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Posted on Mar 19, 2007 in Books and Movies, Front Page Features

Preemptive Strike – Book Review

By Rick Baillergeon

pe1.jpgBook Review: Preemptive Strike: The Secret Plan that Would Have Prevented the Attack on Pearl Harbor, Alan Armstrong, The Lyons Press, 2006

Could the attack on Pearl Harbor have been stopped? Could the thousands of lost American lives in the horrific fighting in the Pacific been prevented? According to Alan Armstrong, the answer to both questions is a resounding yes. In Armstrong’s Preemptive Strike, he presents his case that an aerial attack in the months preceding Pearl Harbor would have ensured the above events never occurred. In fact, Armstrong goes one step further by providing significant detail that the attack was well into the planning and preparation phases and simply waited Roosevelt’s execution order. It is truly one of those classic “what if” books that spark great interest and debate.


Armstrong, an aviation lawyer first became interested in this subject while writing an article on Claire Chennault and the Flying Tigers (American Volunteer Group). During his research, he came across extensive material related to the planning and preparation of bombing raids on Japan to be conducted in the late summer and fall of 1941. These documents sparked Armstrong’s interest and an article on Chennault expanded into a book focused on preemptive strikes on Japan.

In providing an overview of the book, perhaps, the best place to begin is to list a series of questions Armstrong tells his readers in his preface that Preemptive Strike will answer. These questions are:

  • How did the American government become involved in the formation of a mercenary air force in China?
  • How did Chennault develop his plan to mount bombing raids on Japanese interests, using American planes and airmen–ostensibly as agents of the government of China?
  • What were the legal and political impediments to the implementation of Chennault’s plan?
  • Who supported the plan, and who opposed it?
  • How much did the Japanese know about American ambitions to bomb Japan before the attack on Pearl Harbor?
  • How did the formation of the American Volunteer Group, training in Burma for combat in China, and the American initiative to bomb Japan from bases in southeastern China and the Philippines ultimately prompt the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor?
  • What lessons can America learn from her failure to mount preemptive bombing raids before the attack on Pearl Harbor?
  • How has American foreign policy changed in the decades following the attack on Pearl Harbor?

In regards to responding to these questions, Armstrong does a very credible job in most instances. He is especially effective in several areas. First, the author presents extensive treatment on the life and intriguing career of Claire Chennault. In a concise number of pages, he is able to provide readers with a solid background on the man who was the central figure in the planning and preparation phases of the potential bombing raid on Japan. This background enables readers to better understand the relationships Chennault cultivated with the other key players involved, especially Chaing Kai Shek and his wife and his ability to promote his ideas through political channels.

Second, and related to Chennault is Armstrong’s discussion on the formation of the Flying Tigers. Armstrong again is able to present readers with a succinct history on an organization that is often ignored in discussions of World War II. Hidden in the China-Burma-India (C-B-I) Theater, the Flying Tigers executed one of the toughest missions during the War and were virtually ignored. Armstrong aptly describes their fascinating creation, their psychological impact on the Japanese, and their potential role in the bombing of Japan. As with his discussion on Chennault it is truly a book within a book.

Finally, Armstrong is able to deftly articulate the diplomatic dealings that were such a part of the planning and preparation of the potential operation. The author utilizes numerous documents (many previously unpublished which he references in his appendix section) and solid organizational skills to detail these events. I believe readers will find the myriad of back door agreements and under the table deals very interesting.

Undoubtedly, these interactions would provide all the nations involved with valuable experience that was used throughout the rest of World War II.

My only issue with Preemptive Strike is that in my opinion Armstrong is weak in providing readers with analysis and insight on the final two questions listed above. For review these were:

  • What lessons can America learn from her failure to mount preemptive bombing raids before the attack on Pearl Harbor?
  • How has American foreign policy changed in the decades following the attack on Pearl Harbor?

Armstrong leaves this discussion for a few brief paragraphs in his conclusion and consequently, does not do the subjects justice. Based on this minor treatment, I believe Armstrong would have been better off not highlighting these questions in the preface. Certainly, these are relevant questions, but perhaps not within the scope of this particular volume.

Alan Armstrong’s Preemptive Strike serves several key functions. First, for many it will be their initial exposure to Chennault and the American Volunteer Group who served in relative obscurity in the China-Burma-India Theater. I feel Armstrong’s portrayal of these subjects will perk reader’s interests into pursuing additional reading on each. Second, this volume will prove to be a real eye opener for many readers who were unaware of these potential bombing raids on Japan. For many, their knowledge of our strategy against Japan begins after Pearl Harbor as reactive measures. Finally, as in any good book of this genre, Preemptive Strike simply makes you think. After completing Armstrong’s book, readers will without a doubt ponder the question, “what if?”

In summary, Armstrong has weaved his treatment of Chennault and Flying Tigers with the “what if” aspects of a preemptive bombing raid on Japan to write a book sure to appeal to many World War II enthusiasts. As the author so aptly states, “The facts revealed in America’s planning for bombing raids on Japan before the attack on Pearl Harbor are bizarre. Few Hollywood screenwriters employing all their imagination and talents could have created such an intriguing story.” Fortunately for us, Armstrong has told this intriguing story.


  1. I have read this book and felt it was great. Yes it is a what if we struck first would have change history as we know it. It is factual that in the works the US thought about striking first. Would love to see this as a movie. It would be a great thriller.

  2. Bomber raids without escorts? The US just had a limited number of bombers with no long range fighters.

    Therefore, I can’t believe that any strikes on Japan in 1941 would be anything but a disastrous bloodbath for those unfortunate enough to have to carry them out.