The Political Einstein: Einstein on Politics: His Private Thoughts and Public Stands on Nationalism, Zionism, War, Peace, and the Bomb

By Lanouette, William | Issues in Science and Technology, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

The Political Einstein: Einstein on Politics: His Private Thoughts and Public Stands on Nationalism, Zionism, War, Peace, and the Bomb


Lanouette, William, Issues in Science and Technology


eds. David E. Rowe and Robert Schulmann. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2007, 523 pp.

If you've thought of Albert Einstein as he's so often pictured by news media--as that famously tousle-haired, remote genius off in his own abstract world--then Einstein on Politics offers some surprises. A 1946 Time cover image set E = m[c.sup.2] in a mushroom cloud behind "Cosmoclast Einstein," who stares blankly at the reader. When Time proclaimed Einstein its "Person of the Century" in 2000, it bolstered his stereotype as "the embodiment of pure intellect, the bumbling professor with the German accent, a comic cliche in a thousand films." True, the newsmag did credit Einstein for having "denounced McCarthyism and pleaded for an end to bigotry and racism," yet still dismissed him as politically "well-meaning if naive," an opinion shared widely today.

Einstein's scientific genius actually made it hard for us to learn his political views. Intimidated by his brilliant insights into things beyond our ken, we hesitated to seek his political counsel. And Einstein knew his own limitations, admitting in 1930 that, "My passionate interest in social justice and social responsibility has always stood in curious contrast to a marked lack of desire for direct association with men and women."

Yet, from his days as a young academic in Europe to the end of his illustrious life in the United States in 1955 at age 76, Albert Einstein was a committed and often clever advocate for human dignity and the need for creative freedom. He was also a forceful writer and speaker, who pushed for world peace and against fascism and militarism when few other scientists even bothered.

Today, we respect Einstein for his opposition to the spread of nuclear weapons, but he is still best known for one famous political act: In 1939, he signed a letter to President Franklin Roosevelt that warned about German nuclear research and urged a U.S. response. Einstein played no other role in the Manhattan Project that built and deployed the A-bomb, was shocked when it was used, and crusaded against it ceaselessly. In his last political act, a week before he died, Einstein signed with Bertrand Russell a manifesto calling on the world's scientists to renounce work on weapons of mass destruction. That challenge led to the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs and their persistent arms control initiatives, which flourished during the Cold War and continue today.

An earlier book, Einstein on Peace, published in 1960, revealed this creative and troubled man's abiding pacifism along with his often fruitless efforts to create a more peaceful world. Now, with Einstein on Politics, we have a more accessible companion volume that reveals both the man himself and the many ways he tried to bend politics and politicians to achieve his grandly peaceful goals.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

In 192 items, we discover Einstein reacting, conspiring, brooding, and proclaiming--often in pointed detail--his need to shape political events. Einstein's letters to trusted colleagues, to newspapers, and to world leaders reveal intensely personal convictions and insights. His speeches, interviews, book forewords, statements, and manifestos all show us a mind and heart intent on making the world a safer, saner place. Einsteion's moral outrage is especially crisp in his "Manifesto to the Europeans" at the outbreak of World War I. "Not only would it be a disaster for civilization but ... a disaster for the national survival of individual states . . ." he warned, "in the final analysis, the very cause in the name of which all this barbarity has been unleashed."

The editors have crafted useful introductions and have identified in Einstein's life three important political periods. First came imperial Germany's collapse, from 1919 to 1923, when Einstein's hopes for world peace spurred his efforts to halt militarism. From 1930 to 1932, Einstein's second phase of intense political activity, he visited the United States to speak and write about Wilsonian democratic ideals and against U. …

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