from the Zinn Reader
While teaching courses in political theory at Boston University, and fascinated
by the figure of Machiavelli, I came across the remarkable volume by Ralph Roeder,
The Man of the Rennaisance, with its brilliant portraits of the dissident Savonarola
and the toady Machiavelli. At the same time I noted the respect with which Machiavelli
was treated by people on all parts of the political spectrum. The Vietnam War
led many people, including myself, to look more closely at the history of United
States foreign policy, and to me there was a distinct Machiavellian thread running
through that history. This essay appeared in my book Declarations of Independence
Interests: The Prince and the Citizen
About 500 years ago modern political thinking began. Its enticing surface was
the idea of "realism." Its ruthless center was the idea that with
a worthwhile end one could justify any means. Its spokesman was Nicolo Machiavelli.
In the year 1498 Machiavelli became adviser on foreign and military affairs
to the government of Florence, one of the great Italian cities of that time.
After fourteen years of service, a change of government led to his dismissal,
and he spent the rest of his life in exile in the countryside outside of Florence.
During that time he wrote, among other things, a little book called The Prince,
which became the world's most famous hand book of political wisdom for governments
and their advisers.
Four weeks before Machiavelli took office, something happened in Florence that
made a profound impression on him. It was a public hanging. The victim was a
monk named Savonarola, who preached that people could be guided by their "natural
reason." This threatened to diminish the importance of the Church fathers,
who then showed their importance by having Savonarola arrested. His hands were
bound behind his back and he was taken through the streets in the night, the
crowds swinging lanterns near his face, peering for the signs of his dangerousness.
Savonarola was interrogated and tortured for ten days. They wanted to extract
a confession, but he was stubborn. The Pope, who kept in touch with the torturers,
complained that they were not getting results quickly enough. Finally the right
words came, and Savonarola was sentenced to death. As his body swung in the
air, boys from the neighbor hood stoned it. The corpse was set afire, and when
the fire had done its work, the ashes were strewn in the river Arno.
In The Prince, Machiavelli refers to Savonarola and says, "Thus it comes
about that all armed prophets have conquered and unarmed ones failed."
Political ideas are centered on the issue of ends (What kind of society do
we want?) and means (How will we get it?). In that one sentence about unarmed
prophets Machiavelli settled for modern governments the question of ends: conquest.
And the question of means: force.
Machiavelli refused to be deflected by utopian dreams or romantic hopes and
by questions of right and wrong or good and bad. He is the father of modern
political realism, or what has been called realpolilik. "It appears to
me more proper to go to the truth of the matter than to its imagination...for
how we live is so far removed from how we ought to live, that he who abandons
what is done for what ought to be done, will rather learn to bring about his
own ruin than his preservation."
It is one of the most seductive ideas of our time. We hear on all sides the
cry of "be realistic...you're living in the real world," from political
platforms, in the press, and at home. The insistence on building more nuclear
weapons, when we already possess more than enough to destroy the world, is based
on "realism." The Wall Street Journal, approving a Washington, D.C.,
ordinance allowing the police to arrest any person on the street refusing to
move on when ordered, wrote, "D.C.'s action is born of living in the real
world." And consider how often a parent (usually a father) has said to
a son or daughter: "It's good to have idealistic visions of a better world,
but you're living in the real world, so act accordingly."
How many times have the dreams of young people-the desire to help others; to
devote their lives to the sick or the poor; or to poetry, music, or drama-been
demeaned as foolish romanticism, impractical in a world where one must "make
a living"? Indeed, the economic system reinforces the same idea by rewarding
those who spend their lives on "practical" pursuits-while making life
difficult for the artist, poets, nurses, teachers, and social workers.
Realism is seductive because once you have accepted the reasonable notion that
you should base your actions on reality, you are too often led to accept, without
much questioning, someone else's version of what that reality is. It is a crucial
act of independent thinking to be skeptical of someone else's description of
When Machiavelli claims to "go to the truth of the matter," he is
making the frequent claim of important people (writers, political leaders) who
press their ideas on others: that their account is "the truth," that
they are being "objective."
But his reality may not be our reality; his truth may not be our truth. The
real world is infinitely complex. Any description of it must be a partial description,
so a choice is made about what part of reality to describe, and behind that
choice is often a definite interest, in the sense of something useful for a
particular individual or group. Behind the claim of someone giving us an objective
picture of the real world is the assumption that we all have the same interests,
and so we can trust the one who describes the world for us, because that person
has our interests at heart.
It is very important to know if our interests are the same, because a description
is never simply neutral and innocent; it has consequences. No description is
merely that. Every description is in some way a prescription. If you describe
human nature as Machiavelli does, as basically immoral, it suggests that it
is realistic, indeed only human, that you should behave that way too.
The notion that all our interests are the same (the political leaders and the
citizens, the millionaire and the homeless person) deceives us. It is a deception
useful to those who run modern societies, where the sup port of the population
is necessary for the smooth operation of the machinery of everyday life and
the perpetuation of the present arrangements of wealth and power.
When the Founding Fathers of the United States wrote the Preamble to the Constitution,
their first words were, "We the People of the United States, in order to
form a more perfect union, establish justice..." The Constitution thus
looked as if it were written by all the people, representing their interests.
In fact, the Constitution was drawn up by fifty-five men, all white and mostly
rich, who represented a certain elite group in the new nation. The document
itself accepted slavery as legitimate, and at that time about one of every five
persons in the population was a black slave. The conflicts between rich and
poor and black and white, the dozens of riots and rebellions in the century
before the Revolution, and a major uprising in western Massachusetts just before
the convening of the Constitutional Convention (Shays' Rebellion) were all covered
over by the phrase "We the people."
Machiavelli did not pretend to a common interest. He talked about what "is
necessary for a prince." He dedicated The Prince to the rich and powerful
Lorenzo di Medici, whose family ruled Florence and included popes and monarchs.
( The Columbia Encyclopedia has this intriguing description of the Medici: "The
genealogy of the family is complicated by the numerous illegitimate offspring
and by the tendency of some of the members to dispose of each other by assassination.")
In exile, writing his handbook of advice for the Medici, Machiavelli ached
to be called back to the city to take his place in the inner circle. He wanted
nothing more than to serve the prince.
In our time we find greater hypocrisy. Our Machiavellis, our presidential advisers,
our assistants for national security, and our secretaries of state insist they
serve "the national interest," "national security," and
"national defense." These phrases put everyone in the country under
one enormous blanket, camouflaging the differences between the interest of those
who run the government and the interest of the average citizen.
The American Declaration of Independence, however, clearly understood that difference
of interest between government and citizen. It says that the purpose of government
is to secure certain rights for its citizens-life, liberty, equality, and the
pursuit of happiness. But governments may not fulfill these purposes and so
"whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it
is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute new government."
The end of Machiavelli's The Prince is clearly different. It is not the welfare
of the citizenry, but national power, conquest, and control. All is done in
order "to maintain the state."
In the United States today, the Declaration of Independence hangs on schoolroom
walls, but foreign policy follows Machiavelli. Our language is more deceptive
than his; the purpose of foreign policy, our leaders say, is to serve the "national
interest," fulfill our "world responsibility." In 1986 General
William Westmoreland said that during World War II the United States "inherited
the mantle of leadership of the free world" and "became the international
champions of liberty." This, from the man who, as chief of military operations
in the Vietnam War, con ducted a brutal campaign that resulted in the deaths
of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese noncombatants. Sometimes, the language
is more direct, as when President Lyndon Johnson, speaking to the nation during
the Vietnam War, talked of the United States as being "number one."
Or, when he said, "Make no mistake about it, we will prevail."
Even more blunt was a 1980 article in the influential Foreign Affairs by John
Hopkins political scientist Robert W. Tucker; in regard to Central America,
he wrote, "we have regularly played a determining role in making and in
unmaking governments, and we have defined what we have considered to be the
acceptable behavior of governments. "Tucker urged "a policy of a resurgent
America to prevent the coming to power of radical regimes in Central America"
and asked, "Would a return to a policy of the past work in Central America?...
There is no persuasive reason for believing it would not....Right-wing governments
will have to be given steady outside support, even, if necessary, by sending
in American forces.
Tucker's suggestion became the Central America policy of the Reagan administration,
as it came into office in early 1981. His "sending in American forces"
was too drastic a step for an American public that clearly opposed another Vietnam
(unless done on a small scale, like Reagan's invasion of Grenada, and Bush's
invasion of Panama). But for the following eight years, the aims of the United
States were clear; to over throw the left-wing government of Nicaragua and to
keep in place the right-wing government of El Salvador.
Two Americans who visited El Salvador in 1983 for the New York City Bar Association
described for the New York Times a massacre of eighteen peasants by local troops
in Sonsonate province:
Ten military advisers are attached to the Sonsonate armed forces... The episode
contains all the unchanging elements of the Salvadoran tragedy- uncontrolled
military violence against civilians, the apparent ability of the wealthy to
procure official violence...and the presence of United States military advisers,
working with the Salvadoran military responsible for these monstrous practices...
after 30,000 unpunished murders by security and military forces and over 10,000
"disappearances" of civilians in custody, the root causes of the killings
remain in place, and the killing goes on.
The purpose of its policy in Central America, said the U.S. government, was
to protect the country from the Soviet threat: a Soviet base in Nicaragua and
a possible Soviet base in El Salvador. This was not quite believable. Was the
Soviet Union prepared to launch an invasion of the United States from Central
America? Was a nation that could not win a war on its borders with Afghanistan
going to send an army across the Atlantic Ocean to Nicaragua? And what then?
Would that army then march up through Honduras into Guatemala, then through
all of Mexico, into Texas, and then...?
It was as absurd as the domino theory of the Vietnam War, in which the falling
dominos of Southeast Asia would have had to swim the Pacific to get to San Francisco.
Did the Soviet Union, with intercontinental ballistic missiles, with submarines
off the coast of Long Island, need Central America as a base for attacking the
Nevertheless, the Kissinger Commission, set up by President Reagan to advise
him on Central American policy, warned in its report that our "southern
flank" was in danger-a biological reference designed to make all of us
Even a brief look at history was enough to make one skeptical. How could we
explain our frequent interventions in Central America before 1917, before the
Bolshevik Revolution? How could we explain our taking control of Cuba and Puerto
Rico in 1898; our seizure of the Canal Zone in 1903; our dispatch of marines
to Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, and Guatemala in the early 1900s; our bombardment
of a Mexican town in 1914; and our long military occupation of Haiti and the
Dominican Republic starting in 1915 and 1916? All this before the Soviet Union
There was another official reason given for U.S. intervention in Central America
in the 1980s: to "restore democracy." This, too, was hardly believable.
Throughout the period after World War II our government had supported undemocratic
governments, indeed vicious military dictatorships; in Batista's Cuba, Somoza's
Nicaragua, Armas's Guatemala, Pinoche's Chile, and Duvalier's Haiti as well
as in El Salvador and other countries of Latin America.
The actual purpose of U.S. policy in Central America was expressed by Tucker
in the most clear Machiavellian terms: "The great object of American foreign
policy ought to be the restoration of a more normal political world, a world
in which those states possessing the elements of great power once again play
the role their power entitles them to play."
Undoubtedly, there are Americans who respond favorably to this idea, that the
United States should be a "great power" in the world, should dominate
other countries, should be number one. Perhaps the assumption is that our domination
is benign and that our power is used for kindly purposes. The history of our
relations with Latin America does not suggest this. Besides~ it really in keeping
with the American ideal of equality of all peoples to insist that we have the
right to control the affairs of other countries? Are we the only country entitled
to a Declaration of Independence?
Means:The Lion and the Fox
There should be clues to the rightness of the ends we pursue by examining the
means we use to achieve those ends. I am assuming there is always some connection
between ends and means. All means become ends in the sense that they have immediate
consequences apart from the ends they are supposed to achieve. And all ends
are themselves means to other ends. Was there not a link, for Machiavelli, between
his crass end- power for the prince-and the various means he found acceptable?
For a year Machiavelli was ambassador to Cesare Borgia, conqueror of Rome.
He describes one event that "is worthy of note and of imitation by others."
Rome had been disorderly, and Cesare Borgia decided he needed to make the people
"peaceful and obedient to his rule." Therefore, "he appointed
Messer Remirro de Orco, a cruel and able man, to whom he gave the fullest authority"
and who, in a short time, made Rome "orderly and united." But Cesare
Borgia knew his policies had aroused hatred, so, in order to purge the minds
of the people and to win them over completely, he resolved to show that if any
cruelty had taken place it was not by his orders, but through the harsh disposition
of his minister. And having found the opportunity he had him cut in half and
placed one morning in the public square at Cesena with a piece of wood and blood-stained
knife by his side.
In recent American history, we have become familiar with the technique of rulers
letting subordinates do the dirty work, which they can later disclaim. As a
result of the Watergate scandals in the Nixon administration (a series of crimes
committed by underlings in his behalf), a number of his people (former CIA agents,
White House aides, and even the attorney-general) were sent to prison. But Nixon
himself, although he was forced to resign his office, escaped criminal prosecution,
arranging to be pardoned when his vice-president, Gerald Ford, became president.
Nixon retired in prosperity and, in a few years, became a kind of elder statesman,
a Godfather of politics, looked to for sage advice.
Perhaps as a way of calming the public in that heated time of disillusionment
with the government because of Vietnam and Watergate, a Senate committee in
1974-1975 conducted an investigation of the intelligence agencies. It discovered
that the CIA and the FBI had violated the law countless times (opening mail,
breaking into homes and offices, etc.). In the course of that investigation,
it was also revealed that the CIA, going back to the Kennedy administration,
had plotted the assassination of a number of foreign rulers, including Cuba's
Fidel Castro. But the president himself, who clearly was in favor of such actions,
was not to be directly involved, so that he could deny knowledge of it. This
was given the term plausible denial.
As the committee reported:
Non-attribution to the United States for covert operations was the original
and principal purpose of the so-called doctrine of "plausible denial."
Evidence before the Committee clearly demonstrates that this concept, designed
to protect the United States and its operatives from the consequences of disclosures,
has been expanded to mask decisions of the president and his senior staff members.
In 1988, a story in a Beirut magazine led to information that Ronald Reagan's
administration had been secretly selling arms to Iran, the declared enemy of
the United States, and using the proceeds to give military aid to counterrevolutionaries
( the "contras" ) in Nicaragua, thus violating an act passed by Congress.
Reagan and Vice President Bush denied involvement, although the evidence pointed
very strongly to their participation. Instead of impeaching them, however, congress
put their emissaries on the witness stand, and later several of them were indicted.
One of them (Robert McFarland) tried to commit suicide. Another, Colonel Oliver
North, stood trial for Iying to Congress, was found guilty, but was not sentenced
to prison. Reagan was not compelled to testify about what he had done. He retired
in peace and Bush became the next president of the United States, both beneficiaries
of plausible denial. Machiavelli would have admired the operation.
A prince, Machiavelli suggested, should emulate both the lion and the fox.
The lion uses force. "The character of peoples varies, and it is easy to
persuade them of a thing, but difficult to keep them in that persuasion. And
so it is necessary to order things so that when they no longer believe, they
can be made to believe by force.... Fortune is a woman, and it is necessary,
if you wish to master her, to conquer her by force." The fox uses deception.
If all men were good, this would not be good advice, but since they are dishonest
and do not keep faith with you, you, in return, need not keep faith with them;
and no prince was ever at a loss for plausible reasons to cloak a breach of
faith.... The experience of our times shows those princes to have done great
things who have had little regard for good faith, and have been able by astuteness
to confuse men's brains.
This advice for the prince has been followed in our time by all sorts of dictators
and generalissimos. Hitler kept a copy of The Prince at his bedside, it is said.
(Who says? How do they know?) Mussolini used Machiavelli for his doctoral dissertation.
Lenin and Stalin are also sup posed to have read Machiavelli. Certainly the
Italian Communist Gramsci wrote favorably about Machiavelli, claiming that Machiavelli
was not really giving advice to princes, who knew all that already, but to "those
who do not know," thus educating "those who must recognize certain
necessary means, even if those of tyrants, because they want certain ends."
The prime ministers and presidents of modern democratic states, despite their
pretensions, have also admired and followed Machiavelli. Max Lerner, a prominent
liberal commentator on the post-World War II period, in his introduction to
Machiavelli's writings, says of him: "The common meaning he has for democrats
and dictators alike is that, what ever your ends, you must be clear-eyed and
unsentimental in pursuit of them." Lerner finds in Machiavelli's Discourses
that one of his important ideas is "the need in the conduct even of a democratic
state for the will to survive and therefore for ruthless instead of half-hearted
Thus the democratic state, behaving like the lion, uses force when 7 persuasion
does not work. It uses it against its own citizens when they cannot be persuaded
to obey the laws. It uses it against other peoples in the act of war, not always
in self-defense, but often when it cannot persuade other nations to do its bidding.
For example, at the start of the twentieth century, although Colombia was willing
to sell the rights to the Panama Canal to the United States, it wanted more
money than the United States was willing to pay. So the warships were sent on
their way, a little revolution was instigated in Panama, and soon the Canal
Zone was in the hands of the United States. As one U.S. Senator described the
operation, ''We stole it fair and square.
The modern liberal state, like a fox, often uses deception to gain its ends-not
so much deception of the foreign enemy (which, after all, has little faith in
its adversaries), but of its own citizens, who have been taught to trust their
One of the important biographies of President Franklin D. Roosevelt is titled
Roosevelt: The Lion and the Fox. Roosevelt deceived the American public at the
start of World War II, in September and October 1941, misstating the facts about
two instances involving German sub marines and American destroyers (claiming
the destroyer Greer, which was attacked by a German submarine, was on an innocent
mission when in fact it was tracking the sub for the British Navy). A historian
sympathetic to him wrote, "Franklin Roosevelt repeatedly deceived the American
people during the period before Pearl Harbor... He was like the physician who
must tell the patient lies for the patient's own good."
Then there were the lies of President John Kennedy and Secretary of State Dean
Rusk when they told the public the United States was not responsible for the
1961 invasion of Cuba, although in fact the invasion had been organized by the
The escalation of the war in Vietnam started with a set of lies- in August
1964-about incidents in the Gulf of Tonkin. The United States announced two
"unprovoked" attacks on U.S. destroyers by North Vietnamese boats.
One of them almost certainly did not take place. The other was undoubtedly provoked
by the proximity (ten miles) of the destroyer to the Vietnamese coast and by
a series of CIA-organized raids on the coast.
The lies then multiplied. One of them was President Johnson's statement that
the U.S. Air Force was only bombing "military targets." Another was
a deception by President Richard Nixon; he concealed from the American public
the 1969-1970 massive bombing of Cambodia, a country with which we were supposed
to be at peace.
Advisers and assistants to presidents, however committed they are in their rhetoric
to the values of modern liberalism, have again and again participated in acts
of deception that would have brought praise from Machiavelli. His goal was to
serve the prince and national power. So was theirs. Because they were advisers
to a liberal democratic state, they assumed that advancing the power of such
a state was a moral end, which then justified both force and deception. But
cannot a liberal state carry out immoral policies? Then the adviser (deceiving
himself this time) would consider that his closeness to the highest circles
of power put him in a position to affect, even reverse, such policies.
It was a contemporary of Machiavelli, Thomas More, who warned intellectuals
about being trapped into service to the state and about the self-deception in
which the adviser believes he will be a good influence in the higher councils
of the government. In More's book Utopia, spokesperson Raphael is offered the
advice commonly given today to young people who want to be social critics, prodding
the government from outside, like Martin Luther King or Ralph Nader. The advice
is to get on the inside. Raphael is told, "I still think that if you could
overcome the aversion you have to the courts of princes, you might do a great
deal of good to mankind by the advice that you would give." Raphael replies,
"If I were at the court of some king and proposed wise laws to him and
tried to root out of him the dangerous seeds of evil, do you not think I would
either be thrown out of his court or held in scorn?"
He goes on,Imagine me at the court of the King of France. Suppose I were sitting
in his council with the King himself presiding, and that the wisest men were
earnestly discussing by what methods and intrigues the King might keep Milan,
recover Naples so often lost, then overthrow the Venetians and sub due all Italy,
and add Flanders, Brabant, and even all Burgundy to his realm, besides some
other nations he had planned to invade. Now in all this great ferment, with
so many brilliant men planning together how to carry on war, imagine so modest
a man as myself standing up and urging them to change all their plans.
More might have been describing the historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., adviser
to President Kennedy, who thought it was "a terrible idea" to go ahead
with the CIA Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961, two years after the revolution
there. But he did not raise his voice in protest, because, as he later admitted,
he was intimidated by the presence of "such august figures as the Secretaries
of State and Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff." He wrote, "In
the months after the Bay of Pigs I bitterly reproached myself for having kept
so silent during those crucial discussions in the Cabinet room."
But-the intimidation of Schlesinger-as-adviser went beyond silencing him in
the cabinet room-it led him to produce a nine-page memorandum to President Kennedy,
written shortly before the invasion of Cuba, in which he is as blunt as Machiavelli
himself in urging deception of the public to conceal the U.S. role in the invasion.
This would be necessary because "a great many people simply do not at this
moment see that Cuba presents so grave and compelling a threat to our national
security as to justify a course of action which much of the world will interpret
as calculated aggression against a small nation."
The memorandum goes on, "The character and repute of President Kennedy
constitute one of our greatest national resources. Nothing should be done to
jeopardize this invaluable asset. When lies must be told, they should be told
by subordinate officials." It goes on to suggest "that someone other
than the President make the final decision and do so in his absence-someone
whose head can later be placed on the block if things go terribly wrong."
(Cesare Borgia again, only lacking the bloodstained knife.)
Schlesinger included in his memo sample questions and Iying answers in case
the issue of the invasion came up in a press conference:
Q. Mr. President, is CIA involved in this affair?
A. I can assure you that the United States has no intention of using force
to overthrow the Castro regime.
The scenario was followed. Four days before the invasion President Kennedy
told a press conference, "There will not be, under any conditions, any
intervention in Cuba by U.S. armed forces."
Schlesinger was just one of dozens of presidential advisers who behaved like
little Machiavellis in the years when revolutions in Vietnam and Latin America
brought hysterical responses on the part of the U.S. government. These intellectuals
could see no better role for themselves than to serve national power.
Kissinger, secretary of state to Nixon, did not even have the mild qualms of
Schlesinger. He surrendered himself with ease to the princes of war and destruction.
In private discussions with old colleagues from Harvard who thought the Vietnam
War immoral, he presented himself as someone trying to bring it to an end, but
in his official capacity he was the willing intellectual tool of a policy that
involved the massive killing of civilians in Vietnam.
Kissinger approved the bombing and invasion of Cambodia, an act so disruptive
of the delicate Cambodian society that it can be considered an important factor
in the rise of the murderous Pol Pot regime in that country. After he and the
representatives of North Vietnam had negotiated a peace agreement to end the
war in late 1972, he approved the breaking off of the talks and the brutal bombardment
of residential districts in Hanoi by the most ferocious bombing plane of the
time, the B52.
Kissinger's biographers describe his role "If he had disapproved of Nixon's
policy, he could have argued against the Cambodia attack. But there is no sign
that he ever mustered his considerable influence to persuade the president to
hold his fire. Or that he ever considered resigning in protest. Quite the contrary,
Kissinger supported the policy."
During the Christmas 1972 bombings New York Times columnist James Reston wrote:
It may be and probably is true, that Mr. Kissinger as well as Secretary of
State Rogers and most of the senior officers in the State Department are opposed
to the President's bombing offensive in North Vietnam.... But Mr. Kissinger
is too much a scholar, with too good a sense of humor and history, to put his
own thoughts ahead of the president's.
It seems that journalists too, can be Machiavellian.
Serving National Powers
Machiavelli never questioned that national power and the position of the prince
were proper ends: "And it must be understood that a prince...cannot observe
all those things which are considered good in men, being often obliged, in order
to maintain the state, to act against faith, against charity, against humanity,
and against religion."
The end of national power may be beneficial to the prince, and even to the
prince's advisers, an ambitious lot. But why should it be assumed as a good
end for the average citizen? Why should the citizen tie his or her fate to the
nation-state, which is perfectly willing to sacrifice the lives and liberties
of its own citizens for the power, the profit, and the glory of politicians
or corporate executives or generals?
For a prince, a dictator, or a tyrant national power is an end unquestioned.
A democratic state, however, substituting an elected president for a prince,
must present national power as benign, serving the interests of liberty, justice,
and humanity. If such a state, which is surrounded with the rhetoric of democracy
and liberty and, in truth, has some measure of both, engages in a war that is
clearly against a vicious and demonstrably evil enemy, then the end seems so
clean and clear that any means to defeat that enemy may seem justified.
Such a state was the United States and such an enemy was fascism, represented
by Germany, Italy, and Japan. Therefore, when the atomic bomb appeared to be
the means for a quicker victory, there was little hesitation to use it.
Very few of us can imagine ourselves as presidential advisers, having to deal
with their moral dilemmas (if, indeed, they retain enough integrity to consider
them dilemmas). It is much easier, I think, for aver age citizens to see themselves
in the position of the scientists who were secretly assembled in New Mexico
during World War II to make the atomic bomb. We may be able to imagine our own
trade or profession, our particular skills, called on to serve the policies
of the nation. The scientists who served Hitler, like the rocket expert Werner
von Braun, could be as cool as Machiavelli in their subservience; they would
serve national power without asking questions. They were professionals, totally
consumed with doing "a good job" and they would do that job for whoever
happened to be in power. So, when Hitler was defeated and von Braun was brought
by military intelligence agents to the United States, he cheer fully went ahead
and worked on rockets for the United States, as he had done for Hitler.
As one satirical songwriter put it:
Once the rockets are Up, Who cares where they come down? That's not our department,
Says Werner von Braun.
The scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project were not like that. One
cannot imagine them turning to Hitler and working for him if he were victorious.
They were conscious, in varying degrees, that this was a war against fascism
and that it was invested with a powerful moral cause. Therefore, to build this
incredibly powerful weapon was to use a terrible means, but for a noble end.
And yet there was one element these scientists had in common with Werner von
Braun: the sheer pleasure of doing a job well, of professional competence, and
of scientific discovery, all of which could make one forget, or at least put
in the background, the question of human con sequences. After the war, when
the making of a thermonuclear bomb was proposed, a bomb a thousand times more
destructive that the one dropped on Hiroshima, J. Robert Oppenheimer, personally
horrified by the idea, was still moved to pronounce the scheme of Edward Teller
and Stanislaw Ulam for producing it as "technically sweet." Teller,
defending the project against scientists who saw it as genocidal, said, "The
important thing in any science is to do the things that can be done." And,
what ever Enrico Fermi's moral scruples were (he was one of the top scientists
in the Manhattan Project), he pronounced the plan for making the bombs "superb
Robert Jungk, a German researcher who interviewed many of the scientists involved
in the making of the bomb, tried to understand their lack of resistance to dropping
the bomb on Hiroshima. "They felt them selves caught in a vast machinery
and they certainly were inadequately informed as to the true political and strategic
situation." But he does not excuse their inaction. "If at any time
they had had the moral strength to protest on purely humane grounds against
the dropping of the bomb, their attitude would no doubt have deeply impressed
the president, the Cabinet and the generals."
Using the atomic bombs on populated cities was justified in moral terms by
American political leaders. Henry Stimson, whose Interim Committee had the job
of deciding whether or not to use the atomic bomb, said later it was done "to
end the war in victory with the least possible cost in the lives of the men
in the armies." This was based on the assumption that without atomic bombs,
an invasion of Japan would be necessary, which would cost many American lives.
It was a morality limited by nationalism, perhaps even racism. The saving of
American lives was considered far more important than the saving of Japanese
lives. Numbers were wildly thrown into the air (for example, Secretary of State
James Byrnes talked of "a million casualties" resulting from an invasion),
but there was no attempt to seriously estimate American casualties and weigh
that against the consequences for Japanese men and women, old people and babies.
(The closest to such an attempt was a military estimate that an invasion of
the southernmost island of Japan would cause 30,000 American dead and wounded.)
The evidence today is overwhelming that an invasion of Japan was not necessary
to bring the war to an end. Japan was defeated, in disarray, and ready to surrender.
The U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey, which interviewed 700 Japanese military and
political officials after the war, came to this conclusion:
Based on a detailed investigation of all the facts and supported by the testimony
of the surviving Japanese leaders involved, it is the Survey s opinion that
certainly prior to 31 December 1945, and in all probability prior to 1 November
1945, Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped,
even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned
After the war American scholar Robert Butow went through the papers of the Japanese
Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the records of the International Military Tribunal
of the Far East (which tried Japanese leaders as war criminals), and the interrogation
files of the U.S. Army. He also interviewed many of the Japanese principals
and came to this conclusion: "Had the Allies given the Prince (Prince Konoye,
special emissary to Moscow, who was working on Russian intercession for peace)
a week of grace in which to obtain his Government's support for the acceptance
of the proposals, the war might have ended toward the latter part of July or
the very beginning of the month of August, without the atomic bomb and without
Soviet participation in the conflict."
On July 13, 1945, three days before the successful explosion of the first atomic
bomb in New Mexico, the United States intercepted Japanese Foreign Minister
Togo's secret cable to Ambassador Sato in Moscow, asking that he get the Soviets
to intercede and indicating that Japan was ready to end the war, so long as
it was not unconditional surrender.
On August 2, the Japanese foreign office sent a message to the Japanese ambassador
in Moscow, "There are only a few days left in which to make arrangements
to end the war.... As for the definite terms... it is our intention to make
the Potsdam Three-Power Declaration [which called for unconditional surrender]
the basis of the study regarding these terms."
Barton Bernstein, a Stanford historian who has studied the official documents
This message, like earlier ones, was probably intercepted by American intelligence
and decoded. It had no effect on American policy. There is not evidence that
the message was sent to Truman and Byrnes [secretary of state], nor any evidence
that they followed the intercepted messages during the Potsdam conference. They
were unwilling to take risks in order to save Japanese lives.
In his detailed and eloquent history of the making of the bomb, Richard Rhodes
says, "The bombs were authorized not because the Japanese refused to surrender
but because they refused to surrender unconditionally. "
The one condition necessary for Japan to end the war was an agreement to maintain
the sanctity of the Japanese emperor, who was a holy figure to the Japanese
people. Former ambassador to Japan Joseph Grew, based on his knowledge of Japanese
culture, had been trying to persuade the U.S. government of the importance of
allowing the emperor to remain in place.
Herbert Feis, who had unique access to State Department files and the records
on the Manhattan Project, noted that in the end the United States did give the
assurances the Japanese wanted on the emperor. He writes, "The curious
mind lingers over the reasons why the American government waited so long before
offering the Japanese those various assurances which it did extend later."
Why was the United States in a rush to drop the bomb, if the reason of saving
lives turns out to be empty, if the probability was that the Japanese would
have surrendered even without an invasion? Historian Gar Alperovitz, after going
through the papers of the American officials closest to Truman and most influential
in the final decision, and especially the diaries of Henry Stimson, concludes
that the atomic bombs were dropped to impress the Soviet Union, as a first act
in establishing American power in the postwar world. He points out that the
Soviet Union had promised to enter the war against Japan on August 8. The bomb
was dropped on August 6.
The scientist Leo Szilard had met with Truman's main policy adviser in May
1945 and reported later: "Byrnes did not argue that it was necessary to
use the bomb against the cities of Japan in order to win the war.... Mr. Byrnes'
view was that our possessing and demonstrating the bomb would make Russia more
The end of dropping the bomb seems, from the evidence, to have been not winning
the war, which was already assured, not saving lives, for it was highly probably
no American invasion would be necessary, but the aggrandizement of American
national power at the moment and in the postwar period. For this end, the means
were among the most awful yet devised by human beings-burning people alive,
maiming them horribly and leaving them with radiation sickness, which would
kill them slowly and with great pain.
I remember my junior-high-school social studies teacher telling the class that
the difference between a democracy like the United States and the "totalitarian
states" was the "they believe that the end justifies any means, and
we do not." But this was before Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
To make a proper moral judgment, we would have to put into the balancing the
testimony of the victims. Here are the words of three survivors, which would
have to be multiplied by tens of thousands to give a fuller picture.
A thirty-five-year-old man: "A woman with her jaw missing and her tongue
hanging out of her mouth was wandering around the area of Shinsho-machi in the
heavy, black rain. She was heading toward the north crying for help."
A seventeen-year-old girl: "I walked past Hiroshima Station...and saw people
with their bowels and brains coming out.... I saw an old lady carrying a suckling
infant in her arms...I saw many children...with dead mothers...I just cannot
put into words the horror I felt."
A fifth-grade girl: "Everybody in the shelter was crying out loud. Those
voices...they aren't cries, they are moans that penetrate to the mar row of
your bones and make your hair stand on end... I do not know how many times I
called begging that they would cut off my burned arms and legs." In the
summer of 1966, my wife and I were invited to an international gathering in
Hiroshima to commemorate the dropping of the bomb and to dedicate ourselves
to a world free of warfare. On the morn ing of August G, tens of thousands of
people gathered in a park in Hiroshima and stood in total, almost unbearable,
silence, awaiting the exact moment-8:1G A.M.-when on August 6, 1945, the bomb
had been dropped. When the moment came, the silence was broken by a sudden roaring
sound in the air, eerie and frightening until we realized it was the sound of
the beating of wings of thousands of doves, which had been released at that
moment to declare the aim of a peaceful world.
A few days later, some of us were invited to a house in Hiroshima that had
been established as a center for victims of the bomb to spend time with one
another and discuss common problems. We were asked to speak to the group. When
my turn came, I stood up and felt I must get something off my conscience. I
wanted to say that I had been an air force bombardier in Europe, that I had
dropped bombs that killed and maimed people, and that until this moment I had
not seen the human results of such bombs, and that I was ashamed of what I had
done and wanted to help make sure things like that never happened again.
I never got the words out, because as I started to speak I looked out at the
Japanese men and women sitting on the floor in front of me, without arms, or
without legs, but all quietly waiting for me to speak. I choked on my words,
could not say anything for a moment, fighting for control, finally managed to
thank them for inviting me and sat down.
For the idea that any means-mass murder, the misuse of science, the corruption
of professionalism-are acceptable to achieve the end of national power, the
ultimate example of our time is Hiroshima. For us, as citizens, the experience
of Hiroshima and Nagasaki suggests that we reject Machiavelli, that we do not
accept subservience, whether to princes or presidents, and that we examine for
ourselves the ends of public policy to determine whose interests they really
serve. We must examine the means used to achieve those ends to decide if they
are compatible with equal justice for all human beings on earth.
There have always been people who did things for themselves, against the dominant
ideology, and when there were enough of them history had its splendid moments:
a war was called to a halt, a tyrant was overthrown, an enslaved people won
its freedom, the poor won a small victory. Even some people close to the circles
of power, in the fade of overwhelming pressure to conform have summoned the
moral strength to dissent, ignoring the Machiavellian advice to leave the end
unquestioned and the means unexamined.
Not all the atomic scientists rushed into the excitement of building the bomb.
When Oppenheimer was recruiting for the project, as he later told the Atomic
Energy Commission, most people accepted. "This sense of excitement, of
devotion and of patriotism in the end prevailed." However, the physicist
I. I. Rabi, asked by Oppenheimer to be his associate director at Los Alamos,
refused to join. He was heavily involved in developing radar, which he thought
important for the war, but he found it abhorrent, as Oppenheimer reported, that
"the culmination of three centuries of physics" should be a weapon
of mass destruction.
Just before the bomb was tested and used, Rabi worried about the role of scientists
If we take the stand that our object is merely to see that the next war is
bigger and better, we will ultimately lose the respect of the public.... We
will become the unpaid servants of the munitions makers and mere technicians
rather than the self-sacrificing public-spirited citizens which we feel ourselves
Nobel Prize-winning physical chemist James Franck, working with the University
of Chicago metallurgical laboratory on problems of building the bomb, headed
a committee on social and political implications of the new weapon. In June
1945, the Franck Committee wrote a report advising against a surprise atomic
bombing of Japan: "If we consider international agreement on total prevention
of nuclear warfare as a paramount objective...this kind of introduction of atomic
weapons to the world may easily destroy all our chances of success." Dropping
the bomb "will mean a flying start toward an unlimited armaments race,"
the report said.
The committee went to Washington to deliver the report person ally to Henry
Stimson, but were told, falsely, that he was out of the city. Neither Stimson
nor the scientific panel advising him was in a mood to accept the argument of
the Franck Report.
Scientist Leo Szilard, who had been responsible for the letter from Albert
Einstein to Franklin Roosevelt suggesting a project to develop an atomic bomb,
also fought a hard but futile battle against the bomb being dropped on a Japanese
city. The same month that the bomb was success fully tested in New Mexico, July
1945, Szilard circulated a petition among the scientists, protesting in advance
against the dropping of the bomb, arguing that "a nation which sets the
precedent of using these newly liberated forces of nature for purposes of destruction
may have to bear the responsibility of opening the door to an era of devastation
on an unimaginable scale." Determined to do what he could to stop the momentum
toward using the bomb, Szilard asked his friend Einstein to give him a letter
of introduction to President Roosevelt. But just as the meeting was being arranged,
an announcement came over the radio that Roosevelt was dead.
Would Einstein's great prestige have swayed the decision? It is doubtful. Einstein,
known to be sympathetic to socialism and pacifism, was excluded from the Manhattan
Project and did not know about the momentous decisions being made to drop the
bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. One adviser to Harry Truman took a strong position
against the atomic bombing of Japan: Undersecretary of the Navy Ralph Bard.
As a member of Stimson's Interim Committee, at first he agreed with the decision
to use the bomb on a Japanese city, but then changed his mind. He wrote a memorandum
to the committee talking about the reputation of the United States "as
a great humanitarian nation" and suggesting the Japanese be warned and
that some assurance about the treatment of the emperor might induce the Japanese
to surrender. It had no effect. A few military men of high rank also opposed
the decision. General Dwight Eisenhower, fresh from leading the Allied armies
to victory in Europe, met with Stimson just after the successful test of the
bomb in Los Alamos. He told Stimson he opposed use of the bomb because the Japanese
were ready to surrender. Eisenhower later recalled, "I hated to see our
country be the first to use such a weapon." General Hap Arnold, head of
the army air force, believed Japan could be brought to surrender without the
bomb. The fact that important military leaders saw no need for the bomb lends
weight to the idea that the reasons for bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki were
In the operations of U.S. foreign policy after World War II, there were a few
bold people who rejected Machiavellian subservience and refused to accept the
going orthodoxies. Senator William Fulbright of Arkansas was at the crucial
meeting of advisers when President Kennedy was deciding whether to proceed with
plans to invade Cuba. Arthur Schlesinger, who was there, wrote later that "Fulbright,
speaking in an emphatic and incredulous way, denounced the whole idea."
During the Vietnam War, advisers from MIT and Harvard were among the fiercest
advocates of ruthless bombing, but a few rebelled. One of the earliest was James
Thomson, a Far East expert in the State Department who resigned his post and
wrote an eloquent article in the Atlantic Monthly criticizing the U.S. presence
While Henry Kissinger was playing Machiavelli to Nixon's prince, at least three
of his aides objected to his support for an invasion of Cambodia in 1970. William
Watts, asked to coordinate the White House announcement on the invasion of Cambodia,
declined and wrote a letter of resignation. He was confronted by Kissinger aide
General Al Haig, who told him, "You have an order from your Commander in
Chief." He, therefore, could not resign, Haig said, Watts replied, "Oh
yes I can-and I have!" Roger Morris and Anthony Lake, asked to write the
speech for President Nixon justifying the invasion, refused and instead wrote
a joint letter of resignation.
The most dramatic action of dissent during the war in Vietnam came from Daniel
Ellsberg, a Ph.D. in economics from Harvard who had served in the Marines and
held important posts in the Department of Defense, the Department of State,
and the embassy in Saigon. He had been a special assistant to Henry Kissinger
and then worked for the Rand Corporation a private "think tank" of
brainy people who contracted to do top-secret research for the U.S. government.
When the Rand Corporation was asked to assemble a history of the Vietnam War,
based on secret documents, Ellsberg was appointed as one of the leaders of the
project. But he had already begun to feel pangs of conscience about the brutality
of the war being waged by his government. He had been out in the field with
the military, and what he saw persuaded him that the United States did not belong
in Vietnam. Then, reading the documents and helping to put together the history,
he saw how many lies had been told to the public and was reinforced in his feelings.
With the help of a former Rand employee he had met in Vietnam, Anthony Russo,
Ellsberg secretly photocopied the entire 7,000 page history-the "Pentagon
Papers" as they came to be called-and distributed them to certain members
of Congress as well as to the New York Times. When the Times, in a journalistic
sensation, began printing this "top-secret" document, Ellsberg was
arrested and put on trial. The counts against him could have brought a prison
sentence of 130 years. But while the jury deliberated the judge learned, through
the Watergate scandal, that Nixon's "plumbers" had tried to break
into Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office to find damaging material and he declared
the case tainted and called off the trial.
Ellsberg's was only one of a series of resignations from government that took
place during and after the Vietnam War. A number of operatives of the CIA quit
their jobs in the late sixties and early seventies and began to write and speak
about the secret activities of the agency- for example, Victor Marchetti, Philip
Agee, John Stockwell, Frank Snepp, and Ralph McGehee.
For the United States, as for others countries, Machiavellianism dominates foreign
policy, but the courage of a small number of dissenters suggests the possibility
that some day the larger public will no longer accept that kind of "realism."
Machiavelli himself might have smiled imperiously at this suggestion, and said,
"You're wasting your time. Nothing will change. It's human nature."
That claim is worth exploring.