Professor Gene Sharp of Southeastern Massachusetts University has given several years of study to the possibilities of deterrence and resistance by civilians as a conceivable alternative, or partial alternative, to the traditional, purely military concepts of national defense that have so long prevailed and continue to prevail in European countries. He has restricted the range of applicability of his researches and reflections to Europe, and has directed them, within those limits, primarily to the neutral countries such as Austria and Finland. But his study is intended to apply, at least hypothetically, to such other countries, now members of one or the other of the great nuclear alliances, as might in some distant future succeed in detaching themselves from the alliance in question and thus find themselves compelled to devise an independent defense policy that makes sense with regard to the military and political realities of the present day. The question addressed in this book is essentially this: Where is the peace-loving, nonaggressive, and nonaligned country to find the maximum security against outside interference and domination in a world where war itself, and therefore the traditional preparations for war, have lost so much of their rationale as instruments of national policy?

The answer in the NATO establishment (and perhaps also, although with diminished conviction and enthusiasm, in the Soviet one, too) would be: in the nuclear deterrent, of course. Either, one would say, you have your own nuclear arsenal, or you ally yourself with someone else who has one.

Mr. Sharp challenges (quite correctly in the opinion of this reviewer) the validity of this supposed alternative. Not only is the nuclear deterrent by its very nature dangerously unstable but it is not really a means of defense. In the concept of nuclear deterrence, Mr. Sharp notes, “the capacity to defend in order to deter has been replaced by the capability to destroy massively without the ability to defend.” Beyond this there is, for any country wishing to go the nuclear road, the necessity of choosing between the development of a nuclear arsenal of one’s own, at vast expense and in defiance of the international effort to restrict proliferation, and the acceptance of an alliance with some existing nuclear power—a relationship bound, as experience has shown, to raise the unanswerable question about whose interests, those of the protector or those of the nominally protected, are eventually to prevail in a moment of crisis so brief as to be responsive only to the impulses of the computer.

Finally, as Mr. Sharp also points out, to create a nuclear arsenal or to accept someone else’s missiles on one’s own territory is to increase immensely, from a point of near zero to a very high level, the danger that in any sort of a nuclear conflict one’s own country will become a likely target. Mr. Sharp could even have strengthened his case, in this respect, by pointing out that the Soviet leaders have repeatedly and specifically affirmed that they would never use nuclear weapons against any country that did not itself deploy them or permit them to be deployed on its own territory—an assurance that deserves greater credence than it has generally received, not only because there would be no reason to put out such a statement exclusively to deceive, but also because, given the general irrationality of the nuclear weapon, that policy in question makes perfectly good sense.

Thus for a nonnuclear country determined to pursue an independent policy but required to live under the shadow of the nuclear competition of the two super-powers, the nuclear option is not a hopeful one. But neither, for that matter, is an exclusive reliance on the traditional concepts of defense with “conventional” weapons. In an age of long-range striking power by aircraft, by missiles, even by long-range artillery, the idea of defense at the frontier has lost its reality. Beyond that, such is now the destructive power of even nonnuclear weapons that a war fought with them, particularly a defensive war presumably conducted largely on one’s own territory, promises nothing but a degree of devastation that makes a mockery of the very idea of military victory. Here we simply get back to the fact that war, generally, as among the industrially advanced and technologically sophisticated countries, can no longer serve any useful purpose—not even that of a defense.

It did not, actually, take the post–World War II advances in weapons technology to establish this fact. It is inescapably clear that in the two great European wars of this century there were, in reality, no victors. These were, in effect, simply senseless orgies of destruction. The damages they inflicted, on the nominal victor and the defeated alike, were far greater and more insidious than people were even aware of at the time, reaching as they did into the spiritual and genetic as well as the purely military and physical realms. It is idle for the independent European country of this day to suppose that by entering into a new and even more horrible round of such carnage it could protect anything worth protecting.


These two supposed alternatives for an independent defense on the part of the unaligned Continental country are therefore, when looked at carefully, no alternatives at all. It is not surprising, in these circumstances, that people’s minds should turn to the question whether there might not be some means of defense that would at least hold out hope of avoiding the sheer physical disasters that both of these supposed alternatives invite. It is this necessity that has led to Professor Sharp’s inquiry into the possibilities and limitations of civilian-based defense; and it would be unfair to judge it in any way other than in relation to the unpromising nature of these two, and only, visible alternatives. It is worth bearing in mind, as one reads his book, that however one assesses the possibilities of civilian-based defense, the nature of the available alternatives is such that it would not take much to be preferable to them.

Mr. Sharp’s study addresses itself, as its subtitle (The Potential of Civilian-based Deterrence and Defence) implies, both to deterrence and to resistance if deterrence fails. The two are of course closely connected; but each requires separate treatment, and receives it.

Deterrence, in this instance, is of particular importance. For the study starts, as so much conventional military thinking fails to do, from the assumption that the presumptive attacker is motivated not just by a blind urge to destroy for destruction’s sake but rather by a wholly rational desire to gain domination over the political life of the victim country and to use that domination to his own advantage. And here, of course, is where the reactions of the civilian population—its will to resist and the preparation it has been given for doing so—come in. To deny this is to fly in the face of the historical evidence. For if we consider the failure of other powers to attack Switzerland during the two world wars, the failure of the Soviet Union to occupy Finland in the wake of their conflicts during World War II, and the similar abstention by Moscow from attacking Yugoslavia after that country’s break with the Soviet Union in 1948, we can see that calculations relating to the respective country’s presumptive powers of internal resistance, while certainly not the only considerations that played a part, occupied a prominent place among those that determined the final decision.

The successful imposition of foreign domination over a given country requires the ability of the dominating power to find, from among the population of that country, a faction either so inspired ideologically or so successfully cowed as to serve as a puppet government. It then requires that this faction should have the capacity to recruit the requisite indigenous bureaucracy, and to compel the population to accept and respect its authority. But whether these conditions can or cannot be met is something that will be importantly affected by the extent and effectiveness of the training, indoctrination, and general preparation for resistance that the population has received in advance of the event. This, in turn, is something the potential aggressor is likely to have a fair idea of before he takes the decision whether or not to attack; and his decision is bound to be affected by his assessment of its importance.

As for resistance itself if deterrence fails, there are a great many possible forms of this (Mr. Sharp has himself identified nearly two hundred of them). Some of these may be overt and largely spontaneous; others require the most highly centralized leadership, training, and direction. Some are designed to have military effect; others are directed solely to civilian administration. Some require mass participation; others can be conducted only conspiratorially, by carefully selected and highly trained individuals. The mix to be chosen in any given instance must depend on the nature of the country in question and the peculiarities of the prevailing situation. To select among these, and to conduct careful advance planning and preparation for their implementation, is a function that lies at the heart of civilian-based defense as Mr. Sharp sees it; and it is precisely in this respect that his reflections are most importantly innovative.

For seldom, if ever, in the contests of the past, has there been any such thing as this careful advance preparation. The resistance movements that made themselves felt during the Second World War were almost without exception ones that had to be improvised under conditions of extreme danger and difficulty—under the eyes and guns, that is, of the occupier. There can be no doubt that had they had the sort of advance preparation this study envisages, their effectiveness would have been increased several times over. Lines of command would have been known; effective channels of communication would have existed; there would have been adequate caches of weapons and supplies; ordinary citizens would have had guidance and instruction as to how to behave; given types of action would have been rehearsed and prepared.


Skeptics may point to the long endurance of the Soviet hegemony in Eastern Europe as evidence of the hopelessness of civilian resistance to domination by a strong outside power. But again, what they will be citing as an example is not at all what Mr. Sharp has in mind. There was, in those instances, no possibility whatsoever for advance preparation—quite the contrary. What the Soviet authorities found before them, as their armies overran this great region, was a territory where all semblance of real indigenous authority had already been swept away by the preceding Nazi-German occupation. It is often forgotten that it was not the Russians but the Nazis who destroyed the prewar status quo in that part of the world, and with it all social and political stability. What the Russians found there was in fact a territory ideally prepared to receive just the sort of domination they were desirous of establishing—a situation, in short, just the opposite of the one Mr. Sharp has in mind when he examines the possibilities of a resistance well prepared in advance by an indigenous government enjoying the confidence of the people. For this concept, there are, in fact, few examples. It is a modern concept, addressed to the unprecedented conditions of this modern age.

I am not in total agreement with all of Mr. Sharp’s argument. There are places where the emphasis, in my view, could have been usefully shifted. I would have placed more weight on highly centralized, clandestine direction, less on spontaneous mass action. I am not sure that the nature of civilian defense planning should be so widely publicized as the author of the book would seem to envisage. I am less sanguine than he is about the possibilities for demoralizing the armed forces of an intruder. But these are minor differences, particularly if we take into account the limitations Mr. Sharp has placed on his own conclusions.

There is, of course, in this endangered world, no such thing as absolute defense for anyone; and Mr. Sharp advances no claim that a civilian-based system would provide this. He does not even claim that civilian-based defense could usefully constitute the only component of an adequate defense policy. He recognizes that it might have to be combined, at one stage or another, with the actions of certain types of regular military forces. He does not even depict his own conclusions as definitive. His plea is only that civilian-based defense has a legitimate place among the options open to the sort of country he is talking about; that this place is plainly larger than has been generally supposed; and that its possibilities ought to be more carefully studied and considered than they have been in the past. His primary purpose in writing the book was, he says, “to make civilian-based deterrence and defense a thinkable policy which is recognized as meriting further research, policy studies, and an evaluation.” And for this, he makes a reasonably good case.

But he must not expect, just for this reason, that the effort to win understanding for his views will be easy going. It goes against the grain of all established strategic thinking. The professional military establishments will brush it off with incredulity, if not with contempt. It will arouse in many circles the same skepticism, and perhaps the same derision, that this reviewer brought down upon himself when he had the temerity to advance somewhat similar ideas in a widely publicized radio lecture delivered over the facilities of the BBC many years ago.

But the view advanced in this book deserves consideration, if only because of the bankruptcy of all the visible alternatives to it. It might just be that in a world where the devices of long-range military destruction have proliferated beyond all reason, the greatest security any country can hope to have, imperfect as it is, will be found to lie primarily in its confidence in itself, in its readiness to leave other people alone and to go its own way, it its willingness to accept the sort of social discipline that a civilian-based defense implies—in a stance, in other words, that offers minimal incentive to foreign military intrusion but promises to make things difficult, painful, and unprofitable for any power that decides, nevertheless, to intrude. Such principles may not be everywhere applicable. Nowhere may they be the complete answer to the problems at hand. But beggars, in this world of destructive power unlimited, cannot always be choosers. And Mr. Sharp’s approach, certainly more humane and in a small way more hopeful than many others, deserves at least to be given a hearing.

To see things in this way will require, however, a rather basic change in the view hundreds of millions of people have been taught to take of the sources of national security and of the means by which it may be usefully promoted. The new view would be one that looks primarily inward—to the quality of the respective society, to the character of its institutions, to its social discipline and civic morale, rather than outward to the effectiveness of its armed forces—for the true sources of its strength and its security. It suggests, in Mr. Sharp’s words, “the direct defense of society as such—its principles, free institutions, and liberties—rather than a futile attempt to defend territory as an indirect means to defend the society.” It raises, in fact, the question whether any society can be stronger in relation to others than it is to itself.

What is implied here is no less than a change in political philosophy. For it taps, as Mr. Sharp says in his final passages, “a crucial insight into the nature of power”—namely, that

all political power is rooted in and continually dependent upon the co-operation and obedience of the subjects and institutions of the society…. It is indeed possible for whole societies to apply that insight…against internal and foreign aggressors, and to triumph…. With effort, risks, and costs, it is possible for Europeans—and all peoples—to make themselves politically indigestible to would-be tyrants. The process has already begun.

Perhaps those words overstate the case; but if so, not greatly. One ends the reading of the book wondering whether, if this change in political philosophy were to take place, it might not have wider effects than just those that relate to the concepts of national security—whether many other things might not also change, and, in the main, usefully so.

This Issue

February 13, 1986