On July 5, 1955, in one of his last acts, Albert Einstein signed a manifesto with the logician and philosopher Bertrand Russell. Their widely publicized statement decried the likely spread of nuclear weapons and called for the great states to renounce war as an acceptable method of resolving disputes. In the wake of the development of the Bomb, they argued, the consequences of war are now unthinkable.
The Einstein-Russell manifesto fueled the non-proliferation movement of the era and encouraged massive demonstrations against nuclear weapons. The current treaties impose modest limitations on testing and proliferation, which mostly cover acquisition, but not all nuclear nations are signatories. Even these few and limited international conventions, which were partly due to the impetus of the cold war anti-nuke movement, are in question as North Korea and Iran are believed to be developing their own nuclear weapons.
Einstein and Russell wrote just after both the United States and the Soviet Union developed the hydrogen bomb, whose explosive force is hundreds of kilotons greater than the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. By the end of the cold war the two countries had produced at least 110,000 nuclear weapons. Although many of these are technically no longer armed or targeted, the U.S. and Russia still maintain their stockpiles, as do Britain, France, Israel, China, Pakistan and India. The latter two countries nearly went to war in 2001, the U.S. is examining ways to modernize its nuclear forces for new missions, and some policy analysts have suggested that a U.S. atomic strike on North Korea may be needed to prevent it from continuing its nuclear weapons development program.
The plea for reason by Einstein, Russell, and a number of other distinguished co-signatories was implicitly aimed at the only two nuclear-weapons states of the day, the U.S. and the Soviet Union, which in 1955 seemed on the path to war. In the post-9/11 environment the international strategic scene is far more complex than it was 50 years ago. Smaller regional powers feel they need nuclear weapons to safeguard their national security and garner more regional and global influence, and non-state actors have no reason to avoid using a nuclear weapons against the United States should they acquire one.
The Einstein-Russell manifesto arose in the cold war but might have even more relevance in the post-cold war world, where the constraints against nuclear proliferation are in grave danger. At the very least, we should mark the anniversary of the manifesto and its cold, clear warning.
Jonathan D. Moreno, Ph.D., is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress