excerpted from

The Ultimate Power

from the book

Declarations of Independence

by Howard Zinn

publisher - HarperCollins


As the twentieth century draws to a close, a century packed with history, what leaps out from that history is its utter unpredictability. Who could have predicted, not just the Russian Revolution, but Stalin's deformation of it, then Khrushchev's astounding exposure of Stalin, and in recent years Gorbachev's succession of surprises?

Or that in Germany, the conditions after World War I that might have brought socialist revolution-an advanced industrial society, with an educated organized proletariat, and devastating economic crisis- would lead instead to fascism? And who would have guessed that an utterly defeated Germany would rise from its ashes to become the most prosperous country in Europe?

Who foresaw the shape of the post-World War II world: the Chinese Communist revolution, and its various turns-the break with the Soviet Union, the tumultuous cultural revolution, and then post-Mao China making overtures to the West, adopting capitalist enterprise, perplexing everyone?

No one foresaw the disintegration of the old Western empires happening so quickly after the war, in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, or the odd array of societies that would be created in the newly independent nations, from the benign socialism of Nyerere's Tanzania to the madness of Idi Amin's Uganda.

Spain became an astonishment. A million had died in the Spanish Civil War and Franco's fascism lasted forty years, but when Franco died, Spain was transformed into a parliamentary democracy, without bloodshed. In other places too, deeply entrenched regimes seemed to suddenly disintegrate-in Portugal, Argentina, the Philippines, and Iran.

The end of the war left the United States and the Soviet Union as superpowers, armed with frightening nuclear arsenals. And yet these superpowers have been unable to control events, even in those parts of the world considered to be their spheres of influence. The United States could not win wars in Vietnam or Korea or stop revolutions in Cuba or Nicaragua. The Soviet Union was forced to retreat from Afghanistan and could not crush the Solidarity movement in Poland.

The most unpredictable events of all were those that took place in 1989 in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, where mass movements for liberty and democracy, using the tactic of nonviolent mass action, toppled long-lasting Communist bureaucracies in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Rumania, Bulgaria, and East Germany.


Uncertain Ends, Unacceptable Means

To confront the fact of unpredictability leads to two important conclusions:

The first is that the struggle for justice should never be abandoned on the ground that it is hopeless, because of the apparent overwhelming power of those in the world who have the guns and the money and who seem invincible in their determination to hold on to their power. That apparent power has, again and again, proved vulnerable to human qualities less measurable than bombs and dollars: moral fervor, determination, unity, organization, sacrifice, wit, ingenuity, courage, and patience-whether by blacks in Alabama and South Africa; peasants in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Vietnam; or workers and intellectuals in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. No cold calculation of the balance of power should deter people who are persuaded that their cause is just.

The second is that in the face of the obvious unpredictability of social phenomena all of history's excuses for war and preparation for war- self-defense, national security, freedom, justice, and stopping aggression-can no longer be accepted. Massive violence, whether in war or internal upheaval, cannot be justified by any end, however noble, because no outcome is sure. Any humane and reasonable person must conclude that if the ends, however desirable, are uncertain, and the means are horrible and certain, those means must not be employed.

We have had too many experiences with the use of massive violence for presumably good reasons to willingly continue accepting such reasons. In this century there were 10 million dead in World War I, the war "to end all wars"; 40 to 50 million dead in World War II to "stop aggression" and "defeat fascism"; 2 million dead in Korea and another 1 to 2 million dead in Vietnam, to "stop communism"; 1 million dead in the Iran-Iraq war, for "honor" and other indefinable motives. Perhaps a million dead in Afghanistan, to stop feudalism or communism, depending on which side was speaking.

None of those ends was achieved: wars did not end, aggression continued, fascism did not die with Hitler, communism was not stopped, there was no honor for anyone. In short ... the traditional distinction between "just" and "unjust" war is now obsolete. The cruelty of the means today exceeds all possible ends. No national boundary, no ideology, no "way of life" can justify the loss of millions of lives that modern war, whether nuclear or conventional, demands. The standard causes are too muddy, too mercurial, to die for. Systems change, policies change. The distinctions claimed by politicians between good and evil are not so clear that generations of human beings should die for the sanctity of those distinctions.

Even a war for defense, the most morally justifiable kind of war, loses its morality when it involves a sacrifice of human beings so massive it amounts to suicide. One of my students, a young woman, wrote in her class journal in 1985, "Wars are treated like wines-there are good years and bad years, and World War II was the vintage year. But wars are not like wines. They are more like cyanide; one sip and you're dead."

Internal violence has been almost as costly in human life as war. Millions were killed in the Soviet Union to "build socialism." Countless lives were taken in China for the same reason. A half million were killed in Indonesia for fear of communism; at least a million dead in Cambodia and a million dead in Nigeria in civil wars. Hundreds of thousands killed in Latin America by military dictatorships to stop communism, or to "maintain order." There is no evidence that any of that killing did any good for the people of those nations.

Preparation for war is always justified by the most persuasive of purposes: to prevent war. But such preparation has not prevented a series of wars that since World War II have taken more lives than World War I.


... the arms race has deterred what would not take place anyway. And it has not deterred what has taken place: wars all over the world, some involving the superpowers directly (Korea, Vietnam, and Afghanistan), others involving them indirectly (the Israeli-Arab wars, the Iran-Iraq war, the Indonesian war against East Timor, the contra war against Nicaragua).

While the supposed benefits of the arms race are very dubious, the human costs are obvious, immediate, and awful. In 1989 about a trillion dollars-a thousand billion dollars-were spent for arms all over the world, the United States and the Soviet Union accounting for more than half of this. Meanwhile, about 14 million children die every year from malnutrition and disease, which are preventable by relatively small sums of money.

The new-style Trident submarine, which can fire hundreds of nuclear warheads, costs $1.5 billion. It is totally useless, except in a nuclear war, in which case it would also be totally useless, because it would just add several hundred more warheads to the thousands already available. (Its only use might be to start a nuclear war by presenting a first-strike threat to the Soviet Union.) The $1.5 billion could finance a five-year program of universal child immunization against certain deadly diseases, preventing 5 million deaths.

The B-z bomber, the most expensive military airplane in history, approved by the Reagan and Bush administrations, and by many members of Congress in both parties, was scheduled to cost over a half billion dollars for each of 132 bombers. A nuclear arms analyst with the Congressional Budget Office estimated that the total cost would run between $70 billion and $100 billion. With this money the United States could build a million new homes.

Over the past decade, several trillions of dollars have been spent for military purposes-to kill and to prepare to kill. One can only begin to imagine what could be done with the money in military budgets to feed the starving millions in Africa, Asia, and Latin America; to provide health care for the sick; to build housing for the homeless; and to teach reading, writing, and arithmetic to millions of people crippled by their inability to read or write or count.

There have been hundreds of nuclear weapons tests by the Soviet Union and the United States over the years. ... The $12 million used for one of these tests would train 40,000 community health workers where they are desperately needed in the Third World.

The-United States spent about $28 billion to build 500 B-1 bombers, 9 which turned out to be an enormous waste, even from the standpoint of the military, involving stupidity, greed, and fraud (critics said the B-1 would not survive a collision with a pelican). Imagine what could be done for human health with that $28 billion.

Health and education in the eighties were starved for resources. But in 1985 it was disclosed that $1.8 billion dollars had been spent on sixty-five antiaircraft guns called the Sergeant York, all of which had to be scrapped as useless.

Imagine what could be done to stop the most frightening fact of our time, the steady poisoning of the world's environment-the rivers, the lakes, the oceans, the beaches, the air, the drinking water, and the soil that grows our food-the depletion of the protective ozone layer that covers the entire earth, and the erosion of the world's forests. The money, technology, and human energy now devoted to the military I could perform miracles in cleaning up the earth we live on.


... hundreds of billions have been spent to maintain an image. The image of the United States is that of a nation possessed of a frightening nuclear arsenal. What good has that image done, for the American people, or for anyone in the world? Has it prevented revolutions, coupe, wars? Even from the viewpoint of those who want to convey an image of strength-for some mysterious psychic need of their own, perhaps- what image is conveyed when a nation so over-armed is unable to defeat a tiny country in Southeast Asia, or to prevent revolutions in even tinier countries in the Caribbean?

The weapons addiction of all our political leaders, whether Republican or Democrat, has the same characteristics as drug addiction. It is enormously costly, very dangerous, provokes ugly violence, and is self-perpetuating-all on a scale far greater than drug addiction.


It is sad to see how, in so many countries, citizens have been led to war by the argument that it is necessary because there are tyrannies abroad, evil rulers, murderous juntas. But to make war is not to destroy the tyrants; it is to kill their subjects, their pawns, their conscripted soldiers, their subjugated civilians.

War is a class phenomenon. This has been an unbroken truth from ancient times to our own, when the victims of the Vietnam War turned out to be working-class Americans and Asian peasants. Preparations for war maintains swollen military bureaucracies, gives profits to corporations (and enough jobs to ordinary citizens to bring them along). And they give politicians special power, because fear of "the enemy" becomes the basis for entrusting policy to a handful of leaders, who feel bound (as we have seen so often) by no constitutional limits, no constraints of decency or commitment to truth.


Justice Without Violence

Massive violence has been accepted historically by citizens (but not by all; hence desertions, opposition, and the need for bribery and coercion to build armies) because it has been presented as a means to good ends. All over the world there are nations that commit aggression on other nations and on their own people, whether in the Middle East, or Latin America, or South Africa-nations that offend our sense of justice. Most people don't really want violence. But they do want justice, and for that ~~ sake, they can be persuaded to engage in war and civil war.

All of us, therefore, as we approach the next century, face an enormous responsibility: How to achieve justice without massive violence. Whatever in the past has been the moral justification for violence- whether defense against attack, or the overthrow of tyranny-must now be accomplished by other means.

It is the monumental moral and tactical challenge of our time. It will make the greatest demands on our ingenuity, our courage, our patience, and our willingness to renounce old habits-but it must be done. Surely nations must defend themselves against attack, citizens must resist and remove oppressive regimes, the poor must rebel against their poverty and redistribute the wealth of the rich. But that must be done without the violence of war.

Too many of the official tributes to Martin Luther King, Jr., have piously praised his nonviolence, the praise often coming from political leaders who themselves have committed "Teat violence against other nations and have accepted the daily violence of poverty in American life. But King's phrase, and that of the southern civil rights movement, was not simply "nonviolence," but nonviolent direct action.

In this way, nonviolence does not mean acceptance, but resistance - not waiting, but acting. It is not at all passive. It involves strikes, boycotts, non-cooperation, mass demonstrations, and sabotage, as well as appeals to the conscience of the world, even to individuals in the oppressing group who might break away from their past.

Direct action does not deride using the political rights, the civil liberties, even the voting mechanisms in those societies where they are available (as in the United States), but it recognizes the limitations of those controlled rights and goes beyond.

Freedom and justice, which so often have been the excuses for violence, are still our goals. But the means for achieving them must change, because violence, however tempting in the quickness of its action, undermines those goals immediately, and also in the long run. The means of achieving social change must match, morally, the ends.

It is true that human rights cannot be defended or advanced without power. But, if we have learned anything useful from the carnage of this century, it is that true power does not-as the heads of states everywhere implore us to believe-come out of the barrel of a gun, or out of a missile silo.

The possession of 10,000 thermonuclear weapons by the United States did not change the fact that it was helpless to stop a revolution in Cuba or another in Nicaragua, that it was unable to defeat its enemy either in Korea or in Vietnam. The possession of an equal number of bombs by the Soviet Union did not prevent its forced withdrawal from Afghanistan nor did it deter the Solidarity uprising in Poland, which was successful enough to change the government and put into office a Solidarity member as prime minister. The following news item from the summer of 19X9 would have been dismissed as a fantasy two years earlier: "Solidarity, vilified and outlawed for eight years until April, jubilantly entered Parliament today as the first freely elected opposition party to do so in a Communist country. "

The power of massive armaments is much overrated. Indeed, it might be called a huge fake-one of the great hoaxes of the twentieth century. We have seen heavily armed tyrants flee before masses of citizens galvanized by a moral goal. Recall those television images of Somoza scurrying to his private plane in Managua; of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos quickly assembling their suitcases of clothes, jewels, and cash and fleeing the Philippines; of the Shah of Iran searching desperately for someone to take him in; of Duvalier barely managing to put on his pants before escaping the fury of the Haitian people.

In the United States we saw the black movement for civil rights confront the slogan of "Never" in a South where blacks seemed to have no power, where the old ways were buttressed by wealth and a monopoly of political control. Yet, in a few years, the South was transformed.

I recall at the end of the great march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 when, after our twenty-mile trek that day, coming into Montgomery, I had decided to skip the speeches at the capitol and fly back to Boston. At the airport I ran into my old Atlanta colleague and friend, Whitney Young, now head of the Urban League, who had just arrived D to be part of the celebration in Montgomery. We decided to have coffee together in the recently desegregated airport cafeteria.

The waitress obviously was not happy at the sight of us. Aside from ~ the integration of it, she might have been disconcerted by the fact that the white man was still mud-splattered, disheveled, and unshaven from the march, and the black man, tall and handsome, was impeccably dressed with suit and tie. We noticed the big button on her uniform. It said "Never!" but she served us our coffee.

Racism still poisons the country, north and south. Blacks still mostly live in poverty, and their life expectancy is years less than that of whites. But important changes have taken place that were at one time unimaginable. A consciousness about the race question exists among blacks and whites that did not exist before. The nation will never be the same after that great movement, will never be able to deny the power of nonviolent direct action.

The movement against the Vietnam War in the United States too was powerful, and yet nonviolent (although, like the civil rights movement, it led to violent scenes whenever the government decided to use police or National Guardsmen, against peaceful demonstrators). It seemed puny and hopelessly weak at its start. In the first years of the war, no one in public life dared to speak of unilateral withdrawal from Vietnam. When my book Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal was published in 1967, the idea that we should simply leave Vietnam was considered radical. But by 1969 it was the majority sentiment in the country. By 1973 it was in the peace agreement, and the huge U.S. military presence in Vietnam was withdrawn.

President Lyndon Johnson had said; "We will not turn tail and run." But we did, and it was nothing to be ashamed of. It was the right thing to do. Of course, the military impasse in Vietnam was crucial in bringing the war to an end, but it took the movement at home to make American leaders decide not to try to break that impasse by a massive escalation, by more death and destruction. They had to accept the limits of military power.

In that same period, cultural changes in the country showed once again the power of apparently powerless people. Women, a century before, had shown their power and won the right to go to college, to become doctors and lawyers, and to vote. And then in the sixties and seventies the women's liberation movement began to alter the nation's perception of women in the workplace, in the home, and in relationships with men, other women, and children. The right to abortion was established by the Supreme Court against powerful opposition by religious conservatives (although that decision is still under heavy attack).

Another apparently powerless group -homosexual men and lesbian women-encouraged perhaps by what other movements had been able to accomplish against great odds, took advantage of the atmosphere of change. They demanded, and in some places received, acceptance for what had before been unmentionable.

These last decades have shown us that ordinary people can bring down institutions and change policies that seemed entrenched forever. It is not easy. And there are situations that seem immovable except by violent revolution. Yet even in such situations, the bloody cost of endless violence-of revolt leading to counterrevolutionary terror, and more revolt and more terror in an endless cycle of death-suggests a reconsideration of tactics.

We think of South Africa, which is perhaps the supreme test of the usefulness of nonviolent direct action. It is a situation where blacks have been the victims of murderous violence and where the atmosphere is tense with the expectation of more violence, perhaps this time on both sides. But even the African National Congress, the most militant and most popular of black organizations there, clearly wants to end apartheid and attain political power without a blood bath that might cost a million lives. Its members have tried to mobilize international opinion, have adopted nonviolent but dramatic tactics: boycotts, economic sanctions, demonstrations, marches, and strikes. There will undoubtedly be more cruelty, more repression, but if the nonviolent movement can grow, perhaps one day a general strike will paralyze the economy and the government and compel a negotiated settlement for a multiracial, democratic South Africa.

The Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, under the military occupation of the Israelis since the war of 1967, began around 1987 to adopt nonviolent tactics, massive demonstrations, to bring the attention of the world to their brutal treatment by the Israelis. This brought more brutality, as hundreds of Palestinians, unarmed (except for clubs and rocks), were shot to death by Israeli soldiers. But the world did begin to pay attention and if there is finally a peaceful arrangement that gives the Palestinians their freedom and Israel its security, it will probably be the result of nonviolent direct action.

Certainly, the use of terrorist violence, whether by Arabs placing bombs among civilians or by Jews bombing villages and killing large numbers of noncombatants, is not only immoral, but gains nothing for anybody. Except perhaps a spurious glory for macho revolutionaries or ruthless political leaders puffed up with their "power" whenever they succeed in blowing up a bus, destroying a village, or (as with Reagan) killing a hundred people by dropping bombs on Tripoli.

People made fearful by politicians but also by real historical experience worry about invasion and foreign occupation. The assumption has always been that the only defense is to meet violence with violence. We have pointed out that, with the weaponry available today, the result is only suicidal (South Korea against North Korea, Iran against Iraq, even Vietnam against the United States).

A determined population can not only force a domestic ruler to flee the country, but can make a would-be occupier retreat, by the use of a formidable arsenal of tactics: boycotts and demonstrations, occupations.) and sit-ins, sit-down strikes and general strikes, obstruction and sabotage, refusal to pay taxes, rent strikes, refusal to cooperate, refusal to obey curfew orders or gag orders, refusal to pay fines, fasts and pray-ins, draft resistance, and civil disobedience of various kinds. Gene Sharp and his colleagues at Harvard, in a study of the American Revolution, concluded that the colonists were hugely successful in using nonviolent tactics against England. Opposing the Stamp Tax and other oppressive laws, the colonists used boycotts of British goods, illegal town meetings, refusal to serve on juries, and withholding taxes. Sharp notes that "in nine or ten of the thirteen colonies; British governmental power had already been effectively and illegally replaced by substitute governments" before military conflict began at Lexington and Concord.

Thousands of such instances have changed the world, but they are nearly absent from the history books. History texts feature military _ heroes, lead entire generations of the young to think that wars are the only way to solve problems of self-defense, justice, and freedom. They are kept uninformed about the world's long history of nonviolent struggle and resistance.

Political scientists have generally ignored nonviolent action as a form of power. Like the politicians, they too have been intoxicated with power. And so in studying international relations, they play games (it's called, professionally, "game theory") with the strategic moves that use the traditional definitions of power-guns and money. It will take a new movement of students and faculty across the country to turn the universities and academies from the study of war games to peace games, from military tactics to resistance tactics, from strategies of "first-strike" to those of "general strike."

It would be foolish to claim, even with the widespread acceptance of nonviolent direct action as the way of achieving justice and resisting tyranny, that all group violence will come cleanly to an end. But the gross instances can be halted, especially those that require the cooperation of the citizenry and that depend on the people to accept the legitimacy of the government's actions.

Military power is helpless without the acquiescence of those people it depends on to carry out orders. The most powerful deterrent to aggression would be the declared determination of a whole people to resist in a thousand ways.

When we become depressed at the thought of the enormous power that governments, multinational corporations, armies and police have to control minds, crush dissents, and destroy rebellions, we should consider a phenomenon that I have always found interesting: Those who possess enormous power are surprisingly nervous about their ability to hold on to their power. They react almost hysterically to what seem to be puny and unthreatening signs of opposition.

For instance, we see the mighty Soviet state feeling the need to put away, out of sight, handfuls of disorganized intellectuals. We see the American government, armored with a thousand layers of power, work strenuously to put a few dissident Catholic priests in jail or keep a writer or artist out of this country. We remember Nixon's hysterical reaction to a solitary man picketing the White House: "Get him!"

Is it possible that the people in authority know something that we don't know? Perhaps they know their own ultimate weakness. Perhaps they understand that small movements can become big ones, that if an idea takes hold in the population, it may become indestructible.


Nonviolent direct action is inextricably related to democracy. V~ fence to the point of terrorism is the desperate tactic of tiny groups who are incapable of building a mass base of popular support. Governments much prefer violence committed by disciplined armies under their control, rather than adopt tactics of nonviolence, which would require them to entrust power to large numbers of citizens, who might then use it to threaten the elites' authority.

A worldwide movement of nonviolent action for peace and justice would mean the entrance of democracy for the first time into world affairs. That's why it would not be welcomed by the governments of the world, whether "totalitarian" or "democratic." It would eliminate the dependence on their weapons to solve problems. It would bypass the official makers of policy and the legal suppliers of arms, the licensed dealers in the most deadly drug of our time: violence.

It was 200 years ago that the idea of democracy was introduced into modern government, its philosophy expressed in the American Declaration of Independence: Governments derive their powers from the consent of the governed and maintain their legitimacy only when they answer the needs of their citizens for an equal right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

It is surely time to introduce that basic democratic concept into _ international affairs. The terrifying events of this century make it clear that the political leaders of the world and the experts who advise them are both incompetent and untrustworthy. They have put us all in great danger.


If the U.S. government can give several hundred billion dollars in contracts to corporations to build weapons, why can it not (by powerful public demand) give that valuable money to public-service corporations whose contracts will require them to employ people, young and old, to make life better for everyone? The conversion of resources requires a conversion of language. New definitions of old terms could become a part of the common vocabulary. The old definitions have misled us and caused monstrous harm.

The word security, for instance, would take on a new meaning: the health and well-being of people, which is the greatest strength and the most lasting security a nation can have. (A simple parable makes this clear: Would a family living in a high-crime city feel more "secure" if it put machine guns in its windows, dynamite charges in the yard, and tripwires all around the house, at the cost of half the family income and less food for the children? The analogy is not far-fetched. It is an understatement of what nations do today.)

The word defense would mean, not the waging of war and the accumulation of weapons, but the united actions of people against tyranny, using every ingenious device of nonviolent resistance.

Democracy would mean the right of people everywhere to determine for themselves, rather than have political leaders decide for them, how they will defend themselves, how they will make themselves secure, and how they will achieve justice and freedom.

Patriotism would mean not blind obedience to a nation's leaders, but a commitment to help one's neighbors and to help anyone, regardless of race or nationality, achieve a decent life.

It is impossible to know how quickly or how powerfully such new ways of thinking, such reversals of priorities, can take hold, can excite the imagination of millions, can cross frontiers and oceans, and can become a world force. We have never had a challenge of this magnitude, but we have never had a need so urgent, a vision so compelling.

History does not offer us predictable scenarios for immense changes in consciousness and policy. Such changes have taken place, but always in ways that could not be foretold, starting often with imperceptibly small acts, developing along routes too complex to trace. All we can do is to make a start, wherever we can, to persist, and let events unfold as they will.

On our side are colossal forces. There is the desire for survival of s billion people. There are the courage and energy of the young, once their adventurous spirit is turned toward the ending of war rather than the waging of war, creation rather than destruction, and world friendship rather than hatred of those on the other side of the national boundaries.

There are artists and musicians, poets and actors in every land who are ready to make the world musical and eloquent and beautiful for all of us, if we give them the chance. They, perhaps more than anyone, know what we are all missing by our infatuation with violence. They also know the power of the imagination and can help us to reach the hearts and souls of people everywhere.

The composer Leonard Bernstein a few years ago spoke to a graduating class at John Hopkins University; "Only think: if all our imaginative resources currently employed in inventing new power games and bigger and better weaponry were re-oriented toward disarmament, what miracles we could achieve, what new truths, what undiscovered realms of beauty!"

There are teachers in classrooms all over the world who long to talk to their pupils about peace and solidarity among people of all nations and races.

There are ministers in churches of every denomination who want to inspire their congregations as Martin Luther King, Jr., did, to struggle for justice in a spirit of joy and love.

There are people, millions of them, who travel from country to country for business or pleasure, who can carry messages that will begin to erase, bit by bit, the chalk marks of national boundaries, the artificial barriers that keep us apart.

There are scientists anxious to use their knowledge for life instead of death.

There are people holding ordinary jobs of all kinds who would like to participate in something extraordinary, a movement to beautify their city, their country, or their world.

There are mothers and fathers who want to see their children live in a decent world and who, if spoken to, if inspired, if organized, could raise a cry that would be heard on the moon.

It is, of course, an enormous job to be done. But never in history has there been one more worthwhile. And it needn't be done in desperation, as if it had to be done in a day. All we need to do is make the first moves, speak the first words.


Declarations of Independence