You are here

Albert Einstein on nuclear weapons

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Jim Green − Nuclear Monitor editor

The world lost Albert Einstein 60 years ago, on 18 April 1955. Einstein was declared "Person of the Century" in a December 1999 edition of Time magazine. His accomplishments in the field of theoretical physics were stressed; he was "unfathomably profound − the genius among geniuses."

Time's managing editor Walter Isaacson put Einstein's scientific accomplishments in a social context. For Isaacson: "If you had to describe the century's geopolitics in one sentence, it could be a short one: Freedom won. Free minds and free markets prevailed over fascism and communism."

The explosion of science and technology, Isaacson argued, "helped secure the triumph of freedom by unleashing the power of free minds and free markets." As the most famous scientist of the century, Einstein helped secure the triumph of freedom and thus deserved the "Person of the Century" accolade. QED.

There is a major flaw in Isaacson's line of reasoning, though we might still agree with his conclusion. Einstein was an outspoken critic of the triumphalism implicit in the rhetoric of "free minds and free markets." Far from celebrating capitalism's alleged freeing of the mind, Einstein argued in that the "crippling of individuals" is "the worst evil of capitalism" and that the "economic anarchy of capitalist society as it exists today is, in my opinion, the real source of the evil."

The only hint of Einstein's radicalism in Time is a reference to its sister magazine, Life, which in 1949 listed Einstein as one of 50 prominent US "dupes and fellow travelers" used as "weapons" by communists. Time's Frederic Golden deals with Einstein's politics by patronizing him as "well meaning if naive" and "a soft touch for almost any worthy cause."

There is no mention in Time of the fact that after World War II, Einstein became a prominent target of the anticommunist crusades in the US, or that he was an "enemy of America," according to no less an authority than US politician and inquisitor Joseph McCarthy.

The real Albert Einstein − "an anti-Nazi, anti-Franco, antiracist, freethinking, foreign, Jewish scientist" according to author of The Einstein File, Fred Jerome − is far more interesting than the airbrushed image of a brilliant, absent-minded scientist. Einstein was an agitator, more than willing to challenge authority and to support a range of progressive causes − indeed he felt duty bound to do so.

Nuclear weapons

In August 1939, just prior to the outbreak of war in Europe, Einstein sent a letter to US President Roosevelt. It was conceivable, he wrote, that uranium could be fashioned into "extremely powerful bombs of a new type." He expressed his fear that the Nazi regime may be working on an atomic weapons' program, and urged a speeding up of experimental work on nuclear fission.

In October 1939, partly due to Einstein's prompting, the President's Advisory Committee on Uranium was formed. Though it is possible that the serious pursuit of an atomic weapons' program in the US might have been delayed if not for Einstein's urgings, his impact has often been overstated. The Manhattan Project − large-scale, coordinated work on atomic weapons − did not begin until late 1941, and Einstein was not involved in it.

Science historian Alex Wellerstein writes:

"Something like the Uranium Committee might have been started up anyway (contrary to popular understanding, the letter was not the first time Roosevelt had been told about the possibility of nuclear fission), and even if it hadn't, it isn't clear that the Uranium Committee was necessary to end up with a Manhattan Project. ...

"The "push" came from an external source: the British program. Their MAUD Committee (an equivalent of the Uranium Committee) had concluded that a nuclear weapon would be much easier to build than the United States had concluded, and sent an emissary (Mark Oliphant) to the United States to make sure this conclusion was understood."

There is no truth to the widespread view that Einstein's scientific research led to, or provided the foundations for, the development of atomic weapons. Wellerstein states: "E=mc² tells you that on some very deep level, energy and mass are equivalent, and the amount of energy that mass is equivalent is gigantic. But it says nothing about the mechanism of converting mass into energy ... or whether it can be scaled up to industrial or military scales. It gives no hints as to even where to look for such energy releases."

Einstein said:

"I do not consider myself the father of the release of atomic energy. My part in it was quite indirect. I did not, in fact, foresee that it would be released in my time. I believed only that it was theoretically possible. It became practical through the accidental discovery of chain reaction, and this was not something I could have predicted."

At the end of the war, Einstein spoke out against the nuclear strikes on Japan, arguing that they were unjustified and motivated by US−Soviet politicking. With the benefit of hindsight, he regretted having urged an atomic weapons program in the US.

Following the war, Einstein gave strong support to organisations fighting against militarism and atomic weapons in particular. In May 1946, he became chair of the newly-formed Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists, which was primarily concerned with education on the dangers of atomic weapons. Funds raised by the Committee assisted other organisations such as the Federation of American Scientists and activities like the publication of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

In 1955, scientist-philosopher Bertrand Russell approached Einstein, suggesting that a group of scientists be convened to discuss nuclear disarmament and ways in which war could be abolished. The first such meeting was held in July 1957, in Pugwash, Nova Scotia. Shortly before his death in 1955, Einstein was one of 11 scientists, nine of them Nobel laureates, to sign an initial statement − the Russell-Einstein Manifesto − calling for the abolition not only of atomic weapons but also of war itself, regardless of the necessary "distasteful limitations of national sovereignty."

For Einstein, the issue of atomic weapons was subordinate to the broader issues of militarism and nationalism. He wrote:

"As long as there are sovereign nations possessing great power, war is inevitable. That is not an attempt to say when it will come, but only that it is sure to come. That was true before the atomic bomb was made. What has changed is the destructiveness of war."

Einstein hoped that the added threat of atomic weapons might facilitate his broader objective of establishing a supranational authority, and he wanted the "secret" of the atomic bomb to be monopolised by such an authority. He wanted the US to renounce the use of atomic weapons pending the creation of a supranational authority or if supranational control was not achieved.

In 1950, Einstein appeared on an NBC network program called "Today With Mrs. Roosevelt," discussing the US government's plans to build hydrogen bombs far more powerful than the fission bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Einstein's speech on the NBC program was typically punchy, warning that the "idea of achieving security through national armament is… a disastrous illusion," that the arms race between the US and the Soviet Union had assumed a "hysterical character," and that with the advent of hydrogen bombs, "radioactive poisoning of the atmosphere and hence annihilation of any life on Earth has been brought within the range of technical possibilities."

His comments on the NBC program attracted not only newspaper headlines but also the attention of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who promptly issued a memo to FBI offices across the country seeking all available "derogatory information" on Einstein.

What did Einstein have to say about the peaceful uses of atomic energy? Not much. During his lifetime, there was a modest degree of R&D into possible peaceful uses of atomic energy, and a great deal of speculation and propaganda. He wrote in 1945:

"To give any estimate when atomic energy can be applied to constructive purposes is impossible. ... Since I do not foresee that atomic energy is to be a great boon for a long time, I have to say that for the present it is a menace."

Jim Green is the editor of an anthology of Einstein's writing on politics, 'Albert Einstein − a Rebel Life', published by Ocean Press.