Bertrand Russell's Views On Society - Activism - Pacifism, War and Nuclear Weapons

Pacifism, War and Nuclear Weapons

Russell was never a complete pacifist. He resisted specific wars on the grounds that they were contrary to the interests of civilization, and thus immoral. On the other hand, his 1915 article on "The Ethics of War," he defended wars of colonization on the same utilitarian grounds: he felt conquest was justified if the side with the more advanced civilization could put the land to better use.

Russell's activism against British participation in World War I led to fines, a loss of freedom of travel within Britain, and the non-renewal of his fellowship at Trinity College, Cambridge. and he was eventually sentenced to prison in 1918 on the tenuous grounds that he had interfered in British Foreign Policy β€” he had argued that British workers should be wary of the United States Army, for it had experience in strike-breaking. He was released after serving six months, but was still closely supervised until the end of the war.

In 1943 Russell called his stance towards warfare "relative political pacifism"β€”he held that war was always a great evil, but in some particularly extreme circumstances (such as when Adolf Hitler threatened to take over Europe) it might be a lesser of multiple evils. In the years leading to World War II, he supported the policy of appeasement; but by 1940 he acknowledged that in order to preserve democracy, Hitler had to be defeated. This same reluctant value compromise was shared by his acquaintance A.A. Milne.

Russell consistently opposed the continued existence of nuclear weapons ever since their first use. However, on 20 November 1948, in a public speech at Westminster School, addressing a gathering arranged by the New Commonwealth, Russell shocked some observers with comments that seemed to suggest a preemptive nuclear strike on the Soviet Union might be justified. Russell apparently argued that the threat of war between the United States and the Soviet Union would enable the United States to force the Soviet Union to accept the Baruch Plan for international atomic energy control. (Earlier in the year he had written in the same vein to Walter W. Marseille.) Russell felt this plan "had very great merits and showed considerable generosity, when it is remembered that America still had an unbroken nuclear monopoly." (Has Man a Future?, 1961).

However, Nicholas Griffin of McMaster University, in his book The Selected Letters of Bertrand Russell: The Public Years, 1914–1970, has claimed (after obtaining a transcript of the speech) that Russell's wording implies he advocated not the actual use of the atom bomb but merely its diplomatic use as a massive source of leverage over the actions of the Soviets.

Griffin's interpretation was disputed by Nigel Lawson, the former British Chancellor, who was present at the speech, claims it was quite clear that Russell was advocating an actual first strike. Whichever interpretation is correct, Russell later relented, instead arguing for mutual disarmament by the nuclear powers, possibly linked to some form of world government.

In 1955, Russell released the Russell-Einstein Manifesto, co-signed by Albert Einstein and nine other leading scientists and intellectuals, a document which led to the first of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs in 1957. In 1958, Russell became the first president of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. He resigned two years later when the CND would not support civil disobedience, and formed the Committee of 100. In September 1961 he was imprisoned for a week for inciting civil disobedience, when he took part in a huge ban-the-bomb demonstration at the Ministry of Defence but the sentence was quashed on account of his age.

During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Russell sent telegrams to U.S. President John F. Kennedy, Nikita Khrushchev, the UN Secretary-General U Thant and British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. His telegrams were greatly critical of Kennedy, who he had already singled out earlier as "more dangerous than Hitler", and tolerant of Khrushchev. Khrushchev replied with a long letter, published by the Russian news agency ITAR-TASS, which was mainly addressed to Kennedy and the Western world.

Increasingly concerned about the potential danger to humanity arising from nuclear weapons and other scientific discoveries, he also joined with Einstein, Robert Oppenheimer, Joseph Rotblat and other eminent scientists of the day to establish the World Academy of Art and Science which was formally constituted in 1960.

The Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation and its publishing imprint Spokesman Books began work in 1963 to carry forward Russell's work for peace, human rights and social justice. He began public opposition to US policy in Vietnam with a letter to The New York Times dated 28 March 1963. By the autumn of 1966, he had completed the manuscript War Crimes in Vietnam. Then, using the American justifications for the Nuremberg Trials, Russell, along with Jean-Paul Sartre, organised what he called an international War Crimes Tribunal, the Russell Tribunal.

Russell criticized the official account of the assassination of John F. Kennedy in "16 Questions on the Assassination," 1964.

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