Machiavellian Realism 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
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
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 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 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 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
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 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 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 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
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
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
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 in
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
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.
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