On 23 December 1954 Bertrand Russell delivered a BBC radio broadcast entitled 'Man’s Peril' [audio 1. below]. It was one of his best known essays and undoubtedly the most celebrated of his many broadcasts for the BBC. Drawing on the expert testimony of scientists and military strategists, he painted a grim picture of the material and human destruction likely to be wrought by nuclear warfare. Yet the gloom and foreboding of his rhetoric was punctuated by a guarded optimism that 'Man’s Peril' could somehow be averted. A modest but crucial first step in this direction, in Russell’s judgment, would be an authoritative statement of scientific opinion as to what a war fought with atomic and hydrogen bombs would actually entail.
The extraordinary response to Russell’s broadcast pushed him onto the path of anti-war protest once again. In a sense this was a remarkable political transformation for somebody who had staunchly defended the Cold War policies of western governments in the late 1940s. But Russell, in assuming the mantle of anti-nuclear prophet and sage, was also reviving his connection--firmly established during the First World War--with a venerable tradition of radical dissent over British foreign and defence policy.
Already in his mid-eighties, Russell might have contented himself with a quiet life of retirement at his North Wales home, reflecting on the achievements of an already full and rich life. Instead, Russell embarked upon one last, long phase of political struggle, which continued under various guises until his death in 1970. The first initiative that he spearheaded would eventually spawn the Nobel prize-winning Pugwash organization of international scientists. The origins of this movement are superbly documented in a rich collection of material in the Russell Archives.
'Man’s Peril' had tentatively suggested that one or more neutral states set up an impartial commission of scientific inquiry into the effects of nuclear war. But Russell soon settled on a slightly different plan for breaking the Cold War impasse: a declaration signed by a small number of eminent scientists of different nationalities. He came to regard ideological diversity as critical to the success of any such declaration and drafted the statement that would jointly bear his and Albert Einstein’s names, very much with a view to making it palatable on both sides of the Iron Curtain.
Einstein was in agreement with Russell about the need for a politically balanced list of signatories to the declaration. While emphasizing ideological inclusiveness, Russell was shrewd enough to appreciate how such an approach might taint his efforts by association with such pro-Soviet organizations as the World Federation of Scientific Workers. He charted this tricky political terrain with considerable skill.
The revelation that Einstein had signed the draft declaration from his deathbed, in what Russell described as 'the very last public act of his life,' added a dramatic element to the press conference [audio 2. below] at which the manifesto was launched on 9 July 1955. Einstein’s posthumous association with the enterprise certainly amplified its immediate impact. Yet not all attention garnered by the manifesto was favourable. This was still the Cold War, after all, and there were sceptical or downright hostile voices (including those of some scientists invited to sign the document but who had declined) who could not see, or did not wish to see, the 'titanic struggle between Communism and anti-Communism' being overcome in the manner suggested by the declaration.
The Russell-Einstein manifesto seems nevertheless to have struck something of a chord at a particularly dangerous juncture in the Cold War. But how could this momentum be sustained? The manifesto had begun by urging scientists to “assemble in conference to appraise the perils that have arisen as a result of the development of weapons of mass destruction.” A very preliminary meeting of this kind [DVD 1. World Conference of Scientists below] was addressed by Russell and attended by a Soviet delegation at London’s County Hall in August 1955. But the grander occasion envisaged by the manifesto remained a remote prospect for some time after the release of this keynote anti-nuclear declaration.
In fact, two years elapsed before the first Pugwash Conference on Science and World Affairs took place at the Nova Scotia retreat of Canadian-American industrialist and philanthropist, Cyrus Eaton. This long delay was caused by organizational and political difficulties to which Russell alluded in his message of greeting to the conference delegates [audio 3. below]. As with the Russell-Einstein manifesto itself, the most perplexing political problem facing Russell and his collaborators, Joseph Rotblat and Cecil Powell (the two other British signatories of the manifesto), was to achieve a politically and ideologically balanced scientific gathering.
When the twenty-two accredited participants of the first Pugwash Conference eventually did assemble, at the Canadian location from which the movement took its name, there were seven Americans, three Soviets, three Japanese, two British, two Canadians and one each from Australia, Austria, China, France and Poland. Western scientists were definitely in the majority, but the Communist presence was not a token one. Russell and his fellow organizers could be satisfied with the extent of the cross-bloc involvement, although necessarily wary about the risk of their enterprise being unfairly tarnished as a front for pro-Soviet 'peace' advocates.
At the opening session of the conference the delegates set up three working groups to debate radiation hazards, control of nuclear weapons, and the social responsibilities of scientists. Headway was made in each committee. For Russell the significance of the meeting lay not in the detailed committee work (although this would build a platform for future Pugwash Conferences) but in the simple fact that '[e]minent men from both sides of the Iron Curtain and from uncommitted countries met unofficially in a friendly spirit, not to haggle and bargain, but to attempt to diminish the dangers which scientific ingenuity had been creating.” [Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 14 (April 1958):144-6].
As the discussions at Pugwash progressed, it became apparent that the meeting would not be a one-off occasion but the beginning of something more permanent. To ensure this, the delegates picked a continuing committee, which Russell (who did not attend the conference in person) was asked to chair. Although he continued in this capacity for another five years, Russell was increasingly preoccupied with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and would play only a peripheral role in the emergence of the Pugwash movement as a constructive and independent voice of reason on nuclear testing, disarmament and related Cold War issues.
Yet Russell’s organizational drive and the inspirational appeal of the Russell-Einstein manifesto to 'remember your humanity, and forget the rest', had been pivotal to the movement’s launch and early growth. Although not immune from Cold War smear campaigns in its early years, Pugwash ultimately flourished and can be credited with playing a crucial role in the negotiation of an atmospheric nuclear test-ban treaty in 1963. In the post-Cold War era it has remained an energetic promoter of both nuclear disarmament and of global security, positions grounded in its distinctively scientific perspective. In 1995 the organization was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, jointly with one of its founders and Russell’s close political associate, Joseph Rotblat.