The Great Silence

by Howard Zinn

excerpted from the book

Howard Zinn on History

Seven Stories Press, 2000, paper


As the presidential race for the year 2000 got under way, it became clear that all the candidates, Democrat and Republican, were ignoring those aspects of American policy which had the most consequences for the people of the world-war, militarism, and what the World Bank called a "silent genocide," the deaths by malnutrition and sickness of millions of children.


Every day, as the soggy rhetoric of the presidential candidates accumulates into an enormous pile of solid waste, we gee more and more evidence of the failure of the American political system. The candidates for the job of leader of the most powerful country in the world have nothing important to say. On domestic issues, they offer platitudes about health care and social security and taxes which are meaningless given the record of both political parties. And on foreign policy, utter silence.

That silence is what I want to talk about.

In domestic policy, there are enough slight differences among the candidates to make some liberals and progressives, desperate for hopeful signs, seize upon the most feeble of promises. No candidate, Democrat or Republican, as they propose lame and wobbly steps towards taking care of some fraction of the forty million uninsured, suggests universal, non-profit, government-guaranteed health care. None of them, muttering unintelligibly about one or another tax plan, talk about taxing the wealth and income of the super-rich in such a way as to make several trillion dollars available for housing, health, jobs, education.

But in foreign and military policy, there are not even mutterings about change. All the candidates vie with one another in presenting themselves as supporters of the military, desirous of building our military strength. Here is Mr. Universe, bulging ridiculously with muscles useless for nothing except winning contests and bullying the other kids on the block (it is important to be #1, important to maintain "credibility"), promising to buy more body-building equipment, and asking all of us to pay for it.

How can we, if we have any self-respect, support candidates- Republican or Democrat-who have nothing to say about the fact that the United States, with 4% of the world's population, consumes 25% of its wealth, who have nothing to say about our obligation to the other 96%, many of whom are suffering as a result of American policy?

What is that obligation? First, to follow the principle of the physicians' Hippocratic Oath, "Do No Harm." Instead, we are doing much harm. By depriving the people of Iraq of food, medicine, and vital equipment, we are causing them enormous suffering, under the pretense of "sending a message" to Saddam Hussein. It appears we have no other way to send a message but through killing people. How does this differ, except in scale, from the killings done by terrorists around the world, who also defend their acts by their need to "send a message.

Similarly with the Cuban embargo. We pretend we care about "democracy" in Cuba, we who have supported dictatorship there and all over Latin America for a hundred years. Truth is, we cannot bear the thought that Castro for forty years has defied us, refused the homage-its material form being part of the world capitalist club-to which we are accustomed in this hemisphere. And there are precious votes in Florida, more precious than any possible deprivation for the children of Cuba.

Which candidate, Democrat or Republican, has had the decency to speak out on this? What meaning has the phrase "human rights" if people are denied the necessities of life?

Which of them has said a word about our obscene possession of thousands of nuclear weapons-while Washington goes into hysterics over the possibility that some country in the Middle East may some day have one nuclear bomb? None of them has the courage to say what common sense tells us, and what someone so expert on military issues and so tied to the Establishment as Paul Nitze (an ambassador-at-large in the Reagan administration) has publicly said: "I see no compelling reason why we should not unilaterally get rid of our nuclear weapons....It is the presence of nuclear weapons that threatens our existence."

While the front pages report the latest solemn pronouncements of the candidates, claiming to care about the well-being of Americans, the inside pages report the brutal Russian assault on Chechnya, with not a word from these candidates about the well-being of men, women, and children huddled in the basements of Grozny, awaiting the next wave of bombings.

There have been a few lame expressions of protest from the Clinton administration, but it is careful not to offend the Russian leaders, and so last October, The Toronto Sun reported: "In Moscow, standing next to her beaming Russian hosts, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright proclaimed 'we are opposed to terrorism,' meaning Islamic rebels in the Caucasus fighting Russian rule." We can't forget that Clinton supported the Russian war on Chechnya from 1994 to 1996, going so far (he does get carried away) as to compare Chechnya to the Confederacy of the Civil War, which had to be put down for the sake of the larger nation. Yeltsin as Lincoln-that does seem a bit of a stretch.

Is it possible that the various candidates, all supported by huge corporate wealth (it is expected that three billion dollars will be spent for the elections of the year 2000), do not dare challenge a foreign policy whose chief motivation is not human rights but business profit? Behind the coldness to the people of Chechnya-there is the crass matter of oil in that part of the world.

Last November, Stephen Kinzer of The New York Times reported from Istanbul:

"Four nations in the Caspian Sea region took a giant step today toward embracing one of President Clinton's cherished foreign policy projects, a pipeline that would assure Western control over the potentially vast oil and natural gas reserves...and give the United States greater influence in the region."

The word "cherished" suggests an emotional attachment one cannot find with regard to human rights in the Third World.

Does Clinton equally "cherish" projects designed to eliminate hunger and illness in the world?

The World Health Organization has described the plight of ten million people in the world-dying of AIDS or tuberculosis-as "a silent genocide."

The numbers make it as serious and frightening as Hitler's genocide, which our political leaders regularly deplore, at no cost to them. But no candidate proposes that we stop spending several hundred billions on the military, stop selling arms to countries all over the world, stop the use of land mines, stop training the officers of military dictatorships in the Third World-and use that money to wipe out tuberculosis and try to stem the spread of AIDS.

The candidate Gore, speaking to the UN Security Council a few weeks ago, and required to say something about the epidemic, promised to increase the U.S. commitment to fight AIDS up to $325 million. That is a tinier commitment than that of other industrialized countries, and less than the money spent for one fighter-bomber. That sum should be compared to $1.6 billion dollars proposed by the Clinton administration for Colombia to deal with drugs, but perhaps really to deal with rebellion.

I suppose the problem is that people who are being bombed around the world, or people who are dying as the result of preventable illnesses, do not vote in American elections. If our political system is not sensitive to human suffering in this country where there are no votes to be counted-the homeless, the imprisoned, the very poor- how can we expect it to care a whit about people a thousand miles from our voting booths, however miserable their situation?

Since our political system-bi-partisan in its coldness to human rights-determines that no candidate will talk about such a system cannot be respected. It can only be protested against, challenged, or, in the words of the Declaration of Independence, referring to a/ government that has violated its responsibility to its people, ''altered or abolished." That's a tall order, but it can be prepared for by a multitude of short steps, in which citizens act, outside of the party system, to redress their grievances. Ultimately, the power of government, of big business, is fragile. We have seen this many times in history. When people, moved by indignation, wanting to live in a decent society, act together, a new and irresistible power is created, and democracy comes alive.

Howard Zinn On History

Howard Zinn page

Home Page