Genius of science, genius of peace

Einstein: By giving short shrift to his pacifist beliefs, the editors of Time ill-served their Person of the Century.

February 20, 2000|By Colman McCarthy

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 the intellectual parts of relativity, photons, subatomic particles and quarks. Science was Einstein's livelihood; pacifism was his life.

Odd, then, even bizarre, that despite the ardency of Einstein's political and spiritual commitment to pacifism, the editors of Time in their December cover story on the person of the century devote 1,425 lines to his scientific ideas but only three to his views on nonviolence.

As much as anyone in the past 100 years, Einstein spoke and wrote passionately against the evils of the military mentality, whether found in a government's forcing its young to join armies or in its stockpiling weapons to annihilate the next enemy. The culture becomes contaminated with martial thinking. "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 antiwar philosophy, Time couldn't 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. . . . Every war merely enlarges the chain of vicious circles which impedes the progress of mankind. . . . 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 then 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 that "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."

With that thought, Einstein strove mightily to dispel the prevailing myth that pacifism is passivity, that it is a creed for the cowering. Anyone can obey today's Selective Service Act. But it takes a rare kind of "faith, courage and resolution" for an 18-year-old to stand up to a threatening U.S. government and defiantly say no to being a gear in the nation's war machine.

Einstein became a counselor for draft resisters. In a December 1930 speech at New York's Ritz-Carlton hotel sponsored by the New History Society, Einstein explained 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." Einstein 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."

As though disturbed by gravitational force -- the weight of reality in the early 1930s in Europe -- Einstein's pacifism had moments of bending. 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 Einstein's 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 "new-found belief" in violent force came about because of the special menace of Nazi Germany. Despite the temporary shift, Clark argues, "Einstein continued to regard himself a pacifist."

After the war, while at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., Einstein was interviewed by Robert Trout of CBS News, who wondered whether it was futile to oppose war because violence is just 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'. . . 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."

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