To 'get Einstein'

Published : Jun 08, 2002 00:00 IST


The Einstein File: J. Edgar Hoover's Secret War Against The World's Most Famous Scientist by Fred Jerome; New York: St. Martin's Press; 2002; pages 272, $27.95.

THE best way to deal with radicals is to make them saints. Shortly after Mahatma Gandhi's death, the Hindustan Times bemoaned his glorification by the state. "Gandhi's ashes were not cold before the world began to vulgarise his saintliness by insisting, against the facts, that there was no vulgarity in him. The world finds it hard and self-shaming to believe that truth can be glimpsed from the earth: its heroes must be projected into a nebulous world of 'mysticism'. Gandhi's true monument will be his story - told again and again"(February 9, 1948). In line with this thought, Gandhi's companion, Pyarelal, wrote in Harijan that the expenditure of money to build Gandhi's statues and other such memorabilia must be opposed. Instead, Gandhians must "tidy up the Harijan Quarters in Bhangi Niwas and elsewhere and introduce in them the minimum standards of sanitation and cleanliness and comfort that Gandhiji had envisaged and to the realisation of which he had mortgaged his future hope" (May 8, 1949).

If the powers-that-be in India de-fanged Gandhi by elevating him to sainthood, those in the United States tamed Albert Einstein by promoting him to the rank of absent-minded professor. All that was powerful about Einstein became manageable the moment he was seen as harmless, as a genius who played with ideas that had no immediate mundane connection.

But, as Einstein's FBI [Federal Bureau of Investigation, the domestic political police] file shows us, he was far more than an other-worldly savant. He was a left-wing activist, steeped in the anti-Nazi, anti-racist, anti-capitalist traditions of his time. As Fred Jerome tells us, "[FBI Director] J. Edgar Hoover's hostility to dissenters and political activists is no longer news. The news is that through its hostility, the Bureau's dossier begins to describe a dimension of Einstein's life almost completely omitted from his popular image" (page xxii). This is despite the fact that Einstein himself repeated his mantra: "My life is divided between equations and politics."

BORN in 1879 in Kaiser Wilhelm's Germany, Einstein drew inspiration from his family's business in dynamos. In 1895, he fled the military draft for Switzerland, studied theoretical physics at Zurich's Polytechnic Institute, adopted Swiss citizenship, worked in the Swiss Patent Office, and spent his days amongst the socialist and anarchist students at the Odeon Cafe, alongside radical Russian refugees such as Alexander Kollontai, Leon Trotsky and Vladimir I. Lenin. In 1905, Einstein published four papers, including his Special Theory of Relativity (E=MC2), and after holding posts in Zurich and Prague, allowed Max Planck to woo him back home to Berlin in 1914.

Unjust fate drew this radical pacifist back into the jaws of war. Planck joined most German scientists in their "Manifesto to the Civilized World," a document laced with racist proto-Nazi notions to justify the Kaiser's war against the "shameful spectacle of Russian hordes allied with Mongols and Negroes unleashed against the white race". Einstein, in his first major political act, joined three other scientists to release a "Manifesto to Europeans": "Nationalist passions cannot excuse this attitude which is unworthy of what the world has heretofore called culture. It would be a grave misfortune were this spirit to gain general currency among the intellectuals. It would not only threaten culture as such, it would endanger the very existence of the nations for the protection of which this barbarous war is intended" (page 17).

Einstein's strong anti-War stance and the fact that he was Jewish, brought forth opprobrium from the emergent fascist bands within Germany. Things got so bad so fast that in 1920, the Weimar government released a statement against the attacks, but for its own venal ends: "We should not drive out of Germany a man with whom we could make real cultural propaganda" (page 19). For the decade before he eventually won the Nobel Prize in 1921, a Nobel committee member, physicist Philipp Lenard, blocked his nominations. Lenard, well-known for his anti-Semitism, became Hitler's principal scientific adviser. But Einstein's political ethics hardened as he experienced the growth of fascism in Weimar Germany.

In the first three years of the 1930s, Einstein visited the U.S. to teach at the California Institute of Technology, Caltech. During his first visit, this founder of the War Resisters League, counselled young people: "If only two per cent of those assigned to military service [refused to fight], governments would be powerless. They would not dare send such a large number of people to jail" (page 21). Interactions with the Left moved Einstein away from the belief that war resulted from the wiles of aggressive men toward the view that war served the economic interests of the powerful and the rich. In 1932, Einstein told an audience at Caltech: "At a time when we are rich in consumable goods and means of production as in no previous generation before us, a great part of humanity suffers severe want; production and consumption falter to an increasing degree, and confidence in public institutions has sunk as never before. It is not in intelligence that we lack for overcoming evil, but in unselfish, responsible devotion [to] the common weal" (page 21).

When the Nazis took power in 1933, Einstein was in the U.S. Unable to return to his home in Germany, the scientist settled in the U.S., at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, for the remainder of his life.

The U.S. government's interest in Einstein develops from this time onward and the FBI begins to accumulate evidence to deport Einstein as an "undesirable alien" with close to 2,000 pages of documentation. It was first released in 1983, after being heavily censored, but was subsequently turned over after a request under the Freedom of Information Act by Jerome and the Public Citizen Litigation Group. Einstein knew that he was under surveillance, as he told the Polish Ambassador to the U.S. at a dinner in 1948: "I suppose you must realise by now that the U.S. is no longer a free country, that undoubtedly our conversation is being recorded. This room is wired, and my house is closely watched" (page 93).

WHY was Hoover so eager to bag Einstein, especially when the risk of a backlash was so very great? From the first notations in August 1932, which included a rather off-balance letter from the Woman Patriot Corporation, an anti-feminist and anti-Semitic organisation of the plutocracy, to a mammoth Summary Report of 1953 and until Hoover's final letter with instructions to bury the file and discredit a major informant (Louis Gibarti, a former Comintern agent) in October 1955, the Einstein investigation and file had to be kept absolutely secret. In a notation on Hoover's report to a G-2 military investigation that denied Einstein clearance to work on the Manhattan Project, General Sherman Miles wrote: "There is some possibility of flameback," that is, if the story leaked that the government had investigated Einstein, one of the world's most popular men, it would make the U.S. government look bad (page 38). Indeed, despite the vast amount of material in the file on Einstein's left-wing activity, Hoover correctly inferred that Einstein's linkage to any left-wing group would bring it fame and publicity. If the U.S. government wished to "nail Einstein (it) would have to focus on something much more sinister - like espionage" (page 175).

Once the Soviet Union tested a nuclear device, political repression in the U.S. focussed on the question: Who sold the secrets of the U.S. bomb? There was to be no question in the U.S. media that the Soviets could make a bomb themselves, so the culprit must come from within the U.S. ranks itself. The Red Scare of the 1950s followed, and the U.S. government paraded on television a host of "Red Spies" (Alger Hiss, Judith Coplon, Owen Lattimore, William Remington, David Greenglass, and Ethel and Julius Rosenberg) as proof that the U.S. was both technologically unmatched and that any leaks would be plugged by the omniscient FBI. Einstein was to be Hoover's prize, his ticket to higher office and legendary status.

The problem was that while Einstein was a man of the Left, he did not have any direct connection with the nuclear programme. Hoover's FBI had seen to it that the pacifist did not get picked for the Manhattan Project, although most of the scientists who worked there came from overseas and from the Left (on Robert Oppenheimer, for instance, the FBI generated 7,000 pages, including his self-assertion that he had "lots of Communist friends"). When British intelligence arrested Klaus Fuchs in February 1950, the FBI tried to find out if there was any link between Einstein and Fuchs, whether Einstein's house in Berlin functioned as a "cable drop" for the Soviets and whether the Soviets held Einstein's son hostage in Russia so that he would work for them. Without evidence, the Einstein file was provoked over and over by Hoover's desperate enthusiasm and by unnamed "sources," who Jerome argues, had been Nazi agents now on the U.S. payroll. "If extreme right-wing German newspapers are good as anti-Einstein sources," Jerome argues, "extreme right-wing Germans are better" (page 275).

Unable to get Einstein, Hoover nonetheless amassed information on many of Einstein's activities that are now almost universally forgotten. For the sake of simplicity, his struggles can be divided into four categories:

1. Marxism: In May 1949, two economists launched a landmark Marxist journal, Monthly Review, to be published in New York City. Now over five decades later, the journal continues to publish top-quality work in history, sociology, politics and economics. In its first issue (noted in Einstein's FBI file by an informant in the Chinese Consulate!), Einstein published an article entitled "Why Socialism?" Close to the end of his impassioned article, Einstein concluded: "This crippling of individuals I consider the worst evil of capitalism. Our whole educational system suffers from this evil. An exaggerated competitive attitude is inculcated into the student, who is trained to worship acquisitive success as a preparation for his future career. I am convinced there is only one way to eliminate these grave evils, namely through the establishment of a socialist economy, accompanied by an educational system which would be oriented toward social goals. In such an economy, the means of production are owned by society itself and are utilised in a planned fashion. A planned economy, which adjusts production to the needs of the community, would distribute the work to be done among all those able to work and would guarantee a livelihood to every man, woman, and child. The education of the individual, in addition to promoting his own innate abilities, would attempt to develop in him a sense of responsibility for his fellow men in place of the glorification of power and success in our present society."

While Einstein was clearly a socialist and while he admired Marxism, he felt that the anti-Semitic acts of the Soviet administration blemished the theory. "The philosophy behind communism has a lot of merit, being concerned with ending the exploitation of the common people and the sharing of goods and labour, according to the needs and abilities," he said in an interview. "Communism as a political theory is a tremendous experiment, but, unfortunately, in Russia, it is an experiment conducted in a poorly equipped laboratory" (page 150). He remained a committed socialist until he died in 1955.

2. Anti-Racism: In 1950, Stalin apparently invited Einstein to come and live in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Einstein wrote back, "Why are Jewish scientists not permitted to hold prominent posts? Why are apparently necessary obstacles placed in the way of Jewish scientific and research workers? Why were certain Jewish professors of medical science not elected to the recently created Medical Academy?" (pages 148-149). Sympathetic to communism, Einstein nonetheless was a dedicated anti-racist and would not allow any discrimination to go unnamed. Experiences of anti-Semitism in Germany drew from Einstein a strong distaste for racism and he spent his years in the U.S. as a champion of oppressed peoples across the world. In the 1950s, Einstein condemned racism in the U.S. whole-heartedly. "Race prejudice has unfortunately become an American tradition which is uncritically handed down from one generation to the next."

The words came with action. When Einstein was on sojourn at Caltech in 1931, he got involved with the Scottsboro case, a legal and political campaign led by the U.S. Communist Party to free nine black youth falsely accused of rape and sentenced to death. After the War, black troops returned and sought the freedom they had fought for in Europe. But what they faced was a reassertion of white supremacy. Anyone who asserted their rights was killed, often by lynching. Einstein joined a group of prominent anti-racists to form the American Crusade Against Lynching in 1946. In this campaign, Einstein met the great communists Paul Robeson and W. E. B. Du Bois. Through them, Einstein would be involved in the most important anti-racist movements of the 1940s and the 1950s, such as in the Civil Rights Congress, which placed the 'We Charge Genocide' petition before the United Nations in 1950. Robeson, on the other side, developed the link between anti-racism against blacks and Jewish people before his encounter with Einstein. In 1933, he offered the proceeds from a special performance of Eugene O'Neill's All God's Chillun Got Wings to Jewish refugees fleeing the fascist terror in Europe. In 1934, Robeson said of Nazism that it was "the most retrograde step the world has seen for centuries."

3. Anti-Fascism: The connection between racism in the U.S. and fascism in Europe was second nature to most of those who suffered under the heel of either. When the black poet Langston Hughes travelled to Spain in defence of the republic in 1937, he wrote, "We Negroes in America do not have to be told what Fascism is in action. We know. Its theories of Nordic supremacy and economic suppression have long been realities to us." Einstein not only put his energy into assistance for refugees fleeing Nazism, but he also took up the cause of Spain in defiance of the U.S. government's policy of "neutrality" (while the U.S.-based oil giant Texaco fuelled Franco's Italian and German planes!). Einstein became a strong supporter of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, the contingent of volunteers from the U.S. who went to defend the republic. In 1937, Einstein wrote, "At this moment, I assure you how intimately united I feel with the Loyal Forces and with their heroic struggle in this great crisis of your country" (pages 28-29).

In 1942, Einstein offered a fuller analysis of the Spanish crisis with an eye to the emergent imperialism of the U.S.: "Why did Washington help to strangulate Loyalist Spain? Why has it an official representative in fascist France? Why does it not recognise a French government in exile? Why does it maintain relations with fascist Spain? Why is there no really serious effort to assist Russia in her dire need? It is a government to a large degree controlled by financiers, the mentality of whom is near to the fascist frame of mind. If Hitler were not a lunatic, he could have remained friends with the Western powers" (page 35).

4. Anti-Imperialism: In line with this analysis of world events, Einstein strongly opposed U.S. imperialism. When it became clear that Hitler's scientists may produce an atomic bomb, Einstein joined with other progressive scientists to urge Roosevelt to create the Manhattan Project. Like them, he was eager to use the technology to checkmate the Nazis and strongly protested both the U.S. government's use of the bomb in Japan and the consequent expansion of its military power. Einstein was a founding member of the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists, the umbrella network of a host of anti-nuclear, anti-imperialist groups. In early 1950, Einstein appeared on Eleanor Roosevelt's television show to declare that not only was "annihilation of any life on earth within the range of technical possibilities," but that the arms race was "a disastrous illusion" which "assumes [a] hysterical character" and which, in sum, would lead to the "concentration of tremendous financial power in the hands of the military."

A strong internationalist, Einstein felt that "nationalism is an infantile disease. It is the measles of mankind" (page 144). He appreciated the need for state sovereignty to protect oneself from imperialism, but loathed the transformation of this need into the myth of nationalist chauvinism. A strong supporter of Israel, Einstein nonetheless felt that he would rather "see a reasonable agreement with the Arabs based on living together in peace than the creation of a Jewish state." In a letter to Chaim Weizman, Israel's first President, Einstein wrote, "If we do not succeed in finding the path of honest cooperation and coming to terms with the Arabs, we will not have learned anything from our two-thousand-year ordeal and will deserve the fate which will beset us." When Weizman died in 1952, Prime Minister David Ben Gurion asked Einstein if he would be the President of Israel, but he declined. A few years later, Einstein noted presciently, "The most important aspect of [Israel's] policy must be our ever-present, manifest desire to institute complete equality for the Arab citizens living in our midst. The attitude we adopt toward the Arab minority will provide the real test of our moral standards as a people" (pages 110-111).

Einstein's anti-imperialist stance drew him towards the advocacy of a single world government, a supra-national body governed by all the peoples of the world. If this vision could not be turned into policy because of its sheer vagueness, Einstein counselled his friends and admirers against the duality of the Cold War. In November 1949, Nehru visited him in Princeton and Einstein encouraged him to pursue and give leadership to the Non-Aligned Movement. Later Nehru remembered that it was the conversation with Einstein that emboldened him to argue, "India must stand outside the two big blocs and seek rather to represent the millions in East and West who do not want a global war" (page 116).

HOOVER'S strategy to defrock Einstein ultimately failed, mainly because of the scientist's popularity across the planet. What damaged Einstein's convictions was not the charge of espionage, but that of being an absent-minded professor. History defrauded Einstein of his values. A year before his death in 1955, Einstein explained, "A large part of history is replete with the 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" (page 282). Fred Jerome's book has brought Einstein back to life and reminded us, with this important man's words, that our world needs courageous visions and consistent struggle to lift us out of our current impasse. We need to "get Einstein" in these times; not the man, but the fullness of his ethical vision.

As I close this review, on May 21, comes the report that Stephen J. Gould, the enormous evolutionary biologist and science writer, succumbed to cancer. Like Einstein, Gould's politics have been shrouded by the media, which was eager to hold him up as a popular writer, but not so keen on his consistent socialism. In October 1998, Gould participated with his comrade in science, Richard Levins, and others on a "roundtable on the future of the Left," in honour of the 150th anniversary of the Communist Manifesto.

Early in the discussion he gave us these words, a fitting tribute to his marriage of science and politics: "I just wanted to throw in one other issue. It just amazes me, this [U.S. State Department theorist, Francis] Fukuyama-style proposition of the 'ends' of things; I guess 'end books' sell, but this confident assertion that you hear over and over again with a battering ram, that somehow the collapse of the Soviet Union means that this other system is triumphant forever, is something we ought to dissect a little bit. What I wanted to throw in, given the experience of history, is that nothing's not only forever, nothing even lasts a human eye-blink, not to mention a geological eye-blink. But I think there is one other argument we need to talk about that's behind that, if not always articulated. This gets back to my own field, or evolutionary biology. That is, one of the deepest assumptions is that socialism has been shown to be incompatible with human nature. Even those who say 'capitalism forever' will allow that it's not in theory the fairest of systems, but it has now been decided, so they say, that human nature is effectively selfish, and that the socialist person cannot be constructed. I think we have to continue to push the nonsensical nature of that point. Embedded in the notion of capitalism's permanence is a theory about human nature that is not articulated often enough and that we have to continue to battle, because it's so blatantly false in this flexible species around us."

Vijay Prashad is Associate Professor and Director, International Studies Programme,Trinity College, Hartford, U.S.

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