Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein

"You're a pacifist? You must be really stupid." Those of us who strive for global peace often have to endure insults like this. We can take comfort in the fact that the smartest man on Earth (until his death in 1955) was a proud and enthusiastic pacifist.

The fact that Einstein strove with all his powers for world peace contains a terrible irony, as he and his fellow nuclear physicist Leo Szilard wrote the famous August 1939 letter to US President Franklin D. Roosevelt advising the President that German/Nazi scientists might be working to construct atomic weapons, and that the free nations of the world ought to make sure they don't lose this arms race to the fascists. This letter led to the development and tragic deployment of two nuclear weapons that would eventually kill hundreds of thousands of civilians in Japan.

Albert Einstein did not try to escape from the moral dilemma this contradiction presents. An eminently open-minded and creative thinker, he sought through his life to express hope for a peaceful future, and followed up his letter to President Roosevelt in 1939 with a letter to the world, a collaboration with Bertrand Russell and others, that would be published shortly after his death as Russell-Einstein Manifesto of 1957. The final paragraphs of this powerful statement:

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?1 People will not face this alternative because it is so difficult to abolish war.

The abolition of war will demand distasteful limitations of national sovereignty.2 But what perhaps impedes understanding of the situation more than anything else is that the term “mankind” feels vague and abstract. People scarcely realize in imagination that the danger is to themselves and their children and their grandchildren, and not only to a dimly apprehended humanity. They can scarcely bring themselves to grasp that they, individually, and those whom they love are in imminent danger of perishing agonizingly. And so they hope that perhaps war may be allowed to continue provided modern weapons are prohibited.

This hope is illusory. Whatever agreements not to use H-bombs had been reached in time of peace, they would no longer be considered binding in time of war, and both sides would set to work to manufacture H-bombs as soon as war broke out, for, if one side manufactured the bombs and the other did not, the side that manufactured them would inevitably be victorious.

Although an agreement to renounce nuclear weapons as part of a general reduction of armaments3 would not afford an ultimate solution, it would serve certain important purposes.

First, any agreement between East and West is to the good in so far as it tends to diminish tension. Second, the abolition of thermo-nuclear weapons, if each side believed that the other had carried it out sincerely, would lessen the fear of a sudden attack in the style of Pearl Harbour, which at present keeps both sides in a state of nervous apprehension. We should, therefore, welcome such an agreement though only as a first step.

Most of us are not neutral in feeling, but, as human beings, we have to remember that, if the issues between East and West are to be decided in any manner that can give any possible satisfaction to anybody, whether Communist or anti-Communist, whether Asian or European or American, whether White or Black, then these issues must not be decided by war. We should wish this to be understood, both in the East and in the West.

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? We appeal as human beings to human beings: 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.

Einstein is perhaps the best example in history of a practical, results-oriented pacifist. This was a position he often had to explain:

I did not say that I was an absolute pacifist, but rather that I have always been a convinced pacifist. While I am a convinced pacifist, there are circumstances in which I believe the use of force is appropriate – namely, in the face of an enemy unconditionally bent on destroying me and my people.

His own experience as a German-born Jew forced to leave his homeland due to the rise of Hitler in 1933 did not destroy his optimism about the future of the world. He was also a socialist (as he explained in a 1949 article titled "Why Socialism?") and an enthusiastic supporter of civil rights for all races and religions. He hoped for a gradual transition to a benevolent and liberal world government, and used his great fame to get himself invited all over the world an unofficial good-will ambassador for justice and peace. He did not often use the opportunity of his well-publicized travels to spread the gospel of quantum physics, though quantum physics was the source of his fame. He used the opportunity to spread the gospel of peace.

KEY QUOTE: "I do not know how the third World War will be fought, but I can tell you what they will use in the Fourth — sticks and stones.