Nonviolence can be a major force for democratic social change, but not when it becomes a tool for covert intervention.
A close-cropped, no-nonsense infantry officer, Col. Robert Helvey was studying at Harvard’s Center for International Affairs on an Army fellowship. One day in 1987, he happened upon a seminar led by Gene Sharp, a draft resister imprisoned for refusing to serve in Korea and a systematic scholar of the kind of strategic non-violence that activists of my generation had helped to develop in the free speech, civil rights, and anti-war movements of the 1960s.
“I had an image of nonviolence as being a bunch of long-haired hippies,” Col. Helvey recalled. But Dr. Sharp had come a long way from his Gandhism roots, and Helvey quickly realized that the older man’s approach had “nothing to do with pacifism.” Sharp was talking “about seizing political power or denying it to others,” and doing it without having to break things or kill people.
The idea fascinated Col. Helvey. He invited Sharp to lunch, spent time at the Albert Einstein Institution (AEI), which Sharp had created in Cambridge in 1983, and came to see his new mentor as “the Clausewitz of the nonviolence movement.” An energetic disciple, Col. Helvey would in time become president of AEI and a forceful champion of nonviolent conflict as a weapon of American intervention in other countries.
Were these interventions good or bad? In my opinion, they had elements of both, at least at the start. But they have become a major danger to democracy, not least our own, and an increasing threat to the lives of those that the United States and its allies encourage to make nonviolent revolutions.
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