Bertrand Russell and Ban the Bomb

Bertrand Russell's keen insights into the destructive potential of a nuclear war drove him to campaign for the complete elimination of these weapons of mass horror.


It’s so long ago, I can’t remember how it came to my attention. I was 13 years old and no one in my family or anyone in the blue collar community we lived in had a clue who Bertrand Russell was or why he was taking on the military and political establishments of the world, trying to convince everybody that nuclear weapons and war itself must be abolished.

But I got my hands on a copy of Common Sense and Nuclear Warfare, and to say it changed my life would be a vast understatement.

Before the arms race had resulted in tens of thousands of nuclear bombs being built by the U.S. and Russia, decades before the possibility of nuclear winter was ever discussed, Bertrand Russell’s keen insights into the destructive potential of a nuclear war drove him to campaign for the complete elimination of these weapons of mass horror. I remember seeing photos of him sitting alone in the middle of London, blocking traffic, holding a sign that said ‘Ban The Bomb’. I remember reading stories of how this world-renowned philosopher, distinguished scholar and intellectual, took his commitment to the streets and was often arrested for his courageous work. As the anti-nuclear movement grew, Lord Russell quickly became an icon among anti-nuclear activists.

The Ban the Bomb movement that arose during the late 50s and early 60s was massive! The largest protests ever seen in the West were the result of this movement.

And because there were still a few sane thought leaders in the world at that time who had high visibility and enormous public respect, Lord Russell was not alone in his passionate appeals for ending the scourge of war.

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Mind you, this was back when the number of usable nuclear weapons was in the hundreds. The Soviets had no where near the number that U.S. intelligence was claiming, a deception intended to build support for what was coming. What was coming was an insanely dangerous and wasteful nuclear arms race that had both the U.S. and the Soviet Union piling up tens of thousands of atomic and hydrogen bombs, holding the entire world hostage to a “peace plan” known as MAD—mutual assured destruction.

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Naturally, this was a green light for other countries—England, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, and more recently North Korea—to start stockpiling their own nuclear arsenals.

Recall how this started. The U.S. has distinguished itself to be the first and only nation to ever employ them. Moreover, it is clear now that one of the main reasons why we dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was to send a signal to the Soviets. We’ve got the bomb. We’ll use it. Don’t mess with us!

Well, they got the message and made the only rational choice. The only way to protect themselves was to develop the same capability, sending a clear and unambiguous reply. Drop nuclear weapons on us and watch your own cities and populations disappear in a nuclear fireball.

In reality, back in the 50s, the Soviet counter-threat was mostly huff-and-puff. Daniel Ellsberg, who was a military analyst at the time at Rand Corporation and had access to the most sensitive data on the Soviets, exposed the truth. While the U.S. had over a hundred and had long range missiles and high-altitude bombers to deliver the lethal payloads, the Soviets had—are you ready for this?—six. And whether their ICBMs were actually capable of getting these six nuclear devices to U.S. soil was itself very much in question.

This didn’t stop the U.S. military to constantly trumpet the Soviet threat. Which meant we had to build more and more bombs. Couldn’t let those Russkies get a leg up on us, could we?

You can see from the above chart where this took us.

It’s tempting to say we haven’t learned anything in the past seven decades. But that’s a ridiculous conclusion. The truth is we knew back then and know now exactly what’s wrong and what needs to be done. We had celebrations across the globe recently when the 50th nation ratified the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and the U.N. “officially” declared nuclear weapons illegal. Any sane, decent human being knows nuclear weapons have no place in the world now or ever, and are a death sentence for the human species waiting for signature—which will be the first mushroom cloud over a major city anywhere on the planet. Of course, none of the nations who have nuclear weapons signed the treaty, there’s no way to enforce the treaty, and the nuclear nations will do whatever they damn please regardless.

Which requires us to pause and inhale a deep breath . . . OF REALITY.

For seven decades I’ve been listening to the same painful moans and pitiful mantras. About a whole host of crises and problems: poverty, famine, war, terror, infanticide, genocide, war crimes, bioweapons, oppression, exploitation, on and on and on. And anyone my age will tell you the same. Not much has changed. The excuses are more compelling, the euphemisms are cleverer, the blame-game is Olympic Gold Medal material, the talking heads delivering the 24/7 stream of non-sequiturs prettier and more handsome. Yeah, there are incremental improvements here and there. But SEVENTY YEARS? We’ve put humans in space, transplanted organs, created self-driving cars, mass-produced a telephone-camera-computer-video conferencing computer that fits in the palm of a hand, yet 24,000 people still starve to death EVERY DAY. And we’re still snarling at one another like rabid hyenas threatening war and flirting with extinction. Come on!

The one lesson that has not sunk in is that . . . ALL OF THESE STRUGGLES ARE ABOUT POWER: Those who have it and those who don’t. We can—as Lord Russell did and many good, well-meaning contemporary activists currently do—say all of the right things. But those fighting the good fight DON’T HAVE THE POWER. Those who subject the rest of the human race to indignities, oppression, the sickening homicidal wars, DO HAVE THE POWER and they are not listening. Not to us anyway. They listen to themselves, they serve themselves, their only loyalty is to an agenda that will keep them in power and secure their ability to use and abuse that power as they see fit.

THAT is the lesson we haven’t learned. We know that nuclear weapons are a death warrant. We know that they are a suicide pact. But there they are and there they will continue to sit, ready to unleash more death and destruction—and if not the annihilation of the human species at least the end of anything resembling civilization—than ever before imagined.

If we stop to think, to look at it objectively, the vast majority of people in the world want no part of this. It is a tiny, power-drunk, empire-obsessed, sociopathic few who hold us hostage to their psychotic fantasies.

Let’s break it down . . .

We know what needs to be done.

The lunatics are not now and will never listen to us.

We know how to change everything to make a better world.

The lunatics have their own plan and refuse to change.

The lunatics have the power.

We don’t have the power.

What should we do?

Isn’t it obvious?


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