Latin praetextus, from praetexere to assign as a pretext, screen, extend in front, from prae- + texere to weave
- a purpose or motive alleged or an appearance assumed in order to cloak the real intention or state of affairs
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.
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 renamed the "Garden for Cultivating Harmony" (Yiheyuan).
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.
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. 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.