July 9, 1955 (a Saturday)

The mushroom cloud of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, Japan on August 9, 1945 rose some 18 kilometers (11 mi) above the bomb’s hypocenter.

On this date, The Russell–Einstein Manifesto was released by Bertrand Russell in London, England, United Kingdom in the midst of the Cold War. It highlighted the dangers posed by nuclear weapons and called for world leaders to seek peaceful resolutions to international conflict.

Eleven eminent intellectuals and scientists signed the statement, including Albert Einstein, who had signed it just days before his death on 18 April 1955, and Linus Pauling, who signed it after its initial release. The Manifesto was one of several efforts by scientists in the 1950s to focus world attention on the critical need for new approaches to international security in the nuclear age. In particular, scientists feared that national leaders and the public little understood the implications of the new and devastating hydrogen bombs.

The first nuclear fission (“atomic”) bomb (or “A-bomb”), which employed plutonium and was code-named “Trinity”, had been detonated as a test by the United States on 16 July 1945 on the Alamogordo Bombing and Gunnery Range, about 230 miles south of the headquarters of the Manhattan Project (so-called because of where the research began) at Los Alamos, New Mexico. On 6 August 1945, the U.S. had dropped a uranium atomic bomb code-named “Little Boy” on the Japanese city of Hiroshima and, three days later, a plutonium atomic bomb code-named “Fat Man” on Nagasaki. These two bombings resulted in casualties — mostly civilians — estimated at 105,000 dead and 94,000 wounded (in spite of the fact that “Little Boy” had actually misfired: only 1.38% of its uranium had fissioned). The first nuclear fusion (thermonuclear or “hydrogen”) bomb (or “H-bomb“), code-named “Mike”, had been detonated as a test at the Enewetak atoll in the Marshall Islands on 1 November 1952, also by the United States.
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As soon as he learned about the bombing in Hiroshima, Joseph Rotblat, the only scientist to leave the Manhattan Project on moral grounds, became gravely concerned about the possibility of a hydrogen bomb. He remarked in an interview in 2003:

I knew a little bit more than other people about what was going on. So I knew that it would begin an arms race and that the hydrogen bomb would come in. And then…for the first time I became worried about the whole future of mankind. Because…once you are going to develop these huge weapons, where are you going to stop? And this was my reaction on the 6th of August [1945].

On 18 August 1945, the Glasgow Forward published the first known recorded comment by philosopher Bertrand Russell on atomic weapons, which he began composing the day Nagasaki was bombed. It contained threads that would later appear in the Manifesto:

The prospect for the human race is sombre beyond all precedent. Mankind are faced with a clear-cut alternative: either we shall all perish, or we shall have to acquire some slight degree of common sense. A great deal of new political thinking will be necessary if utter disaster is to be averted.

‘Mike’, detonated on 1 November 1952.

Interestingly, the physicist Max Born wrote to Einstein about engaging fellow scientists to draw greater attention to the dangers of the nuclear age and to encourage governments to take action in a letter dated 28 November 1954:

I read in the paper recently that you are supposed to have said: “If I were to be born a second time, I would become not a physicist, but an artisan.” These words were a great comfort to me, for similar thoughts are going around in my mind as well, in view of the evil which our once so beautiful science has brought upon the world….I am thinking of using my present popularity [as a Nobel laureate]…to try and arouse the consciences of our colleagues over the production of ever more horrible bombs.

The Russell-Einstein Manifesto was released during a press conference at Caxton Hall, London. Rotblat, who chaired the meeting, described it as follows:

…It was thought that only a few of the Press would turn up and a small room was booked in Caxton Hall for the Press Conference. But it soon became clear that interest was increasing and the next larger room was booked. In the end the largest room was taken and on the day of the Conference this was packed to capacity with representatives of the press, radio and television from all over the world. After reading the Manifesto, Russell answered a barrage of questions from members of the press, some of whom were initially openly hostile to the ideas contained in the Manifesto. Gradually, however, they became convinced by the forcefulness of his arguments, as was evident in the excellent reporting in the Press, which in many cases gave front page coverage.

Russell began the conference by stating:

I am bringing the warning pronounced by the signatories to the notice of all the powerful Governments of the world in the earnest hope that they may agree to allow their citizens to survive.

The Manifesto called for a conference where scientists would assess the dangers posed to the survival of humanity by weapons of mass destruction (then only considered to be nuclear weapons). Emphasis was placed on the meeting being politically neutral. It extended the question of nuclear weapons to all people and governments. One particular phrase is quoted often, including by Rotblat upon receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995:

We appeal, as human beings to human beings: Remember your humanity, and forget the rest. [emphasis added]

The heart of The Russell-Einstein Manifesto was the following short resolution, to which its signatories invited “this Congress, and through it the scientists of the world and the general public, to subscribe”:

In view of the fact that in any future world war nuclear weapons will certainly be employed, and that such weapons threaten the continued existence of mankind, we urge the governments of the world to realize, and to acknowledge publicly, that their purpose cannot be furthered by a world war, and we urge them, consequently, to find peaceful means for the settlement of all matters of dispute between them.

The Manifesto was signed by Max Born (Professor of Theoretical Physics at Göttingen, Nobel Prize in Physics), Percy W. Bridgman (Professor of Physics, Harvard University, Foreign Member of the Royal Society, Nobel Prize in Physics), Albert Einstein, Leopold Infeld (Professor of Theoretical Physics, University of Warsaw, Member of the Polish Academy of Sciences), Frédéric Joliot-Curie (Professor of Physics at the College de France, Nobel Prize in Chemistry), Herman J. Muller (Professor of Zoology, University of Indiana, Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine), Linus Pauling (who added his name after the initial release, Professor of Chemistry, California Institute of Technology, Nobel Prize in Chemistry), Cecil F. Powell (Professor of Physics, Bristol University, Nobel Prize in Physics), Joseph Rotblat (Professor of Physics, University of London, St. Bartholomew’s Hospital Medical College), Bertrand Russell, and Hideki Yukawa (Professor of Theoretical Physics, Kyoto University, Nobel Prize in Physics).

It was at the time a significant accomplishment to have signatures from men from such a wide range of countries and political perspectives. However, the lack of Russian signatures was notable. Rotblat reflected that Russell’s earlier strong anti-Communist stand was “to some extent…one of the reasons why no Russians signed the Manifesto….They still didn’t quite trust him.”

As Joseph Rotblat has recently commented, The Russell-Einstein Manifesto is still relevant today:

…In other words, is the Russell-Einstein Manifesto still relevant today? My answer to this question is an emphatic “Yes”: the Manifesto is highly relevant in 2005.

(…)

The most important outcome of the realization of the danger of a nuclear catastrophe was the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which came into force in 1970. It has, by now, an almost universal acceptance, with 188 signatories, 98% of the UN membership.

(…)

The single most important event in the post-war era was the appointment of Mikhail Gorbachev as Russia’s leader. Realizing the awesome consequences of a continuing nuclear arms race, he took a momentous decision: to bring the arms race to a halt.

(…)

To some extent, these attempts to rid the world of nuclear weapons were an outcome of the Manifesto which so vividly described the consequences of a nuclear confrontation.

(…)

The worst setback came in 2000, with the election of George W. Bush as President of the USA. In statements on nuclear policy, soon after the election, he not only made it clear that he wants to keep nuclear arsenals ad infinitum, but he elevated nuclear weapons to the status of weapons of first use, to be an essential element of the US general armed forces. Moreover, in accordance with these policies, the possession of nuclear arsenals by other states would be allowed, provided they are friends of the USA; those not friendly to the USA would be prevented, by force if necessary, from acquiring such weapons.

Thus, 50 years after the Manifesto that warned us about the dire consequences of a nuclear war, the world is still in danger of a nuclear holocaust; the nuclear states still refuse to honour their obligations under the NPT; there are still huge nuclear arsenals held by the former two super powers; the USA still seeks to develop new nuclear warheads; more nations are likely to acquire nuclear arsenals on the excuse that they are needed for their security. A new nuclear arms race has become a real possibility. On top of all this, there is the real danger of terrorist groups acquiring nuclear weapons.

As of 7 May 2012, the Federation of American Scientists estimates that the world’s combined stockpile of nuclear warheads remains at a very high level: more than 19,000, with around 4,400 of them kept in “operational” status, ready for potential use.

References:

  • Sandra Ionno Butcher. The Origins of the Russell-Einstein Manifesto – Issue 1 of Pugwash History Series (Washington, DC: Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, 2005). Accessed 13 July 2012 at http://www.pugwash.org/publication/phs/history9.pdf.
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