The political Einstein
Einstein on Politics: His Private Thoughts and Public Stands on Nationalism, Zionism, War, Peace, and the Bomb eds. David E. Rowe and Robert Schulmann. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2007, 523 pp.
If you’ve thought of Albert Einstein as he’s so often pictured by news media— as that famously tousle-haired, remote genius off in his own abstract world— then Einstein on Politics offers some surprises. A 1946 Time cover image set E = mc2 in a mushroom cloud behind “Cosmoclast Einstein,” who stares blankly at the reader. When Time proclaimed Einstein its “Person of the Century” in 2000, it bolstered his stereotype as “the embodiment of pure intellect, the bumbling professor with the German accent, a comic cliché in a thousand films.” True, the newsmag did credit Einstein for having “denounced McCarthyism and pleaded for an end to bigotry and racism,” yet still dismissed him as politically “well-meaning if naïve,” an opinion shared widely today.
Einstein’s scientific genius actually made it hard for us to learn his political views. Intimidated by his brilliant insights into things beyond our ken, we hesitated to seek his political counsel. And Einstein knew his own limitations, admitting in 1930 that,“My passionate interest in social justice and social responsibility has always stood in curious contrast to a marked lack of desire for direct association with men and women.”
Yet, from his days as a young academic in Europe to the end of his illustrious life in the United States in 1955 at age 76, Albert Einstein was a committed and often clever advocate for human dignity and the need for creative freedom. He was also a forceful writer and speaker, who pushed for world peace and against fascism and militarism when few other scientists even bothered.
Today, we respect Einstein for his opposition to the spread of nuclear weapons, but he is still best known for one famous political act: In 1939, he signed a letter to President Franklin Roosevelt that warned about German nuclear research and urged a U.S. response. Einstein played no other role in the Manhattan Project that built and deployed the A-bomb, was shocked when it was used, and crusaded against it ceaselessly. In his last political act, a week before he died, Einstein signed with Bertrand Russell a manifesto calling on the world’s scientists to renounce work on weapons of mass destruction. That challenge led to the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs and their persistent arms control initiatives, which flourished during the Cold War and continue today.
An earlier book, Einstein on Peace, published in 1960, revealed this creative and troubled man’s abiding pacifism along with his often fruitless efforts to create a more peaceful world. Now, with Einstein on Politics, we have a more accessible companion volume that reveals both the man himself and the many ways he tried to bend politics and politicians to achieve his grandly peaceful goals.
In 192 items, we discover Einstein reacting, conspiring, brooding, and proclaiming—often in pointed detail— his need to shape political events. Einstein’s letters to trusted colleagues, to newspapers, and to world leaders reveal intensely personal convictions and insights. His speeches, interviews, book forewords, statements, and manifestos all show us a mind and heart intent on making the world a safer, saner place. Einstein’s moral outrage is especially crisp in his “Manifesto to the Europeans” at the outbreak of World War I. “Not only would it be a disaster for civilization but . . . a disaster for the national survival of individual states . . .” he warned, “in the final analysis, the very cause in the name of which all this barbarity has been unleashed.”
The editors have crafted useful introductions and have identified in Einstein’s life three important political periods. First came imperial Germany’s collapse, from 1919 to 1923, when Einstein’s hopes for world peace spurred his efforts to halt militarism. From 1930 to 1932, Einstein’s second phase of intense political activity, he visited the United States to speak and write about Wilsonian democratic ideals and against U.S. isolationism. This effort ended with his remorse over failure at the 1932 Geneva Disarmament Conference and his acceptance that “militant pacifism” was no match for fascist advances in Europe.
Einstein’s third intense political surge began five months before A-bombs destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, when he wrote, again, to President Franklin Roosevelt, this time warning about postwar consequences posed by the new weapons. Einstein shared with many the hope for a world government movement, first embodied in the new United Nations. He wrote often and spoke widely on radio and at public rallies about how nuclear weapons should impel nations to cooperate—or perish. He headed the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists to educate the public about the menace his colleagues had created. And in a poignant letter to fellow Americans in 1949, he denounced his new country’s racism.
Readers concerned with how science affects society should read three Einstein essays in this collection that bear special witness to his original and timeless insights and to science’s problems today.
First, read “The 1932 Disarmament Conference,” which appeared in The Nation in September 1931, in which Einstein wrote that “achievements of the modern age in the hands of our generation are as dangerous as a razor in the hands of a three-year-old child. The possession of wonderful means of production has not brought freedom—only care and hunger.” Warning about “the technical development which produces the means for the destruction of human life . . .” Einstein insisted “it is not the task of the individual who lives in this critical time merely to await and to criticize.”
Second, read “The War is Won, but the Peace Is Not,” when Einstein challenged a Nobel Prize anniversary dinner in December 1945 by comparing atomic scientists to Alfred Nobel, who had invented dynamite and later, to atone, instituted awards that promote peace and science. “Today,” Einstein said, “the physicists who participated in forging the most formidable and dangerous weapon of all times are harassed by an equal feeling of responsibility, not to say guilt.” With a possible world government in mind, Einstein told his fellow scientists that “the situation calls for a courageous effort, for a radical change in our whole attitude, in the entire political concept.”
Finally, read Einstein’s biting essay on “The Military Mentality,” which The American Scholar published in 1947. Here Einstein compared post-World War II America to Germany under Kaiser Wilhelm II.“It is characteristic of the military mentality,” he wrote, “that non-human factors (atom bombs, strategic bases, weapons of all sorts, the possession of raw materials, etc.) are held essential, while the human being, his desires and thoughts—in short, the psychological factors—are considered as unimportant and secondary.” Einstein warned that “In our time the military mentality . . . leads, by necessity, to preventive war. The general insecurity that goes hand in hand with this results in the sacrifice of the citizen’s civil rights to the supposed welfare of the state.”
This review can’t even begin to capture the range of Einstein’s political views. But the scope is suggested by the 10 chapter titles: The First World War and its Impact, 1914-1921. Science Meets Politics: The Relativity Revolution 1918-1923. Anti-Semitism and Zionism, 1919-1930. Internationalism and European Security, 1922-1932. Articles of Faith, 1930-1933. Hitler’s Germany and the Threat to European Jewry, 1933-1938. The Fate of the Jews, 1939-1949. The Second World War, Nuclear Weapons, and World Peace, 1939-1950. Soviet Russia, Political Economy, and Socialism, 1918-1952. Political Freedom and the Threat of Nuclear War, 1931-1955.
Admittedly, Einstein sometimes rambled, as he did in letters to Sigmund Freud in the 1930s about the nature of human political aggression. Reading their exchanges here you may wonder about Einstein’s—and Freud’s—grasp of realpolitick. Yet Einstein also framed and asserted vital realities, as when he warned in 1954 how the U.S. “fear of Communism has led to practices which have become incomprehensible to the rest of civilized mankind and exposed our country to ridicule.”
Einstein held a wry view of his own celebrity and his role with the news media. After facing a throng of reporters when he arrived in New York in 1930, he noted that they “asked particularly inane questions to which I replied with cheap jokes that were received with enthusiasm.” Yet Einstein could also be biting about competing political ideologies, as when he penned a poem on “The Wisdom of Dialectical Materialism, 1952”:
Through sweat and effort beyond compare
To arrive at a small grain of truth?
A fool is he who toils to find
What we simply ordain as the Party line.
And those who dare to express doubt
Will quickly find their skulls bashed in
And thus we educate as never before
Bold spirits to embrace harmony.
Still, as starkly as Einstein saw politics, he also saw hope. That hope shines throughout this volume. Consider turning to it when you’re seeking a surprise, because for all Einstein’s bumbling image and reputation, he is revealed here as a political thinker and activist in tune with, and often ahead of, his times.
William Lanouette (email@example.com) is the author of Genius in the Shadows: A Biography of Leo Szilard, The Man Behind the Bomb and is a writer about science and politics.