Strategic Surprise


Professor Uri Bar-Joseph

International MA in Security and Diplomacy

Tel Aviv University

Tel: 054-4714116



Strategic Surprise (Graduate seminar)


For more than 70 years now, strategic surprise attacks have constituted the most common and effective means to achieve military goals at the cheapest cost. Many of the wars that took place during this period started with a surprise attack and, in most cases, the defending sides were caught unprepared.

The main theoretical thesis in the field is that the defender’s failure to get prepared is not the product of insufficient information about the looming threat but of mistaken comprehension of the available information. Some of the causes for this blunder, such as concealment, deception, or compartmentalization, are more unique to the strategic interaction between the initiator of surprise attack and its victim. Others, such as small group dynamics and the tendency towards cognitive biases, are well-known sources of judgmental errors in all fields and in everyday life.

This course will use four case studies of warning failures in order to shed light about the causes of warning failures: The German sudden attack of the USSR in June 1941 (“Barbarossa”); the December 1941 Japanese attack on the American naval base at Pearl Harbor; The November 1950 Chinese attack of the UN Forces under General MacArthur in the Korean War; and the 1973Arab attack of Israel on Yom Kippur.

The first part of the course will review the main elements of intelligence work (“the intelligence cycle”). In its second and main part, we will review the four cases of warning failures, and in the last part we will discuss the main theoretical conclusions from these cases.


Grading: exam: 40%; class active participation: 20%.


Required Text: Uri Bar-Joseph and Rose McDermott, Intelligence Success and Failure: The Human Factor (NY: Oxford UP, 2017).

Reading list



I. The intelligence cycle: The way intelligence organizations work


Required Reading


Loch K. Johnson, National Security Intelligence (Malden MA: Polity, 2017), 1-81.



Recommended Reading


Uri Bar-Joseph and Rose McDermott, Intelligence Success and Failure: The Human Factor, 1-26.


Michael Herman, Intelligence Power in War and Peace (New York: Cambridge UP, 1996), 9-133.


Richard K. Betts, Enemies of Intelligence: Knowledge and Power in American National Security (New York: Columbia UP, 2007), 1-52.


Robert Jervis, Why Intelligence Fails: Lessons from the Iranian Revolution and the Iraq War (Ithaca: Cornell UP: 2010).



II. The Attacks





Required Reading


Uri Bar-Joseph and Rose McDermott, Intelligence Success and Failure: The Human Factor, 53-97.


David E. Murphy, What Stalin Knew: The Enigma of Barbarossa (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005), 1-231.


Recommended Reading


Barton Whaley, Codeword Barbarossa (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1973).


Pearl Harbor


Required Reading

Gordon W. Prange, with Donald M. Goldstein and Katherine V. Dillon, Pearl Harbor: The Verdict of History (New York: Penguin, 1991).


Roberta Wohlstetter, Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1962), 1-4; 382-401.


David Kahn, "The Intelligence Failure of Pearl Harbor." Foreign Affairs, 70, No.5 (Winter 1991-1992): 138-152.


David Sherman, “William Friedman and Pearl Harbor,” Forthcoming: Intelligence and National Security.


Recommended Reading

Edwin T. Layton, “And I was There”: Pearl Harbor and Midway – Breaking the

Secrets (New York: Morrow, 1985), 9-352.



The Korean War

Uri Bar-Joseph and Rose McDermott, Intelligence Success and Failure: The Human Factor, 123-183.


The War of Yom Kippur


Required Reading


Uri Bar-Joseph, The Watchman Fell Asleep: The Surprise of Yom Kippur and Its Sources (Albany: SUNY Press, 2005).


Uri Bar-Joseph and Arie W. Kruglanski, “Intelligence Failure and the Need for Cognitive Closure: On the Psychology of the Yom Kippur Surprise,” Political Psychology, Vol. 24, No.1, (March 2003), pp.75-99.








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