Just as Bertrand Russell, the famed British philosopher, mathematician, historian, polymath, activist, and Nobel Prize Winner in Literature, had hoped the name of his pal Albert Einstein helped attract a big crowd to the press briefing in London announcing the latest assault on the nuclear arms race. Einstein, the most famous scientist since Isaac Newton, had died on April 18, 1955 just days after signing the document that the two had been collaborating on for more than a year.
Now on July 9 of the same year the planned press conference at Caxton Hall had to be moved three times from a small meeting room to a large conference room, and finally to the Great Hall as journalists from Great Britain and around the world flocked to hear the announcement. By in large, it was, at first, a hostile crowd already writing stories with an egghead/pacifist/traitor slant in their heads. Then the 3rd Earl Russell stepped to the microphones and began his introduction of the Russell-Einstein Manifesto, which had also been co-signed by nine other world class intellectuals, all but one of them like Einstein and Russell, were or would become Nobel Laureates.
Russell speaks to skeptical, even hostile reporters at the press conference announcing the Manifesto.
After his introduction Russell began:
I am bringing the warning pronounced by the signatories to the notice of all the powerful Governments of the world in the earnest hope that they may agree to allow their citizens to survive.
Despite all the fuss and time taken to wordsmith of the Manifesto, it was straight forward and clear on its message and call to action. The existential threat to the survival of humanity by the development, spread, deployment, and likely use of the weapons of mass destruction—the first use of that term—made their limitation and ultimate the concern of all people and not just the belligerent powers in possession of them. It proposed a world conference of scientists and intellectuals of all nationalities to be held at a neutral location to discuss the situation and propose solutions. Invitations were extended also to all governments who were exhorted to “Remember your humanity and forget the rest.”
At the end of his statement, the early barrage of questions from the press was quite hostile. But Russell, noted not only for his simple eloquence as a speaker, but for the clear lucidity of his arguments, calmly responded and won most of the reporters over. The result was almost unanimously positive coverage in the news columns of even conservative and nationalistic publications.
The other distinguished signatories to the manifesto were:
Max Born—German physicist and mathematician who pioneered quantum mechanics, Nobel Prize in Physics, 1954.
Percy Williams Bridgman—American physicist and philosopher of science, Nobel Prize in Physics, 1946.
Leopold Infeld—Polish/Canadian physicist and collaborator with Einstein. The only signatory without a Nobel Prize.
Jean Frédéric Joliot-Curie—French chemist and physicist, former assistant to Marie Currie and the husband of her daughter, Irène Joliot-Curie, Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 1935.
Hermann Joseph Muller—American geneticist, early expert on the effects of radiation on organisms, Nobel Prize in Medicine, 1946.
Linus Pauling—American chemist, biochemist, architect, and polymath, Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 1954. Would go on to win second Nobel Prize—the Peace Prize, 1962.
Cecil Frank Powell—British physicist, developer of the photographic method of studying nuclear processes, Nobel Prize in Physics, 1950.
Joseph Rotblat—Polish/British physicist, only scientist with the Manhattan Project to develop an American atomic bomb who resigned out of conscience, specialist in the effects of fall-out, Nobel Peace Prize, 1995.
Hideki Yukawa—Japanese theoretical physicist, pioneer in the theory of sub-atomic particles, Nobel Prize in Physics, 1949.
Such a powerful brain trust, missing only the leading scientists working on the American and Soviet nuclear weapons programs, was hard to ignore.
The road to establishing the international conference was bumpy. Russell had long had a close relationship with members of the Indian Congress Party especially with future Indian Defense Minister V. K. Krishna Menon, the long-time head of the India League in Britain. Menon, the architect of what would become known as the movement of unaligned nations as a third force in world affairs, helped secure an invitation from Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to host the proposed conference in New Delhi. Such a location would have boosted both the conference’s vaunted neutrality and India’s status as the leader of the emerging Third World and unaligned movement. But the 1956 Egyptian closure of the Suez Canal and subsequent crisis in an era when many of the European delegates would have still sailed rather than flown to India scrubbed those plans.
The Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis, of all people, offered to finance the conference in Morocco but suspicions about his motivation let Russell and his associates to turn him down.
Immediately after the original press conference Canadian financier and philanthropist Cyrus Eaton was so enthused by the Manifesto that he offered to fund and host the conference at his personal retreat in Pugwash, Nova Scotia. Russell returned to that offer after his other difficulties.Participants in the first Pugwash Conference. As originally labeled:
The first Pugwash Conference on Science and World Affairs convened in July 1957 with twenty-two top scientists representing nine countries—the U.S., Soviet Union, Japan, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Austria, and Poland. No national governments sent official representatives, although the Russians, Chinese, and Poles could not have attended without their governments’ explicit approval and support. The relatively remote location discouraged attendance by other noted supporters of the movement and Russell himself was too ill to attend. His closest associate in the creation and planning of the conference, Joseph Rotblat was elected as Secretary General of the on-going Pugwash Conference international organization.
The Conference declared its main objective purpose as and methods as:
…the elimination of all weapons of mass destruction (nuclear, chemical and biological) and of war as a social institution to settle international disputes. To that extent, peaceful resolution of conflicts through dialogue and mutual understanding is an essential part of Pugwash activities, that is particularly relevant when and where nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction are deployed or could be used…The various Pugwash activities (general conferences, workshops, study groups, consultations and special projects) provide a channel of communication between scientists, scholars, and individuals experienced in government, diplomacy, and the military for in-depth discussion and analysis of the problems and opportunities at the intersection of science and world affairs. To ensure a free and frank exchange of views, conducive to the emergence of original ideas and an effective communication between different or antagonistic governments, countries and groups, Pugwash meetings as a rule are held in private. This is the main modus operandi of Pugwash. In addition to influencing governments by the transmission of the results of these discussions and meetings, Pugwash also may seek to make an impact on the scientific community and on public opinion through the holding of special types of meetings and through its publications.
Although the activities of the Pugwash Conference were not well known to the general public, it proved quite influential in a number of ways in the turbulent and dangerous Cold War years that followed. Pugwash played a useful role in opening communication channels during a time of otherwise-strained official and unofficial relations. It provided background and technical work for the Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963, the Non-Proliferation Treaty of1968, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972, the Biological Weapons Convention in the same year, and the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993.
Former US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara acknowledged that a backchannel Pugwash initiative laid the groundwork for the negotiations that ended the Vietnam War. Mikhail Gorbachev admitted the influence of the organization on him as leader of the Soviet Union. Pugwash was credited with being a groundbreaking and innovative transnational organization and a leading example of the effectiveness of Track II diplomacy.
Despite these successes, the U.S. government frequently publicly accused the Pugwash Conference of being a Soviet Front organization, which it always vigorously denied. Rotblat in a 1998 Bertrand Russell Lecture said that that there were a few participants in the conferences from the Soviet Union “who were obviously sent to push the party line, but the majority were genuine scientists and behaved as such.” Independent modern scholars of the movement confirm that view.
Rotblat and the Pugwash Conference were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their work in 1994. The Conference continues its work to this day with offices in Rome, London, Geneva, and Washington and independent, supportive Pugwash groups in more than fifty countries.
Aside from the creation of the Pugwash Conference, the Russell-Einstein Manifesto had a significant impact on public opinion, particularly in Britain where it, and the ongoing activities of Russell and others, inspired the Ban the Bomb movement which reached the status of a mass movement involving both huge demonstrations and acts of civil disobedience. Similar movements sprang up in the United States but were constrained by the oppressive and lingering shadow of the Red Scare from becoming so wide-spread. But the anti-nuclear movement proved to be an important springboard in the mid-Sixties for a wider American peace movement and opposition to the Vietnam War.
Interestingly, before the Manifesto both Einstein and Russell had complex and sometimes contradictory histories with atomic and nuclear weapons.Einstein in his study shortly before his death. He spent his final days more involved in his work for peace than on physics.
Einstein first heard from refugee scientists Leó Szilárd, Edward Teller, and Eugene Wigner about the feasibility of an atomic weapon—something he had never previously considered—and warnings that the Nazis were already in the early stages of research and development. Alarmed, Einstein wrote his famous letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt in August of 1939 alerting him to the dangers. This is widely viewed as the impetus for the creation of the Manhattan Project. Although Einstein, a pacifist, took no active part in the development of the Bomb, after the explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he was guilt ridden by his role. He dedicated much of the rest of his life to opposition to nuclear arms.
Russell was born in 1872 into one of the most aristocratic and liberal families in Britain. He early rose to prominence as a mathematician and logician but was best known to the public as a socialist—an associate of Sydney and Beatrice Webb and George Bernard Shaw in the Fabian Society—and as well as a pacifist. Unlike many British socialists and pacifists, he did not abandon his anti-war stance during World War I.
He was a prominent critic of the war and led demonstrations against it resulting in him being sacked from Trinity College following his conviction under the Defense of the Realm Act. He played a prominent role in the Leeds Convention of 1917, a gathering of thousands of anti-war socialists and radical members of the Liberal Party. His speech to the convention drew a huge ovation and was widely reported in the press, marking him as an enemy of the state.
Russel was already noted as a mathematician, philosopher, Fabian Socialist, and pacifist when his opposition the Great War landed him in jail.
When he refused to pay a £100 fine under the Defense of the Realm Act in a particularly vindictive action against a scholar with significant other assets, all of his books were seized and put up for sale. Most were bought by friends and returned to him. Later in the war after giving a speech against pressure on the United States to join the Allies, Russell was jailed at Brixton Prison for six months during which time he wrote one of his most important scholarly books, Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy.
In 1920, despite his opposition to the war Prime Minister David Lloyd George appointed Russell to a twenty-four member delegation sent to the Soviet Union to investigate the effects of the Russian Revolution. Most of the delegates went there, like Russell, generally supportive of the Revolutionary regime when they went. But an hour private meeting with Vladimir Lenin, who he found to be “impishly cruel” and very like an arrogant “opinionated professor”, Russell began to have his doubts.
Despite being carefully shepherded on a tour by Communist functionaries, Russell carefully observed the conditions he found without preconceived notions. He noted an underlying fear in the population almost everywhere he went, and he believed loud pops he heard in the night were executions. His companions insisted they were simply car back-fires. Of course Russell was right. The rest of the delegation returned with glowing reviews of the workers’ paradise. Russell became one of the first leftist critics of the Soviet Union in the West and wrote The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism. When accused of being a traitor by the British left, he insisted that he remained a socialist, but not an authoritarian.
Through the Twenties and Thirties, Russell continued to be active in pacifist causes and in promoting disarmament. He stepped up his criticism of the Soviet Union, particularly after the beginning of the Stalinist show trials. But he was equally alarmed by the rise of the Nazis. He marched and spoke against both, seeing no contradiction in it just as he marched and spoke against British brutality in India. It was all one in the same to him.
But by 1940 Russell concluded that the Nazis were by far the greatest threat. He reluctantly publicly abandoned absolute pacifism and gave conditional support to the war against Germany. By 1943 he had formulated what he called Practical Political Pacifism concluding that war is always an absolute evil but that under extreme circumstances it might be the lesser of two evils.
When the U.S. dropped atomic weapons on Japan, Russell immediately grasped their threat to humanity. He was also concerned with the rise of the Soviet Union to what we would now call a superpower likely to dominate Europe. He also saw that the U.S. and Soviet Union would quickly be drawn into irreconcilable conflict and eventually all-out war. In 1946 he floated the notion that it might be better, if war were to come while the U.S. was in sole possession of atomic weapons. After the Soviets inevitably developed them, any war would become a worldwide catastrophe of mutual annihilation. Critics charged that he was advocating a U.S. first strike. He insisted that he did not advocate it but had merely put forward his analysis of the situation and its likely outcome. By the late Forties he had completely distanced himself from this position.
After the Soviets, as he predicted, tested their first bomb in August of 1949 Russell adopted a position of demanding complete mutual nuclear disarmament and measures to prevent other countries, including the United Kingdom from joining the nuclear club.
Russell doggedly participated in the growing Ban the Bomb movement and became its most visible spokesperson. His activities particularly alarmed the United States which stepped up propaganda against him charging him with being pro-Communist. Given his long history of hostility to the Soviet Union and his participation in demonstrations against the suppression of the Hungarian Revolution and other Eastern Block repression, the charge was laughable.Russell and his wife Edith, center, lead the anti-nuke march that led to his second imprisonment.
In September 1961, at the age of 89, Russell was jailed once again in Brixton Prison for seven days after taking part in an anti-nuclear demonstration in London. He was charged, ironically with breach of peace. The magistrate offered to exempt him from jail if he pledged himself to good behavior, to which Russell replied: “No, I won’t.”
As the Sixties wore on he became a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War. Concluding that American action there was drifting toward genocide in addition to his participation in street demonstrations, in conjunction with French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre he established the Russell Tribunal, also known as the International War Crimes Tribunal, which held sessions in Stockholm in 1967 an ’68. Those sessions concluded that the U.S. and its allies had perpetrated a war of aggression in contravention of international law, illegally targeted civilian populations, used weapons forbidden under international treaty, abused prisoners, and committed acts of genocide.
The Tribunal has subsequently been convened several times to investigate cases including the Chilean Military Coup, the abuse of psychiatry by various governments as a means of suppressing dissent, Iraq and the Gulf War, Palestine.
Russell was active in many causes right up to his death, including opposition to what he regarded as Israeli aggression against the Palestinians and their Arab neighbors and the Soviet suppression of Czechoslovakia.
He died of influenza at his home in Penrhyndeudraeth, Merionethshire, Wales on February 2, 1970 at the age of 97. There was no religious ceremony, and his ashes were scattered over the Welsh mountains later that year.
No other public intellectual of the 20th Century or since has had such a profound influence on his times.
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