Power to the People vs. Power to the Bomb: Alternatives to Nuclear Domination

Even before the first atomic bomb exploded, the United States government had a single, simple principle to guide it through the nuclear age: domination. We would prevent other nations from getting the bomb.

Franklin D. Roosevelt established that principle when he decided not to tell the Soviet Union anything, and not to tell his closest ally, Britain, everything that Americans knew about the bomb. Harry Truman gave classic expression to that principle when he crowed about his power over the Soviets: “I’ll certainly have a hammer on those boys.”

Of course, Truman didn’t have the hammer long. The Soviets soon had the bomb, and other nations followed. So the basic principle had to have a corollary: If we could not be the world’s sole nuclear power, we would be the strongest.

Every president since has followed the same principle in shaping nuclear policy. Some, like FDR and Obama, did it quietly. Some, like Truman, did it more noisily. Donald Trump may turn out to be the noisiest nuclear warrior of all in the White House. As a candidate, he threatened that he might use nukes in the Middle East and in Europe. He has loudly voiced his insistence that Iran and North Korea must cease their nuclear programs.

All presidents, and all those who have helped them shape nuclear policy, have agreed on the basic meaning of “nuclear power”: The bomb must give us the power to dominate as much of the world as possible and to make sure that no other nation can dominate us. (The other meaning of “nuclear power” — the electricity that comes from nuclear-powered generators — is merely an ancillary “benefit” of the science that created the bomb.)

Beneath this way of thinking lies a fundamental premise: The world is divided into dominators and dominated. To have power is to be among the dominators and to avoid becoming dominated. That’s what power means in the world of the nuclear warriors: domination over others.

It’s also what power means in the cultural world of most Americans, which is why the public has generally supported, or at least accepted, the massive nuclear arsenal, despite its phenomenal costs in tax dollars and its much, much higher cost to our sense of personal safety.

We as a nation have largely learned to stop (consciously) worrying and live with — if not love — the bomb for many reasons, no doubt. Most Americans have probably believed presidential claims that we would use the bomb, as we supposedly use all our other military weapons, only to promote peace and democracy around the world.

At a deeper level, though, such moral claims serve mainly to ease our national conscience over our desire to have, and our pleasure in having, seemingly infinite power. If those who do not dominate are bound to get dominated, it makes perfect sense to want, to get and to keep infinite power over others.

Is there any alternative view of power to show us a way out from under the nuclear shadow? The history of the antinuclear movement offers a clue.

“Power With,” Not “Power Over”

There have been two brief eras when the US public’s demand for safety grew stronger than its demand for power. Those eras spawned movements to reduce, and some even said abolish, our nuclear arsenal: once in John F. Kennedy’s presidency and again in the early years of Ronald Reagan’s presidency.

In the JFK era, the anti-nuclear movement was driven largely by fears of radioactive fallout from above-ground nuclear tests. Once Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev agreed to ban testing above ground, and the massive American buildup in Vietnam made that war the center of all attention, the anti-nuclear movement rapidly faded. Only a radical fringe of that movement had spoken out against the idea that power means power over others.

By the time of Reagan’s presidency, though, anti-nuclear activists were much more likely to critique the very idea of power as dominance, so starkly symbolized by the bomb, because most of them were veterans of the ’60s peace movement. Many had not only opposed the Vietnam War, they had learned to think deeply about the foundations of US war-making and foreign policy. They had recognized the definition of “power” embedded in those foundations: Power means domination over others. 

And some had begun to explore the possibility of living life with a very different idea of power: Power means the ability to make things happen. We are most able to make things happen when we work together with others toward shared goals. Real effective power comes not from competition, but cooperation. It is “power with,” not “power over.”

One key source of this idea was the African American civil rights and Black power movements. Nonviolent civil rights activists like Martin Luther King Jr. agreed with Black power advocates on some basic truths about power. Power is always political. It is (in King’s words) “a social force any group can utilize by accumulating its elements in a planned, deliberate campaign to organize it under its own control.”

And there is nothing intrinsically bad about political power. Indeed, disempowered groups, like Black Americans, had to get more power, because the only way to get real reconciliation between groups is first to equalize their power.

So King’s vision of the beloved community, as an ideal that can be realized in this world, would not eliminate power relationships. But it would set them right: “Power at its best is the right use of strength.” The right use is to share power so that no one dominates and everyone is helped to be free to fulfill their personal potential. “Freedom is participation in power,” MLK taught. “Participation” suggests that no one possesses power. Rather, it is a force that all share in.

The growing civil rights movement of the early ’60s inspired a small group of young whites to meet at Port Huron, Michigan, and draft a statement of principles for their new organization, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). It called for a genuine democracy, giving every person a full role in decisions “determining the quality and direction of their life.” It recognized that, to achieve such radical democracy, Americans would have to “replace power rooted in possession [and] privilege … by power and uniqueness rooted in love, reason, and creativity.”

A few years later, the intellectuals of the Black power movement would develop similarly sophisticated views of power and democracy. Soon, all these ideas would be summed up pithily by large crowds, of all races, in the streets demanding (and eventually singing) “Power to the people!”

The rising feminist movements, beginning in the late ’60s, promoted a similar view of power, though from a somewhat different angle. It became commonplace to say that, while men feel powerful dominating others, women feel their power most vividly when they are nurturing and cooperating with others. As a result, many feminists at the time argued that women find it more natural to build community and widen the circles of community, rather than pitting one person or group against another.

The civil rights, Black power, radical democracy and feminist movements converged in promoting the new view of “power with” rather than “power over.” And all agreed that human power, at its best, is closely linked to the power of love. In the first bloom of a new love, we feel at the height of our power, as if anything were possible, not because we are dominating another person, but because we are joining our own life so intimately with another person.

The radical visions of the ’60s extended this power of love from couples to whole societies. In a society based on love, each person would use power to fulfill themselves and help others do the same. Power would be a means to obtain and maintain freedom and justice through harmony, not for some to coerce others. Some radicals dared to extend this vision to a whole world of shared power and love.

From Resistance to the Revolution of “Power With”

The idea of “power with” has been slowly growing in influence over the last 50 years. However, it has often remained on the fringes of American society, as toxic masculinity has hampered efforts for the idea to become mainstream. But a whole generation of activists who learned to be political in the late ’60s understands it well enough. Whether consciously or unconsciously, they have built their political lives around it.

Now the quirks of the American electoral system have given us a president who lost the election by nearly 3 million popular votes but still entered the White House on January 20. It is surely no coincidence that the massive uprising of protest the very next day was a “Women’s March.” But the traditions of the civil rights, Black power and radical democracy movements were very much in evidence at that march, too. Because the great issues at stake in American political life in 2017 can almost all be seen as so many symptoms of the stark difference between “power over” and “power with.”

The most recent analyses of the presidential election suggest that Trump’s success was due largely to white voters who felt they were losing their traditional power over people of color. Other analyses have suggested that it was native-born Americans feeling their power over others is threatened by immigrants.

For many women, Trump’s victory puts the spotlight on the urgent issue of men trying to maintain their age-old power over women’s bodies. For those who are concerned with electoral politics, Trump’s administration (especially Attorney General Jeff Sessions) represents an effort by Republicans to disenfranchise, and thus keep power over, millions of potential Democratic votes. The People’s Climate March and subsequent climate mobilizations have put the focus on the many dangers of humans believing they can have ultimate power over the forces of nature.

The question of power arises most obviously and ominously in the nuclear arena. The news is so often abuzz with some flare-up of “the nuclear threat” — inevitably ascribed to a minor or would-be nuclear power like North Korea or Iran, while ignoring the danger from what Dr. King called “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today, my own government,” which has the largest nuclear arsenal in the world. Every such news report should remind us of the alternative view of power, inherited from the civil rights, radical democracy and feminist movements of the ’60s, which is now fueling the political uprising of 2017.

On every political issue, that alternative view of power points toward alternative policies to counter the Republican push for domination. But it also points to a new consciousness, a new way of thinking about and living in the world, that can tie together all progressive policies, unite the movement and make it not merely a resistance, but the beginning of a true revolution.

Looking back to the ’60s, we can see that it was a quest for new consciousness, linking “power with” to the power of love that made the era truly revolutionary. It was the vision of a revolution in consciousness that united the radical groups of the ’60s into one massive movement. Now the largest surge of progressive activism since the ’60s gives us a chance to create another such mass movement.

When it comes to power, we may have no choice. Whenever we resist Trump and the Republicans, we are not only resisting the traditional notion of “power over,” we are also, necessarily, promoting the idea of “power with.” As Dr. King and so many others have taught us, we can never dispense with power in society altogether. But we can choose the forms that power will take and the ways we will understand the workings of power.

“Power over” and “power with” are the only two concepts of power that are generally available in American political culture. By rejecting “power over,” we necessarily advocate and promote “power with.” Why not do so consciously, even enthusiastically, moving from mere resistance to real revolution, with a nod of gratitude to the roots of today’s movement that stretch back to the 1960s?