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Albert Einstein



‘My pacifism is an instinctive feeling, a feeling that possesses me because the murder of men is abhorrent. My attitude is not derived from intellectual theory but is based on my deepest antipathy to every kind of cruelty and hatred.’

‘Science is a powerful instrument. How it is used, whether it is a blessing or a curse to mankind, depends on mankind and not on the instrument. A knife is useful, but it can also kill.’

Albert Einstein had two public passions. One was his work: he was a dedicated and ground-breaking scientist. The other was peace, to which he was committed all his life. Both passions involved journeys of discovery. When the two paths met, one of the great modern problems was exposed: how responsible are scientists for the consequences of their discoveries?

Albert Einstein was born in Germany on March 14 1879. His mother noticed that the back of her baby’s head was unusually large, and for a moment thought there was something wrong. With her encouragement Albert was taught to play the violin when still very young, and he became an excellent musician. (As an adult he would take his fiddle everywhere: he found that playing it relaxed him.) He learned to sail, too, which he loved. And he knew by the age of 12 what he wanted to spend his life studying: nothing less than the behaviour of the universe.

To a child like Albert, school could only be pedestrian, intimidating and alien. He loathed the ‘dull, mechanical method of teaching’; he didn’t fit in, he didn’t work, and was thought ‘precocious and insolent’; at 15 he took seriously the suggestion of an unfriendly tutor, and left. Somehow he got together the qualifications he needed to get into the renowned Polytechnic in the Swiss city of Zürich, where, at last, he could study physics as he wished (though even there one of his maths tutors called him a lazy dog).

By this time it was obvious that Albert Einstein was an unusual young man, whose greatest pleasure and satisfaction was in thinking about scientific theory, and who never wore socks (‘not even when he was invited to the White House!’ his secretary later revealed). In 1905, though working full-time as Technical Expert (Third Class) at the Swiss Patent Office in Berne, he published a series of remarkable scientific papers. They won him a PhD - and also radically changed human understanding of the universe. He was only 26 years old.

Albert Einstein brought a new perspective to the relationships between light, time, space, matter and gravity. 1905 was also the year of his famous equation: E=mc2. This was a way of expressing his theory that matter could be converted into huge amounts of energy. It was Einstein who proved, through his ‘thought experiments’, that atoms really exist. His work helped to make quantum physics possible - without which much modern technology (including computers) might still be a closed book. It was for this work, not for his more famous theory of relativity, that he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1921.

The years of his greatest discoveries were, he said, the happiest years of his life. He was not yet famous, so ‘nobody expected me to lay golden eggs’ of yet more new and surprising scientific insights; and the First World War had not yet begun.

Einstein and the First World War
Albert Einstein was born a German, took Swiss nationality in 1900 and German-Swiss nationality after the war, renounced German citizenship in 1933, and became an American citizen in 1940. Such real and symbolic frontier-crossing was appropriate in a man who hoped for a world in which there were no binding or fanatical nationalist allegiances to cause distrust, hostility and war.

In 1914 Einstein had just taken up a high-ranking science post in Berlin. When the war began, international criticism of Germany for attacking a neutral country (Belgium) was so great that a government-sponsored ‘Manifesto to the Civilised World’ was published. It defended German militarism and was signed by nearly 100 famous German intellectuals. A prominent German pacifist responded with a ‘Manifesto to Europeans’, which challenged militarism and ‘this barbarous war’ and called for peaceful European unity against it. ‘Educated people in all countries should use their influence to bring about a peace treaty that will not carry the seeds of future wars.’ Only three other people were brave enough to sign this peace manifesto; one of them was Einstein. It was the first of many public actions he took to promote pacifist ideals over the next 40 years.

Throughout the First World War Einstein supported anti-war movements in whatever ways he could, quietly campaigned for democratic government in Germany, wrote letters, asked awkward questions. When the war was over he was able to speak in public in favour of democracy; but nearly 25 years later he wrote to a friend: ‘Do you remember when we took a trolley-car to the Reichstag, convinced we could turn those fellows into honest democrats? How naïve we were, even at the age of 40! It makes me laugh to think of it.’

In 1919 observations made of an eclipse of the sun confirmed Einstein’s theory about the relation of time and space and the nature of gravity. It made headline news, and Einstein became an international celebrity.

But this didn’t stop him from being thoroughly unpopular in Germany, where he had found that ‘even men of high culture cannot rid themselves of narrow nationalism’. As well as enduring anti-Semitism and attacked, together with other scientists, for ‘world-bluffing Jewish physics’, Einstein faced contempt for his opinions. ‘There’s no doubt that people are very irritated by my pacifist orientation’. Communists disliked his unshakeable independence of mind; religious leaders feared that his new science would empty the churches. And as Nazism took hold, brown-shirted students hissed him at lectures; one openly threatened to ‘cut that Jew’s throat’.

Einstein’s view was straightforward, non-political and non-sectarian: what intellectuals could and should do was to promote international reconciliation through their scientific work and artistic achievements: ‘creative work lifts people above personal and selfish national aims’. One among many of his sometimes unexpected practical suggestions was that students would do well to study in the countries their own country had been fighting. ‘First-hand experience of this kind provides the most powerful antidote to the catastrophic ideologies created by the World War.’

It wasn’t until 1922, when he was travelling through northern France, that Einstein saw for himself the still-ravaged battlefields of the First World War. He was horrified. ‘War is a terrible thing, and must be abolished at all costs,’ he said again and again. That summer, the German minister of foreign affairs (who, like Einstein, was a Jew who preached internationalism) was assassinated. Einstein ignored warnings from worried friends to keep his own head down, and appeared publicly at the annual rally of the ‘No More War’ movement in Berlin.

In the same year a German pacifist handbook was published. It contained an article by Einstein. ‘Whoever cherishes the values of culture cannot fail to be a pacifist....The natural scientist responds to pacifist aims because of the universal nature of his subject and his dependence on international co-operation. The development of technology has made the economies of the world interdependent, so every war has world-wide effects.’

In the spring of 1923 Einstein visited Japan, and fell in love with it. ‘The Japanese are a wonderful people in a beautiful land.’ But in Europe the news was bad. Nazism and its racist creeds were spreading. Mussolini was entrenching his fascist dictatorship in Italy. France had re-occupied part of Germany (the industrial area of the Ruhr valley) demanding reparation money for war damage. Einstein, asked by someone for his autograph, wrote: ‘Children do not listen to the wisdom of their elders. Nations do not listen to history. The bitter lessons of the past must ever be learned anew.’

Einstein and the League of Nations
‘When we realise the significance of the world’s interdependence, we will be able to gather the energy and goodwill needed to create an organisation that will make war impossible.’ The organisation that seemed to offer that hope was the League of Nations (predecessor of the UN), founded in 1920.

Einstein, together with other famous intellectuals (including Marie Curie, discoverer of radium), was invited to become a member of the League’s Committee on Intellectual Co-operation, aiming to mobilise international intelligentsia to work for peace. Believing ‘that science is and always will be international,’ Einstein was happy to join.

But when the League was unable to deal with the French re-occupation of the Ruhr, he resigned from the Committee: ‘I have become convinced that the League has neither the strength nor the sincere desire it needs to achieve its aims. As a convinced pacifist, I request that you strike my name from the list of members.’ He explained: ‘By its silence and its actions, the League functions as a tool of those nations which, at this point of history, happen to be the dominant powers’.

But he did not renounce the principles of the League. A year later, he said, with characteristic honesty, ‘I’ve come to feel that I was influenced more by a mood of disillusionment than by clear thinking,’ and re-joined the Committee. Its members grew very fond of him. ‘He was a delightful colleague. The only points on which we had differences were due to his special kindliness. He was unwilling to condemn anyone.’ Committee members were invited to give a lecture to the students of Geneva University; when it was Einstein’s turn, he charmed them by playing his violin instead.

He attended meetings regularly until 1930, but then withdrew: the committee lacked ‘the determination needed to make real progress towards better international relations’, and, essentially a man who worked alone, he doubted his own suitability for committees. On the League of Nations’ 10th anniversary in 1930 he said, ‘I am rarely enthusiastic about what the League has accomplished, or not accomplished, but I am always thankful that it exists’.

Einstein and war resistance
An international movement for individual resistance to war had grown steadily since 1914. In 1928 Einstein began to make public his own support for ‘absolute refusal of military service’. With other international pacifists, he signed a manifesto against military conscription.

He was elected to the board running the pacifist German League for Human Rights, and wrote a special statement for their journal commemorating the 10th anniversary of the Armistice. In it he said, ‘The political apathy of people in time of peace indicates that they will readily let themselves be led to slaughter later. Because today they lack even the courage to sign their names in support of disarmament, they will be compelled to shed their blood tomorrow.’

In 1929 he made another statement (which would be quoted many times), this time in an independent Czech journal called ‘The Truth’. Asked what he would do if another war broke out, Einstein said, ‘I would unconditionally refuse all war service, direct or indirect, and would seek to persuade my friends to take up the same stance, regardless of how I felt about the causes of any particular war’. The publication was suppressed, but Einstein’s statement found its way into international newspapers.

At the end of 1930 Einstein sailed to the USA. (‘The excessive and pretentious attention makes me uncomfortable.... I feel odd about my own unpolished manners.’) It was on this visit that he made his famous ‘2%’ speech. ‘In countries where conscription exists, the true pacifist must refuse military duty. In countries where compulsory military service does not exist, true pacifists must publicly declare that they will not take up arms in any circumstances.... The timid may say, ?What’s the use? We’ll be sent to prison.? To them I say: even if only two per cent announced their refusal to fight, governments would be powerless - they would not dare send such a huge number to prison.’ Badges marked ‘2%’ soon began to appear on young Americans’ jacket lapels.

In America Einstein made speeches; attended press conferences, meetings and ceremonies; met politicians, musicians, scientists and other intellectuals; and received honours, including the keys of New York City. He was dogged by photographers and autograph-hunters.

His main purpose, however, was scientific: a visit to the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, not far from the leading centre for astrophysical research at Mount Wilson Observatory. Einstein told several hundred Caltech students: ‘Why does applied science bring us so little happiness? The simple answer is that we have not yet learned to make proper use of it. In time of war it has given men the means to poison and mutilate one another. In time of peace it has made our lives hurried and uncertain. It has enslaved us to machines. The chief objective of all technological effort must be concern for mankind. Never forget this when you are pondering over your diagrams and equations!’

Einstein wrote an article about his trip, which was published in the USA after he had left. It makes disconcerting reading now. Einstein saw that ‘the United States is today the most powerful among the technologically advanced countries of the world. Its potential influence on international politics is incalculable. But America’s people so far have not taken much interest in the great international problems, chief among which is disarmament. The people of the USA must realise that they have responsibility for the political development in the world. The role of idle spectator is unworthy of America. In the long run it would be disastrous for all of us.’

Einstein and disarmament
Einstein carried on his scientific work with dedication, but his international work for peace continued as long as he could do most of it from his desk.

He wrote letters of pleading to people such as the Finnish minister of defence, law court chiefs in Bulgaria and Poland where people were on trial for anti-war activities, and the High Commissioner for Palestine. (Though a committed Zionist, Einstein was also concerned about the rights of Palestine’s Arabs.)

He supported active opposition to the militia system in Switzerland, and wrote comfortingly to a war resister there. ‘Let me express my respect for your courage and integrity. A man like yourself acts as a grain of sand in a machine: by such grains the war machine will be destroyed.’

He sent a message to over 100,000 Belgians on an annual peace pilgrimage: ‘Any pacifist movement that doesn’t actively struggle for disarmament is bound to be powerless’. He gave money to the war resistance movement in Denmark, and helped raise funds for War Resisters International.

To the WRI meeting in Lyons in 1931, Einstein’s message was: ‘You may become the most effective group of men and women involved in the greatest of human endeavours. The people of 56 countries whom you represent have a potential power far mightier than the sword. All the nations of the world are talking about disarmament. You must teach them to do more than just talk. The people must take it out of the hands of statesmen and diplomats. Only they themselves can bring disarmament into this world.’ His words made a deep impression.

There was indeed a lot of talk about disarmament in the early 1930s; there was even a special conference about it in Geneva in 1932. (‘Ought one to laugh, weep, or hope when one thinks about it?’ wondered Einstein.) As the whole event looked like collapsing for lack of agreement, Einstein paid it a brief visit and held a press conference. ‘If the implications weren’t so tragic, the Conference’s methods could only be called absurd. One doesn’t make wars less likely to happen by formulating rules of warfare.... The solution to the peace problem can’t be left in the hands of governments.... I think the conference is heading for a bad compromise. Whatever agreement is made about the ?types of arms permissible in war? would be broken as soon as war began. War can’t be humanised. It can only be abolished.’

1932 was a difficult year in Einstein’s struggle for peace. First there was the failure of the Disarmament Conference. Then a proposal for an International Peace Centre at The Hague lost its way when several main international pacifist organisations backed off. An anti-war congress in Amsterdam was politically hi-jacked by the USSR. Einstein himself was accused of communism and repudiated for his pacifism - in America, where he was on January 30 1933, the day Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. ‘I’m not going home,’ Einstein told an interviewer.

Einstein against Nazism
It was a wise decision. It wasn’t long before Nazi officials confiscated his property in Germany. He had made some preparations, but was still grateful to ‘my Dutch colleagues, who united to help me over initial financial difficulties’.
Though he had foreseen the Nazi party’s seizure of power, it still devastated him. He spent some months in Belgium sorting out what his response would be. As he put it, ‘a group of armed bandits has successfully silenced the responsible sections of the population and imposed a kind of revolution from below which will soon destroy or paralyse everything that is civilised.’

Einstein’s attitude to war resistance began to change. In the spring of 1933, he had believed that an efficient and wholesale economic blockade would be enough to bring down the Nazi regime. Now, in the summer, he pressed for an international peace force to prevent Nazi atrocities. Now, he supported the New Commonwealth Society’s call for ‘no disarmament without security, no security without an international court of arbitration and an international standing army’.

More than that: he told the King of the Belgians that, in the present situation, Belgium’s army was a means of defence; if it came to it, conscientious objectors should be offered alternative war service. And he told an antimilitarist colleague; ‘If I were Belgian I would not, in the present situation, refuse military service. I would enter it in the belief that I was helping European civilisation’.

Pacifists everywhere were horrified; some were upset, others were angry. ‘You can be sure that every chauvinist, militarist and arms merchant will now delight in ridiculing our pacifist position,’ said one leading British activist.

Einstein replied, clearly: ‘I loathe all armies and any kind of violence; yet I’m firmly convinced that at present these hateful weapons offer the only effective protection.’ Should Nazi militarism prevail, ‘you can be sure that the last remnants of personal freedom in Europe will be destroyed’.

But Einstein never stopped supporting pacifist ideals. Perhaps we should remember that Einstein knew at first hand what the Nazis were capable of; he knew that Germany was now re-arming, fast; and he knew (from its victims) of ‘the war of annihilation against my defenceless fellow Jews’. More than that, as he saw it, civilisation and culture were under threat, and despite so much hard work for peace, the world had not yet been able to devise a non-military way of dealing with this kind of threat. (To understand is not to excuse; but it’s what pacifists try to do when talking with people who disagree.)

In September 1933 Einstein left Belgium for England. From there he wrote, ‘My present attitude towards military service was reached with the greatest reluctance and after a difficult inner struggle’. Despite rumours that plots to kidnap or assassinate him had followed him from Europe, he spoke at a mass meeting in the Royal Albert Hall. It was organised by refugee aid workers focused on assisting Jewish academics to escape from Nazi persecution (help which Einstein, too, offered personally to scores of colleagues). He told the audience of 10,000 that ‘freedom itself is at stake....one can only hope that the present crisis will lead to a better world’.

Einstein in exile
Einstein arrived in the USA on October 17 1933. He was 54 years old. The new Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton had offered him a post, and Princeton became his permanent home. He never returned to Europe. Shortly after Einstein arrived, a friend said ‘it was as if something had died in him. He did not laugh any more’.

Einstein’s cause now was the establishment of a truly international organisation that would ensure peace, and this was the theme of many of his messages (which he didn’t stop sending) to anti-war groups and meetings. ‘I am,’ he told a rabbi, ‘as ardent a pacifist as I ever was.’

He had told the Albert Hall audience that what was needed was ‘enlightenment and education’; this too, became a repeated call. ‘We must educate the people,’ he told an interviewer in 1935, ‘so that they choose to outlaw war’. He was certain war could be abolished, and it would be done, ‘not through fear’, but by invoking ‘what is best in human nature’. Something else was necessary, too: ‘we need to be made conscious of our prejudices and learn to correct them’.

When Hitler marched into Austria in 1938, the persecution of Jews in Europe grew even worse. Einstein tried to start an immediate appeal to non-Jews in Europe and America, for help in ‘averting the worst’. ‘No government has the right to conduct a systematic campaign of physical destruction of any segment of the population which resides within its borders. Germany has embarked on such a path in its inhuman persecution of German and Austrian Jews....Can there be anything more humiliating for our generation than to feel compelled to request that innocent people be not killed?’

In 1929 an essay of Einstein’s, called ‘The World as I see it’, had been published. Ten years later, it was reprinted. ‘What I wrote then still seems essentially as true as ever; yet it all seems curiously remote and strange. Has the world changed so profoundly? Or is it merely that I have grown older and my eyes see everything in a changed, dimmer light?...In these ten years confidence in the stability of civilised society has disappeared. One senses that a lower value is placed on what one would like to see protected at all costs.... Awareness of this overshadows every hour of my present existence.’ To his friend the Queen Mother of the Belgians he wrote, ‘The moral decline we are compelled to witness, and the suffering it causes, are so oppressive one can’t ignore them for a moment. No matter how deeply one immerses oneself in work, a haunting feeling of inescapable tragedy persists.’

Einstein and the atomic bomb
‘Politics is for the moment. An equation is for eternity.’ In 1905 Einstein had published his revolutionary equation showing that matter and energy were equivalent and interconvertible. There was much speculation by scientists on how that atomic power might be released, and, once released, sustained (by what is called a ‘chain reaction’, on which ordinary fuels and explosives rely). During the 1920s and 1930s many physicists struggled with the problem. Einstein was right: science was international. American, Australian, British, Danish, Dutch, French, German, Hungarian, Italian, New Zealand, Russian, Swiss and Yugoslav scientists between them made the various research breakthroughs needed to show that an atom of uranium could be split by a neutron beam and would readily produce a chain reaction - thus releasing enormous amounts of energy. It only remained to put it to the test.

The Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard tried hard to stop publication of the news (which broke in January 1939) that atomic fission was possible: he was afraid that Germany might try to make an atomic bomb if it knew. But the principle that scientific information should be shared was a matter of pride; it was released.

Then news came that Germany had forbidden exports of uranium ore from Czechoslovakia (which it had recently invaded). Szilard panicked: Germany must be making a bomb already. The only other stocks of good uranium were in Belgium - they had to be protected, thought Szilard, from falling into German hands. He went to America to get help from Einstein: Einstein was someone people would listen to. Szilard remembered that visit well: ‘The possibility of a chain reaction in uranium hadn’t occurred to him, but as soon as I began to tell him about it he saw what the consequences might be.’ A letter, signed by Einstein, was sent to the American president, Franklin Roosevelt.

It began: ‘Some recent work leads me to expect that the element uranium may be turned into a new and important source of energy in the immediate future. Certain aspects of the situation seem to call for watchfulness and, if necessary quick action....This new phenomenon would also lead to the production of bombs, and it is conceivable that extremely powerful bombs of a new type may be constructed....Some of the American work on uranium is now being repeated in the Kaiser Wilhelm Institut in Berlin.’ Roosevelt replied: ‘I found this data of such import that I have convened a board to investigate.’

Apart from a second letter written when the advisory board seemed to be dragging their feet, Einstein took no other part in the UK/US study of uranium fission or in the USA’s Manhattan Project which created the first atomic bombs. In fact, before Szilard’s visit Einstein had not been convinced that nuclear fission was likely, at least in his lifetime; he was reported to have likened it to ‘shooting birds in the dark in a country where there are few birds’. His response to Szilard’s news was prompted by different belief: that if ‘the enemies of mankind’ were developing an atomic bomb, the only deterrent was for America to make one first. 'If I had known that the Germans would not succeed in constructing the bomb, I would never have lifted a finger.’

Einstein also believed that the USA would treat the discovery with respect and would resist actually using the bomb. He was not the sort of cynical realist who would foresee that America’s atomic research would now be managed by the military. (When it was found that Germany had no bomb, someone said, ‘That’s wonderful; we won’t have to use ours’. A US army officer retorted, ‘Of course you understand that if we have such a weapon we are going to use it’.)

In April 1945 Leo Szilard came to Einstein again, this time to share his deep fear that the USA would start an atomic arms race. Once again Einstein wrote to the President, enclosing a strong warning (written by Szilard) against using the atomic bomb. But the letter was still unopened on Roosevelt’s desk when he died on 12 April. The new president, Harry Truman, was too busy taking office to be accessible, though the scientists tried hard to get through.

In a letter to the New York Times in 1945, Einstein quoted recent words of Franklin Roosevelt: ‘We are faced with the pre-eminent fact that if civilisation is to survive we must cultivate the science of human relationship - the ability of peoples of all kinds to live together and work together in the same world, at peace.’ Well, Einstein continued, ‘we have learned, and paid an awful price to learn, that living and working together can be done in one way only - under law. Unless it prevails, and unless by common struggle we are capable of new ways of thinking, mankind is doomed.’

The first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima (not on its military installations but on the civilian centre of the city) on August 6 1945. Up to 140,000 people were killed. Thousands were to die much later, of radiation-related diseases: the death toll had reached 192,000 in 1995. When Einstein heard the news, he uttered a cry of anguish. On August 9 a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. It killed 73,884 people outright, and injured 76,769 more; these figures do not include those who died later from radiation.

‘The war is won, but the peace is not’
‘Just as we use our reason to build a dam to hold a river in check, we must now build institutions to restrain the fears and suspicions and greeds which move people and their rulers....We do not have to wait a million years to use our ability to reason. We can and must use it now, or human society will sink into a new and terrible dark age.’

From now until his death, and despite poor health, Einstein gave all the energies not spent on his scientific work to campaigns for peace.

Above all, he promoted the idea of a world government founded on international law. ‘As long as sovereign states continue to have separate armaments and armaments secrets, new world wars will be inevitable.’ He opposed the development of atomic weapons and the US military’s intention to develop the much more powerful hydrogen bomb. He was chairman of the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists, set up in 1946; its aims were to educate the public about the dangers of atomic warfare, to promote the benign use of atomic energy, and to work for the abolition of war as the only answer to weapons of mass destruction. (The ECAS disbanded in 1949, but continued to publish its Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.) Einstein also continued his public opposition to militarism.

Never afraid of swimming against the tide, Einstein tried hard to create links with the Soviet Union and to prevent the escalation of the Cold War. He spoke up against America’s persecution of suspected communists. He opposed the US/UK/European sponsorship of rearmament in Germany. He supported the Black American civil rights movement. As a result, he continued to endure hostile attacks from some sections of the US press and public. (‘Life’ magazine listed him as one of the USA’s top 50 famous ‘dupes and fellow-travellers’ of communism.) These contrasted oddly with the profound respect felt for him (and expressed) by friends, colleagues and admirers worldwide. He made radio broadcasts, or was relayed by telephone from his Princeton home to whatever pro-peace meeting had asked for his presence. He issued statements, gave interviews, wrote articles and letters, and took part in controversial debates.

After his 70th birthday in 1949 he became if anything more outspoken. In that year the Soviet Union exploded its first atomic bomb. Here are just three of his observations around that time:

‘Since the death of President Roosevelt [1945] our foreign policy has proceeded in the wrong direction, and there seems little prospect at the moment of a shift towards a more reasonable policy.’

‘I believe America may totally succumb to the fearful militarisation which engulfed Germany at the beginning of the 20th century. There is real danger that political power and the power to influence the minds of people will pass increasingly into the hands of the military, which is used to approaching all political problems from the point of view of military expediency. Because of America’s supremacy, the military point of view is forced upon the world.’

‘In all countries power lies in the hands of ambitious power-hungry men. This is true whether the political system is dictatorial or democratic. Power relies not only on coercion, but on subtle persuasion and deception through the educational system and the media of public information. One can only hope there are enough people the world over who possess the integrity to resist these evil influences. What is important is that individuals have the honesty and courage to stand up for their convictions.’

In January 1950 President Truman announced that the USA was beginning an all-out effort to develop a hydrogen bomb. Einstein took part in a television programme about the implications. ‘The belief that it’s possible to achieve security through armaments on a national scale is a disastrous illusion. The arms race between the US and the Soviet Union assumes hysterical proportions. On both sides, means of mass destruction are being perfected with feverish haste and behind walls of secrecy. Radioactive poisoning of the atmosphere is now possible. But our goal should in fact be to do away with mutual fear and distrust.’

Einstein wrote sadly to another dismayed American: ‘I am badly in need of encouragement. I have the impression that our nation has gone mad and is no longer open to reasonable suggestions.’

A hydrogen bomb was exploded in the Marshall Islands in 1952, the same year that Britain exploded its first atomic bomb. At the same time the communist witch-hunt operated by the Committee of Un-American Activities had reached its height. Einstein was asked for advice, which was published in the New York Times in June 1953. ‘I can only see the revolutionary way of non-co-operation, in Gandhi’s sense. Every intellectual called before the Committee ought to refuse to testify. That is, he must be prepared for jail and economic ruin, in short for the sacrifice of his personal welfare in the interest of the cultural welfare of his country....based on the assertion that it is shameful for a blameless citizen to submit to such an inquisition.... If enough people are ready to take this grave step, they will be successful.’

‘We have to learn to think in a new way’
In 1955 Bertrand Russell composed a public declaration [on line at www.pugwash.org/] about the dangers of nuclear war and suggesting that nuclear weapons should be renounced. ‘We have to learn to think in a new way.... We have to learn to ask ourselves what steps can be taken to prevent a military contest disastrous to everyone.’ Russell asked Einstein to sign it. He did; it was one of his last public actions.

But his final concern was about something quite different, and equally close to his heart: Israel. Long before the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, Einstein had said that its only basis could be peaceful co-existence between Jews and Arabs. In 1952, Einstein was invited to become the second president of Israel. ‘I am deeply moved by the offer, and both saddened and ashamed that I cannot accept. But I lack both the natural aptitude and the experience to deal properly with people and to exercise official functions. I am the more distressed, because my relationship to the Jewish people has become my strongest bond.’

Einstein’s last, unfinished, document was the draft of a speech to mark Israel’s Independence Day. His opening remarks commented on long-term conflict between Israel and Egypt. ‘You may think this is a small and insignificant problem and that there are more serious things to worry about. But this is not true. In matters of truth and justice there can be no distinction between big problems and small...Whoever is careless with the truth in small matters cannot be trusted in important affairs....’

Albert Einstein died in his sleep at Princeton Hospital on April 18 1955.

The explosion of the H-bomb in 1952 was found to have synthesised a new chemical element. In 1955 it was given a name: einsteinium. This was an ironic memorial for the man who had proved the existence of atoms, demonstrated that they carried enormous power, accepted that such power had to be experimentally released, and spent the rest of his life trying to stop people turning the knowledge into instruments of war.

When the nuclear nature of an atom was defined by Ernest Rutherford in 1932, journalists began predicting right away what might be done with atomic power once it was released. But Rutherford (famous also for saying that the idea of using atomic energy for industry or war was ‘moonshine’) said that physicists weren’t looking for a new source of power or new and valuable elements. The real reason for what they did, he said, lay deeper, in ‘the urge and fascination of a search into the deepest secrets of Nature’.

Einstein understood that; indeed, he felt the same fascination. He knew that there was no way to stop scientists from pursuing knowledge. ‘We must not condemn man because his inventiveness and patient conquest of the forces of nature are exploited for false and destructive purposes.’

‘The line of demarcation,’ he said, ‘doesn’t lie between scientists and non-scientists; it lies between responsible, honest people, and the others.’ That didn’t let off scientists from thinking about the consequences of what they do. ‘In our time, scientists and engineers carry a particularly heavy burden of moral responsibility, because the development of military means of mass destruction is dependent on their work.’

What answers did Einstein have? He wanted to be able to rely on the will of ‘the people’. He wanted ‘the people’ to choose, responsibly, responsible leaders. He wanted the people to see what a terrible thing war is, and actively reject it. He wanted scientific work never to be tied to the state or to the military, but to be subject to independent, responsible civilian control. Which meant that for him the bottom line was communication: scientists should make absolutely sure that the public are fully (and truthfully) informed not only about research projects and their discoveries but also about their potential risks and benefits.

After the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, someone said in Leo Szilard’s hearing that it was the tragedy of scientists that their discoveries were used for destruction. Leo Szilard replied, ‘It’s not the tragedy of scientists. It’s the tragedy of mankind’.

‘When men are engaged in war and conquest,’ said Einstein, ‘the tools of science become as dangerous as a razor in the hands of a child.’ The fate of mankind, he said, depends entirely on our sense of morality.

In short, it’s up to us to make the right moral choices. So, if the scientists have problems getting the information to us, might it not be up to us to ask the questions first? And get the communication lines laid for receiving (and translating) the answers?

This is one of the questions Einstein and the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists posed in 1948: ‘We are all citizens of a world community sharing common perils. Is it inevitable that because of our passions and our inherited customs we should be condemned to destroy ourselves?





"When men are engaged in war and conquest the tools of science become as dangerous as a razor in the hands of a child."

  - Young Einstein
  - First World War
  - League of Nations
  - war resistance
  - disarmament
  - against Nazism
  - exile
  - atomic bomb
  - responsibility


See also:
  russell-einsten manifesto
  atomic bomb
  scientists responsibility
  nuclear weapons


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