Philosophy and Nuclear War

Awhile back I ran across some citations from the years 1947-1952 which showed philosophy in a rather odd light. The topic is nuclear warfare, and the authors are the unclassifiable path-breaking philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, the Christian theologian and process philosopher Charles Hartshorne, and the world-famous public intellectual and philosopher Bertrand Russell.


Wittgenstein’s virtually nihilistic statement is the oddest and the most unpleasant. I have trouble thinking of anything to say about it.

The hysterical fear over the atom bomb being experienced, or at any rate expressed, by the public almost suggests that at last something really salutary has been invented. The fright at least gives the impression of a really effective bitter medicine. I can’t help thinking: If this didn’t have something good about it the philistines wouldn’t be making an outcry. But perhaps this too is a childish idea. Because really all I can mean is that the bomb offers a prospect of the end, the destruction, of an evil, – our disgusting soapy water science [ekelhaften seifenwäßrigen wissenschaft]. And certainly that’s not an unpleasant thought, but who can say what would come after this destruction? The people making speeches against producing the bomb are undoubtedly the scum of the intellectuals, but even that does not prove beyond question that what they abominate is to be welcomed.

(Culture and Value, a selection from the personal notes of Ludwig Wittgenstein made by Georg Henrik von Wright, 1946, pp. 48-9)


About 1952 Charles Hartshorne, a Christian process philosopher of generally benign temperament,  unmistakably accepted the possibility of nuclear war in the following note, which was added at the end of a book on completely unrelated philosophical topics:

In perhaps apparent contradiction to some of the foregoing, I feel bound to state that it would in my opinion be a form of the pacifist error to reject either strategic bombing or the use of the atomic bomb just because they are horrible. For all war is and so is enduring slavery. Moreover, bombing planes and the atomic bombs are precisely the two means of warfare in which we now have and can long keep a great superiority over Russia.
(Reality as Social Process, Free Press, 1953, p. 213).


Given his later political activities as well as his difficult relationship with Wittgenstein (who despised what he regarded as the glibness of Russell’s writings on social questions), you might think that Bertrand Russell would have been among the anti-nuclear “scum of the intellectuals” of whom Wittgenstein spoke. But in fact, during the period 1945-1947 Russell flirted with the idea of a preventive nuclear war against the USSR.

I.F. Stone accused him of that at the time, and at a much later date political sectarians circulated a highly unflattering version of this story on the internet. In response, one Ray Perkins looked at the evidence and purported to set the record straight in an article in the Russell Journal: “Bertrand Russell and Preventive War” . However, while Perkins can be credited with honestly presenting the relevant evidence, his argument based on this evidence is very weak. In his article he meticulously distinguishes between three kinds of advocacy, to which he attaches pseudo-algebraic labels (as is characteristic in analytic philosophy) :

1. PWu: We (the West) ought to wage war against the Soviets (now or in the immediate future).
2. PWc1:We ought to wage war against the Soviets unless they agree, under threat of war, to international control; and they will probably agree.
3. PWc2:We ought to wage war against the Soviets unless they agree, under threat of war, to international control; and they will probably not agree.

Perkins’ argument is that Russell’s position was PWc2, and that Russell did not believe that war, much less nuclear war, would actually result from this strategy: It is important to see the main moral difference between PWc1 and the other formulations of preventive war policy. And that difference is just this: one who advocates PWc1, unlike one who advocates PWC2 does not advocate a policy which he or she believes will directly result in war.

These are essentially distinctions without a difference. While Russell did not take the Curtis LeMay PWu position (“Bomb them into the Stone Age as soon as possible”), ultimatums backed by threats of war often do lead to war and never should be made by someone unwilling to go to war. Even though Russell (based on his expectations about the likely behavior of the Soviet and American leaders) believed that his proposed ultimatum would not lead to war, given the uncertainties of military affairs it easily could have done so, and if it did, it almost certainly would have been a nuclear war since a conventional attack on the USSR would be highly uncertain of success and would have been have been longer and bloodier than the American public would have been willing to accept

Furthermore, in some statements Russell accepted the possibility or even the likelihood of nuclear war. In a 1947 address he said: [If the USSR does not acquiesce] then if the issue were forced in the next year or two, only one side would have atomic bombs, and the war might be so short as not to involve utter ruin. In a different address at around the same time he said: I am inclined to think that Russia would acquiesce; if not, provided this is done soon, the world might survive the resulting war and emerge with a single government such as the world needs. And finally, in a 1948 letter he even accepted the likelihood of war: Communism must be wiped out, and world government must be established…I do not think the Russians will yield without war.

From these citations it seems pretty clear that in 1947 and 1948 Russell proposed a nuclear war against the Soviet Union which the Soviets could have escaped only by abject surrender and the renunciation of Communism. The fact that this was was to be preceded by an ultimatum rather done as a surprise attack than makes little difference, nor does the fact that Russell may have believed that it probably wouldn’t lead to war. The Mongols themselves, also in the name of world peace, would always sent ultimatums to the cities and nations they planned to attack, offering unconditional surrender as the alternative to total destruction. (See Kotwicz and Richard). And one of the rules of war is that your plans almost never work out the way would had wished.

None of these philosophers says what we might have expected of him, as Hartshorne acknowledges. Wittgenstein’s alarming statement perhaps is just an expression of the depth of disgust he felt with the public world, a disgust which he never really explained. Russell’s statements are less surprising when one realizes that, despite his later reputation, he had never been a Communist sympathizer, and that his objection to World War One had not been based on pacifism, but on the utter stupidity and uselessness of that war. All three of Russell’s statements are reminders of the enormous anxiety that the Soviet threat caused after the end of WWII and the degree to which WWII had conditioned people, even philosophers, to regard desperate measures as acceptable and mass killing as thinkable. In any case, there’s nothing in his, Wittgenstein’s or Harteshorne’s statements that can be used as evidence that philosophers as a group are wiser or more benign than the average citizen.


Blitz, David, Russell: The Journal of Bertrand Russell Studies 23 (2). 2003: review of Bertrand Russell on Nuclear War, Peace, and Language, ed. Schwerin (Greenwood, 2002), in which Perkins’ article appeared.

Kotwicz, Wladyslaw, ‘Les Mongols, promoteurs de l’idée de paix universelle au début du xiiie siècle’, Rocznik Orientalistyczny, xvi (1950), p. 429;

Kotwicz, Wladyslaw, ‘Formules initiales des documents mongols aux XIIIe et XIVe siècles”, Rocznik orientalistyczny, 1934, 11

Richard, Jean, “Ultimatums Mongols et Lettres Apocryphes”, Central Asiatic Journal, Vol. 17, No. 2/4.


Bertrand Russell and Power

Bertrand Russell
Power: a New Social Analysis
Routledge 2004 / Norton 1938.

(This book of Russell’s makes his murderous anti-Communism
in 1947 and 1948 easier to explain).

Bertrand Russell is best known now as one of the founders of analytic philosophy. For my generation, however, he was even better known as a polemicist and journalist who advocated atheism, secularity, rationality, science, evolution, democratic socialism,  peace, and above all, sexual liberation.  The “secular humanism” wingers rage against can be traced back to Russell, Margaret Mead, and John Dewey, all of whom were entirely mainstream during the forties and fifties, and all of whom were unmistakably non-traditional and non-Christian.

Russell’s journalism was fluently written and argued, but there were plenty of loose ends and he absolutely didn’t try to match the extreme rigor and clarity that he demanded in his technical philosophical writing. I’ve always been interested in the disjunction between the two Russells, though I’ve never really known quite what to think about it.

Power: A New Social Analysis is neither technical philosophy nor polemical journalism. When Russell published this book he intended it to be a major contribution to social thought and the beginning of a new career. But the book flopped, presumably because people had more worrisome things to think about in 1938, and Russell never returned to his project.

When I started reading this book of Russell’s I expected to whip through it, make some comments on the two Russells, and be done with it. A quick scan had shown it to be the work of a philosophe, comparable to the writings of Macauley or Gibbon. Ungrounded generalizations, snap judgements, and moralisms stud the pages. The book apparently was constructed entirely with the help of Reason, Common Sense, common knowledge, and secondary sources, with no experimentation, research, or data collection to speak of. Russell, b. 1872 during the Victorian Age, was raised by his grandparents and was in many respects a man of the Enlightenment.

So I had a snappy, snarky dismissal all ready to go. However, upon reading the book I found that Russell’s theories mesh with things that I’ve recently concluded for myself, based on the writings of Frederick Lane, Niels Steensgaard, Ernst Gellner, Alvin Gouldner, Charles Tilly, and even Michel Foucault. Force — what Russell calls “naked power” — is a primary factor in history and is at the foundation of the “legitimate monopoly of violence” which we call “The State”. In particular, military force is the source of “rent” (defined as revenue deriving from the control of territory.)

Russell’s book is worth taking a look at, and maybe one of these days I’ll give it a proper review.