Einstein’s Postwar Campaign to Save the World from Nuclear Destruction

Although the popular new Netflix film, Einstein and the Bomb, purports to tell the story of the great physicist’s relationship to nuclear weapons, it ignores his vital role in rallying the world against nuclear catastrophe.

Aghast at the use of nuclear weapons in August 1945 to obliterate the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Einstein threw himself into efforts to prevent worldwide nuclear annihilation.  In September, responding to a letter from Robert Hutchins, Chancellor of the University of Chicago, about nuclear weapons, Einstein contended that, “as long as nations demand unrestricted sovereignty, we shall undoubtedly be faced with still bigger wars, fought with bigger and technologically more advanced weapons.”  Thus, “the most important task of intellectuals is to make this clear to the general public and to emphasize over and over again the need to establish a well-organized world government.”  Four days later, he made the same point to an interviewer, insisting that “the only salvation for civilization and the human race lies in the creation of a world government, with security of nations founded upon law.”

Determined to prevent nuclear war, Einstein repeatedly hammered away at the need to replace international anarchy with a federation of nations operating under international law.  In October 1945, together with other prominent Americans (among them Senator J. William Fulbright, Supreme Court Justice Owen Roberts, and novelist Thomas Mann), Einstein called for a “Federal Constitution of the World.”  That November, he returned to this theme in an interview published in the Atlantic Monthly.  “The release of atomic energy has not created a new problem,” he said.  “It has merely made more urgent the necessity of solving an existing one. . . .  As long as there are sovereign nations possessing great power, war is inevitable.”  And war, sooner or later, would become nuclear war.

Einstein promoted these ideas through a burgeoning atomic scientists’ movement in which he played a central role.  To bring the full significance of the atomic bomb to the public, the newly-formed Federation of American Scientists put together an inexpensive paperback, One World or None, with individual essays by prominent Americans.  In his contribution to the book, Einstein wrote that he was “convinced there is only one way out” and this necessitated creating “a supranational organization” to “make it impossible for any country to wage war.”  This hard-hitting book, which first appeared in early 1946, sold more than 100,000 copies.

Given Einstein’s fame and his well-publicized efforts to avert a nuclear holocaust, in May 1946 he became chair of the newly-formed Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists, a fundraising and policymaking arm for the atomic scientists’ movement.  In the Committee’s first fund appeal, Einstein warned that “the unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and thus we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.”

Even so, despite the fact that Einstein, like most members of the early atomic scientists’ movement, saw world government as the best recipe for survival in the nuclear age, there seemed good reason to consider shorter-range objectives.  After all, the Cold War was emerging and nations were beginning to formulate nuclear policies.  An early Atomic Scientists of Chicago statement, prepared by Eugene Rabinowitch, editor of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, underscored practical considerations.  “Since world government is unlikely to be achieved within the short time available before the atomic armaments race will lead to an acute danger of armed conflict,” it noted, “the establishment of international controls must be considered as a problem of immediate urgency.”  Consequently, the movement increasingly worked in support of specific nuclear arms control and disarmament measures.

In the context of the heightening Cold War, however, taking even limited steps forward proved impossible.  The Russian government sharply rejected the Baruch Plan for international control of atomic energy and, instead, developed its own atomic arsenal.  In turn, U.S. President Harry Truman, in February 1950, announced his decision to develop a hydrogen bomb―a weapon a thousand times as powerful as its predecessor.  Naturally, the atomic scientists were deeply disturbed by this lurch toward disaster.  Appearing on television, Einstein called once more for the creation of a “supra-national” government as the only “way out of the impasse.”  Until then, he declared, “annihilation beckons.”

Despite the dashing of his hopes for postwar action to end the nuclear menace, Einstein lent his support over the following years to peace, nuclear disarmament, and world government projects.

The most important of these ventures occurred in 1955, when Bertrand Russell, like Einstein, a proponent of world federation, conceived the idea of issuing a public statement by a small group of the world’s most eminent scientists about the existential peril nuclear weapons brought to modern war.  Asked by Russell for his support, Einstein was delighted to sign the statement and did so in one of his last actions before his death that April.  In July, Russell presented the statement to a large meeting in London, packed with representatives of the mass communications media.  In the shadow of the Bomb, it read, “we have to learn to think in a new way. . . .  Shall we . . . choose death because we cannot forget our quarrels?  We appeal as human beings to human beings:  Remember your humanity, and forget the rest.”

This Russell-Einstein Manifesto, as it became known, helped trigger a remarkable worldwide uprising against nuclear weapons in the late 1950s and early 1960s, culminating in the world’s first significant nuclear arms control measures.  Furthermore, in later years, it inspired legions of activists and world leaders.  Among them was the Soviet Union’s Mikhail Gorbachev, whose “new thinking,” modeled on the Manifesto, brought a dramatic end to the Cold War and fostered substantial nuclear disarmament.

The Manifesto thus provided an appropriate conclusion to Einstein’s unremitting campaign to save the world from nuclear destruction.

Lawrence S. Wittner (https://www.lawrenceswittner.com/ ) is Professor of History Emeritus at SUNY/Albany and the author of Confronting the Bomb (Stanford University Press).

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