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A pretext is an excuse to do something or say something. Pretexts may be based on a half-truth or developed in the context of a misleading fabrication. Pretexts have been used to conceal the true purpose or rationale behind actions and words.


Marble Boat on Kunming Lake near Beijing.

As one example of pretext, in 1880s, the Chinese government raised money on the pretext of modernizing the Chinese navy. Instead, these funds were diverted to repair a ship-shaped, two-story pavilion which had been originally constructed for the mother of Emperor Qianlong. This pretext and the Marble Barge are famously linked with the dowager Empress Cixi. This architectural folly, known today as the Marble Boat (Shifang), is "moored" on Lake Kunming in what the empress re-named the "Garden for Cultivating Harmony" (Yiheyuan).[1]

Another example of pretext was demonstrated in the speeches of the Roman Orator, Cato the Elder (234‑149 B.C.) For Cato, every public speech became a pretext for a comment about Carthage. The Roman statesman had come to believe that the prosperity of ancient Carthage represented an eventual and inevitable danger to Rome. In the Senate, Cato famously ended every speech with by proclaiming his opinion that Carthage had to be destroyed (Carthago delenda est). This oft-repeated phrase was the ultimate conclusion of all logical argument in every oration, regardless of the subject of the speech. This pattern persisted until his death in 149, which was the year in which the Third Punic War began. In other words, any subject became a pretext for reminding his fellow senators of the dangers Carthage represented.[2]

Modern warfare

A pretext is commonly used in politics to convince a population that a military action is necessary for the safety and security of the population, or a tax increase is required during economic hard times. The factual content of the pretext varies drastically. Here are some historic examples of the political use of the pretext:

  • Some have argued that United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt used the attack on Pearl Harbor by Japanese forces on December 7, 1941 as a pretext to enter World War II.[3] American soldiers and supplies had been assisting British and Soviet operations for almost a year by this point, and the United States had thus "chosen a side", but due to the political climate in the States at the time and some campaign promises made by Roosevelt that he would not send American boys to fight in foreign wars. Roosevelt could not declare war for fear of public backlash. The attack on Pearl Harbor united the American people's resolve against the Axis powers and created the bellicose atmosphere in which to declare war.

Historical conflicts


Temple bell at Hōkō-ji.


Inscription on bell at Hokoji in Kyoto

The early years of Japan's Tokugawa shogunate were unsettled, with warring factions battling for power. The causes for the fighting were in part pretextural, but the outcome brought diminished armed conflicts after the Siege of Osaka in 1614-1615.

"[T]he tablet over the Daibutsu-den and the bell bore the inscription "Kokka ankō" (meaning "the country and the house, peace and tranquility"), and at this Tokugawa Ieyasu affect to take umbrage, alleging that it was intended as a curse on him for the character 安 (an, "peace") was placed between the two characters composing his own name 家康 ("ka-kō", "house tranquility") [suggesting subtly perhaps that peace could only be attained by Ieyasu's dismemberment?] ... This incident of the inscription was, of course, a mere pretext, but Ieyasu realized that he could not enjoy the power he had usurped as long as Hideyori lived, and consequently, although the latter more than once dispatched his kerei Katagiri Kastumoto to Sunpu Castle with profuse apologies, Ieyasu refused to be placated."[7]
  • October 18, 1614 (Keichō 19, 25th day of the 10th month): A strong earthquake shook Kyoto.[6]
  • 1615 (Keichō 20): Osaka Summer Battle begins.

The next two-and-a-half centuries of Japanese history were comparatively peaceful under the suceessors of Tokugawa Ieyasu and the bakufu government he established.

Social Engineering

A type of social engineering called pretexting uses a pretext to fraudulently elicit information from a target. The pretext in this case includes research into the identity of a certain authorized person or personality type in order to establish legitimacy in the mind of the target[8].

See also


  1. Min, Anchee. (2007). The Last Empress, pp. 155-156;
  2. Hooper, William Davis et al. (1934). "Introduction," in Cato's De Agricultura (online version of Loeb edition).
  3. Bernstein, Richard. "On Dec. 7, Did We Know We Knew?" New York Times. December 15, 1999.
  4. Borger, Julian. (2006). "Book says CIA tried to provoke Saddam to war," The Guardian (London). 7 September 2006.
  5. Kaplan, Fred. "Wartime Lies?" New York Times. July 25, 2004
  6. 6.0 6.1 Titsingh, p. 410.
  7. Ponsonby-Fane, Richard. (1956). Kyoto, the Old Capital of Japan, p. 292; Titsingh, p. 410.
  8. Federal Trade Commission (FTC): "Pretexting: Your Personal Information Revealed." February 2006.


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