In today’s Easter blessing, Pope Francis evoked the manifesto of Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell pleading for the abolition of war:
May there be peace for war-torn Ukraine, so sorely tried by the violence and destruction of the cruel and senseless war into which it was dragged. In this terrible night of suffering and death, may a new dawn of hope soon appear! Let there be a decision for peace. May there be an end to the flexing of muscles while people are suffering. Please, please, let us not get used to war! Let us all commit ourselves to imploring peace, from our balconies and in our streets! Peace. May the leaders of nations hear people’s plea for peace. May they listen to that troubling question posed by scientists almost seventy years ago: “Shall we put an end to the human race, or shall mankind renounce war? Shall we put an end to the human race, or shall mankind renounce war?” (Russell-Einstein Manifesto, 9 July 1955).”
Pope Francis’s cry for peace explicitly linked today’s horrific war in Europe with the beginning of the nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union. Lamenting the war crimes and crimes against humanity inflicted on the Ukrainians today, Pope Francis asks us to take immediate action to reduce the grave risk of human annihilation that would follow the use of nuclear weapons for the first time since the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. implored, over and over again, in his tireless efforts in support of a global movement abolish nuclear weapons:
“During recent months I have come to see more and more the need for the method of nonviolence in international relations. While I was convinced during my student days of the power of nonviolence in group conflicts within nations, I was not yet convinced of its efficacy in conflicts between nations. I felt that while war could never be a positive or absolute good, it could serve as a negative good in the sense of preventing the spread and growth of an evil force. War, I felt, horrible as it is, might be preferable to surrender to a totalitarian system. But more and more I have come to the conclusion that the potential destructiveness of modern weapons of war totally rules out the possibility of war ever serving again as a negative good. If we assume that mankind has a right to survive then we must find an alternative to war and destruction. In a day when sputniks dash through outer space and guided ballistic missiles are carving highways of death through the stratosphere, nobody can win a war. The choice today is no longer between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence.” Pilgrimage to Nonviolence, April 13, 1960.
In this conviction, Dr. King followed Coretta Scott King, who had already established herself as an activist leader in the movement to abolish nuclear weapons, through her close working relationship with the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), the National Committee for Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE), and other U.S. and international peace organizations. In 1962, Coretta Scott King participated in the 17-nation Disarmament Conference in Geneva as a delegate of Women Strike for Peace (WSP), and her activism against nuclear weapons continued throughout her life. As a keynote speaker at the June 12, 1982, Nuclear Freeze march and demonstration in New York City, Ms. King linked the struggle for nuclear abolition to the struggle for social and economic justice at home and abroad:
“All of our hopes for equality, for justice, economic security, for a healthy environment, depend on nuclear disarmament. Yes, we have come to protest nuclear weapons. But we have also come to New York because we have a dream… the timeless dream of a world free from fear, not only of war or its instruments, but also of hunger or of not having a roof over one’s head.”
Albert Einstein, along with many of his scientific colleagues who had discovered atomic energy and helped to develop the first atomic weapons, understood that the entire history of humanity had come to a decisive moment when we had to choose between war and continued existence. In partnership with the philosopher Bertrand Russell, Einstein wrote “Notice to the World.” During the following weeks, as Einstein and Russell recruited nine of the greatest physicists of the 20th century to join them as signatories, Einstein died; the manifesto was published ten weeks after his death.
There is a powerful lineage from Einstein and Russell, to Martin and Coretta King, to Pope Francis, and all of the peace activists around the world who are continuing this struggle to abolish nuclear weapons.
To ground us in the reality of the existential threat we face as a species, I set out below the full text of the Einstein-Russell manifesto of July 1955, a statement that lives with chillingly prescience when read in April 2022.
Perhaps it will inspire you to join us in this struggle for life.
Jonathan D. Greenberg
July 9, 1955
“In the tragic situation which confronts humanity, we feel that scientists should assemble in conference to appraise the perils that have arisen as a result of the development of weapons of mass destruction, and to discuss a resolution in the spirit of the appended draft.
“We are speaking on this occasion, not as members of this or that nation, continent, or creed, but as human beings, members of the species Man, whose continued existence is in doubt. The world is full of conflicts; and, overshadowing all minor conflicts, the titanic struggle between Communism and anti-Communism.
“Almost everybody who is politically conscious has strong feelings about one or more of these issues; but we want you, if you can, to set aside such feelings and consider yourselves only as members of a biological species which has had a remarkable history, and whose disappearance none of us can desire.
“We shall try to say no single word which should appeal to one group rather than to another. All, equally, are in peril, and, if the peril is understood, there is hope that they may collectively avert it.
“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?The general public, and even many men in positions of authority, have not realized what would be involved in a war with nuclear bombs. The general public still thinks in terms of the obliteration of cities. It is understood that the new bombs are more powerful than the old, and that, while one A-bomb could obliterate Hiroshima, one H-bomb could obliterate the largest cities, such as London, New York, and Moscow.
“No doubt, in an H-bomb war, great cities would be obliterated. But this is one of the minor disasters that would have to be faced. If everybody in London, New York, and Moscow were exterminated, the world might, in the course of a few centuries, recover from the blow. But we now know, especially since the Bikini test, that nuclear bombs can gradually spread destruction over a very much wider area than had been supposed.
“It is stated on very good authority that a bomb can now be manufactured which will be 2,500 times as powerful as that which destroyed Hiroshima. Such a bomb, if exploded near the ground or under water, sends radio-active particles into the upper air. They sink gradually and reach the surface of the earth in the form of a deadly dust or rain. It was this dust which infected the Japanese fishermen and their catch of fish. No one knows how widely such lethal radio-active particles might be diffused, but the best authorities are unanimous in saying that a war with H-bombs might possibly put an end to the human race. It is feared that if many H-bombs are used there will be universal death, sudden only for a minority, but for the majority a slow torture of disease and disintegration.
“Many warnings have been uttered by eminent men of science and by authorities in military strategy. None of them will say that the worst results are certain. What they do say is that these results are possible, and no one can be sure that they will not be realized. We have not yet found that the views of experts on this question depend in any degree upon their politics or prejudices. They depend only, so far as our researches have revealed, upon the extent of the particular expert’s knowledge. We have found 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.
“The abolition of war will demand distasteful limitations of national sovereignty. 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 armaments 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.
“We invite this Congress, and through it the scientists of the world and the general public, to subscribe to the following resolution:
“In view of the fact that in any future world war nuclear weapons will certainly be employed, and that such weapons threaten the continued existence of mankind, we urge the governments of the world to realize, and to acknowledge publicly, that their purpose cannot be furthered by a world war, and we urge them, consequently, to find peaceful means for the settlement of all matters of dispute between them.”
Percy W. Bridgman
Herman J. Muller
Cecil F. Powell