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. Commented 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. Commented 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.
    – user15620
    Commented 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".)
    – user18963
    Commented 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
    Commented Feb 5, 2018 at 14:58

6 Answers 6


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 getto 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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    but I'd say Rome started that war, not Carthage Commented Feb 5, 2018 at 22:47
  • Even though the question is already closed, let me correct an issue @T.E.D. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Warsaw_Ghetto_Uprising is different than the en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Warsaw_Uprising. My answer is about the first event. So your comment is correct, but it makes reference to the second event.
    – Santiago
    Commented Feb 6, 2018 at 12:11
  • You may want to correct the getto being a nation. It was a part of a city or a camp.
    – Jos
    Commented Mar 4, 2023 at 2:05
  • It we count refusing an outrageous ultimatum as "starting a war", then Serbia denying 1 out of 10 Austrian demands in 1914 would be an excellent example. I don't think any Serbian was expecting defeating the Austro-Hungarian Empire (with or without Russian help).
    – Evargalo
    Commented Oct 6, 2023 at 10:49
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    "Warsaw ghetto uprising during WWII ... "the getto was not a country, but a nation." No, the ghetto was simply a ghetto.
    – user103496
    Commented Oct 7, 2023 at 4:48

(I'm adding another answer because it's fundamentally different from the other one I've written)

Spain apparently declared war on the US in 1898 knowing that it would lose, but feeling that they had to go to war anyway.

Once the war was raised, the Spanish government believed that it had no other solution than to fight, and lose. They thought that defeat —certain— was preferable to revolution —also certain—. [...] Granting independence to Cuba, without being defeated militarily... it would have implied in Spain, more than likely, a military coup d'état with broad popular support, and the fall of the monarchy; that is, the revolution

That Spain would lose was certain enough that Spanish commanders in Cuba apparently thought the government wanted them to be destroyed as quickly as possible, so the government can make peace.

  • I upvoted this, but I think there's some doubt though on who can be said to have started the war. The US had been agitating for Cuban independence and also sent the USS Maine to Havana.
    – user103496
    Commented Oct 7, 2023 at 5:05
  • @user103496 fair point, but Spain declared war first, so they (arguably) started it.
    – Allure
    Commented Oct 7, 2023 at 8:24
  • Spain declared war first I'm not sure if that's true. I'm having trouble finding the Spain's formal declaration of war, if any exists at all.
    – user103496
    Commented Oct 7, 2023 at 8:31
  • @user103496 britannica.com/summary/Spanish-American-War-Timeline April 24, Spain declares war. The US declared war one day later.
    – Allure
    Commented Oct 7, 2023 at 8:47
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    Spain indeed declared war first on April 23 1898. See history.stackexchange.com/questions/72543
    – user103496
    Commented Oct 8, 2023 at 3:01

The events leading to the Paraguayan War can be interpreted as Paraguay starting a war they could not win.

I'm no expert on this war, but my understanding is that at the time the strongest countries in the region were Brazil and Argentina. Paraguay concluded an alliance with Uruguay, which was another country that was regularly under threat from the two regional hegemons. Intrigue in Uruguay eventually led to Brazilian intervention. One side of the warring Uruguayan factions asked Paraguay for assistance. Paraguay voiced a diplomatic protest to Brazil, which was ignored, so Paraguay attempted to dispatch troops to Uruguay. To do this they needed to cross Argentine territory, and Argentina denied permission. So Paraguay declared war on Argentina, then Brazil. Meanwhile in Uruguay the Brazil-allied faction had won the civil war, and all three powers combined to declare war on Paraguay. The result was a war between a country with 450k people against a combined 11 million people. Paraguay was smashed and a lot of their citizens died.

Although it's obvious that Paraguay cannot win the war, I can't find any sources that stated that Francisco Solano López (Paraguayan president at the time) went to war knowing that he cannot win - but equally, I can't find any sources that state he aimed to win, as well.

  • (1) At the beginning (1864), it was only a war between Paraguay and Brazil. It was only subsequent events that also drew in Argentina and Uruguay. (2) "At the beginning of the war, the military forces of Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay were far smaller than Paraguay's." Brazil "was unprepared to fight a war. Its army was disorganized." // So, altogether I don't think Paraguay's leaders thought that defeat was inevitable from the beginning.
    – user103496
    Commented Oct 7, 2023 at 4:47

Shortest answer:


  • Uncertainty is so important in war that one cannot be sure of defeat either.
  • Even if certainty could be imagined here (it cannot!), it is still hard to imagine how it may apply to a whole country, "both its people and its leadership". Only in a war or/and totalitarian propaganda discourse can a such statement be imagined.
  • Propaganda can only be optimistic. If a such totalitarian unanimity could be achieved, or simply in order for it to be articulated in propaganda, the goal can only be victory, and not defeat.

Elaborating a bit more:

Defeat and victory are relative terms, depending on the goals, which in turn can be multiple and of different degree of probability. Certainty and uncertainty are decisive factors here. One could start a war that as such has no chance of winning but that might trigger further events (further wars, alliances) that they want to achieve.

Also the issue of "who started first" is a relative one too. Weaker countries may start wars because their position is untenable anyway (they suffer too much or are about to be conquered anyway).

Not all wars are total wars, and that of Japan against the US might have succeeded at least as far as reaching some intermediary goals. Unconditional surrender (as one comment says) was not a necessary scenario initially. Japan might have imagined some kind of a settled peace, just as the Nazis hoped for until very late. Japan wasn't sure it will lose the war, their goal was to destroy the US fleet, and that wasn't an impossible task in fact. They wanted their share of colonial empire (the Nazis too in fact, according to Timothy Snyder), and they could have hoped to have that confirmed in the end anyway on China's expense, like the Nazi's initially hoped to get one in Ukraine (if it wasn't for the stubbornness of the Brits and the Soviet peoples themselves). Japan and Germany wanted to be respected, that is be equal to the other colonial powers, and the war between such powers needn't be motivated by certainties. In the aristocratic imaginary of both imperialist Japanese and Nazi Germans war was the state of normality (like for a medieval knight or a samurai), and that didn't require certitude of victory. It entailed in a way the contrary, the certitude of (hopefully glorious) death: but not of defeat.

Arguably Japan is not a good example here, but from a general perspective one may say that many rebellions or wars of liberation against a much stronger power would qualify. Just like one may lose battles and win the war, or lose the war but win the peace, many intermediary cases are possible.

"Knowing" is also a relative term. What can it mean to "know" you will win? It can only mean "hope", thus fighting is never done "knowing" you'll lose no more than it is done knowing you'll win. - And what can it mean that the leadership knows something but not the people, or that both, or none, knows it? (How can we separate between what the Japanese generals knew and what the "people" did? Was "the people" even supposed to know they'll win or lose? And was a such popular knowledge supposed to count in the decision of starting the war? Isn't that just propaganda?) - Ignorance, like hope, is a big part of "knowing" such things.

From the perspective of yet unborn nation states or of otherwise oppressed peoples it is a big victory even to be able to mount an armed action against the masters (like Serbs, Greeks, Bulgarians against the Ottoman, the native Americans against the US, Algerians against the French, Indians against the British, Caucasus peoples against the Russian, other colonized peoples against the colonizers, Poles against the Russians or the Germans).

Starting a war may equate to proclaiming a new state (status, liberty), and for oppressed peoples that is as important as victory.

In the history of my native Wallachian and Moldavian lands, wars against the Turks had the goal sometimes to trigger an intervention from Hungary or Poland, or just press for the change in the conditions of the dependent status, but that doesn't mean they couldn't have at the same time the maximalist goal of removing that dependence. There are also cases were one could argue that these principalities periodically rebelling against the Turks contributed to their "victory" of not being fully occupied and keeping internal autonomy. — But the fact that success of these military actions was very relative, or that they ended mostly in failure (or "half-victories") might also have been a factor why the Ottoman felt that fully integrating them into the empire (like the other European provinces were) wasn't worth the effort.—

War and peace are also a matter of imagination and ethics. Sometimes the Mongols used to send emissaries before attacking, letting the recipient know that refusing Mongol demands equated to a declaration of war. Thus, it was the Hungarian or Polish kings that were made to appear as rejecting peace. But for these kings surrendering to the Mongols without a fight was ethically but also practically unimaginable. That was because they didn't knew who the Mongols were, but also because they didn't knew how to surrender without a fight! (Mongol brutality and cruelty was a political means of propaganda: of making people understand how one can and must surrender without a fight - the equivalent of the present atomic menace). Therefore they chose to fight the Mongol although the chances of beating them were slim (and although historians have concluded that their slim victories counted for little in the outcome of Mongols not occupying all Europe.)

  • "Japan might have imagined some kind of a settled peace..." The great paradox of Japanese strategy is they did comtemplate this, and arguably achieved most of their war goals, but never attempted serious negotiations with the US nor Britain until the war was clearly lost.
    – Schwern
    Commented Oct 7, 2023 at 23:07

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 unwinnable 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.

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    As an American at the time, I don't particularly remember feeling like the venture was certain to fail.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Feb 5, 2018 at 22:59
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    @T.E.D.: As a Canadian at the time, I was appalled by the decision to regard the Afghanistan War as "won" in 2003, when U.S. troops were pulled out for the Iraq War. I vocally stated so at the time to numerous friends and acquaintances. Commented Mar 3, 2023 at 2:08
  • "the notion that Afghanistan was an unwinnable war was widespread insofar as I can recollect." This is false. (Considering that the war was waged by the entirety of NATO, it would be quite incredible if all NATO members--both their peoples and their leaderships--thought that defeat was inevitable from the beginning and yet went ahead anyway.)
    – user103496
    Commented Oct 7, 2023 at 4:53
  • 2001-10-31: "88% of Americans approve of the military action" (Gallup) -- hardly seems possible if most Americans thought that defeat was inevitable
    – user103496
    Commented Oct 7, 2023 at 4:56

To answer about Japan's situation in 1941, you're on false premises.

No, people who decide in Japan -the Emperor, the Prime Minister, most of the Navy and Army- did not consider defeat as sure in the war they were about to start. They considered that it was possible to:

  • Defeat the European forces in Asia-Pacific because they were already involved in the war in Europe, and two of them (France and the Netherlands) were occupied -> And this was correct
  • Defeat the Asiatic Fleet and prevent a fast response from the Americans, this turned into Pearl Harbour and the Philippines attack -> And this indeed worked
  • Capture most of the territories needed to supply Japanese's industry-> And this was correct

But they faced some difficulties they did not anticipated:

  • Weaknesses of their military forces
  • Poor logistics that did not permit to exploit in a timely manner their conquests

And they took poor decisions during the war that ruined their chances to resist:

  • Battle of Midway
  • Attacks of India during U-Go
  • One of the Japanese Prime Ministers (Fumimaro Konoe - Japand went through two Prime Ministers in 1941) definitely did feel that defeat was inevitable.
    – Allure
    Commented Mar 6, 2023 at 3:45
  • @Allure Yes and admiral Yamamoto as well. But they were few. And they were not able to stop the decision of war Commented Mar 6, 2023 at 19:44
  • Another difficulty of Japan in WW2 was the strategic impasse of their own military, with the army wanting to expand into China and possibly against the Soviets, whereas the Navy wanted to expand into the Pacific. If you ever want a definition of "inter service rivalry", look at WW2 Japan.
    – Dohn Joe
    Commented Mar 8, 2023 at 13:11
  • OP's question is, "Was any war started by a country (both of its people and leadership) knowing defeat was inevitable?" Not whether Japan in WW2 was such an example (OP raised that as a possible example but then also cast doubt on it as a possible example).
    – user103496
    Commented Oct 7, 2023 at 5:13
  • OP's redaction of the question is focused on Japan example, so it is important to explain why Japan is/is not an example. Also, this gives a basis to discuss how such a situation could be qualified of 'war started while defeat being inevitable". Because in reality, a country does'nt "know", it is not an entity, but a government, the people of a country does. Commented Oct 7, 2023 at 12:23

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