Most Japanese people today wonder why Japan started a war against USA because it seems to them that it had no chance of winning. Susumu Nishibe, who died suddenly last month, often said in his TV program that at that time there was an atmosphere where everyone felt a war with America was unavoidable and that they had to fight anyway despite the fact that they didn't believe they could win. To support his argument, he cited diaries of writers and critics of that time.

I'm not sure whether he is right. But if he is right, surely there had been that kind of war before that, a war which a country began when its people was aware of its inevitable defeat.

I edited the title to clarify the question.

If I understand Nishibe's words correctly then he meant that the Japanese leadership was forced to start the war by the public opinion under the influence of jingoistic mass media. If he is right, it means Japan launched the war against USA when both Japanese people and its leadership knew they could not win.This goes against the conventional view that (as mickeyf says in his comment) Japan went to war in the hope that it could bring the war to a ceasefire during a six-month period in which America was still not ready for a counterattack. It's difficult to believe. That's why I'm curious to know if there was a similar case in the world's history.

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    I presume you mean the attacker, rather than either belligerent? I'm assuming so, because if not, pick any war that pitted a great power against a minor nation. Feb 5, 2018 at 13:52
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    For starters: Confederate States of America 1861; That the war took 4 long years is a testament to the incompetence of (most of) the Union command for the first 2.5 years, yet the Union won anyways. First French Empire 1815 (Napoleon's return from Elba) - France no longer had the manpower to stand against a united Europe. U.S.A. in Vietnam starting 1965 - just look at McNamara's private correspondence to Johnson. Feb 5, 2018 at 14:22
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    That's hindsight, though. The CSA itself expected to win. In many of these cases the weaker side tells itself that the stronger side doesn't have the stomach for war. Feb 5, 2018 at 14:24
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    My reading is that many in the Japanese leadership and military thought that the USA did not have the stomach for a long war, and that an advantageous compromise peace would be reached, not that unconditional surrender would be required. The majority of previous wars had ended that way. Some who had personal experience with the USA (Yamamoto, ironically) thought otherwise. I cannot imagine any country starting a war in which the leadership did not see some net advantage. (Even in the fictitious story "The mouse that roared".) Feb 5, 2018 at 14:54
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    @PieterGeerkens The Thirteen colonies were weaker that Britain. The South waged war in order to get independance and they far more skilled officers than the North at the begenning of the war. They didn't wished to invade and annex the North, only to repel them. This wargoal need far less military capabilities than a war of conquest. Who who have bet on North Vietnam ?
    – xrorox
    Feb 5, 2018 at 14:58

2 Answers 2


My memory might serve me wrong, but I seem to recollect quite a few pundits pointing out that nobody in recent memory had ever won a war in Afghanistan when G. W. Bush wanted to go there.

This impression certainly wasn't universal then - and indeed there were quite a few hawks. But the notion that Afghanistan was an unwindable war was widespread insofar as I can recollect. And sure enough, here we are more than a dozen years later and it still isn't a won war, as feared by many in and out of the US when the US went there.

  • As an American at the time, I don't particularly remember feeling like the venture was certain to fail.
    – T.E.D.
    Feb 5, 2018 at 22:59

I'd say that the Third Punic war might fulfill the requirement. Even though the beginning of the war might be hard to define, Roman demand to people of Carthage to leave the city and go inland to live, in order to burn the city, almost forced Carthage to accept war instead of the relocation. Even though they did not have weapons neither military training. So defeat was almost for sure.

Another potential candidate is the Warsaw ghetto uprising during WWII. In this case the difference is that the guetto was not a country, but a nation. But the other requirements of the OP are filled, because people in the ghetto knew they could not win against germans. But it was the inevitable defeat or the extermination camp.


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