The Second World War and Beyond

  May 21, 2022   Read time 3 min
The Second World War and Beyond
The Second World War posed a problem for pacifists. Quakers and other members of historic peace churches remained opposed to the war. But philosophical pacifists such as Russell and Einstein eventually acknowledged that a war against Nazism could be justified.

Philosophers continued to reflect, even during the war, on the concept of pacifism. Paul Weiss presented an analysis in 1943 that explained a variety of types of pacifism: religious pacifism, cynical pacifism, sentimental pacifism, political pacifism, and ethical pacifism. Weiss concluded that there was room for ethical pacifism within the division of labor in society. He wrote: If it is our choice to be contemplative men—scientists, philosophers, artists, or godly— we cannot in full conscience take part in that worldwide and permanent war, of which the present is but an episode, which proceeds by subjugating some men and nations in order to attain an eventual good for all. We must be and remain pacifists, in this war and those that follow, holding steadfast to our obligation to pursue ultimate ideals with fidelity, impartiality, and for all mankind.

But Weiss also laid out objections against pacifism that hold in extremis—when civilization itself is at stake. He concludes: No man can remain an ethical pacifist or a militarist when civilization is in the process of being finally extinguished; no man can be really contemplative or practical when it has already been extinguished. This sort of argument explains the stakes for pacifists during the Second World War.

After the war concluded and the true devastation was measured—including the potential devastation of atomic weapons—pacifism re-emerged in earnest. Russell’s pacifism continued to develop through the Second World War and on through the 1960s. One problem for Russell was the presence of nuclear weapons. After the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan, in an article printed in the Glasgow Forward on August 18, 1945, Russell soberly reflected on the power of the bomb. He concluded: Mankind are faced with a clear-cut alternative: either we shall all perish, or shall have to acquire some slight degree of common sense. A great deal of new political thinking will be necessary if utter disaster is to be averted.

Russell’s proposed solution was stronger international institutions. Such a solution was also imagined by Einstein. Einstein’s pacifism was tied to his criticisms of nationalism and militarism. He advocated disarmament and was a supporter of the League of Nations as well as the United Nations. Einstein did advocate for the Manhattan Project because he was convinced that the Germans would get the bomb first. But Einstein remained committed to the abolition of war. In an article published in 1952, explaining his support for the American atomic bomb project, Einstein maintained, “I have always been a convinced pacifist. To kill in war is not a whit better than to commit ordinary murder” (Einstein 1982: 165). Claiming Gandhi as an inspiration, Einstein concluded, “Only the radical abolition of wars and of the threat of war can help” (Einstein 1982: 166). To create this outcome, Einstein maintained that peacetime had to cease being a mere preparation for war. Disarmament and de-escalation were necessary.

Russell and Einstein worked together to establish a conference of concerned scientists opposed to nuclear war—the Pugwash Conference on Science and World Affairs (held in 1957). The so-called “Russell-Einstein Manifesto” (1955) considered the destructive power of hydrogen bombs and the potential of nuclear war to end the human race. The manifesto stated: Here, then, is the problem which we present to you, stark and dreadful and inescapable: shall we put an end to the human race; or shall mankind renounce war? People will not face this alternative because it is so difficult to abolish war.

The threat of nuclear war contributed to the development of a doctrine known as “just war pacifism,” which held that nuclear war and the general threat of total wars meant that there could no longer be a just war. As Robert Holmes argues, modern warfare is wrong, since modern war inevitably kills innocent persons and killing innocent persons is wrong. Thus for Holmes, “modern war is presumptively wrong”.