‘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 the 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 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  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 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?’