The Russell-Einstein Peace Manifesto of 1955

It is worth revisiting the famous Russell-Einstein Peace Manifesto. Offered to the world in 1955 in the icy winds of Cold War One, two of the greatest humanists and scientific minds of the twentieth century, Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) and Albert Einstein (1879-1955), proposed a stark question to humankind. “Shall we put an end to the human race; or shall mankind renounce war?”

These two giants of the broad Left, one looking like a lion tamer and the other a funny clown, gazed not only into the deep structures of the universe, but also into the heart of darkness of the Species Human.

Like most people, I buy more books than I end up reading. A few years ago, I purchased a nifty collection of essays on peace movements, Einstein-Peace Now! (2005). It has much of interest, but the document, “The Russell-Einstein Peace Manifesto” of 1955, signed by eleven immensely famous scientists, caught my eye.

Years ago I read thick biographies on both Russell and Einstein, but can’t remember many details. So I thought that it might be cool to dig around a bit (without doing endless research at the moment) to gain some background to Russell and Einstein’s efforts in the peace movements of days gone by. And read the Manifesto, now celebrating its sixtieth anniversary, to see if it still has punch for our time. My focus will be on Einstein as peace activist extraordinary.

One of the best collections for Einstein is Einstein on Peace (1960), so I trekked out to the University of BC and snatched it off the shelves. I opened it, and some idiot had defaced the title page with these words (gouged out in pen): “Why should anyone be interested in what a narrow specialist has to say on something far outside his field. Einstein was a boring, pompous dupe who, like Bertram Russel [sic], would put his name to any silly cause.”

The anonymous idiot defacing Einstein on Peace is quite wrong about Russell and Einstein. These big minds were neither dupes nor specialists without ethical conviction. Do we really want persons like Russell and Einstein to stay heads-down in their labs or studies? Who better than they to speak head-held-high to the public about the dangers of nuclear war?

As I have worked my way through Einstein on Peace (1960) and Einstein-Peace Now! (2005), I have been fascinated to learn of the depth of this man with the frizzy hair and beautiful mind’s commitment to a peaceful world freed of nuclear weapons.

He hated brutality and cruelty from a very early age. His spirit was intricately pacifist though out his life, though the elasticity of his pacifism stretched and snapped when Hitler took power in January, 1933.

But one reads his many speeches, articles and letters written in the first half of the twentieth century with utter sadness and dismay. Dismay–because Einstein’s words could have been written for our time. Famous scholars like Noam Chomsky and Stephen Cohen (and lots of writers in CounterPunch or RT News) warn of the dangers of nuclear war in our day. On August 3, 2015, an RT News headline simply stated: “Nuclear war our likely future: Russia and China won’t accept US hegemony, Reagan official warns.” This sort of assertion is all too common these days.

The forms of trust and mutual respect that Einstein so valued are basically absent from international affairs. The US-EU-NATO has had the audacity and nerve to demonize Russia yet again and push weaponry and troops near to Russia’s borders. War-drums are beating wildly. The “sane world” Einstein longed for has disintegrated into insanity. Twitchy fingers are closer than ever to the trigger. The “enemy” swings between “Islamofascism” and “Russia.” No Matter: any enemy will do to keep the perpetual war machine greased and moving.

Sadness–because we face two formidable and terrible spiritual and political questions as Species Human. First, the dropping of the A-bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9, 1945 pushed our species across the line into the forbidden. The sanctity of human dignity was breached as a diabolical form of Kant’s “radical evil” erupted into historical time. Once breached, it can be breached again and again.

The US state justified rather easily the death of 200,000 innocent Japanese men, women and kids to serve a dubious (even falsely construed) end. And having crossed the line into the forbidden zone, it wasn’t that hard, was it, to bomb Viet Nam and Middle Eastern countries to smithereens in the years following “The horror! The horror!” Innocent deaths are twisted into collateral damage, and brutal realism rules the uneasy day and anguished night.

Second, Einstein and lots of important men and women warned their governments about the menace of war. Many peace organizations shouted out to the governments to stop war, now. Russell and Einstein conversed with leaders with power. Endless conferences were held to discuss these issues. Still, here we are 70 years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki and 60 years after the Einstein-Russell Peace Manifesto.

Our educational work on the humanist left has failed to stop warmongering. We the Citizenry of the Earth still do not get what we want as war rages on and trillions of dollars are consumed by war industries. Refugee camps fill up by the millions; people are hungry; nobody feels safe and secure anymore. In Freud’s terms, the death-instinct now rules the Spirit. Or, using Einstein’s language, if war is like a river, the dams have burst.

Einstein began his political activism for an irenic world in 1914. Einstein was absolutely enraged at the “Manifesto to the Civilized World”—signed by 93 of Germany’s leading intellectuals—which exalted German militarism and ultra-nationalism. This despicable document was immediately countered by “Manifesto to Europeans”, signed by three people, including Einstein. “Never before,” the trio declared, “has any war so completely disrupted cultural cooperation.” The idea of a “universal, world-wide civilization” was in jeopardy.


One cannot count on intellectuals, in the great French man of letters Romain Rolland’s words, to honor truth only: “truth that is free, frontierless, limitless; truth that knows nought of the prejudices of race or caste.” But Einstein’s speaking of truth to power courageously highlights the abject complicity of most intellectuals, particularly those in the humanities and social sciences. Patriotism corroded thought, binding itself to the boundaries of the nation-state’s ineptness and immorality.

Einstein detested the idea that Species Human would settle into just accepting war as a means of settling disputes. He joined the German League for Human Rights in January, 1928 to work toward peaceful conflict resolution. He knew that this acceptance of war as the ordinary means of settling disputes committed us to perpetual war and undermined intellectual freedom.

War preparation demoralized civil life and damaged those who returned to civilian life. It damaged the mental outlook of youth. “Their arms should be weapons of spirit, not shrapnel or tanks.” It also undermined a socialist sensibility that embraced the flourishing of everyone.

By the time Albert Einstein, the man of E=MC2 fame, had reached the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University in 1933 after being forced to leave Germany with Hitler’s assumption to power, he was forlorn (it eventually shaped his demeanour indelibly). He spoke gloomily of the “relentless tide of hate, oppression and militarism which had enveloped the German nation.”

He responded to anti-militaristic clergy who wanted his support with this harsh judgment: “The conduct of the clergy during World War I was shameful; if it were possible to effect a radical change in their attitude, it would be a big step forward.” He thought that we lived “in a time of moral decay. Reverence for life and respect for truth has been deteriorating.”

Almost plaintively, he wrote to Sigmund Freud in 1930, posing this question: “Is there any way of delivering mankind from the menace of war?”

Freud thought that the only antidote to war was the production of “ties of sentiment between man and man.”

With Hitler now in power in Germany, a panic-stricken crowd gathered in the Royal Albert Hall in London on October 3, 1933 to hear Einstein and others speak light into the heart of darkness. Einstein declared before the thousands gathered: “How can we save mankind and its cultural heritage? How can we guard Europe from further disaster?” The “haunting feeling of inescapable tragedy”—words he wrote to the Queen Mother of Belgium on January 9, 1939—would come to pass as World War II broke out.

Einstein had rejected a pacifist stance towards Hitler in the 1930s. The terrible irony that his theory of energy had laid the foundation for the creation of nuclear weapons pressed Einstein with great moral urgency and sorrow to make his case that the only solution to war and a nuclear-free world was the creation of a supranational world-organization.

The commitment to world government was the foundation of his vision of the nuclear weapon free world to come. All through the bitter and l0nely post-WW II years, when the anti-Soviet Union Cold War winds were blowing furiously, Einstein received savage critique from American citizens and colleagues.

Wherever he could, the propounded the absolute necessity of a supranational organization that would require that nations give up a “certain measure” of their sovereignty. This form of organization would have the power to enforce international law.

The US demonization of the Soviet Union was pursued purposely and relentlessly in the 1950s. In fact, the anti-Putin hysteria of our own time is a continuation of the US’s desire to be the dominant hegemon in the world. One might say that this ruthless pursuit of world dominance really took flight in the mushroom clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

This mighty blast would teach the Soviets a lesson or two! Don’t mess with us. Toe the line. If not, see the cloud looming on your darkening horizon. To his eternal credit, Einstein resisted strongly whenever he could the demonization of the Soviet Union. He also knew that all was not well in the Soviet Union.

On May 2, 1946, he had written: “The US should indicate to Russia her willingness to stop the armaments race, to submit to a mutual arms control and, in the event of controversy, to abide by the decisions of a world authority created according to rules which have been mutually agreed upon.”

Today the clichés of the “global village,” the new, globally intertwined and mutual world of trading partners and a world governed by the rule of enforceable international law seems like a silly old dream of loonies. The world’s would-be number one top-dog, the US, does not obey the UN Charter of stipulations for peace in our world. It wants to tell everyone else what to do, what the law is, and how to live with the boot to the neck.

The US wants to be The Sovereign Power in the world; it won’t give an inch of its sovereignty away. Russia and China want a multi-polar world and might be open to break through the massive wall of resistance to a form of world government. Breaching this wall would be major social learning accomplishment of Species Human since the Enlightenment of the 18th century. Don’t hold your breath! The US’s image of a post-national constellation requires that they be its overlord.

In the fall of 1954 Einstein fell ill. He hadn’t given up for one minute the commitment to “struggle and educate, even when the goal is believed to be unrealizable; for without active resistance in the past those endowed with vision and relative freedom things would be far worse.” He also thought that only “united public opinion in all important countries” had to be “so powerful that all governments would be compelled to renounce a measure of their sovereignty.”

Bertrand Russell—himself alarmed at the possibility of nuclear catastrophe—wanted to offer a Manifesto for Peace to the world in 1955 and wrote to Einstein about presenting a report to all governments of the world. Einstein readily agreed. Russell thought that the “first step should be a statement by men of highest eminence, Communist and anti-Communists, West and East, about the disasters to be expected in a war.”

The Manifesto came at a time of extreme edginess, unease and partisanship. The Korean War (1950-1953) had split East and West and hostility still lingered in the intellectual atmosphere like gritty smoke from a forest fire. The Manifesto was released only a week before the historic first Summit conference of France, Great Britain, the Soviet Union and the US held in Geneva to discuss world peace, and less than a month before the UN Conference on the Peaceful Use of Atomic Energy.

Let’s look at key elements of this document. Einstein and Russell, now old seasoned peace activists, wanted to “appraise the perils” emanating from the creation of nuclear weapons. With Cold War tensions near the boiling point, both men knew that they had to find common ground for all human beings to stand firmly upon. They urged their readers to “consider yourselves only as members of a biological species which had had a remarkable history, and whose disappearance none of us can desire.”

They didn’t appeal to party or class. “All, equally, are in peril, and, if the peril is understood, there is hope that they collectively avert it.”

Both men knew that energy equalled power; they also knew that knowledge was power. But education’s transformative power required that “we have to learn to think in a new way. We have to learn to ask ourselves, not what steps can be taken to give military victory to whatever group we prefer, for there no longer are such steps, the question we have to ask ourselves is: what steps can be taken to prevent a military contest of which the issue must be disastrous to all parties.”

Einstein and Russell (and the nine other signatories) believed that the citizenry and persons in positions of authority had “not realized what would be involved in a war with nuclear weapons.”

The Manifesto warned that catastrophic rain of “deadly dust”—released by many H-bombs—would mean “universal death.” “We have found,” they declared, “that the men who know most are the most gloomy.”

“Here, then, is the problem which we present to you, stark and dreadful and inescapable: Shall we put an end to the human race; or shall mankind renounce war? People will not face this alternative because it is so difficult to abolish war.”

Einstein and Russell realized that this required the imposition of limitations on national sovereignty. They thought that people would choose the illusory hiding place of permitting war to continue without using nuclear weaponry.

If the world of nations could agree to “renounce nuclear weapons as part of a general reduction of armaments would not afford an ultimate solution, it would serve certain important purposes.” Tensions between East and West would be dampened; and the abolition of thermo-nuclear weapons would certain lessen the fear of a sudden attack along the lines of Pearl Harbour. “There lies before us, if we choose, continual progress in happiness, knowledge, and wisdom. Shall we, instead, choose death, because we cannot forget our quarrels?”

“Remember your humanity, and forget the rest. If you can do so, the way lies open to a new Paradise; if you cannot, there lies before you the risk of universal death.”

Michael Welton retired from Athabasca University.  His recent books include Unearthing Canada’s Hidden Past: a Short History of Adult Education and Adult Education a Precarious Age: The Hamburg Declaration revisited.