In pursuit of a dream

Published : May 20, 2005 00:00 IST

Einstein's thoughts went far beyond the frontiers of science: he was a symbol of the struggle for peace, social justice and socialism.

A POLL conducted at the turn of the century elected Albert Einstein the `man of the century'. The cause of his popularity was a matter of great debate and speculation. In an interview given to a Dutch newspaper in 1921, Einstein remarked that the reason was the mysterious nature of his theory, which took his audience to a mysterious world. Had he been asked the question a few years before his death, Einstein would have answered differently. Indeed, the masses of people who elected him the man of the century did so not purely for the mysteries of relativity, but also for the fact that Einstein had grown as a symbol of the fight for peace, friendship, social justice and (this may come as a surprise to many) socialism.

One aspect of Einstein's life that has been a matter of great speculation and debate is his moral responsibility for the initiation of the Manhattan Project that led to the production of the atom bomb and its subsequent use on Japan. It was a time when the Second World War was on and Germany had recorded victories in the initial phases. Peace-lovers all over the world, who had for years thought that international pressure would thwart the imperial ambitions of Germany, now considered it their duty to ensure Hitler's defeat.

Einstein, a confirmed pacifist who often said that war could not be humanised and paid glowing tributes to Gandhi, never attached any "absolutism" in the means to achieve his pacifist goals. Rather, he maintained that "organised power can be opposed only by organised power" and that "the use of force is appropriate - namely, in the face of an enemy unconditionally bent on destroying me and my people". Hitler was one such enemy.

Though Einstein's formula E = mc{+2} is the basic principle on which the atom bomb works, he had not examined in sufficient depth the feasibility of its practical use and "indeed did not foresee that it would be realised in my time". It was through meetings with three Hungarian refugee scientists and victims of Nazi persecution, namely, Szilard, Wigner and Teller, that he learnt about the advances in uranium fission that had taken place in Germany, France and the United States. It was thus clear and "almost certain that this [bomb] could be achieved in the immediate future".

Apprehension of a German bomb was further based on the fact that if Hitler captured Belgium and had free access to its uranium, that would give Germany unlimited power to hold the world to ransom. It was believed that the German war machinery had already geared itself to this end, since the son of the German Under Secretary of State, von Weizsacker, was attached to the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Berlin, where some of the American work on uranium was then being repeated.

Einstein conveyed these apprehensions to President Franklin D. Roosevelt in a letter and urged that the U.S. government machinery take immediate steps to check the impending German monopoly in atomic weapons. The importance of this letter cannot be denied, but it would be a gross exaggeration to suggest that this letter planted the seeds of atomic weaponisation. The fact is that the practical possibilities of making such weapons had already been considered in several quarters in France, Britain and Germany.

Einstein once remarked, "My participation in the production of the atomic bomb consists of one single act: I signed a letter to President Roosevelt." During the course of the war Einstein's own involvement with the war efforts was rather minor, being limited to theoretical investigations on explosions and the problem of gaseous diffusion, the latter being considered as a means of producing enriched uranium. Einstein admits that his letter to Roosevelt was written in the apprehension that "Germans would make them", but when it was clear that the "enemy unconditionally bent on destroying me and my people" was on the verge of surrender the circumstance in which the use of force was appropriate had disappeared.

Einstein, like many other scientists, now pleaded that the bomb should never be used, a plea he communicated in a letter to the President. Unfortunately, President Roosevelt had died by the time the letter reached the presidential office. Roosevelt's successor, President Harry S. Truman, treated Einstein's letter, as also a memorandum of scientists, with scant respect. The plan to use the bomb had been made. As C.P. Snow remarked, with the discovery of fission, scientists had overnight become prized military resources. The war machine and the political leadership used the weapon and ignored the scientists.

Einstein, like all other scientists, learnt about the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki through the press. To him "the first atomic bomb destroyed more than the city of Hiroshima. It also exploded our inherited, outdated political ideas". Scientists now considered it their duty to join the nuclear disarmament movement, to which Einstein's notable contribution came first in the form of a proposal that the U.S. and the United Kingdom share the know-how of the weapon with an international agency so that no nation had the monopoly. Subsequently, the Einstein-Russell declaration (made with Bertrand Russell the philosopher-mathematician) demanded disarmament, a cause that millions are fighting for.

Though Einstein, in his concern to defeat fascism, had expressed satisfaction at "doing anything which might be useful to the national effort", his involvement with the project or with the war efforts was kept at a minimum. This had to do with two factors. Firstly, as a scientist Einstein was a loner, while the work at the project required teamwork and secrecy. The other and more important factor was his political views. Since his Berlin days, that is, since the time of the First World War, he had made statements against free market and capitalism. Hence the U.S. military establishment did not take him into confidence "in view of the attitudes of people in Washington, who have studied into his whole history".

WHAT was this whole history? Einstein abhorred militarism all his life. As a youth he found the militarism in Germany to be suffocating and gave up his German citizenship and opted for Swiss citizenship. It was during the First World War that Einstein entered direct political activity. Following the invasion of Belgium by Germany, a group of 93 German intellectuals signed what it called the `Manifesto of the Civilized World', justifying the invasion in the name of protecting German culture. Einstein, then 35, and three other intellectuals released a counter-statement - a `Manifesto to Europeans' - arguing for the formation of the League of Nations to "unite the continent into a organic whole". He joined the New Fatherland League, a group that campaigned for the above cause even clandestinely after it was banned. The Berlin police blacklisted Einstein and the members of the group were required to take the permission of the military authorities before applying for passports.

Einstein was wary of political figures but was not indifferent to political thought. He lived through tumultuous times in an era of social upheavals. The confirmations of his General Theory of Relativity made headline news on the second anniversary of the Russian Revolution, on a day when workers barricaded his home in an insurrection against the German government. In 1919 Germany signed the inglorious Versailles Treaty, which brought untold misery to the German people, pushing them to despondency. The failure of the workers' insurrection also led to the rise of right reactionary forces that finally brought Hitler to power in 1933.

During this period Einstein had won worldwide recognition and was also awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for the year 1921. But it was also the period when his left-wing views and pacifism became the target of attack by conservatives such as the Nazis as being a part of Jewish treason. The Theory of Relativity was condemned as a part of Bolshevik and Jewish conspiracy and he received death threats.

Einstein remained undeterred in this period and considered international cooperation between the intelligentsia of all countries as a means of better understanding among peoples. While the Nazi propaganda tried to arouse German citizens to war hysteria, Einstein expressed his indignation of military exercises, including compulsory military training. By the mid-1930s his ideas on this subject were already advanced and he said the armament industry was "indeed one of the greatest dangers that beset mankind", which with its evil hidden power of nationalism was trying to plunge the world into a war. Einstein argued that nationalisation of the war industries, such as aircraft, metal and chemicals, would mitigate the threats. Seventy years later, we can ask, has the threat receded?

Indeed, his international stature as a scientist came in useful to Einstein in espousing his thoughts. While welcoming "America and the Disarmament Conference, 1932", Einstein asked people to ponder why such conferences had failed in the past. He had himself conveyed his frustration by resigning from the Committee on Intellectual Cooperation of the League of Nations in 1923, over its inaction. In this 1932 letter, he placed free market economy as a factor for the economic chaos in the world. That was the time of economic depression in the capitalist world.

Einstein noted: "Since the amount of work needed to supply everybody's needs has been reduced through the improvement of technical methods, free play of economic forces no longer produces a state of affairs in which all available labour can find employment. Deliberate regulation and organisation are becoming necessary to make the results of technical progress beneficial to all." This was a direct attack on capitalism. Einstein noted that by American capital's unbridled forays into Europe, America "is hastening the economic and therewith the moral decline of Europe; she has helped to balkanise Europe and therefore shares the responsibility for the breakdown of political morality and the growth of that spirit of revenge which feeds on despair."

This was a part of the "whole history" of Einstein that was known to the people in Washington. Moreover, in 1942, three years after he got U.S. citizenship, he asked, "Why did Washington help to strangulate Loyalist Spain? Why has it an official representative in fascist France? ... Why does it maintain relations with fascist Spain? Why is there no really serious effort to assist Russia in her dire need? [The U.S.] Government is to a large degree controlled by financiers, the mentality of whom is near to the fascist frame of mind."

EINSTEIN'S disillusionment with the American polity sharpened deeply after the Second World War. After the mass murder in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he said: "All of us who are concerned for peace and triumph of reason and justice must today be keenly aware how small an influence reason and honest goodwill exert upon events in the political field." But despondency offered no solution and "without tireless efforts of those who are concerned with the welfare of humanity as a whole, the lot of mankind would be still worse than in fact it even now is."

The core issue before mankind, according to Einstein, was that "the world was promised freedom from want but large parts of the world are faced with starvation, while others are living in abundance". "The economic anarchy of capitalist society as it exists today is, in my opinion, the real source of evil," since "the entire production is carried for profit, not for use. The technological progress produces an army of unemployed, rather than in easing of the burden of work for all." Also, "unlimited competition leads to a large waste of labour, and to the crippling of social consciousness of individuals. ... This crippling of individual, I consider the worst evil of capitalism... An exaggerated competitive attitude is inculcated into the student, who is trained to worship acquisitive success as a preparation for his future career."

To Einstein, the future lay in socialism, to take mankind away from "the predatory phase of human development". But the question remained as to how the socialist economy should work? Einstein felt that the present science of economics, developed in the predatory ideology of capitalism, was incapable of throwing light on the socialist society of the future. Thus Einstein did not look at economics as being divorced from politics but saw the two being coupled by political economy. As regards socialism, he was conscious of the practical difficulties but thought that the problems of socialism must form the subject of active intellectual debate.

Einstein's radical views received hostile comments from a section of the American press. With the rise of McCarthyism, these grew into targeted attacks that questioned his loyalty to the country of his adoption. These first began with his involvement with the disarmament movement and his advocacy of the sharing of nuclear secrets with a world government was considered tantamount to surrendering these strategic military secrets to the enemy.

The attacks became sharp and intense after Einstein gave a call to citizens and intellectuals to refuse to testify before the State Internal Security Committee, which was formed during Truman's presidency. The government had prepared a list of allegedly subversive groups and individuals who had communist loyalty and also barred visas to many foreign scientists and intellectuals on account of their "communist sympathies". As a part of this witch-hunt the Rosenberg couple (Julius and Ethel Rosenberg) were executed on the electric chair in July 1953 on the charge that they had spied for the Soviets. Einstein sent a prayer to the President, asking that clemency be given to the Rosenbergs.

William Frauenglass, an English teacher in a school, refused to testify before the committee and this act of defiance invited the threat of dismissal. In a letter to Frauenglass, which was released to the press, Einstein supported Frauenglass' forthright stand against "reactionary politicians", who "are now proceeding to suppress the freedom of teaching and to deprive of their positions all those who do not prove submissive". Einstein considered Frauenglass' refusal to appear before an "inquisition" to be perfectly legal as such an "inquisition violates the spirit of constitution".

Soon the attacks on Einstein became extremely severe. Senator Joseph McCarthy threatened that those who took Einstein's advice of boycotting the security committees would be seen as "enemies of America" and some Senators demanded that Einstein be deported for the crime of propagating communist ideas. When both the houses passed a Bill outlawing the Communist Party, Einstein declared, "it is nonsense" because such a law violated individual freedom.

Along with many intellectuals, one of the victims of the anti-communist witch-hunt was Robert Oppenheimer, the scientist who directed the operations at the Manhattan Project. With time, Einstein's condemnation of McCarthyism and its attack on the intellectual liberty of the individual became more vocal. He pointed at the absurdity that "the fear of communism has led to practices which have become incomprehensible to the rest of the civilised mankind and expose our country to ridicule." He declared, "If I were a young man again and had to decide how to make a living, I would not try to become a scientist or scholar or teacher. I would rather choose to be a plumber or peddler, in the hope of finding the modest degree of independence still available under present circumstances."

This incrimination of those who suppress human rights came with a call for eternal vigilance and struggle for the realisation of a dream: since a large part of history is replete with instances of struggle for human rights, "an eternal struggle, in which a final victory can never be won. But to tire in that struggle would mean the ruin of society".

That legacy will continue to remain.

S. Chatterjee is a senior scientist at the Indian Institute of Astrophysics, Bangalore.

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