The Great Silence
by Howard Zinn
excerpted from the book
Howard Zinn on History
Seven Stories Press, 2000, paper
As the presidential race for the year
2000 got under way, it became clear that all the candidates, Democrat
and Republican, were ignoring those aspects of American policy
which had the most consequences for the people of the world-war,
militarism, and what the World Bank called a "silent genocide,"
the deaths by malnutrition and sickness of millions of children.
Every day, as the soggy rhetoric of the
presidential candidates accumulates into an enormous pile of solid
waste, we gee more and more evidence of the failure of the American
political system. The candidates for the job of leader of the
most powerful country in the world have nothing important to say.
On domestic issues, they offer platitudes about health care and
social security and taxes which are meaningless given the record
of both political parties. And on foreign policy, utter silence.
That silence is what I want to talk about.
In domestic policy, there are enough slight
differences among the candidates to make some liberals and progressives,
desperate for hopeful signs, seize upon the most feeble of promises.
No candidate, Democrat or Republican, as they propose lame and
wobbly steps towards taking care of some fraction of the forty
million uninsured, suggests universal, non-profit, government-guaranteed
health care. None of them, muttering unintelligibly about one
or another tax plan, talk about taxing the wealth and income of
the super-rich in such a way as to make several trillion dollars
available for housing, health, jobs, education.
But in foreign and military policy, there
are not even mutterings about change. All the candidates vie with
one another in presenting themselves as supporters of the military,
desirous of building our military strength. Here is Mr. Universe,
bulging ridiculously with muscles useless for nothing except winning
contests and bullying the other kids on the block (it is important
to be #1, important to maintain "credibility"), promising
to buy more body-building equipment, and asking all of us to pay
How can we, if we have any self-respect,
support candidates- Republican or Democrat-who have nothing to
say about the fact that the United States, with 4% of the world's
population, consumes 25% of its wealth, who have nothing to say
about our obligation to the other 96%, many of whom are suffering
as a result of American policy?
What is that obligation? First, to follow
the principle of the physicians' Hippocratic Oath, "Do No
Harm." Instead, we are doing much harm. By depriving the
people of Iraq of food, medicine, and vital equipment, we are
causing them enormous suffering, under the pretense of "sending
a message" to Saddam Hussein. It appears we have no other
way to send a message but through killing people. How does this
differ, except in scale, from the killings done by terrorists
around the world, who also defend their acts by their need to
"send a message.
Similarly with the Cuban embargo. We pretend
we care about "democracy" in Cuba, we who have supported
dictatorship there and all over Latin America for a hundred years.
Truth is, we cannot bear the thought that Castro for forty years
has defied us, refused the homage-its material form being part
of the world capitalist club-to which we are accustomed in this
hemisphere. And there are precious votes in Florida, more precious
than any possible deprivation for the children of Cuba.
Which candidate, Democrat or Republican,
has had the decency to speak out on this? What meaning has the
phrase "human rights" if people are denied the necessities
Which of them has said a word about our
obscene possession of thousands of nuclear weapons-while Washington
goes into hysterics over the possibility that some country in
the Middle East may some day have one nuclear bomb? None of them
has the courage to say what common sense tells us, and what someone
so expert on military issues and so tied to the Establishment
as Paul Nitze (an ambassador-at-large in the Reagan administration)
has publicly said: "I see no compelling reason why we should
not unilaterally get rid of our nuclear weapons....It is the presence
of nuclear weapons that threatens our existence."
While the front pages report the latest
solemn pronouncements of the candidates, claiming to care about
the well-being of Americans, the inside pages report the brutal
Russian assault on Chechnya, with not a word from these candidates
about the well-being of men, women, and children huddled in the
basements of Grozny, awaiting the next wave of bombings.
There have been a few lame expressions
of protest from the Clinton administration, but it is careful
not to offend the Russian leaders, and so last October, The Toronto
Sun reported: "In Moscow, standing next to her beaming Russian
hosts, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright proclaimed 'we
are opposed to terrorism,' meaning Islamic rebels in the Caucasus
fighting Russian rule." We can't forget that Clinton supported
the Russian war on Chechnya from 1994 to 1996, going so far (he
does get carried away) as to compare Chechnya to the Confederacy
of the Civil War, which had to be put down for the sake of the
larger nation. Yeltsin as Lincoln-that does seem a bit of a stretch.
Is it possible that the various candidates,
all supported by huge corporate wealth (it is expected that three
billion dollars will be spent for the elections of the year 2000),
do not dare challenge a foreign policy whose chief motivation
is not human rights but business profit? Behind the coldness to
the people of Chechnya-there is the crass matter of oil in that
part of the world.
Last November, Stephen Kinzer of The New
York Times reported from Istanbul:
"Four nations in the Caspian Sea
region took a giant step today toward embracing one of President
Clinton's cherished foreign policy projects, a pipeline that would
assure Western control over the potentially vast oil and natural
gas reserves...and give the United States greater influence in
The word "cherished" suggests
an emotional attachment one cannot find with regard to human rights
in the Third World.
Does Clinton equally "cherish"
projects designed to eliminate hunger and illness in the world?
The World Health Organization has described
the plight of ten million people in the world-dying of AIDS or
tuberculosis-as "a silent genocide."
The numbers make it as serious and frightening
as Hitler's genocide, which our political leaders regularly deplore,
at no cost to them. But no candidate proposes that we stop spending
several hundred billions on the military, stop selling arms to
countries all over the world, stop the use of land mines, stop
training the officers of military dictatorships in the Third World-and
use that money to wipe out tuberculosis and try to stem the spread
The candidate Gore, speaking to the UN
Security Council a few weeks ago, and required to say something
about the epidemic, promised to increase the U.S. commitment to
fight AIDS up to $325 million. That is a tinier commitment than
that of other industrialized countries, and less than the money
spent for one fighter-bomber. That sum should be compared to $1.6
billion dollars proposed by the Clinton administration for Colombia
to deal with drugs, but perhaps really to deal with rebellion.
I suppose the problem is that people who
are being bombed around the world, or people who are dying as
the result of preventable illnesses, do not vote in American elections.
If our political system is not sensitive to human suffering in
this country where there are no votes to be counted-the homeless,
the imprisoned, the very poor- how can we expect it to care a
whit about people a thousand miles from our voting booths, however
miserable their situation?
Since our political system-bi-partisan
in its coldness to human rights-determines that no candidate will
talk about such a system cannot be respected. It can only be protested
against, challenged, or, in the words of the Declaration of Independence,
referring to a/ government that has violated its responsibility
to its people, ''altered or abolished." That's a tall order,
but it can be prepared for by a multitude of short steps, in which
citizens act, outside of the party system, to redress their grievances.
Ultimately, the power of government, of big business, is fragile.
We have seen this many times in history. When people, moved by
indignation, wanting to live in a decent society, act together,
a new and irresistible power is created, and democracy comes alive.
Zinn On History
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