran
in 1953, and in Guatemala
in 1954. Its use failed in the case of Cuba
in 1961. The general approach in the use of a "covert action"
is reportedly to support local political and military/paramilitary forces
in gaining or maintaining political control in a nation, so that U.S.
or its allies' interests will not be threatened. None
of these activities has reportedly involved significant numbers of U.S. military forces because, by their very nature, "covert
actions" are efforts to advance an outcome without drawing direct
attention to the United States in the process of doing so. 8 Such previous clandestine operations by U.S.
personnel could arguably have constituted efforts at "preemptive"
action to forestall unwanted political or military developments in other
nations. But given their presumptive limited scale compared to those of
major conventional military operations, it seems more appropriate to view
actions" as adjuncts to more extensive U.S.
military actions. As such, prior U.S.
"covert actions" do not appear to be true case examples of the
use of "preemptive" military force by the United
Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962
The one significant, well documented, case of note, where "preemptive"
military action was seriously contemplated by the United States, but ultimately
not used, was the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962 . When the United
States learned from spy-plane photographs that the Soviet Union was secretly
introducing nuclear-capable, intermediate-range ballistic missiles into
Cuba, missiles that could threaten a large portion of the Eastern United
States, President John F. Kennedy had to determine if the prudent course
of action was to use U.S. military air strikes in an effort to destroy
the missile sites before they became operational, and before the Soviets
or the Cubans became aware that the U.S. knew they were being installed.
While the military "preemption" option was considered, after
extensive debate among his advisors on the implications of such an action,
President Kennedy undertook a measured but firm approach to the crisis
that utilized a U.S. military "quarantine" of the island of
Cuba to prevent further shipments from the Soviet Union of military supplies
and material for the missile sites, while a diplomatic solution was aggressively
pursued. This approach was successful, and the crisis
was peacefully resolved. 9
1. See speeches of
President George W. Bush at West Point
on June 1, 2002 at http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2002/06/20020601-3.html;
and the President's United Nations. speech of
Washington Post, June 2, 2002, p. A1; Washington Post, September 13,
2002, p.Al. Return
to the text
2. Joint Resolution
of April 20, 1898
[Res. 241 30 Stat. 738.] Return to the text
3. There was no direct
military attack by Spain against the United States prior to the exchange
of declarations of war by the nations, and initiation
of hostilities by the United States in 1898. See "Declarations of War and Authorizations
for the Use of Military Force: Background and Legal Implications,"
CRS Report RL31133, by David M. Ackerman and Richard F. Grimmett. A notable
event, the sinking of the U.S.S. Maine in Havana harbor, provided an additional argument for war against
Spain for those advocating it in the United States. The actual cause of the sinking of the U.S.S. Maine
in Havana harbor, even today, has not been definitively established.
More recent scholarship argues that it was most likely not due to an external
attack on the ship, such as the use of a mine by an outside party, but
due to an internal explosion. Return to the text
4. 7 UST 196. Return to the text
5. 8 UST 660. Return to the text
6. 10 UST 379. Return to the text
7. For an excellent
background discussion of U.S. policy toward the Caribbean and Central
American nations during the first half of the 20th century see: Samuel
Flagg Bemis, A Diplomatic History of the United States.
New York. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc. 1965, pp. 519-538.
For a detailed historical study that provides valuable insights and commentary
on U.S. actions taken toward Caribbean and Central American countries
see chapters 9, 11, and 12 in Samuel Flagg Bemis, The Latin American
Policy of the United States. New York. Harcourt, Brace & World, 1943. [reprinted in paperback in New York, by W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1967]. Return to the text
8. Section 503(e) of
the National Security Act of 1947, as amended, defines covert action as
"An activity or activities of the United States Government to influence political, economic, or military
conditions abroad, where it is intended that the role of the United States Government will not be apparent or acknowledged publicly."
Return to the text
9. For detailed background
regarding the issues surrounding the possible use of "preemptive"
military force against the Soviet missile sites being established in Cuba,
and the deliberative process engaged in by President Kennedy and his key
advisors, see the published transcripts of tape recordings made during
their White House meetings in The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House
during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Ernest R. May and Philip D. Zelikow
(eds.). Cambridge, Massachusetts. Harvard University Press, 1997. Return to the text
The opinions expressed in this article
are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies
of the U.S. Government.
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