Albert Einstein: Remember Your Humanity and Forget the Rest


by Rene Wadlow
2015-03-14 11:10:50

There lies before us, if we choose, continual progress in happiness, knowledge and wisdom.  Shall we, instead, choose death, because we cannot forget our quarrels?  We appeal as human beings to human beings: Rember your humanity, and forget the rest.
                                             - Russell-Einstein Manifesto, 1955

14 March is the birth anniversary of Albert Einstein, born in Ulm, south Germany, in 1879 and died in Princeton, New Jersey in 1955. I was a student at Princeton University from 1953 to 1956, and as I liked to walk in the late afternoon, I would cross Albert Einstein, who also liked to walk, coming from his office at the Institute for Advance Study. I would say “Good Evening, Professor Einstein” and he would reply “Good Evening, Young Man”.


Einstein's home was on Mercer Street, close to the University campus and seeing him was a sort of link to the history of science − though I had no idea of what his scientific ideas were all about.  In the popular mind, Einstein was somehow related to nuclear science and thus the Atomic Bomb, but the relation was not clear.  The link with the A Bomb was much clearer with J. Robert Oppenheimer who was the director of the Institute for Advanced Study from 1947 to 1966 and that I would also cross occasionally on my walks.  Oppenheimer had been the scientific head of the Manhattan Project which developed the atomic bomb during World War II. Oppenheimer later disagreed with US government policy concerning control of nuclear weapon. In the “guilt by association” atmosphere of the early post-war, Oppenheimer, having been friends with and married to people who were communists, had his government security clearance taken from him in 1954.  He returned to “pure” theoretical physics, and symbolized for many of us at the time, the mindless anti-Communism associated with Senator Joseph McCarthy.


Einstein was never really involved with nuclear physics though some of his ideas had been used by those working directly on nuclear physics. In his years at the Institute for Advanced Study, which he joined in 1933, he was trying to develop a unified field theory which would unify four fundamental forces of nature: gravity, electromagnetism, the strong nuclear force and the weak nuclear force − all to provide a unified understanding of the basic laws of the physical universe.  He was never able to work it out, but the Institute for Advanced Study was created in 1930 to allow a small number of important thinkers to go on thinking without having to do any university lecturing or to publish in order not to perish.  Einstein had the look of someone who was thinking, and probably few asked him for a reprint of his last paper.

My admiration for Einstein was unrelated to his scientific ideas which I did not understand but to his work for peace and for stronger world organizations that could promote peace.  As he wrote “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 people and their rulers.”

The 1950-1953 Korean War was just winding down with no “victor”; the French war in Vietnam was still on. Europe was divided. By 1955, ten years after the first use of nuclear weapons on Japan, both the USA and the USSR had a range of thermonuclear weapons more potentially destructive that the atomic bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “One World or None” had been the cry of those, like myself, who joined the United World Federalists in 1951 as a secondary-school student. We were looking for leaders to articulate the effort for a nuclear-weapon free world.  Albert Einstein was such a voice, and he had joined the Advisory Board of the  World Federalists.  He was by conviction and also by life experience a world citizen: German born, educated in Switzerland, he had become a Swiss citizen.  He saw the narrow, aggressive nationalism of Hitler destroy much of German scientific life and then turn to the wholesale persecution of Jews and political opponents.  Einstein was fearful of the narrow anti-communism in the USA in the late 1940s- early 1950s.  There were even voices which said that his anti-atom bomb efforts were disloyal and paving the way for a communist takeover of the US.

Einstein, while working in Switzerland, in the 1920s had been active in the League of Nations Committee on Intellectual Cooperation − an early effort to develop cooperation among intellectuals in the natural sciences, the social sciences and the arts to work for cross-cultural understanding and peace.  Bertrand Russell − the multifaceted English intellectual − had also participated in the League efforts and saw the need for a new wave of action directed to the dangers of US-USSR war where nuclear weapons might be used if ever a situation became desperate.  Bertrand Russell wrote the Manifesto and asked a small number of nuclear scientists from different countries to co-sign the statement.  Albert Einstein signed the statement − one of the last things he did.  Russell received the signed letter a couple of days after the announcement of Einstein's death.  The Manifesto became the Russell-Einstein Manifesto and was publicly issued in July 1955.

For a nuclear-weapon free world, we still need vision, leadership, responsiveness, empowerment, and persistence.  An ongoing challenge is to stay focused and specific and yet have a broad, integrated and unified vision.  We need to be flexible and receptive to new ideas and new openings but also have stability in our identity as world citizens.  


René Wadlow, president and a U.N. representative (Geneva) of the Association of World Citizens and editor of Transnational Perspectives.