What It Would Take to End Racism and War?
Remarks at George Mason University on September 13, 2017, by David Swanson
Thank you very much for inviting me.
May I see a show of hands of those who believe we should eliminate all racism?
Thank you, and now those who think we should eliminate all war?
In a typical U.S. crowd, I suspect, many more will raise their hands for ending all racism than for ending all war.
Despite the notion that we live in a democracy being largely fraudulent, I think those shows of hands represent very
roughly how far along we are in abolishing what we think of as racism and war. That is to say, I find some significance
in the studies that have found the U.S. government to be in reality an oligarchy. The policies favored by wealthy elites
are generally acted upon. The views of the broader public hardly matter at the national level (a bit more so at the
state level and much more so locally) unless they are accompanied by intense activism and/or they line up with those of
some wealthy elites. If we had direct democracy, government by public referendum, then, based on the trends of opinion
polls, by definition reflecting the miserable state of our communications systems but not reflecting any heavily funded
campaigns to sway any public votes, we would have less investment in wars, more in education, more in clean energy, more
taxes paid by big corporations, less taxes paid by struggling working people, a higher minimum wage, an end to mass
surveillance, more mass transit, strict restrictions on carbon emissions, a ban on weapons in space, a ban on nuclear
weapons anywhere, current wars ended, public financing of election campaigns, gerrymandering banned, voter registration
made automatic, citizenship application open to immigrants, et cetera.
And yet, I think that public opinion reflects roughly where the U.S. is headed on racism and war, in part because public
activism can influence government, in part because government propaganda influences public opinion, and in part because
education — both formal and through the general presence of ideas throughout a popular culture — can influence both
government behavior and public opinion.
Let’s try this. Raise your hand if you think we should eliminate all child abuse. Thank you.
How about all rape? Thank you.
How about all torture of kittens? Thank you.
There are things that most people believe should be entirely eliminated. And they are often things that few powerful
interests teach us are ineliminable.
But, remember that I said that I was talking about how far along we are in abolishing what we think of as racism and
war. What happens when we look closely at what we think of as, for example, child abuse. There is a single nation on
earth that has not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child. There are parties to the convention that are
violating it. But only one country has, as a matter of principle, refused to join it and at least claim to be making an
effort to respect children’s rights. I don’t think I’m being very sneaky here: who can tell me which country it is?
Now, if the United States were party to the convention, it would be forbidden to give life prison sentences to minors no
matter what horrible things they had done. It might be forbidden to use its military recruitment techniques to prepare
children for later recruitment. It would have to respect the rights of child refugees and the children of immigrants. It
would have to ensure that children all have healthcare, and good nutrition, and housing, and education including access
to higher education, and a safe environment. Its corporations would be further barred, as they already are, from using
child labor. The U.S. government might even be bound to weigh the rights of children in the balance when subsidizing the
use of fossil fuels. There have been a number of class-action lawsuits already filed by children against the U.S. and
state governments on the grounds that their public commons are being willfully destroyed. Those suits have been unable
to appeal to a treaty that the U.S. hasn’t ratified. And then, of course, there is the reason you’re more likely to hear
articulated by opponents of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, namely that neither a bunch of foreigners nor
even the U.S. government should say anything about children, as children are the sole and sacred responsibility of the —
guess what? — the F word, but the good F word, what is it? Right, the Family.
So, now, if refusing to join the Convention on the Rights of the Child is child abuse, but joining it is an affront to
the beloved institution called the family, should we end all child abuse? Are you against families? Do you want liberal
foreigners determining U.S. law enforcement policies and impeding military recruitment in the good old USA? Do you want
anyone questioning the honor of uniformed generals visiting elementary schools? Should evil international law be allowed
to prevent toxic waste dumps near schools if Congress says they’re perfectly safe?
OK, raise your hand if you still want to end all child abuse when refusing to ratify this treaty counts as child abuse.
Thank you. If you still raised your hand, please understand that my point is that some people will not, that it depends
how we define our terms.
I want to argue that it’s possible to favor ending all racism but not realize all the places racism exists, and that
it’s possible to oppose ending all war by failing to recognize alternatives to war. I also want to argue that, while
racism or war could be ended while leaving the other in place, the two are so closely interlocked that one without the
other would look very different from how it looks today.
I drove up here from where I live in Charlottesville, a town lately overrun by Nazis and other racists from around the
country come to defend a giant heroic statue of Robert E. Lee on a horse that stands in the middle of town, as well as a
similar one nearby of Stonewall Jackson. Those statues are now covered with giant black tarps but remain standing.
Raise your hand if you know why they remain standing.
It’s not because of a public vote. It’s not because their defenders own more guns than their opponents. It’s not because
Charlottesville City Council wants them there. Those fine people have voted to take the statues down and sell them. So,
why are they still standing there, albeit covered with giant garbage bags of shame?
Some of you have heard but many of you may not have, because the reason they are still there is something thoughtlessly
accepted by all parties. It has nothing to do with the case being made by the Nazis or the KKK, and nothing to do with
the case being made by Black Lives Matter or any of the opponents of the statues. When something is universally
accepted, it isn’t much talked about. Most of the world’s nations are just now putting together a treaty to ban nuclear
weapons. How much debate have you heard on that in the U.S. Congress? Or go back to the war that Lee and Jackson fought
in. The North and the South had a disagreement over slavery, but not primarily over slavery in existing territories. It
was largely because all sides universally assumed without question that the United States had to be an expanding empire,
that a disagreement over how to ban or allow slavery in new territories was disastrously developed into an escapade of
mass killing and destruction.
Now, because I said that, I have no choice but to speak briefly about the U.S. Civil War before returning to the statues
that were put up 60 years after the Civil War in the cause of racism and against the wishes of at least some of the
then-dead people depicted in the statues. Attaching a just and urgent cause like ending slavery to a war, as Lincoln
really did mid-war, when killing and dying for the Union had worn thin, doesn’t actually make a war just. Slavery was
ended more effectively without war—through compensated emancipation, for example—in the colonies of Britain, Denmark,
France, and the Netherlands, and in most of South America and the Caribbean. That model also worked in Washington, D.C.
And of course the Northern U.S. states had ended slavery without war.
On June 20, 2013, the Atlantic Magazine published an article called “No, Lincoln Could Not Have ‘Bought the Slaves’.”
Why not? Well, the slave owners didn’t want to sell. That’s perfectly true. They didn’t, not at all. But The Atlantic
focuses on another argument, namely that it would have just been too expensive, costing as much as $3 billion (in 1860s
money). Yet, if you read closely—it’s easy to miss it—the author admits that the war cost more than twice that amount.
So, the cost of freeing everyone enslaved in the South was not unaffordable, especially when compared to the cost of the
Civil War. If—radically contrary to actual history—U.S. enslavers had opted to end slavery without war, it’s hard to
imagine that as a bad decision for them or for anyone concerned.
Had Congress found the decency to end slavery through legislation alone (it did pass the relevant legislation after
fighting a war), perhaps the nation would have ended slavery without division. Or had the U.S. South been permitted to
secede in peace, and the Fugitive Slave Law been easily repealed by the North, it seems unlikely slavery would have
lasted much longer. The pressures of international morality and of industrialization were against it.
The war did not, in fact, end slavery. As documented in Douglas Blackmon’s book, Slavery By Another Name: The
Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II, the institution of slavery in the U.S. South
largely ended for as long as 20 years in some places upon completion of the U.S. Civil War. And then it was back again,
in a slightly different form, widespread, controlling, publicly known and accepted—right up to World War II. No statute
prohibited slavery until 1950, and the 13th Amendment permits slavery for convicts to this day. This is not to say that
the emancipation at the end of the war was not a very positive step, only that it did not end all slavery, and some of
the slavery that persisted was actually worse than what had gone before.
Five days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government took legal actions to end slavery, to counter
possible criticism from Germany or Japan. Five years after World War II, a group of former Nazis, some of whom had used
slave labor in caves in Germany, were invited to set up shop in Alabama to work on creating new weapons technologies.
They found the people of Alabama extremely forgiving of their past deeds. This team of rocket scientists would later
become the core of NASA.
Of course a nonviolent movement was needed to end Jim Crow.
Had the United States ended slavery without the war and without division, it would have avoided the bitter post-war
resentment that has yet to die down. Ending racism would likely have been a very lengthy process, regardless. But that
process might have been given a head start rather than an enormous hurdle.
My point is not so much that our ancestors could have made a different choice (they were nowhere near doing so, the
North could not have done so without the South, et cetera), but that their choice looks foolish as one to emulate in the
future, knowing what we know of the costs and risks of war, and knowing what we now know about the tools of nonviolence.
If tomorrow we were to wake up and discover a large majority of the populace appropriately outraged over the horror of
mass incarceration, would it help to find some large fields in which to kill each other off in large numbers, after
which we would pass legislation? Or would it make more sense to skip right ahead to passing the legislation?
Now back to those miseducational statues.
The reason the statues are still there in Charlottesville is that a state law in Virginia bans taking down any war
memorials, and courts have yet to rule on whether that law applies retroactively to memorials put up before the law was
passed. And no movement has developed to overturn that law. Nobody’s even talking about it. We do not, by the way, have
a law banning the removal of peace monuments. It would also be pretty hard to find a peace monument to take down if you
Charlottesville has several monuments around town and on the campus of UVA, and they are almost all war monuments.
Ninety-nine percent of our history, all of our activism, artistry, scholarship, athletics, music, industry,
architecture, education, and all of our non-war glories and tragedies are missing.
Now, if you look around Charlottesville for the racist war monuments to take down and the non-racist war monuments to
leave up, you run into another big problem, other than the law. Who can tell me what it is?
That’s right. There aren’t any non-racist war monuments. We have monuments to the wars on the Native Americans. We have
a memorial to the war that killed almost 4 million Vietnamese plus hundreds of thousands of Laotians and Cambodians —
though “Vietnamese” was not the most common word used to designate the people being killed in Vietnam. We have a
monument from World War I, a war promoted as a race war against the evil race of Huns. In fact, it turns out that racism
is a very effective tool for building war support, and it’s quite difficult to find any war that did not make use of
racism or related types of bigotry. It’s simply too difficult to get people to kill large numbers of human beings, and
far far easier to get them to kill something subhuman.
So, if any of you raised your hands to say we should end racism but not to say we should end war, you may effectively be
proposing a new kind of war unlike anything we’ve seen before.
When former Secretary of State Madeline Albright said that killing a half a million children was “worth it,” whatever
the it may have been, she meant a half a million dark-skinned, Arabic-speaking, Muslim children. When President Obama
said he was really good at killing people, as he bombed eight different countries, as candidate Donald Trump promised to
kill more of those people’s families, and as a debate moderator last year asked candidates for U.S. president whether
they’d be willing to kill hundreds and thousands of innocent children, everybody meant and understood foreign people,
dark children, creatures of the wrong religion and language and dress. Not because the U.S. government wants to pursue
genocide (although sometimes it or parts of it clearly do — see John McCain’s threat of “extinction” for North Korea
earlier this week), and not because the weapons companies make more money if non-white people die, but because public
support for bombing and shooting and torturing human beings is much harder to generate than is public support for waging
war on those who are not thought of as human.
Look at how the war on Afghanistan is labeled the longest U.S. war, as though wars on Native Americans were not real
wars because those killed were not real people. I just watched a documentary about the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair that
noted that at the time, Germany and France were great friends, and the U.S. was great friends with the Muslim nations of
the Middle East, and the U.S. was not engaged in any “multi-national wars.” What, you may ask, is a non-multi-national
war? Presumably it is a war against people who don’t count as having a nation. The massacre of Wounded Knee happened
during the planning of the World’s Fair. The Apache also were far from giving up. The Apache, like many other Native
Americans, by the way, are now the name of a U.S. military weapon used to attack new enemies often described as natives
and Indians. Killing Osama bin Laden was called Operation Geronimo.
The U.S. Senate voted down today 61-31 a proposal to repeal the so-called authorization for the use of military force
that has served as a legalistic excuse for 16 years of war in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
The racism of these wars comes home through media and entertainment, through the actions of some returning veterans,
through the military training given to police departments. The racism at home fuels the wars through public support,
through torture techniques exported from U.S. prisons, and through willingness to give up rights in the name of pursuing
So it makes perfect sense for those pursuing peace to also pursue the end of racism. Similarly it makes sense for those
opposing racism to address the problem of war — something addressed very well in the platform of Black Lives Matter,
which I recommend everyone read.
Raise your hand if you know something, anything at all, about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
He said that we needed to go after three evil things together. One of them was racism. One was militarism. What was the
third? Raise your hand if you know.
This is more important than knowing that he had a dream. This is more important than knowing that his dream was not for
immigrants to become citizens if they either found enough money for college or participated in fighting wars. The
so-called Dream Act, in my humble opinion, should be called the Well It Could Be Worse Act.
But what was the third thing?
What is that? Who can tell me?
I’d say pursuing riches over friendships. Conspicuous consumption. Brand consciousness. Shopping as fun or therapy.
Honoring the hoarding of vast filthy piles of wealth. Electing people president who claim to be better than you because
they’re rich. Allowing a concentration of wealth beyond medieval levels. Letting single individuals hoard money that
could otherwise transform the world for the better, and praising them for it. Shunning any collective good even when
more efficient, even when it makes everyone better off, things like universal healthcare and education and retirement
and everything else shunned by the Mercatus Center of George Mason University and formerly of UVA. Or, how about this,
the willful destruction of the earth’s climate, air, soil, and water for the short-term monetary profits of a small
number of people? If that’s not extreme materialism, I don’t know what is. How about tax cuts for billionaires as an
answer to hurricanes?
And how do King’s evil triplets relate to each other? Wars are fought for, among other things, profits. Racism is fueled
by, among other things, economic insecurity and greed. Extreme materialism seeps in to fill a void in lives lacking the
pursuit of peace, justice, community, generosity, and the curiosity needed to learn from those who are different, and
its worst impacts are imposed on people and communities with the least wealth and power.
Is it possible to get rid of all racism and war? What about extreme materialism?
While we can point to numerous hunter-gatherer societies that have lived without war or extreme materialism, for obvious
reasons of their isolation we cannot claim they have lived without racism. Yet we can point to countless examples of
people living without apparent racism, and of people of every description risking their lives to help end racism. There
has never been anything found in human biology to mandate racism for all or any segment of our population. Children are
not born blind to superficial features of human appearance any more than they are to behavioral differences. But whether
they attribute racist significance to those features depends entirely on whether anyone teaches them to do so.
Therefore, there is no reason grounded in our genetics to prevent our living without racism.
The same is true for war. War has only been around for the most recent fraction of the existence of our species. We did
not evolve with it. During this most recent 10,000 years or so, war has been sporadic. Some societies have not known
war. Some have known it and then abandoned it.
Just as some of us find it hard to imagine a world without war or murder, some human societies have found it hard to
imagine a world with those things. A man in Malaysia, asked why he wouldn’t shoot an arrow at slave raiders, replied
“Because it would kill them.” He was unable to comprehend that anyone could choose to kill. It’s easy to suspect him of
lacking imagination, but how easy is it for us to imagine a culture in which virtually nobody would ever choose to kill
and war would be unknown? Whether easy or hard to imagine, or to create, this is decidedly a matter of culture and not
According to myth, war is “natural.” Yet a great deal of conditioning is needed to prepare most people to take part in
war, and a great deal of mental suffering is common among those who have taken part. In contrast, not a single person is
known to have suffered deep moral regret or post-traumatic stress disorder from war deprivation.
War in human history up to this point has not correlated with population density or resource scarcity. It’s not simply
created by powers beyond our easy control. The idea that climate change and the resulting catastrophes will inevitably
generate wars could be a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is not a prediction based on facts. The growing and looming
climate crisis is a good reason for us to outgrow our culture of war, so that we are prepared to handle crises by other,
less destructive means. And redirecting some or all of the vast sums of money and energy that go into war and war
preparation to the urgent work of protecting the climate could make a significant difference, both by ending one of our
most environmentally destructive activities and by funding a transition to sustainable practices. In contrast, the
mistaken belief that wars must follow climate chaos will encourage investment in military preparedness, thus
exacerbating the climate crisis and making more likely the compounding of one type of catastrophe with another.
Human societies have been known to abolish institutions that were widely considered permanent. These have included human
sacrifice, trial by ordeal, blood feuds, duelling, slavery, the death penalty, and many others. In some societies some
of these practices have been largely eradicated, but remain illicitly in the shadows and on the margins. Those
exceptions don’t tend to convince most people that complete eradication is impossible, only that it hasn’t yet been
achieved in that society. The idea of eliminating hunger from the globe was once considered ludicrous. Now it is widely
understood that hunger could be abolished — and for a tiny fraction of what is spent on war. While nuclear weapons have
not all been dismantled and eliminated, there exists a popular movement working to do just that.
But what would a world without racism or war look like? There’s no way to actually predict, but I can propose one way it
could look. Without racism, we’d have more community, more security, more love and enlightenment, less fear and
resentment. But without racism people struggling with poverty, injustice, and insignificance would have to find
somewhere else to vent their anger and blame, or some way to overcome it, or they’d have to reinvent racism and other
similar hatreds. Without war, we’d have more global community, more security, less fear and violence. But without war
we’d have a gigantic pile of money almost too big to possibly figure out what to do with. We hear about the wealth of
the billionaires sometimes, when people make enough noise in the streets. But you could tax all their wealth away once,
and it’d be gone — and we absolutely should do that — but you wouldn’t have anything like the kind of money you could
take away from U.S. military spending each and every year. Tiny fractions of it could transform this country and the
world. It was doubled after the events of 16 years ago this week, and we’re much the worse off for it.
People don’t engage in racism simply because they are financially insecure, and such contributing factors to racism
don’t excuse it, but people who are living well and securely in a relatively egalitarian society don’t have to blame any
problems they don’t have on other racial groups. So if you’re going to end war, why not also create universal
healthcare, education through college, retirement, vacation, unemployment insurance or basic income, etc., and not
create these things for whites only as so many government programs were in the United States in the last century, and
not create them for other groups only even as reparations, but create them equally for all with no bureaucracy needed to
identify the worthy.
The fact that historical injustices have left us with a vast racial wealth gap is a problem, and some form of
reparations is probably part of the best answer. Affirmative action as it has been done is a problem as well, in so far
as it creates resentment among whites. Basic human rights like education should not be parceled out as weak reparations.
Even aid to the poor creates vicious resentments, especially when combined with racist thinking that falsely imagines
the poor as of a particular race, and especially when combined with the ideology of a place like the Mercatus Center
that sees assistance as theft and suffering as irrelevant or educational. All of this is transformed if we consider the
possibility of using all or part of the U.S. military budget for something else. If college and healthcare were
guaranteed to all, and the land of opportunity offered the opportunity to improve that some other nations do,
reparations of past wrongs would be less resisted, including perhaps reparations to people like Iraqis whose countries
have been damaged or destroyed.
We are often distracted from the fact that war is the primary thing our country does. War and militarism and bases and
ships and missiles and sanctions and nuclear threats and hostility make up the filter through which much of the other
96% of humanity experiences this 4%. The U.S. Congress chooses how to spend a great deal of money each year, and chooses
to put 54% of it into war and preparations for war. The wars demonstrably increase rather than reduce or eliminate
anti-U.S. sentiment and violence. They endanger us rather than protect us — and those dangers may last in foreign lands
as long as the U.S. Civil War is lasting here. Gallup polling finds the U.S. widely considered the greatest threat to
peace in the world. The wars are a top cause of death and injury in the world, and a top cause of famines and disease
epidemics and refugee crises that cause massive additional suffering.
But war kills most by diverting resources. Small fractions of U.S. military spending could end starvation, provide clean
water, end diseases, even make major strides toward ending the use of fossil fuels worldwide. Military spending also
reduces jobs in comparison to other spending or not taxing working people in the first place.
The U.S. military consumes more petroleum than most entire countries and has a bigger budget than most governments and
about the size of all other militaries combined. The U.S. military destroys areas of the earth on an unfathomable scale,
including back home where it is responsible for 69% of environmental disaster superfund sites. Yes, the top destroyer of
the U.S. natural environment is the U.S. military.
By the way, we are organizing a flotilla of kayaks to the Pentagon on September 17th to hold up giant banners in front
of it protesting its role in climate change. You don’t need your own kayak or skills. You just need to sign up at
WorldBeyondWar.org or BackboneCampaign.org. And we’re planning a big conference at American University on September
22-24 bringing together top environmental and peace activists, and you can come if you sign up at WorldBeyondWar.org.
While Trump threatens nuclear war, scientists say that a single nuclear bomb could cause climate catastrophe, and a
small number of them could block out the sun, kill crops, and starve us to death. There is no such thing as threatening
nuclear war on someone other than yourself, and no the nukes are not less damaging if Congress authorizes their use.
The erosion we are seeing in our civil liberties, the mass surveillance, the militarized police: these are symptoms of a
criminal enterprise called war. It fuels and is fueled by racism, bigotry, hatred, and violence. The excuses made for it
are so weak and its horrors so inexcusable that the top killer of U.S. participants in war is suicide.
And yet, Trump proposes to move another $50 billion from just about everything good and decent into war, and the
Democrats run around denouncing the supposed cuts without mentioning the existence of the military or the fact that it’s
not cuts at all, but moving the money into war. The Democratic Congressional candidates that have lost all their special
elections this year to warmongering Republicans have in each case presented platforms that did not mention any foreign
policy whatsoever. The same goes for their new hero Randy Bryce. The Progressive Caucus’s dream budget increases
military spending. And of course a certain former Senator from New York who seems to still be running for the 2016
Democratic presidential nomination never met a war she didn’t love.
Even Bernie Sanders, just went on Stephen Colbert’s show and rattled off his list of progressive goals three different
times without ever mentioning war or peace, just as he has done thousands of times. Even the question of whether to end
or continue current wars just doesn’t come up. During the campaign, Senator Sanders said that he thought Saudi Arabia
should “get its hands dirty” and pay for more of the wars, as if Saudi Arabia’s hands weren’t drenched in blood, as if
it weren’t funding wars on the same and opposite side as the U.S. already, and as if wars were some sort of philanthropy
the world depends upon. Senator Sanders falsely as well as immorally defends the murderous F-35 airplane as a jobs
program for Vermont where it will damage the hearing and the brains of the children in the school it takes off over. And
when Senator Sanders was asked “How will you pay for all your ponies?” (Ponies is Hillary Clinton’s word for basic human
rights) he didn’t reply “I’m going to make a slight reduction in military spending.” Instead he gave a complex answer
that produced endless media screaming about tax increases. Contrast that with the popular performance of the next prime
minister of the United Kingdom Jeremy Corbyn who explains that the wars are illegal and counterproductive.
So, we have to move the best and the worst of the politicians in the U.S., and we have to do so with a popular movement
that changes the culture.
But, someone will object, there is a big difference between ending war and ending racism. You can end racism one person
at a time. War you have to end in the whole world all at once, or somebody else will wage war on you when you’re not
ready. Or as someone recently emailed me: if I’m not willing to nuke North Korea I’d better get ready to learn to speak
That’s a statement that would still be nonsense yet have a lot more sense to it if spoken outside the United States. The
United States so dominates the field of war that the notion that it must wait for someone else to end war doesn’t fit
the facts. The U.S. not only leads the sale of war weapons to the world, including to the regions of the world with most
of the wars and where weapons are not manufactured at all, but also leads the world in its own spending on wars and
primarily on war preparations, spending about as much as the rest of the world put together. The U.S. spends close to $1
trillion per year across numerous departments. Other countries that spend $10 billion or more — that is, 1 percent of
U.S. spending — may number 19 or 20. Of those, eight are NATO members, eight more are U.S. allies with U.S. troops
stationed in them. The U.S. actively lobbies these nations to spend more on war, not less. Were the U.S. to take a lead
in scaling back military spending it would certainly spark a reverse arms race.
The United States could also further that agenda by scaling back its wars and its permanent basing. At least 95% of the
military bases in the world that are on foreign soil are U.S. bases. Nobody else installs bases in other countries.
Since World War II, the U.S. military has directly killed some 20 million people, overthrown at least 36 governments,
interfered in at least 82 foreign elections (but obviously not in the bad Russian way), attempted to assassinate over 50
foreign leaders, and dropped bombs on people in over 30 countries. The United States is responsible for the deaths of 5
million people in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, and over 1 million just since 2003 in Iraq. For the past almost 16 years,
the United States has been systematically destroying a region of the globe, bombing Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Libya,
Somalia, Yemen, and Syria, not to mention the Philippines. The United States has “special forces” operating in
two-thirds of the world’s countries and non-special forces in three-quarters of them. For the U.S. to make a move toward
scaling back the war making would have a major impact. 122 countries are trying to ban nuclear weapons. Only one nuclear
country voted to start that treaty process and it was not the U.S., and you wouldn’t believe me if I told you who it
was. Were the U.S. to scale all the way back to a military resembling those of other countries, were it to do away with
offensive weapons, were it to guard its borders rather than the globe, others would respond accordingly. And going the
rest of the way would look more and more realistic.
Doing so would look even more realistic if we understood that war is not needed for defense. Studies like Erica
Chenoweth’s have established that nonviolent resistance to tyranny is far more likely to succeed, and the success far
more likely to be lasting, than with violent resistance. So if we look at something like the nonviolent revolution in
Tunisia in 2011, we might find that it meets as many criteria as any other situation for a so-called Just War, except
that it wasn’t a war at all. One wouldn’t go back in time and argue for a strategy less likely to succeed but likely to
cause a lot more pain and death. Perhaps doing so might constitute a Just War argument. Perhaps a Just War argument
could even be made, anachronistically, for a 2011 U.S. “intervention” to bring democracy to Tunisia (apart from the
United States’ obvious inability to do such a thing, and the guaranteed catastrophe that would have resulted). But once
you’ve done a revolution without all the killing and dying, it can no longer makes sense to propose all the killing and
dying—not if a thousand new Geneva Conventions were created, and no matter the imperfections of the nonviolent success.
Despite the relative scarcity of examples thus far of nonviolent resistance to foreign occupation, there are those
already beginning to claim a pattern of success. Here’s Stephen Zunes:
“Nonviolent resistance has also successfully challenged foreign military occupation. During the first Palestinian
intifada in the 1980s, much of the subjugated population effectively became self-governing entities through massive
noncooperation and the creation of alternative institutions, forcing Israel to allow for the creation of the Palestine
Authority and self-governance for most of the urban areas of the West Bank. Nonviolent resistance in the occupied
Western Sahara has forced Morocco to offer an autonomy proposal which—while still falling well short of Morocco’s
obligation to grant the Sahrawis their right of self-determination—at least acknowledges that the territory is not
simply another part of Morocco.
“In the final years of German occupation of Denmark and Norway during WWII, the Nazis effectively no longer controlled
the population. Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia freed themselves from Soviet occupation through nonviolent resistance
prior to the USSR’s collapse. In Lebanon, a nation ravaged by war for decades, thirty years of Syrian domination was
ended through a large-scale, nonviolent uprising in 2005. And . . . Mariupol became the largest city to be liberated
from control by Russian-backed rebels in Ukraine, not by bombings and artillery strikes by the Ukrainian military, but
when thousands of unarmed steelworkers marched peacefully into occupied sections of its downtown area and drove out the
One might look for potential in numerous examples of resistance to the Nazis, and in German resistance to the French
invasion of the Ruhr in 1923, or perhaps in the one-time success of the Philippines and the ongoing success of Ecuador
in evicting U.S. military bases, and of course the Gandhian example of booting the British out of India. But the far
more numerous examples of nonviolent success over domestic tyranny also provide a guide toward future action.
What about claims that we need, not just defensive wars, but humanitarian wars? Well, we have yet to see one that
benefited humanity. And supporters of humanitarian wars are still far outnumbered by supporters of racist wars. The fact
that both groups support the same wars should worry both groups, by the way.
Well, if not war, then what? Diplomacy, cooperation, aid, the rule of law, arbitration, mediation, truth and
reconciliation, conversion to prosperous peaceful economies. We’ve started building the needed institutions and
practices. Much more is needed.
Raise your hand if you think war is sometimes legal?
War was banned in 1928, and again but with loopholes in 1945, but none of the current wars qualify for the loopholes.
Developing an understanding of this is a necessary step. Also illegal is threatening war, even if you call it “fire and
There’s a medieval doctrine called Just War Theory that has held on in the West beyond any of the rest of the worldview
of the people who created it. Its criteria for making a war just are each either unmeasurable, impossible, or amoral.
For some future war to actually be just, it would have to be so just as to outweigh all the killing and destruction it
did, plus all the unjust wars inevitably created by keeping the institution of war around, plus the risk of nuclear
apocalypse maintained by the institution of war, plus the murderous impact of the diversion of trillions of dollars
every year in military spending, trillions more in lost economic opportunities, and trillions more in property
destruction by war, plus all the environmental destruction, the government secrecy, the erosion of civil liberties, the
corrosion of culture with violence and bigotry, etc. Nothing in the history of the world has ever been that just and
nothing can be.
I think in many cases it does not take much to dissuade racists, which is why Trump’s apparent sanctioning of racist
violence, promising to pay legal bills for thugs at rallies etc., is so damaging. People can be shown directly that
others they despise are intelligent, generous, friendly, and on their side. People can be taught that racism is
unacceptable. That can be all it takes.
We need greater efforts put into anti-racist, pro-humanist education and rallies and counter-rallies. We need the right
to assemble and speak unarmed and without threats of violence. We need a major nonviolent and disciplined movement that
invites supporters of racism to dialogue, even while insisting that they disarm and be held to the rule of law. Just
today, Charlottesville’s daily paper finally acknowledged that the First Amendment might not include the right to speak
and assemble while armed to the teeth.
People can be shown similar things about war. Every time we’re told we urgently need a war on Iran, and public pressure
helps prevent it, and the world does not end, we can ask people to notice that and to question the urgent cries to start
that war the next time they arise. And yet some will still imagine that a war might be needed, or that once an unneeded
war is begun they must cheer for it or be on the side of the enemy. So when we think of ending war, people imagine
ending it only by defeating enemies, not by turning enemies into friends. This won’t work any more than punching Nazis
will work to end Nazism, or shooting guns at hurricanes will turn climate change into a liberal myth.
Now, I’ve said that you cannot have a just war, and our entire culture is founded on the myth of the Justest War Ever,
World War II, so before I take questions I have to say a few words about that. Here are 12 points that can help begin
challenging what we’ve learned:
World War II could not have happened without World War I, without the stupid manner of starting World War I and the even
stupider manner of ending World War I which led numerous wise people to predict World War II on the spot, or without
Wall Street’s funding of Nazi Germany for decades (as preferable to communists), or without the arms race and numerous
bad decisions that do not need to be repeated in the future.
The U.S. government was not hit with a surprise attack. President Franklin Roosevelt had quietly promised Churchill that
the United States would work hard to provoke Japan into staging an attack. FDR knew the attack was coming, and initially
drafted a declaration of war against both Germany and Japan on the evening of Pearl Harbor. Prior to Pearl Harbor, FDR
had built up bases in the U.S. and multiple oceans, traded weapons to the Brits for bases, started the draft, created a
list of every Japanese American person in the country, provided planes, trainers, and pilots to China, imposed harsh
sanctions on Japan, and advised the U.S. military that a war with Japan was beginning. He told his top advisers he
expected an attack on December 1st, which was six days off.
The war was not humanitarian and was not even marketed as such until after it was over. There was no poster asking you
to help Uncle Sam save the Jews. A ship of Jewish refugees from Germany was chased away from Miami by the Coast Guard.
The U.S. and other nations refused to accept Jewish refugees, and the majority of the U.S. public supported that
position. Peace groups that questioned Prime Minister Winston Churchill and his foreign secretary about shipping Jews
out of Germany to save them were told that, while Hitler might very well agree to the plan, it would be too much trouble
and require too many ships. The U.S. engaged in no diplomatic or military effort to save the victims in the Nazi
concentration camps. Anne Frank was denied a U.S. visa. Although this point has nothing to do with a serious historian’s
case for WWII as a Just War, it is so central to U.S. mythology that I’ll include here a key passage from Nicholson
“Anthony Eden, Britain’s foreign secretary, who’d been tasked by Churchill with handling queries about refugees, dealt
coldly with one of many important delegations, saying that any diplomatic effort to obtain the release of the Jews from
Hitler was ‘fantastically impossible.’ On a trip to the United States, Eden candidly told Cordell Hull, the secretary of
state, that the real difficulty with asking Hitler for the Jews was that ‘Hitler might well take us up on any such
offer, and there simply are not enough ships and means of transportation in the world to handle them.’ Churchill agreed.
‘Even were we to obtain permission to withdraw all the Jews,’ he wrote in reply to one pleading letter, ‘transport alone
presents a problem which will be difficult of solution.’ Not enough shipping and transport? Two years earlier, the
British had evacuated nearly 340,000 men from the beaches of Dunkirk in just nine days. The U.S. Air Force had many
thousands of new planes. During even a brief armistice, the Allies could have airlifted and transported refugees in very
large numbers out of the German sphere.”[i]
The war was not defensive. FDR lied that he had a map of Nazi plans to carve up South America, that he had a Nazi plan
to eliminate religion, that U.S. ships (covertly assisting British war planes) were innocently attacked by Nazis, that
Germany was a threat to the United States.[ii] A case can be made that the U.S. needed to enter the war in Europe to
defend other nations, which had entered to defend yet other nations, but a case could also be made that the U.S.
escalated the targeting of civilians, extended the war, and inflicted more damage than might have occurred, had the U.S.
done nothing, attempted diplomacy, or invested in nonviolence. To claim that a Nazi empire could have grown to someday
include an occupation of the United States is wildly far fetched and not borne out by any earlier or later examples from
We now know much more widely and with much more data that nonviolent resistance to occupation and injustice is more
likely to succeed—and that success more likely to last—than violent resistance. With this knowledge, we can look back at
the stunning successes of nonviolent actions against the Nazis that were not well organized or built on beyond their
The Good War was not good for the troops. Lacking intense modern training and psychological conditioning to prepare
soldiers to engage in the unnatural act of murder, some 80 percent of U.S. and other troops in World War II did not fire
their weapons at “the enemy.”[iv] The fact that veterans of WWII were treated better after the war than other soldiers
before or since, was the result of the pressure created by the Bonus Army after the previous war. That veterans were
given free college, healthcare, and pensions was not due to the merits of the war or in some way a result of the war.
Without the war, everyone could have been given free college for many years. If we provided free college to everyone
today, it would then require much more than Hollywoodized World War II stories to get many people into military
Several times the number of people killed in German camps were killed outside of them in the war. The majority of those
people were civilians. The scale of the killing, wounding, and destroying made WWII the single worst thing humanity has
ever done to itself in a short space of time. We imagine the allies were somehow “opposed” to the far lesser killing in
the camps. But that can’t justify the cure that was worse than the disease.
Escalating the war to include the all-out destruction of civilians and cities, culminating in the completely
indefensible nuking of cities took WWII out of the realm of defensible projects for many who had defended its
initiation—and rightly so. Demanding unconditional surrender and seeking to maximize death and suffering did immense
damage and left a grim and foreboding legacy.
Killing huge numbers of people is supposedly defensible for the “good” side in a war, but not for the “bad” side. The
distinction between the two is never as stark as fantasized. The United States had a long history as an apartheid state.
U.S. traditions of oppressing African Americans, practicing genocide against Native Americans, and now interning
Japanese Americans also gave rise to specific programs that inspired Germany’s Nazis—these included camps for Native
Americans, and programs of eugenics and human experimentation that existed before, during, and after the war. One of
these programs included giving syphilis to people in Guatemala at the same time the Nuremberg trials were taking
place.[v] The U.S. military hired hundreds of top Nazis at the end of the war.[vi] The U.S. aimed for a wider world
empire, before the war, during it, and ever since. German neo-Nazis today, forbidden to wave the Nazi flag, sometimes
wave the flag of the Confederate States of America instead.
The “good” side of the “good war,” the party that did most of the killing and dying for the winning side, was the
communist Soviet Union. That doesn’t make the war a triumph for communism, but it does tarnish Washington’s and
Hollywood’s tales of triumph for “democracy.”[vii]
World War II still hasn’t ended. Ordinary people in the United States didn’t have their incomes taxed until World War II
and that’s never stopped. It was supposed to be temporary.[viii] WWII-era bases built around the world have never
closed. U.S. troops have never left Germany or Japan.[ix] There are more than 100,000 U.S. and British bombs still in
the ground in Germany, still killing.[x]
Going back 75 years to a nuclear-free, colonial world of completely different structures, laws, and habits to justify
what has been the greatest expense of the United States in each of the years since is a bizarre feat of self-deception
that isn’t attempted in the justification of any lesser enterprise. Assume I’ve got numbers 1 through 11 totally wrong,
and you’ve still got to explain how an event from the early 1940s justifies dumping a trillion 2017 dollars into war
funding that could have been spent to feed, clothe, cure, and shelter millions of people, and to environmentally protect
[i] War No More: Three Centuries of American Antiwar and Peace Writing, edited by Lawrence Rosendwald.
[ii] David Swanson, War Is A Lie, Second Edition (Charlottesville: Just World Books, 2016).
[iii] Book and Film: A Force More Powerful, http://aforcemorepowerful.org
[iv] Dave Grossman, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society(Back Bay Books: 1996).
[v] Donald G. McNeil Jr., The New York Times, “U.S. Apologizes for Syphilis Tests in Guatemala,” October 1, 2010,
[vi] Annie Jacobsen, Operation Paperclip: The Secret Intelligence Program that Brought Nazi Scientists to America
(Little, Brown and Company, 2014).
[vii] Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick, The Untold History of the United States (Gallery Books, 2013).
[viii] Steven A. Bank, Kirk J. Stark, and Joseph J. Thorndike, War and Taxes (Urban Institute Press, 2008).
[ix] RootsAction.org, “Move Away from Nonstop War. Close the Ramstein Air
[x] David Swanson, “The United States Just Bombed Germany,” http://davidswanson.org/node/5134
David Swanson is an author, activist, journalist, and radio host. He is director of WorldBeyondWar.org and campaign
coordinator for RootsAction.org. Swanson's books include War Is A Lie. He blogs at DavidSwanson.org and WarIsACrime.org.
He hosts Talk Nation Radio.He is a 2015, 2016, 2017 Nobel Peace Prize Nominee.
Follow him on Twitter: @davidcnswanson and FaceBook.
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