Poison in the Ink: The Makings of a Manifesto

2005 is being celebrated as the centennial of Albert Einstein’s miracle year, but it is also the less publicized 50th anniversary of the Russell-Einstein Manifesto, a document signed by Einstein and other scientists and intellectuals of the time urging the abolishment of nuclear weapons and war.

The endorsement of the manifesto was one of Einstein’s final acts, performed only days before his death. As Joseph Rotblat, one of the signers of the Manifesto eloquently put it, Einstein’s death “gives the manifesto extra poignancy: the last message from the man who was the symbol of the great heights the human intellect can reach, imploring us not to let all this be destroyed by human folly.”

The irony of course, is that it was another letter, sent by Einstein to President Franklin Roosevelt, which helped launch the Manhattan Project. Thus, one letter from Einstein helped to usher in the atomic age, and another became his final warning to humanity of its dangers.

Together, these two letters mark dramatic shifts in Einstein’s attitudes: from that of faith and trust in his government’s ability to use nuclear power wisely—as a deterrent and not as a weapon—to disillusionment and outrage over what he saw as a reckless disregard for human life and a growing nuclear threat to all of humanity.

Einstein’s shock was echoed by many scientists around the world, who watched helplessly as what should have been one of the great scientific triumphs of the 20th century was exploited to carry out two of its most heinous acts.

“A splendid achievement of science and technology had turned malign. Science became identified with death and destruction,” Rotblat would later say.

The realization that it was their work that made the atom bomb possible lead to a collective soul-searching among many scientists.

Solly Zuckerman, the Scientific Advisor to the British Government during the 1960’s and 70’s, laid the blame squarely on the scientists: “When it comes to nuclear weapons … it is the man in the laboratory who at the start proposes that for this or that arcane reason it would be useful to improve an old or to devise a new nuclear warhead. It is he, the technician, not the commander in the field, who is at the heart of the arms race.”

There were widespread feelings of anger, regret and despair among many scientists, but eventually there also emerged a growing conviction that they could help right the wrongs they helped create. Indeed, many came to believe that they had a moral and ethical responsibility to do so.

“We [scientists] are not fighters,” wrote Leopold Infeld, a physicists and a signer of the Manifesto. “We care little for power; no great political leader has ever arisen from our circle…We are trained in too many doubts to employ force and to express unconditional belief. But in the fight against destruction our words and thoughts may count.”

It was in this spirit that the Russell-Einstein Manifesto was drafted.

On July 9, 1955, at the height of the Cold War between the United States and Russia, the highly esteemed mathmatician and philosopher Bertrand Russell presented the Manifesto to a room full of international reporters in London.

The Manifesto contained the signatures of 11 eminent scientists and intellectuals drawn from a spectrum of political backgrounds. The most notable among them were Einstein and Russell himself, but many of the others were also Nobel laureates.

With Einstein gone, many American scientists were reluctant to publicly lend their support, but his death also proved to be an unexpected blessing.

As Russell later explained, “As Einstein had died since signing it, I could not make any alteration of substance unless I was prepared to sacrifice his signature.”

The text of the statement was fixed, and Russell was saved the hassle of wrangling with its words to accomadate new signers.

Another important figure in the creation of the Manifesto was Joseph Rotblat, a Polish-born physicist who left the Manhattan Project when he learned that Germany had given up its atomic bomb program. After moving back to the UK, Rotblat helped launch the British Atomic Scientists’ Assocciation and worked to spread the word about the dangers of nuclear weapons.

Rotblat’s position on nuclear weapons never wavered throughout the years. “Nuclear weapons are fundamentally immoral,” he said in a recent address. “Their action is indiscriminate, affecting civilians as well as military, innocents and aggressors alike, killing people alive now and generations as yet unborn.”

Rotblat and Russell met when both were invited to a BBC television program to explain the newly developed hydrogen bomb to the public. Russell was so impressed by the young physicists that he shared with Rotblat his concerns about nuclear weapons and his plans for drafting a declaration to be signed by scientists. The meeting would mark the beginning of a lifelong collaboration and friendship between the two men.

Three years later in 1957, the pair co-founded the Pugwash Conferences, a yearly event that brings together scientists from around the world to discuss ways to hasten nuclear disarmament and find peaceful alternatives for settling global disputes. The text of the Russell-Einstein Manifesto serves as the organization’s founding charter.

Since it’s creation, Pugwash has played a role in the drafting of a number of arms control treaties, including the Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963, the Nonproliferation Treaty of 1968, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972, the Biological Weapons Convention of 1972 and the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993.

In recognition of their services, both Rotblat and Pugwash were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995. Russell had died in 1970.

In his acceptance speech, Rotblat made a direct appeal to scientists, urging them to consider the impact of their research on society. Rotblat believed scientists should be required to swear a pledge of ethical conduct like the Hippocratic Oath used by physicians.

Rotblat himself considered the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Pugwash’s greatest accomplishment. Adopted by the UN in 1970, the NPT was almost unanimously approved, collecting 188 signatories, 98% of the UN membership.

The NPT required the nuclear haves and have-nots of the world to each make a promise. The five nuclear weapons states of the time—USA, USSR, UK, China and France—would reduce and liquidate their nuclear stockpiles, while the non-nuclear weapons states would promise not to manufacture or otherwise seek to acquire nuclear weapons.

The NPT was a source of great pride for Rotblat, but also  a source of great frustration. Rotblat was deeply critical of the United State’s actions in particular. In what Rotblat viewed as a direct violation of Article VI of the NPT, the part of the Treaty that provides for nuclear disarmament, the Bush administration requested funds earlier this year to conduct nuclear weapons research and develop a new type of “bunker buster” warhead.

The United State’s also broke promises it made in 2000 to follow a set of 13 steps outlined during the 2000 NPT review to implement Article VI of the Treaty, pointing to the noncompliance of regional states as justification for its actions.

Rotblat died on September 2nd at the age of 97. He was the last surviving member of the signers of the Manifesto. The young physicists who once considered it an honor to join the likes of Einstein and Russell to warn the world of the dangers of nuclear weapons in the end was regarded with their same level of moral authority and did more than any other signer of the Manifesto to help make the group’s vision a reality.

In the 35 years since the NPT, India, Pakistan and North Korea have all joined the ranks of countries posessing nuclear weapons capabilities, increasing the number of nuclear weapons states from five to eight. Israel is also strongly suspected of having a nuclear arsenal and Iran of having an active nuclear weapons program. In light of these developments, the primary message of the Manifesto remains as revelant today as it was 50 years ago:

“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.”