The Russell-Einstein Manifesto was a product of the cold war Cold War arms race that ignited debate in the public sphere on the issue of nuclear proliferation.
Emerging from a correspondence between a number of prominent intellectuals, the manifesto captured international attention on its initial publication. While the manifesto is a significant historical document, what is its contemporary relevance? Following a historical overview this post will discuss contemporary issues and the possibility of impetus again being injected into the disarmament debate from an unexpected source.
In 1946, when the planet had only recently witnessed the destructive power of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the philosopher Bertrand Russell gave a lecture in London expressing his belief that advances in science, primarily the atom bomb, meant humanity had created a world where war “means, sooner or later, universal death” and called for a “revival of Liberal tentativeness” over conflicts of ideology to safeguard the future of the human race. While Albert Einstein, for his part, wrote six years later in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists on what he believed to be the moral necessity for scientists to express value judgements, to go beyond being satisfied by understanding the world around us and influence it instead of allowing themselves to be demeaned by their complicity in the “perfection of the means for the general destruction of mankind”. He concluded that if they “could find the time and courage” to do so “the possibilities for a sensible and satisfactory solution of the present dangerous international solution would be considerably improved”.
This mutual concern over the dangers of nuclear weapons led to a correspondence between the two men in 1955 where it was agreed that Russell should draft a public declaration to be signed by scientists whose achievements “have gained them international stature and whose testimony will not be blunted in its effectiveness by their political affiliations”. Einstein endorsed Russell’s proposed manifesto in what proved to be his last public statement before his death. The Russell-Einstein Manifesto was then presented to the world’s press on 9 July 1955, signed by a cross-partisan consortium of pre-eminent Nobel prize winning scientists and stood as a moment of international significance in the Cold War anti-nuclear movement. The Polish scientist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Joseph Rotblat, an original signatory of the manifesto, retrospectively wrote of his belief that there was no doubt of the manifesto’s influence on the public perception of the dangers of nuclear war on the global political climate. around nuclear weapons. The most significant act to which Rotblat considered the manifesto to be a tributary was the inking of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) which came into force in 1970 with the endorsement of all five Nuclear Weapon States (NWS). Under Article VI all signatories were obliged to pursue and achieve nuclear disarmament.
Some level of success for the nuclear non-proliferation movement continued into the 1980s and beyond with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the end of the Cold War and significant overall reductions in stockpiles and test explosions by the nuclear weapon states. Bringing home the raw emotive human impact of any nuclear offensive or test remains an important tool for the nuclear disarmament lobby with the Humanitarian Initiative series of conferences being the latest large scale action to beat what may now be becoming a well-trodden path. However, reinvigorating fresh ideas are still entering the debate. In 2017 Chatham House published a paper that embedded nuclear disarmament into a multilateral ethical argument outlining how nuclear war would have a cascading effect across the globe. The impact would affect issues from climate change to cyber security opening the field to unexpected potential future collaborations and avenues of discussion for advancing disarmament dialogue.
Regrettably, in the same timeframe new nuclear powers have emerged, and the path to disarmament consequently complicated by regional rivalries and arms races. Nuclear weapons are now a present threat in the Middle East, Indian subcontinent and Far East. Kashmir is the most likely source of future nuclear conflict after clashes between Indian and Pakistani militaries in the region in February. Today’s landscape is much changed from the Communist vs Capitalist dichotomy in which the nuclear threat was framed in the Russell-Einstein Manifesto. However, not everything changes and in the 21st century as tensions are again escalating between Washington and Moscow. This year the US withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF): a breakdown in decades of de-escalation which led Global Zero to warn of an impending resumption of the Cold War era arms race and former US Senator – now chairman of the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) – Sam Nunn to suggest that “the US and Russia are sleepwalking towards nuclear disaster“. Many of the safeguard mechanisms borne of the understanding of the consequences of launching nuclear weapons, as summarised in the manifesto, have ‘atrophied’.
In its increasingly fragile present state there are more open questions than available answers surrounding the issues of disarmament. What modern day philosopher, scientist or institution could lead renewed calls for disarmament and risk reduction outside the political sphere? What effect could such a call truly have? Is there a more effective way to communicate the message in the modern era? Perhaps the answers are to be found in the global conversation around climate change, which is significantly more active than current conversations around nuclear issues. The School Strike for Climate movement founded by one person taking a stand has rippled into an international movement and given the original school striker, Greta Thunberg, a prominent platform from which to amplify the climate message that scientists and politicians have been unsuccessful in communicating for decades – the successes, and failings, of attempts to enact urgent political change in this sphere could inform how to frame the debate around nuclear disarmament and risk reduction in the modern multi-polar nuclear world. Although, on the surface, the seeming lethargy of political will to act in the face of growing warnings of the rate and severity of climate change does not seem to offer much hope for proactive change.
We appeal as human beings to human beings: Remember your humanity and forget the rest.
Alec Clark is an electronic engineer working at Lockheed Martin UK, Ampthill. He graduated from Imperial College London with a BEng in Electrical and Electronic Engineering.
Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons: Philosopher Bertrand Russell delivers the Russel-Einstein Manifesto in London on 9 July 1955.