and U.S. Foreign Policy:
Means and Ends
by Howard Zinn, 1991
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
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
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 reality.
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
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
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 United States?
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 nervous.
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 existed.
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
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
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
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
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 measures."
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 leaders.
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 CIA.
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
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
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
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 physics."
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 or contemplated.
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
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 closely, wrote:
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
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 manageable."
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
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 in war:
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 to be.
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 political.
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
That claim is worth exploring.