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Bertrand Russell

Bertrand Arthur William Russell, (1872 — 1970), mathematician-philosopher, essayist-historian and winner of the 1950 Nobel Prize for literature for championing “humanitarian ideals and freedom of thought.” When Russell was eleven years old, his brother introduced him to the work of Euclid, which he described as “one of the great events of my life, as dazzling as first love.” But his lifelong involvement in mathematics was matched by his social concerns and his passionate commitment to freedom of speech. Born into a British aristocratic family, one with highly unorthodox overtones, including an atheist father and feminist grandmother, he became known for his keen interests in political and social theory. At various points in his life he considered himself to be a liberal, a socialist and a pacifist, although he confessed that his skeptical nature had led him to feel that he had “never been any of these things, in any profound sense.”

During World War I, Russell was dismissed from Trinity College for his pacifist activities. In 1917, he played a significant role in the Leeds Convention , a gathering of a thousand “anti-war socialists,” and was later convicted and imprisoned for publicly protesting the entry into the war by the United States on the side of the United Kingdom. 

Supported enthusiastically by his fellow faculty members, Russell was reinstated at the university in 1919, but resigned shortly thereafter, to devote himself to the exploration of communism in Russia, which he had at first supported, and later in China. He came away from both these lengthy travels disillusioned with communism, and instead returned to England to found an experimental school. Later, in the years before the onset of World War II, Russell taught the science of power at the London School of Economics and philosophy at the University of Chicago and UCLA.

Russell opposed the rearming of Britain against Nazi Germany, suggesting instead that, in order to avoid all-out war, if the Germans invaded England, they should be “treated as visitors and invited to dine with the prime minister.” But he soon concluded that a take-over of Europe by Hitler would be a permanent threat to democracy and by 1943, declared that “war was always a great evil, but in some particularly extreme circumstances, it may be the lesser of two evils.”

By war’s end, and already world-famous outside academic circles, he had authored his famous History of Western Philosophy. In a 1948 speech, when only the U.S. possessed the atomic bomb, Russell argued that if the USSR‘s aggression continued, it would be morally worse to go to war after that country possessed an atomic bomb than before it possessed one, insisting that if the USSR had no bomb, the West’s victory would come more swiftly and with fewer casualties than if there were atomic weapons on both sides. At a time of Soviet aggression towards countries in Eastern Europe, some understood Russell to approve a first strike in a war with the USSR. However, after the atomic explosions over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he clarified that he had meant only that it was morally justified to go to war against the USSR using atomic bombs before the USSR possessed them. After the USSR carried out its nuclear tests, Russell advocated the complete abolition of atomic weapons. In 1943, to allay any misunderstanding of his position, he wrote:

There are causes, but only a very few, for which it is worthwhile to fight; but whatever the cause, and however justifiable the war, war brings about such great evils that it is of immense importance to find ways short of war in which the things worth fighting for can be secured. I think it is worthwhile to fight to prevent England and America being conquered by the Nazis, but it would be far better if this end could be secured without war. For this, two things are necessary. First, the creation of an international government, possessing a monopoly of armed force, and guaranteeing freedom from aggression to every country; second, that wars (other than civil wars) are justified when, and only when, they are fought in defense of the international law established by the international authority. Wars will cease when, and only when, it becomes evident beyond reasonable doubt that in any war the aggressor will be defeated.

Bertrand Russell, “The Future of Pacifism”

Russell spent the 1950s and 1960s engaged in political causes primarily related to nuclear disarmament and opposing the Vietnam War. The 1955 Russell–Einstein Manifesto called for nuclear disarmament and was signed by eleven of the most prominent nuclear physicists and intellectuals of the time.

In 1956, Russell viewed European imperialism in the Middle East as another reminder of the pressing need for a more effective mechanism of international governance, stating that national sovereignty should be restricted only in such places as the Suez Canal area “where general interest is involved.” In 1957, he addressed President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Premier Nikita Khrushchev, urging a summit to consider “the conditions of co-existence.” When Khrushchev responded positively, Russell proposed a cessation of all nuclear-weapons production, even outlining the order in which various nations should proceed to disarm. When asked by The New Republic to elaborate on his views on world peace, he urged the cessation of all nuclear-weapons testing, of all flights by planes armed with nuclear weapons and the destruction of all hydrogen bombs, with the number of conventional nuclear devices limited to ensure a balance of power. He proposed the reunification of Germany, with a neutral zone established in Central Europe, with each of Germany, Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia freed of foreign troops and influence, and prohibited from forming alliances with countries outside the zone. He urged the creation of a UN peacekeeping force to guard Israel’s frontiers and Western recognition of the People’s Republic of China, to be admitted to the UN with a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

In 1962, in the midst of the Cuban crisis, he penned an urgent telegram to President Kennedy: “YOUR ACTION DESPERATE. THREAT TO HUMAN SURVIVAL. NO CONCEIVABLE JUSTIFICATION. CIVILIZED MAN CONDEMNS IT. WE WILL NOT HAVE MASS MURDER. ULTIMATUM MEANS WAR… END THIS MADNESS.”

Russell defined his conception of world government and its purpose succinctly:

A much more desirable way of securing world peace would be by a voluntary agreement among nations to pool their armed forces and submit to an agreed International Authority. This may seem, at present, a distant and Utopian prospect, but there are practical politicians who think otherwise. A World Authority, if it is to fulfill its function, must have a legislature and an executive and irresistible military power. All nations would have to agree to reduce national armed forces to the level necessary for internal police action. No nation should be allowed to retain nuclear weapons or any other means of wholesale destruction. . . . In a world where separate nations were disarmed, the military forces of the World Authority would not need to be very large and would not constitute an onerous burden upon the various constituent nations.

Bertrand Russell, Has Man a Future?