Is there a precedent for a country attacking another due to unverified information and finding out later they were wrong? And what was the international response?

Narrowing scope: An event that was misunderstood by the attacking side that they later admitted was wrong (specifically of their own accord), but not as part of the post-war surrender process. (i.e. the US striking Syria without declaring war because of, yet unverified, reports of the government using chemical weapons on its own citizens)

Fictional example:

Country A believes Country B's leader insulted theirs, country A launches missiles/drops bombs/invades territory, short time later Country A realizes that the insult hadn't happened, withdraws and apologizes.

From comments:

Like the Ems Dispatch incident where a bad translation heightened tensions between France and Germany and may have been a factor in the Franco-Prussian war.

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    You might want to focus the question. Asking for hypothetical responses will probably be considered too broad. Or as opinion based. 'precedent for countries attacking another due to unverified information' might be a better thing to focus on. Apr 19, 2018 at 16:49
  • Agreed, I will rework it.
    – user_42
    Apr 19, 2018 at 17:18
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    @CGCampbell If nothing is found, I assume the answer to there being a precedent would be "no" in that case. Hopefully someone can find an example.
    – user_42
    Apr 19, 2018 at 19:23
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    @CGCampbell but new German scientist have repudiated the others, and the state has made apologies. Similarly western hemisphere countries have said some kind things to the decedents of indigenous people who faired poorly under previous policies, and revolutions have blamed deposed rulers for bad things, but I'm not sure that it is in the spirit of the question to count changes in government.
    – user9389
    Apr 19, 2018 at 19:47
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    @CGCampbell That was never the reason for WWII. The horrible thing is that Nazi Germany would have likely got away with killing all Jews, homosexuals, criminals and political/religious opponents if they wouldn't started the war. The thought of lesser beings was widespread and very alive at the time and there was much help from non-Germans in persecuting others. So no, it was starting the war which convinced others that Nazi Germany is a threat. Apr 20, 2018 at 19:43

4 Answers 4


Certainly new Governments have done that. most notably Germany, which is still trying to deal with its guilt for world war 2 and the holocaust.

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    @user4012 Sure they did - all those Untermenchen occupied this Earth that was rightfully German/Aryan, it called for liberation! Jokes aside, they did have a casus belli for attacking Poland - some kind of a border incident, which, IIRC, was later proven to be a Nazi false flag operation. Modern Germany, AFAIK, never denied that - so the poster's point stands. Apr 20, 2018 at 7:20
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    @DanilaSmirnov Not according to the German supreme court, which declared that modern Germany is not a new state, but is indeed identical to the German Reich. Germany has changed since 1945, but it is still Germany, so I think it counts as example answering this question.
    – tim
    Apr 20, 2018 at 7:53
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    @DanilaSmirnov I think you are referring to the Gleiwitz incident which is the best known false flag attack that preludes ww2. Although there were other similar false flag operations. Hitlers well known speech that declared the start of the invasion of Poland famously said "Since 5:45 we are shooting back", so they did in fact claim that Poland attacked first. Something which pretty much everyone in Germany now knows isn't true. Apr 20, 2018 at 8:30
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    Thanks for the answer. The scope does need to be narrowed. I am looking more for the attacking side admitting they misunderstood an event and were in the wrong of their own accord rather than because of losing a war.
    – user_42
    Apr 20, 2018 at 14:57
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    @user_42, are you suggesting that Germany only feels guilty for instigating WWII because Germany lost? That would indicate regret rather than guilt. I think majority of the Germans genuinely feel guilty about the fact that their country did what it did because of the fact that Germany did it -- not because it worked out badly for Germany.
    – grovkin
    Apr 20, 2018 at 21:57

The UK invaded Iraq along side the US, but later investigations (by Sir John Chilcot) found that the evidence used was either bogus or vastly over-stated. In particular, evidence given to the UN about weapons of mass destruction and to the British Parliament (the so-called "dodgy dossier") are now widely accepted to have been a false pretence.

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    The question here is whether the government admitted the mistake, which they didn't.
    – ugoren
    May 2, 2018 at 18:31
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    The government set up the enquiry and accepted its findings.
    – user
    May 2, 2018 at 22:26
  • @ugiren: governments don't tend to trumpet their mistakes loudly; an unofficial admission and acceptance through the process of an official inquiry seems valid enough to me. May 2, 2018 at 23:27

The Gulf of Tonkin incident, if you consider the US statements official enough to count as an admission/apology, and if you count the intensification of the war as a "new" attack.

It is not a completely clear-cut example because parts of the US government might have been aware that there was no attack by North Vietnamese torpedo boats.

  • This is a good answer, albeit unfortunate that realizing it was a mistake did not stop further attacks and that it wasn't officially admitted until much later. It is not a good precedent, but it is what I asked for. I will wait a while and see if any others are found before I accept.
    – user_42
    Apr 21, 2018 at 14:02
  • I chose this answer over the more highly voted question as I believe it better answered the question I was trying to ask.
    – user_42
    Apr 24, 2018 at 21:13

In reaction after 1998, August 7 bombings of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the USA under Bill Clinton launched Operation Infinite Reach against Al-Qaeda sites in Afghanistan and Sudan.

One of the targets, Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory near Khartoum, Sudan, was thought to produce chemical weapons and to have links with Al-Qaeda and Usama Bin Laden. However,

American officials have acknowledged over the years that the evidence that prompted President Clinton to order the missile strike on the Shifa plant was not as solid as first portrayed. Indeed, officials later said that there was no proof that the plant had been manufacturing or storing nerve gas, as initially suspected by the Americans, or had been linked to Osama bin Laden, who was a resident of Khartoum in the 1980s."

(The New York Times, 2005)

While US officials admit a misjudgement, "Washington still has not ruled out the possibility that El Shifa did, in fact, have some link to chemical weapons production." (same source), which explains they refuse to apologize to Sudan.

Note that this military strike was not accompanied by a war declaration on Sudan, but it was clearly an attack.

  • The Casus Beli here is the embassy bombings, which were real.
    – ugoren
    May 2, 2018 at 18:30
  • That's a question of definition. The bombings were the (very real) casus belli for USA's war with Al-Qaeda. The supposed links with Al-Qaeda were the (dubious) casus belli for US strikes against Sudan.
    – Evargalo
    May 2, 2018 at 18:54

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