Einstein's militant pacifismBy Colman McCarthy
Paris, Friday, February 25, 2000
WASHINGTON - If Albert Einstein is the "Person of the 20th Century," as the editors of Time magazine believe, it might take all of the 21st century to grasp that the sum of his thinking went well beyond relativity, photons, subatomic particles and quarks. Science was Einstein's livelihood; pacifism was his life.
It is odd, even bizarre, that despite the ardency of Einstein's political and spiritual
commitment to pacifism, the editors of Time, in their December cover story about him, devote 1,425 lines to his scientific ideas but only three to his views on nonviolence.
As much as anyone in the last 100 years, Einstein spoke and wrote passionately against the evils of the military mentality, whether exhibited in a government's forcing the young to join armies or in its stockpiling weapons to
annihilate the next enemy.
"Our schoolbooks glorify war and conceal its horrors," Einstein wrote. "They indoctrinate children with hatred. I would teach peace rather than war, love rather than hate."
Even when briefly referring to Einstein's anti-war philosophy, Time could not get it right. It claimed that Einstein "had spent most of his life espousing a gentle pacifism." In his own words: "I am not only a pacifist but a militant pacifist. É Every war merely enlarges the chain of vicious circles which impedes the progress of mankind. É We must begin to inoculate our children against militarism by educating them in the spirit of pacifism."
Einstein lived in America from 1933 until his death in 1955. That was time enough to analyze and constructively criticize the country's "imperialist and militaristic interests."
In the early 1950s, when the U.S. arms industry commenced its weapons-building spree that lasts to this day, and when Congress began an equally long-lasting buying spree to pay for it, Einstein argued: "You cannot simultaneously prevent and prepare for war. The very prevention of war requires more faith, courage and resolution than are needed to prepare for war."
Einstein became a one-man counselor for draft resisters. In a December 1930 speech in New York, sponsored by the New History Society, he said what needed to be done: "I should like you to realize that under the present military system, every man is compelled to commit the crime of killing for his country. The aim of all pacifists must be to convince others of the immorality of war and rid the world of the shameful slavery of military service."
He elaborated on the specifics: "The timid may say, 'What is the use? We shall be sent to prison.' To them I would reply: Even if only 2 percent of those assigned to perform military service would announce their refusal to fight, as well as urge means other than war of settling international disputes, governments would be powerless; they would not dare send such a large number of people to jail."
In the early 1930s, with Germany whipping itself into martial fever, Einstein qualified his views: Force might be needed to stop the Nazis. Many pacifists of the day were disappointed by his wavering. At the one moment when a severe test of faith in nonviolent resistance was needed, they said, Einstein chose guns.
In hindsight, these judgments seem harsh. Ronald W. Clark, one of Einstein's more insightful biographers, writes that the scientist's "newfound belief" in violent force came about because of the special menace of Nazi Germany. Despite the temporary shift, Mr. Clark argues, "Einstein continued to regard himself a pacifist."
After the war, while Einstein was at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, he was interviewed by Robert Trout of CBS News, who wondered whether it was futile to oppose war, because violence is simply human nature.
No, Einstein said: "This 'human nature' which makes wars is like a river. It is impossible in geological time to change the nature of a river. But when it continually overflows its banks and destroys our lives and homes, do we sit down and say, 'It is too bad. We can't change the river. We can do nothing about it?' É Just as we use reason to build a dam to hold a river in check, we must now build institutions to restrain the fears and suspicions and greeds which move peoples and their rulers."
Einstein's work on atomic energy exposed him to the criticism that he was aligned with the military mentality and its insatiable lust for lethally greater weapons. In fact, he wrote to President Franklin Roosevelt in early 1945 urging him not to use atomic weapons against Japan. The day Roosevelt died, the letter was found on his desk unopened.
After Harry Truman incinerated the citizens of Hiroshima, Einstein said, "If I had known they were going to do this, I would have become a shoemaker."
As a husband and father, Einstein found little of the peace he advocated for humanity. He had two marriages. In a letter, he praised a friend for having the grace and ability to live happily and lastingly with one woman - "an undertaking in which I failed twice rather disgracefully." In his unhappy home life, Einstein joined a long list of other male pacifists who, sadly, were emotionally cruel to their wives: Tolstoy, Bertrand Russell, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr.
Nearly 50 years after his death, Einstein's views on American militarism are as relevant as today's political stories about presidential candidates' plans to increase spending on "national security." For Einstein, security did not come from a nation's ability to send its young to kill the people of another land.
"Men should continue to fight," he said, "but they should fight for things worthwhile, not for imaginary geographical lines, racial prejudices and private greed drapedin the colors of patriotism. Their arms should be weapons of the spirit, not shrapnel and tanks."