Had Albert Einstein been an ordinary mortal or even an ordinary scientist, his views on life, politics, and human destiny…
I don’t write on physics: why do you write on politics?
Max Nomad to Albert Einstein
Had Albert Einstein been an ordinary mortal or even an ordinary scientist, his views on life, politics, and human destiny would have had no great significance. Nor would they have received much attention or have influenced his fellow men. But as the foremost scientific thinker of our time, the only one whose name could be coupled with Isaac Newton, Einstein was naturally solicited for his views on all sorts of questions not related to the central discipline of his life. The authority of his judgment on public affairs in the minds of the public was enhanced after the explosion of the atomic bomb over Hiroshima, since the manufacture of the bomb was the practical consequence of one of his scientific discoveries.
Although it could be argued that the explosion of the bomb over Hiroshima (but not over Nagasaki) brought the Japanese war to an abrupt close, and probably saved the lives of millions on both sides that would have been lost had American troops attempted to storm the beaches of Japan, the use of atomic weapons generated a fear of a world holocaust that has intensified over the years. In some quarters it has generated a distrust of science and scientists—despite the fact that the decision to manufacture and use atomic and then thermonuclear weapons was a political and not a scientific one.
The public fear and distrust of atomic weapons were never directed against Einstein, who on occasion had second thoughts about the wisdom of the policy that led to their emergence. His well-known pacifism and his pronouncements on curbing the use of these weapons gave him an immunity from the criticism and suspicion often visited on scientists dedicated to the defense of the nation. They in no way affected his authority or the eagerness with which the public attended to his periodic statements on matters of public policy.
It is too much to expect the public to have been aware of the divagations of judgment of the world’s great scientists (or, for that matter, its great artists and musicians) whenever they have wandered into fields unrelated to those in which they achieved greatness. Educated laymen seem to be aware that there is no automatic transference of learning from one field to another, but in social and particularly political affairs there is a tendency, especially in modern times, to give undue weight to the political judgments of great figures in art, literature, and science. Moreover, although the natural skepticism of common sense soon discounts the political declarations of a Picasso, a T. S. Eliot, or a Jean-Paul Sartre, it does not extend so readily to the political judgments of scientists, primarily because their vocation seems to express the quintessential practice of rationality.
And yet reflection shows that carrying over some of the attitudes and values of scientific inquiry to the consideration of political affairs may result in disaster. Aristotle recognized long ago that it was foolish to apply the standards of exactitude and rigor from one field of investigation to another whose subject matter was quite different. A historian who thinks like a geometrician can make no sense of human behavior. A scientist who tries to live up to the same policy of openness and trust he follows in his dealings with his colleagues would make a very poor diplomat.
The situation is complicated by the fact that in politics many more variables are involved than in any scientific discipline, and that the intention of the political agent cannot be regarded as a reliable datum. The logic of scientific method makes the scientist a skeptic of results until they are independently confirmed, but he tends to take for granted the truthfulness of the reports he receives. Dealing in political affairs and unschooled in the history of human conflict, he is always at a loss and disadvantage in assessing proposals and overtures by individuals whose principles of behavior stem from a world view or an ideological commitment profoundly different from his own. This is particularly true when a scientist nurtured in a democratic culture discusses foreign-policy issues with someone who is committed to the dogmas of a totalitarian society.
The bearing of these remarks will be more apparent as I discuss my correspondence over the years (and conversations on two important occasions) with Albert Einstein.
My first exchange with Einstein on a political issue took place in February 1937 when, together with others, I sought to organize an International Commission to Investigate the Truth about the Moscow Trials. (I had had one previous exchange with him in 1935, when I sought, and he graciously provided, a recommendation backing the appointment of Hans Reichenbach as a professor of philosophy at New York University. This fell through because the Turkish government refused to release Reichenbach from his contract to teach at the University of Istanbul.)
The first large public trial of alleged conspirators in the Soviet Union had been held in 1936. Although not in the dock, Leon Trotsky was accused not only of organizing attempts to assassinate Stalin and destroy the Soviet economy but of collaborating with Hitler, the Japanese militarists, and the British secret service to overthrow the Soviet regime he and Lenin had forged in the October Revolution of 1917. At the time, Trotsky was being harassed in Norway from where he was soon to be deported. A committee had been set up to defend Trotsky’s right to political asylum and a public hearing, and it was under these auspices that a commission was launched.
John Dewey had been persuaded to accept membership on both the committee and the commission. I set about to enlist the support, or expression of sympathy, of leading figures in the cultural world for the effort to give Leon Trotsky a hearing where he could state his case against the shocking accusations being hurled against him—accusations supported by no material evidence but only by the confessions of the Moscow defendants. Bertrand Russell, Morris R. Cohen, Horace Kallen, Arthur O. Lovejoy, and others endorsed our project. George Santayana refused, and was stirred to wrath by my invitation to him to leave the Olympian heights from which he surveyed all time and eternity. (He may have felt that an intervention on behalf of Trotsky ill comported with his expressed admiration for Mussolini, Franco, and Stalin.)
On February 22 I sent the following letter to Einstein:
Dear Professor Einstein:
I am enclosing a document of great international importance drawn up by Professors John Dewey (Columbia) and Horace M. Kallen (New School for Social Research) and signed by a number of eminent American liberals. It concerns not only the right of political asylum but perhaps the most fundamental of all human rights, viz., the right to answer in an open hearing grave charges against honor and life before being adjudged innocent or guilty. There is no one in the world whose moral authority is greater than yours on the issues involved. At the suggestion, therefore, of several members of our committee, I am writing you for an expression of opinion on the Dewey-Kallen statement. In addition to the names of those listed, endorsements of the statements expressed in the statement have been received from Professor Morris R. Cohen and from Dr. Alvin Johnson, director of the New School for Social Research, and founder of the University of Exile.
I shall be glad to send additional information upon request.
Einstein’s reply was prompt. On February 23, 1937 he wrote (the following is an English translation of the German):
Dear Professor Hook:
According to my view there is no doubt that every accused person should be given an opportunity to establish his innocence. This certainly holds true for Trotsky.
The only question that can be raised is how this should be done. That question is pertinent because Trotsky is an active and skilled political personality who is sure to seek an opportunity for the effective propagation of his political goals in public. I believe that a public procedure would serve Trotsky’s purposes to the highest degree. There is on the other hand the question whether such a public procedure, conducted in this country, would really further the ends of justice. For it is questionable whether sufficiently competent judges can be found in view of the great difficulty of assembling authentic material evidence. I fear that the only consequence will be the achievement of an effective propaganda for Trotsky’s cause, without the possibility of reaching a well-founded verdict.
That is why the public character of the proposed undertaking seems to me to be mistaken. If a number of intelligent jurists were to investigate the case privately, and if, after they were successful in reaching a truly convincing conclusion, went public with it, I would welcome such an approach with much enthusiasm. For it would serve the ends of justice and at the same time avoid side effects whose harm under the circumstances could far outweigh the value of any positive results.
To this letter I replied on March 10, 1937 (and give here the English translation of my German text):
Dear Professor Einstein:
To begin with, permit me to express my gratitude to you for taking the time to write me about the subject of my recent communication. We are all heartened by your expression of interest in the establishment of an impartial commission of inquiry to investigate the charges against Trotsky.
The question as to whether the hearings of the commission should be public has been discussed at great length by our committee and the tentative conclusions reached were as follows:
In the event that either one of the parties invited to appear before the commission refuses to put in an appearance, secret sessions at which only one party is present would have no validity and be suspect in the eyes of the world. Further, the announcement that such sessions would be secret would provoke a storm of criticism, which would turn public opinion away from interest in the commission.
The danger that Trotsky might use the open hearings for his own political purposes was, also, considered at length. The upshot of the discussion seemed to show that there were few people who believed that Trotsky, who now has every opportunity in the press to make propaganda for his political purposes, would seize this particular opportunity to do so. He would have nothing to gain by such procedure, for first, it would be irrelevant, and ruled out by the commissioners, and, second, its effect would be prejudicial to his own demand for justice on the specific charges made against him.
It is, also, clear that the commissioners would take testimony bearing only upon the specific charges made (of where, when, and how), so that in a properly conducted inquiry, even if Trotsky were foolish enough to attempt to make political propaganda, this could easily be checked.
Balancing the definite disadvantages which would follow the announcement that the hearings of the commission would be secret, against the possible dangers that open hearings might be used for political purposes, the overwhelming sentiment of our committee was in favor of the latter alternative.
Of course, once the commission were established, it could adopt rules and regulations to guide its own procedure with a particular eye upon the dangers of a public hearing.
We would be very grateful to you if you would give these considerations some further thought and would make whatever suggestions or comments you believe might be helpful in the situation.
A few days later, receiving no word from Einstein, I telephoned his residence and spoke to someone who, I assume, was Helen Dukas, Einstein’s secretary, and asked whether I could visit him briefly at his convenience with a friend. Time was growing short. The panel of commissioners was incomplete and although we had no real expectation that Einstein would serve, we hoped to get at least an endorsement of the project on the basis of which we would try to enroll other commissioners. An appointment was set up and together with Benjamin Stolberg, the well-known labor journalist, who spoke German, I journeyed to Princeton. Unfortunately, I kept no notes of our conversation, but as I have related the story many times the main points of our interview have remained fixed in my memory.
Einstein received us cordially in his study, smoked his pipe, and spoke to us in English which, although heavily accented, was surprisingly good. I restated our case and invitation and placed particular stress on the fact that John Dewey, America’s leading liberal philosopher, had agreed to serve on the commission. Einstein heard me out without interruption. When I concluded, he began by expressing his high respect for John Dewey but then went on to point out that the commission was not likely to succeed because it gave the impression of onesidedness. I assured him that the commission would surely invite the Soviet government to send any witnesses and representatives and even someone to question or cross-examine Trotsky. He was dubious about this and said that since the commission had no legal power to summon witnesses its judgment could not help appearing arbitrary.
Stolberg intervened to say that the commission would not necessarily reach any conclusion; that depended on what the hearings, scheduled in Mexico City, New York, and Paris before its subcommittees, would reveal. But regardless of whether or not sufficient evidence was uncovered to pronounce a well-grounded judgment, the commission would accomplish one thing that had not been done. It would give Trotsky his day in court—an opportunity to answer the charges made against him at the Moscow Trials and in the world press, and to reply to any questions put to him by the commissioners or by any representative of the Soviet government, even if it were Vishinsky, the Moscow prosecutor himself. Einstein remained unconvinced, repeated his doubts, and then went on at some length to say that he was aware of what Communists were capable of doing, making specific mention of their mischievous role in Germany. At the very end he made the startling statement, “From my point of view both Stalin and Trotsky are political gangsters.”
Stolberg, on hearing this, threw up his hands. I, too, was taken aback and for a moment was at a loss for words. Then falteringly I replied: “That may be, but in a civilized community it is important to see that even gangsters receive justice.”
To which Einstein rejoined with a warm smile: “You are perfectly right. But I am no policeman.” I knew then that we had come in vain. I changed the subject and we talked, with Stolberg silently glowering, about the philosophy of science. When I got up to go, Einstein gave me an inscribed copy of his lecture before the Franklin Institute. He insisted on walking us to the railroad station from his house. It was a mild day and he was attired in a threadbare sweater and wore sneakers without socks. Our conversation was about conditions in Germany. Einstein spoke very resentfully about the municipality of Berlin which had cancelled the gift of a house to him, and scornfully about the alleged weapons—a kitchen bread-knife—that had been found in the house. He made a number of other remarks about Hitler’s persecutions but I recall definitely only one: “If and when war comes Hitler will realize the harm he has done Germany by driving out the Jewish scientists.”
Although I was keenly disappointed by Einstein’s refusal to join or endorse the commission of inquiry into the truth of the Moscow Trials, in contradistinction to Stolberg and others I could appreciate his reasons. It was evident to me that he did not take the Moscow Trials at their face value, and that if he had little enthusiasm for Trotsky he had still less for Stalin. I came across no references to the Moscow Trials in anything he published; he died a year before Khrushchev’s famous talk about the crimes of Stalin before the 20th Congress of the Russian Communist party in 1956. Although not mentioning the principals of the Moscow Trials, Khrushchev’s revelations of the monstrous deeds of Stalin shook the beliefs of even the staunchest Stalinists in the validity of the trials.
Years later, to my profound shock, that remarkable historian of ideas, Lewis Feuer, called my attention to a letter written late in 1938 by Einstein to Max Born and published in the volume of Born’s correspondence with Einstein long after the latter’s death. Here Einstein confided to Born that he had changed his mind about the trials and had been persuaded by those “who know Russia best” that they were authentic and not staged! Had I known of the existence of this letter and Einstein’s sentiments at any time while he was alive, I probably would never have written him about anything else except the evidence in those trials and the counterevidence compiled in the final report of the commission, Not Guilty.
In an effort to find out who had dissuaded Einstein of his initial judgment that the trials were faked, I wrote last year to Dr. Otto Nathan, who until recently was a trustee of the Einstein estate. He had been known while teaching at the School of Commerce at NYU to be a fanatical anti-anti-Communist, and I was under the impression that he had taken the Moscow Trials as genuine. I wondered whether he had been instrumental in changing Einstein’s mind. I therefore sent a letter to him on August 10, 1981 asking whether Einstein had been referring to him in speaking of “those who know Russia best.” Since I received no response from Dr. Nathan we shall have to suspend judgment on this point.
Despite the failure of my efforts to enlist Einstein’s support for the commission, our relations remained friendly. I addressed the following letter to him on Tune 15, 1940:
Dear Professor Einstein:
May I turn to you with a simple question concerning a remark the late Edward Bernstein reports as having been made to him by you? The answer will help me in some scientific work I am doing. I am at work on an extended critique of “dialectical materialism,” the state philosophy of Soviet Russia, which seems to me every whit as false and pernicious as current “philosophical” doctrines in Germany. One of the sources of this philosophy is Engels’s posthumous book on Dialektik und Natur. When I was in Berlin in 1928 Edward Bernstein told me that he had asked you to read the manuscript and that you had declared that although it might have some interest as an item in Engels’s personal biography, in your opinion it is of no importance either for contemporary physics or for the history of physics. I am in complete accord with this judgment.
However, in an effort to rehabilitate the “authority” of this manuscript, Stalinists are claiming, both here and abroad, that the only part of the manuscript which Bernstein showed you was the section on electricity and not the sections on Dialectic, Forms of Motion, Heat, etc. which they claim are very profound indeed and which you presumably did not see. I had gathered from Bernstein that you had seen all there was to see but Riazanov, formerly head of the Marx-Engels Institute in Moscow (now liquidated), told me in 1929 that you had not. In a review of the manuscript in the Philosophy of Science, Vol. 1, No. 1, another Stalinist, D. Struik, actually claims that you regard the manuscript as important for science. Latterly, J. B. S. Haldane, an English Stalinist, has been claiming that you only saw the essay on electricity.
My question briefly is whether you saw the other sections of the manuscript, as Bernstein claimed, and whether your original judgment was intended to apply to the whole of it. I shall, of course, be grateful for anything else you may care to say about the subject.
I received the following response from Einstein, which I have translated from the German:
Dear Professor Hook:
Edward Bernstein put the whole manuscript at my disposal and my expression of opinion related to the whole manuscript. I am firmly convinced that Engels himself would find it laughable if he could see how great an importance is being attached after such a length of time to his modest attempt.
My next communication was addressed to Einstein a few years later on a matter unrelated to politics, having to do with a debate then raging on the teaching of science in colleges and universities. Einstein responded briefly and cordially, and I was subsequently granted permission to publish his letter in a book I was completing, Education for Modern Man.
The second and last time I met Einstein was on the occasion of the Princeton University Bicentennial. I had been invited to participate in a three-day conference, to be held February 19-21, 1947, on “The University and Its World Responsibilities.” The conference was well attended. A number of social events were provided for the participants in the intervals between sessions.1Among the events was a visit to the Institute for Advanced Study, which I joined out of curiosity. No one had seen Einstein at the sessions of the conference despite the fact that at the time he was urging the formation of a world government. Very few people were in their offices at the Institute as we were guided through the building. But suddenly Einstein made a shy appearance and was casually introduced to our party, most of whom seemed just as shy about interrupting the labors of the great man. As the party went on I drew back, entered Einstein’s office through the half-open door, and introduced myself. He recognized me at once, waved me to a chair, and we chatted for almost a half hour.
We talked about two things, Germany and Russia. The drift of the conversation has remained with me and I vividly remember some of the expressions Einstein used. We spoke in English, but sometimes Einstein would say something in German when the English words failed him. I made no mention of the Moscow Trials or of the Dewey Commission, whose report had long since been published, or of my visit to him a decade previously (if I had been aware then of his letter to Max Born, my conversation would have centered on that).
I began by expressing my surprise and curiosity concerning his view of the collective guilt of the German people for the crimes of Hitler. I pointed to the fact that hundreds of thousands of Germans had been jailed or sent to concentration camps. He replied that of course he did not mean to include Hitler’s victims but the entire adult population that had supported Hitler to the very end. When I said that guilt was an individual thing, he countered that the Germans had acted as individuals in what they failed to do as well as in what they did. And then he went on to make some general comments about Germans and Americans. The Germans were an arrogant people (Die Deutsche sind ein hochnässige Volk) and the Americans were naive and sentimental in their postwar judgments and reactions. The Russians knew the Germans better. When I said something about the behavior of the Red Army in the working-class district of Wedding in Berlin, he remarked that the Americans always seemed eager to believe the worst about the Russians.
I then changed the subject to the Soviet Union and pointed out that it was a threat not only to Eastern Europe but Western Europe as well. (This was after Churchill had delivered his famous “Iron Curtain” speech at Fulton, Mo.) I said that he, Einstein, seemed to me to be taking a Christian Science attitude toward the Soviet Union, explaining the Christian Science view of the nature of evil. He seemed amused at the expression “Christian Science” but denied that the Russians constituted a threat to the West. “It is foolish [lächerlich, laughable] to be afraid of this halbwilde Menge [half-savage horde].” He brushed aside my retort that they knew how to use weapons and that in the past Europe had been ravaged by other “half-savage hordes.” (This phrase stuck in my mind; in subsequent correspondence Einstein denied he had used it in any invidious sense with respect to the Russians alone.) There were many things the Soviets did of which he did not approve but the Soviet Union was less of a threat to peace than some Americans who spoke of preventive war. I pointed out that this was certainly not the postion of the American government, and that in a free society all sorts of irresponsible opinions were expressed.
Despite our spirited differences our conversation seemed friendly enough. But I felt that I had taken too much of Einstein’s time. I arose apologetically and thanked him for having taken the time to talk with me. He shrugged and there was a gleam of amusement in his eye when I bade him goodbye.
A little more than a year later, having read that Einstein had endorsed the program and candidacy of Henry Wallace for the Presidency of the United States, I wrote him the following letter:
Dear Dr. Einstein:
According to the New York Times of March 30, 1948 the National Wallace for President Committee claims that you have endorsed Wallace as a man who is “clear, honest, and unassuming,” and that you have declared yourself in agreement with the fundamental premises of his program for peace.
Because of the gravity of the issues involved, I am taking the liberty of writing to inquire whether this report is accurate. If it is, I think it is nothing short of disastrous for the cause of genuine peace and cultural freedom with which your name has been until now indissolubly associated.
Proof in social affairs is notoriously difficult. But if anything is demonstrable it is that in his public utterances Mr. Wallace has not been intellectually honest or clear or unassuming. I need only cite here his distortion of the Baruch-Lilienthal proposals, his willful refusal to repudiate an acknowledged error, his charge that the Communist coup in Czechoslovakia was a defensive action against the interference of the American Ambassador, his deletion of all criticism of Soviet expansionism from his speeches, his refusal to protest against the vast network of concentration camps in the Soviet Union and its satellites, his declaration that the U.S. suffers from an excess of political or Bill of Rights democracy and that the Soviet Union enjoys “economic democracy” but not political democracy, as if you could have the first without the second.
All this would be comparatively unimportant if it bore only upon Mr. Wallace’s personal qualities. The issue is not personal but fundamentally political—and this is what makes the implied claim of the Wallace for President Committee that you are endorsing its candidate so momentous.
Politically, Wallace today is a captive of the Communist party whose devious work in other countries you are familiar with much better than most scientists. His speeches are written for him by fellow-travelers. His line is indistinguishable from that of Pravda and the Daily Worker. It expresses from the first to last the illogic of appeasement.1
One does not have to be an unqualified supporter of American foreign policy or even of American culture—and as a democrat, a Socialist, and a Jew I, for one, am not—to recognize that, so long as the self-corrective procedures of the democratic process are left intact, the incomplete patterns of freedom in the Western world are infinitely preferable to the brutal totalitarianism of Soviet Communism.
If this premise is granted then it remains only to establish the fact of whether or not the Soviet Union is committed to a policy of expansionism or ultimate world-conquest, to derive the general line of policy for peace-loving democrats.
Three lines of evidence point to the fact that the Stalin regime is committed to a program of world expansion: (a) what it says, (b) what it does, and (c) how it is organized for action abroad.
- The state doctrine of the USSR makes it clear that its regime does not believe that it can be secure until all other forms of government—whether democratic or not—are destroyed. I shall be happy to cite chapter and verse on request.
- What the regime of the USSR has done is illustrated in its long list of treaty violations which surpasses in length that of Hitler; its forcible annexation of territory and peoples which never belonged to it; its use of the veto; its refusal to support any feasible plan of international control of nuclear energy; its systematic defamation of all individuals who espouse a program of world government as agents of British-American imperialism.
- The intensive use of Fifth Columns to overthrow democracies has been part and parcel of the Kremlin’s policy from the very beginning until the present. You know how it operated in the Weimar Republic. You can see today how it is girding itself for action in Italy and France.
Wallace is the Gottwald of tomorrow. His policy is designed to put the U.S. and its allies in a position where before long the only alternative to internal chaos and the threat of external annihilation would be capitulation to Stalin—the road which Beneš took.
When we spoke last at Princeton on the occasion of the reception given by the Institute for one of the Bicentennial Conferences you professed skepticism that the Russians—“a half-savage horde,” as you called them—could ever constitute a menace to the U.S. I can only repeat now what I said then. This “half-savage horde” by itself is not hostile to us but only their regime which unfortunately controls them. This regime with the help of its Fifth Column can take all of Europe and Asia which they will undoubtedly do if Wallace’s policy prevails. An organized Europe and Asia can within a decade amass such power that we in the West can have no chance for survival as a free people.
This letter is already overlong. I know how busy you are and how remote the chances are that I can come to talk to you—which I would dearly love to do—and bring you my evidence for the statements I have made. I do not believe my mind is closed to counterevidence and argument and I do not advocate as Bertrand Russell does a preventive war. But the prima-facie case against Wallace’s policy is so strong, that I hope you will reconsider your endorsement of it.
In reply to the foregoing Einstein wrote to me in English on April 3, 1948. I abbreviate the contents of his letter:
Dear Professor Hook:
I must openly confess that I was very astonished by your letter. What I have really done was to recommend warmly Wallace’s book—in one sentence—paid tribute to Wallace as a man who is above all the petty interests. I have furthermore never spoken of the Russians as a “half-savage horde,” for this is not my way of expression. I believe one could say this with some justification of every nation on earth; but I don’t like the expression.
In my opinion your views are far from objective. If you ask yourself who, since the termination of the war, has threatened his opponent to a higher degree by direct action—the Russians, the Americans, or the Americans, the Russians? The answer is, in my opinion, not doubtful and is accurately given in Wallace’s book. It is, furthermore, not doubtful that the military strength of the USA is at present much greater than that of Soviet Russia. It would therefore be sheer madness if the Russians would seek war. On the other side I have heard influential people in this country pleading for “preventive war” even before the last war was finished.
I am not blind to the serious weaknesses of the Russian system of government and I would not like to live under such government. But it has, on the other side, great merits and it is difficult to decide whether it would have been possible for the Russians to survive by following softer methods. If you should be interested in my opinion you may read my answer to a few Russian scientists which I am enclosing.
An oral discussion seems to me not promising because I see from your letter the rigidity and one-sidedness of your judgment.
Before replying to Einstein’s letter of April 3, I read very carefully the report he had sent, which consisted of an “Open Letter from Four Soviet Scientists” and Einstein’s reply, both of which had appeared in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in February 1948. I was puzzled, for the exchange had very little relevance to the points at issue between us. The Soviet scientists had published a very sharp criticism of Einstein’s proposal for a world government and the abolition of the absolute validity of national sovereignty. They saw in this proposal for a world state the cunning effort of American imperialism to achieve world hegemony, and they charged Einstein with being an unwitting catspaw of American imperial interests. In his reply Einstein had no difficulty in refuting these fantasies, delivered himself of a number of miscellaneous observations on the United States and its economic system, most of them hostile, gently chided the Soviet Union for its failure to accept the American proposal to internationalize atomic energy, and conclusively established that his advocacy of world government was only motivated by the belief that the concept and practice of unlimited national sovereignty in the age of atomic energy could result in the catastrophe of war—an evil of such magnitude that it dwarfed all differences over political and economic matters.
One could agree with every word of Einstein’s response to the Soviet scientists—I did not—and wonder what relevance it had to the points I had made. Incidentally, there was a lacuna in Einstein’s argument that a world government would insure mankind against war: it overlooked the possibility of civil war! The fiercest war in the history of mankind until the 20th century had been the American Civil War of 1861-65. But this was also completely irrelevant to the support that Einstein gave Henry Wallace’s program and candidacy.
Naturally, I replied immediately to Einstein’s letter of April 3:
Dear Dr. Einstein:
What prompted me to write you was the use the National Wallace for President Committee was making of your praise of Wallace and his position, and my honest doubt as to the accuracy of the report. I regret it very much if you found my letter annoying in any way. We are all groping for the truth on matters of great moment and in the past I have set some store on your political insight.
Naturally, I am grieved that you should consider my judgment, for which I indicated the lines of evidence, so “rigid and one-sided” as to make oral discussion unfruitful. And knowing how limited your time is, I certainly cannot expect you to engage in lengthy correspondence. But I do hope you will not take offense if I tell you, as one American citizen to another, why I do not find your remarks convincing even though I have pondered over them for a long time. There are probably many others who think as I do, and since you believe us mistaken it may perhaps be of some interest to you to see what our assumptions and arguments are. If we are wrong, you will find it easier to convince us than the Soviet scientists.
The question is: which foreign policy on the part of the U.S. to the USSR is most likely to preserve peace? and not the question of the internal regime of the USSR. The answer to the first question depends on how we assess the evidence which bears on the intentions of the Soviet regime. When you warned the world against the spread of Hitlerism, on what evidence did you rely? On what Hitler said—not to [George] Lansbury3—but to the Nazi party, and on what Hitler did. I have pointed to the evidence which shows what Stalin believes—the regnant dogmas of the Communist party—and the record of his actions. Together they reveal a program of world conquest.
You do not challenge this evidence. You do not present contrary evidence. Instead you ask: “Who has threatened his opponent to a higher degree by direct action—the Russians, the Americans, or the Americans, the Russians?” This is a fair question. Reviewing in my mind the events that followed the end of the war, and considering America not as isolationist but as part of the world community, I should say that the Soviet Union by her violation of the principles of the Atlantic Charter, by her violation of her agreements to permit free elections and a free press in Bulgaria, Rumania, Hungary, etc., by the coup she inspired in Czechoslovakia, by her war of nerves against Finland, and now Norway and Sweden, by her behavior in Berlin, by her sabotage of the UN commissions on Greece, the Balkans, and Korea, and almost all of its agencies—that by all this, the Soviet Union has been the aggressor.
What actions of the U.S. do you consider as direct aggressions of equal weight against the Soviet Union? Do you mean the Marshall Plan in which the Soviet Union was invited to participate?
In 1940 American isolationists used to ask us whether America under Roosevelt had not been guilty of more hostile acts against Hitler’s Germany than vice versa. You will recall how we answered that. It seems to me that the actions of the Soviet regime warrant even more strongly the inference that it is actively hostile to the existence of American democratic institutions.
You point out that the military strength of the U.S. is much greater than that of the USSR. Since this has been denied by many “experts,” I should like to know on what evidence this judgment is based. But granted its truth, I am a little puzzled as to what follows from it in the way of foreign policy. Should we weaken our military strength or increase it? Are not the official Baruch-Lilienthal proposals significant in this connection as an indication of our willingness to submit to an international authority? Those few Americans who talk about a preventive war against the USSR speak as individuals. What they say can be matched by equally inflammatory statements in the official Soviet press. It seems to me that American policy should be judged by our official words and actions and not by the words of private citizens. That policy proclaims the belief that we are more likely to have peace if the democracies remain strong than if they disarm or appease.
The internal character of the Soviet regime is not relevant to our discussion. There exists no Jeffersonian International to overthrow the Soviet Union comparable to the Comintern. But I must confess to a bewilderment at the qualified nature of your judgment about the Soviet Union. In estimating its nature the point is not whether you, the greatest scientist in the world, would or would not like to live in the Soviet Union. You probably would be treated no worse than Pavlov if you remained silent about world government and similar matters. The point is how the average individual fares in the Soviet Union in respect to security of life, personal and political freedom. Have you any doubts on that score?
Nor do I understand your meaning when you write: “It is difficult to decide whether it would have been possible for the Russians to survive by following softer methods.” Precisely what methods have you in mind? I am puzzled on what evidence anyone can assert that cultural purges and terror in astronomy, biology, art, music, literature, the social sciences, helped the Russians to survive, or how the millions of victims in concentration camps of the Soviet Union, not to speak of the wholesale executions, contributed in any way to the Russian victory over Hitler. The Russians defeated Napoleon who was relative to his time even mightier than Hitler. But I don’t believe you would find it difficult to decide that this in no way constituted a historical justification of serfdom.
There was no reply from Einstein to the foregoing letter. I had occasion to write to him again when it was revealed that he was a sponsor of the Waldorf Astoria “peace congress” of March 1949 in which the foreign policy of the United States was roundly condemned and the Soviet Union hailed as the champion of world peace. There were many other sponsors, including Dr. Otto Nathan. The following letter, dated March 4, 1949, is identical with one I sent to Thomas Mann and other innocent and not-so-innocent sponsors of the Waldorf affair:
Dear Dr. Einstein:
I have been refused permission to present a paper by the Program Committee of the Cultural and Scientific Congress for World Peace. In this paper I wished to defend three theses which seemed to me of the greatest importance today:
- There are no “national truths” in science, and that it is only by its deficiencies that a science can ever become the science of one nation or another.
- There are no “class truths” or “party truths” in science. The belief that there is confuses the objective evidence for a theory which if warranted is universally valid with the uses, good, bad, or indifferent, that are made of it.
- The cause of international scientific cooperation and peace has been very seriously undermined by the influence of doctrines which uphold the notion that there are “national” or “class” or “party” truths in science.
Not only have I been refused permission to present a paper at any of the sessions, but I have also been refused permission to lead the discussion at the plenary session. I requested at least fifteen minutes.
Since your name is listed as a sponsor of this congress, I am appealing to you to support my request that I be permitted to read a paper, preferably at the plenary session. No arrangements have been made, apparently, by the program committee to have the point of view which I represent presented to the congress. Further, no person who has in recent years ever spoken a critical word against all varieties of totalitarianism, including Stalin’s, has been invited to the congress. Neither John Dewey nor Ernest Nagel nor Professor Muller nor Horace Kallen nor James T. Farrell nor Dos Passos nor Edmund Wilson nor hundreds of others have been invited to this congress for world peace.
This morning’s newspaper reports the resignation of Professor Irwin Edman from the sponsoring committee of the congress on grounds that it is designed to promote “the Communist point of view or one closely approximating to it.” I sincerely hope that this is not true. But the way this congress has been organized and my experience with it suggests that it is on the order of Wroclaw-Breslau.4
I never really expected Einstein to resign from the sponsoring committee of the Waldorf “peace congress” since I knew that some of the tactics of some groups opposed to the meeting, as well as difficulties the American government was making in granting visas to delegates from some countries, would meet with his disapproval, as it met with the disapproval of the group I helped organize to hold a counter-demonstration at Freedom House. But I wanted to leave no doubt in his mind concerning the questionable bona fides of the Waldorf organizers. I consequently sent some documentary material to him through his secretary.
My correspondence continued with Einstein. Although I suspected he was annoyed with me and was probably being regaled with tales about my “reactionary” views by Dr. Nathan, who, for reasons no one has been able to fathom, became one of Einstein’s advisers, I knew that Einstein would respond to an honest query concerning the coherence and consistency of his views. I had been asked to review his book, Out of My Later Years, for the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, and found passages in the book which did not jibe with one another. And so on May 15, 1950 I wrote Einstein as follows:
Dear Professor Einstein:
I have been asked to review your recently published Out of My Later Years by the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science—and I am in a quandary. Some of the passages in the book seem to be at variance with each other even when allowance is made for differences in the context and date of the different papers. Since these passages are of some importance in assaying your present views on social and political issues, and since I dread running the risk of misunderstanding you on matters of such high concern, I am wondering whether you would be good enough to clarify the apparent inconsistency.
On page 181, you write:
The humanitarian ideal of Europe appears indeed to be unalterably bound up with the free expression of opinion, to some extent with the free will of the individual, with the effort toward objectivity in thought without consideration of mere utility, and with the encouragement of differences in the realm of mind and taste. . . . I only know that I affirm them with my whole soul, and would find it intolerable to belong to a society which consistently denied them.
On page 187, however, you write:
One must bear in mind that the people of Russia did not have a long political education, and changes to improve Russian conditions had to be carried through by a minority for the reason that there was no majority capable of doing it. If I had been born a Russian, I believe I could have adjusted myself to this situation.
The passage on page 187 was written later than the one on page 181; although on one interpretation they are not formally contradictory, their spirit clearly is. Would you please tell me how both views can be reconciled? In view of the regime of cultural and political terror in the USSR, whose intensity has increased over the years, one would imagine that no free mind loving freedom could adjust to this situation.
This seems to be a reasonable inference from your remark on page 149 that
Without such [intellectual] freedom there would have been no Shakespeare, no Goethe, no Newton, no Faraday, no Pasteur, and no Lister.
Taken in conjunction with the fact that followers of Mendel and Morgan have been fiercely persecuted, that physicists who have accepted your views on space and time have been liquidated for smuggling “counterrevolutionary Trotskyism into astronomy,” and that even the translation of your recent book (with Infeld) on The Evolution of Physics has been denounced as “a serious mistake” (Sovietskaya kniga, August 1949, pp. 35-40)—you know how “serious mistakes” are punished there—it is a little hard to understand the warrant for your statement.
A similar ambiguity of position seems to affect your discussion of other themes which involve the Soviet Union. For example, in discussing the powers of the world government on page 186, you say that it should have the power
to interfere in countries where a minority is oppressing a majority, and so is creating the kind of instability that leads to war. Conditions such as exist in Argentina and Spain should be dealt with. There must be an end to the concept of non-intervention, for to end it is part of keeping the peace.
Excellent! But why no mention of countries in the Soviet orbit in which minorities are oppressing the majority in much worse fashion than in Argentina, e.g., Poland, Czechoslovakia, the Baltic countries, Hungary, etc.?
I realize how many and urgent are the pressures on your time and energy. But since the ambiguities which trouble me probably trouble many other students of social and political affairs, I am confident that their resolution will contribute to a more accurate understanding of your position and make discussion more fruitful.
My surmise was justified. In a matter of days I received a reply from him in English. His letter is in many ways extraordinary and in some respects startling:
Dear Professor Hook:
Thank you for your letter of May 15th. The two statements you mentioned do not contradict each other. In the first (page 181) I profess to intellectual and moral individualism. In the second statement (page 187) I try to seek understanding for the necessity of the Russian revolution and recognize (resp. voice the opinion) that under the circumstances prevailing in Russia at that time this revolution could only have been undertaken successfully by a resolute minority. It was natural, under the conditions, for a Russian who had the welfare of the people at heart to cooperate with and submit to this minority because the immediate goals could not have been achieved otherwise. It cannot be doubted that for an independent individual this meant a painful temporary renunciation of his personal independence. But I believe that I myself would have deemed it my duty to make this temporary sacrifice (as the lesser evil).
However, with this I do not mean to say that I do approve of the direct or indirect interference by the Soviet government in intellectual and artistic matters. Such interference seems to me objectionable, harmful, and even ridiculous. As far as the centralization of political power and the limitations of the freedom of action for the individual are concerned, I am of the opinion that these restrictions should not exceed the limit demanded by exterior security, inner stability, and the necessities resulting from a planned economy. An outsider is hardly able to judge the facts and possibilities. In any case it cannot be doubted that the achievements of the Soviet regime are considerable in the fields of education, public health, social welfare, and economics, and that the people as a whole have greatly gained by these achievements.
A proper reply to this letter would have required an extended comment on every sentence but I knew that this was not feasible and that there were limits to Einstein’s patience. And so on May 23, 1950 I sent the following relatively brief reply:
Dear Professor Einstein:
I am very much obliged to you for your reply to my letter. It certainly makes your present position clearer. But in the light of your reply, would it not be a legitimate inference that you no longer believe the following paragraph which appears on page 182 of your book?
Is it justifiable to set aside for a time the principles of individual freedom in deference to the high endeavor to improve economic organization? A fine and shrewd Russian scholar defended this point of view to me in comparing the success of compulsion and terror—at least at the outset—in a functioning Russian Communism with the failure of German Social Democracy after the war. He did not convince me. No purpose is so high that unworthy methods of achieving it can be justified in my eyes. Violence may have sometimes cleared away obstructions quickly, but it never has proved itself creative.
In your letter of May 16 you indicate that you would have regarded it as your “duty” to make a “temporary renunciation of personal independence” and the principles of individual freedom in order to achieve what you consider to be the gains of the Russian people under the Soviet dictatorship. Surely, if the principle of contradiction is still valid, this cannot be squared with the paragraph on page 182. Or am I in error about this?
P.S. There are other interesting questions I shall not trouble you with, e.g., how you know that the sacrifice of individual freedom is only temporary in view of the constant growth of the terror, and what evidence there is that whatever gains have been made could not have been achieved by other methods.
I hardly expected a reply to this letter and did not receive one. But his letter of May 16 sorely troubled me. In view of the stream of revelations pouring from the press by individuals who had actually lived in the Soviet Union, I could not bring myself to believe that Einstein could be so uninformed about the true conditions of Soviet life. This was after Stalin’s break with his bloody henchman Tito, after the Communist coup in Czechoslovakia, and after the Berlin blockade. Nevertheless I resolved to send him firsthand materials on the Soviet Union by individuals who had lived there. And I chose with care books by individuals who had also something to say about the fate of the Jews and those accused of Zionism in the Soviet Union.
One was by Margaret Neumann-Buber, Under Two Dictators, in which she related among other gruesome incidents the transfer by Stalin to Hitler, after the Nazi-Soviet Pact, of the Jewish Communists who had fled to the Soviet Union when Hitler came to power. A second was by Jerzy Glicksman, Tell the West, the harrowing account of a Polish Jew in Soviet concentration camps. A third, in German, was Eleanor Lipper’s Eleven Years in Stalin’s Concentration Camps. Although I was a hardened reader of Soviet refugee literature, these books had moved me to tears, and I was confident that if Einstein read them his great humane instincts would be aroused and his perspective would be altered on the achievements of the Soviet Union with respect to the areas in which he thought impressive progress had been made.
I was deeply disappointed. Herewith the text of his letter of July 24, 1950:
Dear Professor Hook:
I thank you very much for sending me the two informative books, Under Two Dictators and Tell the West, and also the one by Mrs. Lipper which I received today; I will try to find time to read them. I do not expect to find anything therein that is new to me in principle. I am trying, however, to form for myself an objective picture of Russian life. Having never been an enthusiast, I cannot be so deeply disappointed by the shortcomings of this vast enterprise.
Naturally I was mystified by Einstein’s failure to come to grips with the revelations of the victims of Stalin’s terror, for these books and others of their kind, with which he seemed to profess familiarity, contained important information not only about the terror but about the actual conditions of life of the general population in the very fields in which Einstein had believed there were great achievements. I was even more mystified, and remain so, by his silence concerning the brutal treatment of Jews, especially Zionists like Einstein, in the Soviet Union and its satellites. Some day the mystery may be clarified. During the Slansky trials in Czechoslovakia in 1952, when the Western world was shocked by the trials’ anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist overtones, I recall that Irving Kristol wrote to Einstein inviting him to make public comment on these outrages, but there was no response.
My next exchange with Einstein began innocently enough in 1952. The Korean war was raging and the Communists had broadcast throughout the world the canard that the United States was waging germ warfare in Korea. Joliot-Curie, the Communist French Nobel Prize winner, issued a statement that he had personally investigated the evidence and found that the allegations against the United States were true. His remarks produced an uproar. I believe it was Norman Thomas, the leading figure on the executive committee of the American Committee for Cultural Freedom, who proposed that a round robin be drawn up inviting a number of American Nobel scientists to make public a letter to Joliot-Curie asking him either to withdraw his charge or join them in an objective scientific investigation of the facts. The letters were sent out under my signature as then chairman of the Committee for Cultural Freedom on April 22, 1952. All the invited American Nobelists consented to sign the proposal to Joliot-Curie, with the exception of Albert Einstein.
Einstein replied brusquely April 30, 1952:
Dear Dr. Hook:
I received your letter of April 22nd. I too am disappointed by the insincere attitude of Mr. Joliot-Curie. However, I cannot believe in any favorable effect of such a theatrical counteraction promoted by politicians. I feel, therefore, unable to sign the proposed letter.
P.S. The receivers of the Nobel Prize in science have no right to moral indignation for they have never collectively protested against the military abuses of science, a much more important issue than the present one.
I was shocked and somewhat indignant at the tone of Einstein’s letter, and wrote to him on May 6, 1952:
Dear Dr. Einstein:
You have every personal right to refuse to sign the letter to M. Joliot-Curie and to question its efficacy. But you have no moral right to cast slurs at the good name of the American Committee for Cultural Freedom by referring to this letter as a “counter-action promoted by politicians.” Our committee is not interested or active in politics from a narrow, partisan point of view. We speak for no political party. We are not a Communist-front organization. We have not solicited your signature under false pretenses.5 We are interested in defending those values which are essential to the preservation of a free culture and the life of a free mind and, in this case specifically, in establishing the truth about the grave charges made by Communists the world over about the use of germ warfare by the United States.
As Americans, we are concerned, of course—if these charges are established as false—in clearing the good name of our country, but we are even more concerned with the question of moral responsibility and the intellectual integrity involved in fanning the flames of war and hatred by accusations such as those levelled by M. Joliot-Curie.
We are also convinced that unless these charges are answered, the truth established and broadcast, the probability increases that some day bacteriological warfare will be used by some criminally irresponsible regime.
All we asked of you is that you join other fellow scientists in raising your voice in a request for an objective inquiry into the truth of these terrible charges. That you should have regarded this as a “counter-action promoted by politicians” both grieves and mystifies us. We find it all the more mystifying in the light of the fact that you have knowingly lent your name and great scientific authority time and again to many Communist-front groups for exploitation here and abroad. The most recent one was the Communist Waldorf-Astoria “peace” meeting of 1949. Even if we are “politicians”—and perhaps, since we are as unalterably opposed to Communism as to fascism, you may insist on so regarding us—we are at a loss to understand the double standard employed and why our proposal should not be considered on its merits.
Nor do we see the relevancy of the moral indignation expressed in your footnote about the absence of moral indignation by Nobel scientists at the military abuses of science. This is not the primary issue at the moment; primary is the issue of truth, atrocity mongering, and the use of the calculated lie to embroil peoples in war. The military abuse of science began centuries ago and culminated in the use of atomic warfare against the foes of democracy in the last war. We do not know whether Nobel scientists were ever collectively asked to protest the military abuses of science; we do know that some of them did not hesitate to urge upon the governments the possible non-military uses of the liberation of nuclear energy on the eve of World War II. If it is desirable for Nobel scientists to condemn the military abuses of science, as you now seem to think, surely the action we propose at the very least can be considered a step in that direction. We, therefore, see no valid reason why, even believing as you now do, you should refuse to sign the letter to M. Joliot-Curie.
Under separate cover, I am sending you the Freedom Manifesto and other publications of our committee so that you can determine for yourself the nature of our organization.
Einstein’s reply to this letter, in German, was the nearest thing to an apology he ever wrote:
Dear Dr. Hook:
I see with regret that you have interpreted my letter in a certain sense as insulting. I am sorry indeed particularly since I subsequently realized that I had not written in that gentle mode of expression attributed to St. Francis. And so I approach the matter once more sine ira et studio.
Naturally it is true that as a novice I have stumbled into organizations that operate with decent arguments but dishonest intentions. That is a relatively new stratagem that your special Russian friends have invented.
However with respect to the case before us, I-look at the matter in this way. Joliot-Curie has obviously made an assertion of whose accuracy he certainly cannot be convinced. That is really disgraceful for a scientist. Yet one should ask oneself whether it is sensible and justified to make such a huge fuss out of the incident. What would be accomplished thereby? The Soviet Russian public would certainly not be affected by it, and the public in the West was in no way influenced by Joliot’s declaration. The proposed step can at best have only one consequence, to unleash in the Western public a new wave of hate against the East. Such a result from my point of view is harmful to international development. A viable modus vivendi between East and West simply cannot be founded on hatred.
Further, it can hardly be wondered at that a government is suspected of using that kind of “weapon,” when its systematic development is broadcast to the public in our press, not without pride and satisfaction. Under the circumstances would you not also agree that silence is always better than accusations?
The question with which Einstein closed his letter gave me the peg for my rejoinder:
Dear Dr. Einstein:
In reply to the question with which you concluded your letter of May 7th, I am firmly convinced that the policy of silence is not the policy of wisdom in respect to the charge of M. Joliot-Curie. Nor, as the text of the letter to him shows, is the request made of Joliot-Curie likely to inspire hate among decent people. The letter is written in a sober, reasonable tone and asks only that he withdraw the charge or join the other Nobel Prize scientists in asking for an objective investigation by an impartial international body.
There are two assumptions in your reply which conflict with the evidence in our possession—viz., that we cannot reach the peoples behind the Iron Curtain, and that public opinion in democratic countries is not affected by the wild charges made against the United Nations and the United States. There are many ways in which the publication of the letter to M. Joliot-Curie can be brought to the attention of the satellite countries and even the population of the Soviet Union. We know that the events, for example, in which Madame Kosenkina was involved in New York were known a few hours later in Moscow.6
Much more important is the fact, attested to by a great deal of evidence from the press, that charges about germ warfare are being given audience in Western European countries and Asiatic countries. This is unfortunate but true. Official denials by American authorities are brushed aside as meaningless. The letter of the Nobel Prize scientists cannot be so treated, particularly since it requests an objective investigation. Our French committee informs us that the letter made a great impression on French public opinion.
I feel you underestimate the effect of the calculated lie on public thought and feeling. When I was a boy in high school I was denounced as pro-German in 1917, and almost expelled, for challenging the universal belief among my teachers that the German army systematically cut off the hands of Belgian children, and that it used human corpses to derive much needed fat for industry. After the war, these tales were laughingly revealed as wonderful propaganda.
In consequence, when the first news came out about Hitler’s cremation camps, Stalin’s forced labor camps, and similar outrages against mankind, many people dismissed them as more atrocity stories.
They didn’t turn out to be atrocity stories. The feeling now is that any piece of barbarism is possible and the Soviets are making excellent use of this new mood of credulity. The immoral thing about these carefully planted lies is that if they are believed they make people fanatical to the death in fighting those who are lied about. If the lies are finally exposed, the result is likely to be invincible incredulity to atrocities when they do occur.
That is why it is of the first importance to build up the moral authority of some international organization which can speak with the full weight of science and objectivity behind it. The world will listen to any group to which Nobel Prize scientists give support, especially on matters so close to scientific fact. In this way, in the terrible years which lie ahead, public opinion can avoid the extremes of credulity and incredulity for something closer to scientific skepticism.
I have been in Europe often during the last few years. I have been shocked to discover that because of Communist propaganda, the United States is hated and feared more than Hitler’s Germany was in 1939. I am not denying that there may be, and are, other causes too, but it is simply incredible what lies are told about the United States and believed. I am old-fashioned enough to believe that truth is the best answer to the propaganda of the lie—not counter-propaganda. But I have learned enough from modern psychology to know that silence is no answer at all.
That is why, dear Dr. Einstein, I cannot accept your method of fighting for freedom and peace. Just as neither Christian love nor Trappist silence would have deflected Hitler, so they will fail with Stalin. The only thing that could have prevented Hitler from going to war was both an adequate defense in the West and making the truth known to the German people about what was happening in Germany, and what Hitler had in store for them. And having studied Stalin’s mind for twenty-five years, I am convinced that the only thing that will prevent him from giving the signal for war is an adequate defense in the West and knowledge of the truth about the West among the peoples of the Soviet Union.
It is as a contribution to the truth that the American Committee for Cultural Freedom endorsed the letter of the Nobel Prize scientists to M. Joliot-Curie.
This brought another friendly response from Einstein, also in German, dated July 27, 1952:
Dear Mr. Hook,
With regard to your letter of July 25 I should like to make the following observation. Personally I find it improbable that accusations will have any successful results. I would welcome it if an agreement could be brought about for carrying through an objective investigation of the case in question. Such an argument, 1 am convinced, would contribute to an improvement in international relations. On the other hand, one should not become indignant in the face of such accusations so long as one has not accepted the obligation to forswear the first use of bacteriological weapons.
On October 26, 1952 I wrote to Einstein again:
Dear Dr. Einstein:
The New York Times recently carried an abbreviated report of a letter which you sent to some individuals in Japan explaining the necessity which moved you and your co-workers to recommend research on the development of the atomic bomb. Judging from the newspaper story, my impression is that your letter is both enlightening and important on a matter which has troubled many people. I wonder whether it would be possible for me to procure the full text of the statement. Since the story was published in the newspaper, I assume that the communication which you sent to Japan was not of a personal nature.
In response Einstein was kind enough to send me the German text of his reply to Kaizo with a bitter complaint that the publication of the bowdlerized version in the New York Times was a beautiful example of what he used to call telling “lies through the truth.” I do not recall his writing to the New York Times, nor did he expect me to do so since he indicated in his lettter that the material he sent me was confidential, for my personal information only. I never understood why he requested me to keep his answer confidential; it contained nothing he had not already written elsewhere. I present it in translation herewith:
My participation in the development of the atomic bomb consisted in one single action. I signed a letter to President Roosevelt which stressed the necessity of undertaking large-scale experiments to investigate the possibility of producing an atomic bomb.
I was quite conscious of the terrible danger that the success of this undertaking held for mankind. But the probability that the Germans would work on the same problem with prospects of success compelled me to take this step. I had no other choice despite the fact that I was always a convinced pacifist. To kill in war according to my conception is no better than ordinary murder.
So long, however, as the nations of the world have not decided by common action to abolish war and to solve their conflicts and defend their interests by peaceful decisions based on law, they will feel compelled to prepare themselves for war. They see themselves compelled—all of them—to arm themselves with the most contemptible means in order not to be surpassed in the general arms race. This road leads necessarily to war which under present-day conditions spells universal destruction.
Under these circumstances, struggle against the means of war has no prospects of success. Only the radical abolition of war and the danger of war can be of any help. That is what one should work for, and to be resolved not to permit oneself to be compelled to engage in any actions that run counter to this goal. This is a severe demand on any individual who is aware of his social dependence. But it is not an impossible demand to meet.
Gandhi, the greatest political genius of our time, has indicated the way. He showed what sacrifices mankind is capable of making when it has recognized the right way. His work of liberation for India is living evidence of the fact that a will ruled by firm convictions is stronger than apparently unconquerable material force.
Einstein’s position was such an extreme defense of absolute pacifism and the Gandhian way of combating evil that I felt I owed him an explanation of why I could not accept his point of view. I sent the following letter to him on November 10, 1952:
Dear Dr. Einstein:
I was very much moved by the noble statement you sent to Kaizo and feel it is a pity that the full text was not released in this country, too.
The subject you discuss is the most fateful of our time. The position of Gandhi (and of Tolstoy) has always seemed to me to be a live option, and I have often been tempted to embrace it when reflecting on the bitter cost of even the best victory. One thing has deterred me, viz., the realization that Gandhi could have been successful only with the British or a people with the same high human values. I am afraid he would have failed utterly with the Japanese military, with the Gestapo and SS, and the Soviet MVD. What is even worse, the new methods of “scientific” torture would have reduced him to a broken-spirited, miserable wreck of a man, stuttering back the confessions suggested by a cunning and cruel prompter manipulating the coercions of hunger, pain, and crazed desire for sleep or even death.
I do not know whether you have read, or remember, Weissberg’s book on his experiences in the hands of the GPU, and how narrowly he escaped from becoming a groveling, crawling creature—a mockery of a man. This was twelve years ago or more, and since then the diabolical techniques of unmaking the mind and degrading the person have been perfected. No, I fear not even Gandhi could have withstood them, and few human beings had Gandhi’s spiritual discipline.
When I think of how many millions of Jews permitted themselves to be slaughtered in what was in effect a passive resistance to evil, I find myself wishing that they had died like the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto. It sounds smug and hollow to say that when one must die in any event, one should do it nobly. Perhaps one should try only not to die ignobly.
That is why I cannot accept a position which seems to be one of unilateral pacifism, in the face of an enemy who degrades before he kills. Even my good friend, Norman Thomas, recognizes that unilateral disarmament today would provoke Stalin to reach out his hands for the necks of all free men. And that is why if I were a scientist, and if I thought that the Kremlin had the remotest prospect of inventing a hydrogen bomb, with a heavy heart I would make the same decision you made in 1939.
And unless one believes life itself is an evil, surely your decision at that time was justified by the tragic events—was it not? The loss of life would have been no less, and perhaps more, if the bomb had not been used—although I never could understand why no demonstration was made on an uninhabited island as a warning to induce surrender. The Russians, anyhow, would have taken up the bomb where the Germans left it, even if we had not worked on it. You know what life under the Nazis was, and if you ever have spoken as I have in West Berlin to the simple Russian men and women who fled from the Soviet sphere, you would know that life there is not much different.
But, forgive me for going on this way—I didn’t intend to write at such length.
I did not expect a reply from Einstein to my long screed. I had counterposed my faith to his and thought he would let the matter rest. I was therefore pleasantly surprised to receive another friendly note dated November 12, 1952:
Dear Mr. Hook:
You are right that under the circumstances that have developed in the last twenty years (not only through the fault of the Russians) a sudden transition to the methods of Gandhi could not be ventured by any responsible statesman. I see the only possibility of improving the situation in abandoning the armament race and issues productive of conflict. Naturally the first step would be the neutralization and demilitarization of Germany. Despite the evil methods of the Russians, I regard as completely false the point of view that would represent them or treat them as common criminals. At the very least, from an education standpoint, any such attitude is impermissible.
I was not aware of anyone who had proposed that the Russians be treated as common criminals. Even those who had opposed the presence of Soviet representatives on the judges’ bench at Nuremberg had not urged that they be put in the dock. I found it noteworthy that although Einstein conceded my point about the utopian character of the Gandhian approach, he insisted that the first step required the neutralization and demilitarization of Germany. In effect, this would mean the demilitarization and neutralization of West Germany, not East Germany. It was natural, in view of his own personal experience, that he should fear the Germans more than the Russians or Japanese or Chinese. His attitude was typical of German Jewish refugees of almost every social stratum. It was not that they had any genuine sympathy for Communism—except for those who before the rise of Hitler had thrown in their lot with the Kremlin—but that their hatred of Germany and their acceptance of the doctrine of collective guilt made them willing to accept any initiative that would punish their former persecutors and their descendants. It was psychologically understandable but politically unwise.
The letter of November 12, 1952 was the last letter I received from Einstein. Nor did I write him again. But I did hear indirectly from Einstein in 1954 when he sent a German reply to Norman Thomas, who had written him on March 9, 1954 explaining why he could not join in the birthday celebration for Einstein then being prepared by the Emergency Committee for Civil Liberties. Einstein asked Thomas to show his reply to me so that I could translate it. He drily observed that I, too, would be interested in the contents. But first the letter of Norman Thomas:
My dear Doctor Einstein:
It is with deep regret that I am declining an invitation to a conference and luncheon in your honor at the Nassau Tavern in Princeton, N.J. on Saturday, March 13th.
I share the respect and admiration for you that is felt by millions of people throughout the world. We cannot pay too great honor to the man who has given us a new conception of the physical universe; the man who, more than any other, gave us mastery over the awful power of the atom. With it all, you have stood with prophetic earnestness for the dignity and freedom of man, above all for his right to know.
Nevertheless, I must decline to express my appreciation by coming to your birthday celebration. The reason is that prominent and dominant personalities in the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee which has arranged this celebration have shown through the years anything but a consistent love of liberty, in or out of the academic field. I say this with regret but with knowledge born of long years of work in the field of civil liberties. I am thoroughly persuaded, as I think you are, that the test of freedom in America and indeed among thoughtful men everywhere is a capacity to oppose both Communism and the thing that in America we call McCarthyism. These two movements interact to help each other. Unfortunately, persons now leading the Emergency Committee have steadily condoned, if they did not actually defend, Communist crimes against liberty, which crimes are inherent in the doctrine and practice of a conspiratorial movement seeking universal power over the bodies, minds, and souls of men. These men and women work under a double standard which I am sure you do not accept.
This committee has circulated your replies to five questions submitted to you on the meaning of academic freedom. Your replies restate forcefully and carefully your well-known position. It is a position which I heartily accept with one qualification: I cannot agree with you that it is an infringement on liberty for proper authorities in the state, in the university, or the schools, to raise a question concerning the allegiance of men who seek posts in which it is of the utmost importance that their allegiance should be solely to their consciences in search of truth. It is allegiance to Communism as a dictatorial conspiracy, not as a heresy, which warrants proper inquiries under proper circumstances. The right to stay out of jail is not the right to hold every sort of position. It isn’t the right to guide the young, who, if they are to build a more glorious democracy, cannot have their faith in freedom impaired, or their allegiance won, by any organization, Communist or fascist, which denied personal freedom. This truth is not negated by the blameworthy tactics of congressional committees.
Your answer to questions on academic freedom in the document which has reached my desk ends with an appeal from you or the committee—it is not clear which—for funds: “the collection and use of which should be put in the hands of a small organization under the supervision of persons known to be trustworthy.” I should not for a moment challenge the integrity of the Emergency Committee in using funds for the defense of persons fully entitled to their day in court. But I am compelled to express regret that the committee has appropriated your great name for a concept of freedom far different from yours. There are rights to which Communists, fascists, and their fellow-travelers and apologists are clearly entitled, but civil liberties cannot effectively be defended by Americans who through the years have condoned its absolute denial in the Soviet Union, while rushing hurriedly to the aid of men into whose primary political allegiance some sort of inquiry may be warranted.
Although I approved in general of Norman Thomas’s letter (it was based on a distinction I had proposed between heresy and conspiracy), I would have restated some of his positions to indicate that not the violation of political allegiance but the violation of accepted standards of professional ethics is involved in barring conspirators from positions of public trust. Both Norman Thomas and Roger Baldwin, the leading figures in those days in the American Civil Liberties Union (which now unfortunately has fallen into the hands of those who opposed them), believed that with respect to employment, anyone who owed a primary allegiance to a foreign government was unfit to serve in his own, and certainly not in any post regarded as sensitive. After all, the Nazi-American Bund and the American Communist party made no secret of where their primary political allegiance lay. Aside from strict government service, however, in schools, universities, and research centers, the criterion must not be political allegiance but allegiance to the standards of professional ethics enforced by committees of one’s peers.
Einstein replied promptly to Norman Thomas:
Dear Norman Thomas:
I was very pleased to receive a letter from you, for I felt instinctively that you are one of the few whose every word carries true conviction, untarnished by hidden intentions. One feels, as well, your good will toward all. This encourages me to answer you as if I were speaking to an old friend.
The very beginning of your letter puts me in a happy mood. There you deplore that you have declined an invitation, as if I myself had invited you to that function. In reality, this function has something to do with my person only insofar as those who arranged it used my name and my birthday—both of which are not to my taste.
However, the fact which in a certain sense puts me under obligation is that this group has stood for civil rights with decisiveness and in a sense which is close to my convictions. When I declined to come to a function of that sort or to act as sponsor for the committee (that is to say, for the function), I suggested this: Send me some questions. I’ll answer them in writing to the best of my ability. This was done. I do not know anything about the people who actually head up that committee, nor is it known to me what that committee has done in the past.
Now I come to the principal point, namely, to the question whether the position I took in my answers is objectively justified. In any case, I personally am fully convinced of this. I see with a great deal of disquiet the far-reaching analogy between Germany of 1932 and the USA of 1954.
On one point we are of the same opinion. Russia is, in a very clear sense, a “politically underdeveloped country,” about like Europe at the time of the Renaissance and a bit later. Murder, with and without legalistic accoutrements, has become a commonplace means of daily politics. The citizen enjoys no rights and no security against arbitrary interference from the power of the state. Science and art have become wards of those who govern.
All this is certainly abominable to the taste of modern civilized man. But I believe that it is the problem of the Russian people to make changes there. We cannot advance a progressive development there by threatening Russia from the outside. Similarly, our well-intentioned criticism cannot help because it will not come to the ears of the Russians.
It seems to me, therefore, more useful to confine ourselves to the following question: How about the danger which America faces from the side of its own Communists? Here is the principal difference of opinion between you and me. In short, I believe: America is incomparably less endangered by its own Communists than by the hysterical hunt for the few Communists there are here (including those fellow citizens whose red tinge is weaker, à la Jefferson). Why should America be so much more endangered than England by the English Communists? Or is one to believe that the English are politically more naive than the Americans so that they do not realize the danger they are in? No one there works with inquisitions, suspicions, oaths, etc., and still “subversives” do not go unchecked. There, no teachers and no university professors have been thrown out of their jobs, and the Communists there appear to have even less influence than formerly.
In my eyes, the “Communist conspiracy” is principally a slogan used in order to put those who have no judgment and who are cowards into a condition which makes them entirely defenseless. Again, I must think back to Germany of 1932, whose democratic social body had already been weakened by similar means, so that shortly thereafter Hitler was able to deal it the death-blow with ease. I am similarly convinced that those here will go the same way unless men with vision and willingness to sacrifice come to the defense.
Now you will clearly see our difference of opinion. Who is right cannot be decided through a logical process of proof. The future will tell. . . .
I content myself with only two observations on Einstein’s letter. (I assumed Norman Thomas wrote a rejoinder. Otherwise, since Einstein asked him to show the letter to me, I would have written.)
Einstein was not the only one who regarded Joseph McCarhy’s meteoric demagogic flight, which came crashing down into oblivion in that very year 1954, as a prelude to the triumph of fascism in America. Bertrand Russell actually made a wager with Malcolm Muggeridge that Senator McCarthy would be elected President of the United States! It was a pity the bet was for only five pounds.
With respect to the questions Einstein asked, I had treated them in detail several years earlier in an essay on “Security and Freedom” published in Confluence, a periodical edited by Henry Kissinger at Harvard. I specifically addressed myself to the differences between the English and American security systems and showed that public servants suspected of being security risks enjoyed far greater legal protection in the United States than in Great Britain. The essay is reprinted in my Political Power and Personal Freedom. I had sent a copy to Einstein but he had obviously not read it, or my articles on ideologically inspired treason and espionage in the New York Times Magazine during the early 50’s.
This was long before the startling disclosures of the vast penetration of Britain’s security services by the Soviet KGB and the disastrous consequences for hundreds of human beings, not to mention the advantages thereby given to the Soviet Union in becoming privy to practically all the secret details of Western foreign policy. This penetration resulted primarily from British indifference to the early ideological commitments of those recruited for official posts. It also reflected the view current in many circles in the United States that the Communist parties of the world were not really different from other political parties and that their members, despite their submission in those days to the absolute control of the Kremlin, should enjoy the same rights and privileges to government employment as members of other political parties. This questionable view is still held within ritualistic, as opposed to realistic, liberal circles.
1 It was at the evening banquet of the Bicentennial that Harold J. Laski brought down the house with a detailed and eloquent account of his private midnight interview with Stalin in which, after dismissing the interpreter, Stalin took him under the arm and walked him to his car, and said, “Mr. Laski, please take a message from me to the people of England. Tell the people of England that I want peace.” The incident, as Laski’s biographer attests, was made up of whole cloth. Laski understood no Russian and Stalin could not speak a word of English!
2 Wallace himself was somewhat discomfited by the use the Communist party sought to make of him and subsequently denounced the Communists for their chicanery.
3 The British Labor party pacifist leader who resigned in 1935 on the issue of League of Nations sanctions against Italy. In 1937 he visited Hitler and Mussolini in an effort to avert war.
4 A Communist meeting preceding the Waldorf congress at which plans were drawn up for a series of subsequent “peace meetings.”
5 I should perhaps state that several years after this letter was written, and when I was no longer chairman of the American Committee for Cultural Freedom, I learned that when it was unable to pay its rent, Norman Thomas, a member of the executive committee, telephoned Allen Dulles of the CIA and requested a contribution. Subsequently, when I questioned Thomas about this, he said that he and Dulles had been friends and classmates at Princeton—both being protégés of Woodrow Wilson—and that he had solicited the contribution purely on the basis of his personal friendship. Under the circumstances I was quite dubious about the wisdom of the request. In any case, to the best of my knowledge, at the time my letter to Einstein was written, the American Committee for Cultural Freedom received no clandestine support from the CIA.
6 Madame Kosenkina was an employee of the Russian consulate in New York who in 1948 jumped to freedom from the consulate windows.
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My Running Debate With Einstein
Must-Reads from Magazine
Terror is a choice.
Ari Fuld described himself on Twitter as a marketer and social media consultant “when not defending Israel by exposing the lies and strengthening the truth.” On Sunday, a Palestinian terrorist stabbed Fuld at a shopping mall in Gush Etzion, a settlement south of Jerusalem. The Queens-born father of four died from his wounds, but not before he chased down his assailant and neutralized the threat to other civilians. Fuld thus gave the full measure of devotion to the Jewish people he loved. He was 45.
The episode is a grim reminder of the wisdom and essential justice of the Trump administration’s tough stance on the Palestinians.
Start with the Taylor Force Act. The act, named for another U.S. citizen felled by Palestinian terror, stanched the flow of American taxpayer fund to the Palestinian Authority’s civilian programs. Though it is small consolation to Fuld’s family, Americans can breathe a sigh of relief that they are no longer underwriting the PA slush fund used to pay stipends to the family members of dead, imprisoned, or injured terrorists, like the one who murdered Ari Fuld.
No principle of justice or sound statesmanship requires Washington to spend $200 million—the amount of PA aid funding slashed by the Trump administration last month—on an agency that financially induces the Palestinian people to commit acts of terror. The PA’s terrorism-incentive budget—“pay-to-slay,” as Douglas Feith called it—ranges from $50 million to $350 million annually. Footing even a fraction of that bill is tantamount to the American government subsidizing terrorism against its citizens.
If we don’t pay the Palestinians, the main line of reasoning runs, frustration will lead them to commit still more and bloodier acts of terror. But U.S. assistance to the PA dates to the PA’s founding in the Oslo Accords, and Palestinian terrorists have shed American and Israeli blood through all the years since then. What does it say about Palestinian leaders that they would unleash more terror unless we cross their palms with silver?
President Trump likewise deserves praise for booting Palestinian diplomats from U.S. soil. This past weekend, the State Department revoked a visa for Husam Zomlot, the highest-ranking Palestinian official in Washington. The State Department cited the Palestinians’ years-long refusal to sit down for peace talks with Israel. The better reason for expelling them is that the label “envoy” sits uneasily next to the names of Palestinian officials, given the links between the Palestine Liberation Organization, President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah faction, and various armed terrorist groups.
Fatah, for example, praised the Fuld murder. As the Jerusalem Post reported, the “al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the military wing of Fatah . . . welcomed the attack, stressing the necessity of resistance ‘against settlements, Judaization of the land, and occupation crimes.’” It is up to Palestinian leaders to decide whether they want to be terrorists or statesmen. Pretending that they can be both at once was the height of Western folly, as Ari Fuld no doubt recognized.
May his memory be a blessing.
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The end of the water's edge.
It was the blatant subversion of the president’s sole authority to conduct American foreign policy, and the political class received it with fury. It was called “mutinous,” and the conspirators were deemed “traitors” to the Republic. Those who thought “sedition” went too far were still incensed over the breach of protocol and the reckless way in which the president’s mandate was undermined. Yes, times have certainly changed since 2015, when a series of Republican senators signed a letter warning Iran’s theocratic government that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (aka, the Iran nuclear deal) was built on a foundation of sand.
The outrage that was heaped upon Senate Republicans for freelancing on foreign policy in the final years of Barack Obama’s administration has not been visited upon former Secretary of State John Kerry, though he arguably deserves it. In the publicity tour for his recently published memoir, Kerry confessed to conducting meetings with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif “three or four times” as a private citizen. When asked by Fox News Channel’s Dana Perino if Kerry had advised his Iranian interlocutor to “wait out” the Trump administration to get a better set of terms from the president’s successor, Kerry did not deny the charge. “I think everybody in the world is sitting around talking about waiting out President Trump,” he said.
Think about that. This is a former secretary of state who all but confirmed that he is actively conducting what the Boston Globe described in May as “shadow diplomacy” designed to preserve not just the Iran deal but all the associated economic relief and security guarantees it provided Tehran. The abrogation of that deal has put new pressure on the Iranians to liberalize domestically, withdraw their support for terrorism, and abandon their provocative weapons development programs—pressures that the deal’s proponents once supported.
“We’ve got Iran on the ropes now,” said former Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman, “and a meeting between John Kerry and the Iranian foreign minister really sends a message to them that somebody in America who’s important may be trying to revive them and let them wait and be stronger against what the administration is trying to do.” This is absolutely correct because the threat Iran poses to American national security and geopolitical stability is not limited to its nuclear program. The Iranian threat will not be neutralized until it abandons its support for terror and the repression of its people, and that will not end until the Iranian regime is no more.
While Kerry’s decision to hold a variety of meetings with a representative of a nation hostile to U.S. interests is surely careless and unhelpful, it is not uncommon. During his 1984 campaign for the presidency, Jesse Jackson visited the Soviet Union and Cuba to raise his own public profile and lend credence to Democratic claims that Ronald Reagan’s confrontational foreign policy was unproductive. House Speaker Jim Wright’s trip to Nicaragua to meet with the Sandinista government was a direct repudiation of the Reagan administration’s support for the country’s anti-Communist rebels. In 2007, as Bashar al-Assad’s government was providing material support for the insurgency in Iraq, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sojourned to Damascus to shower the genocidal dictator in good publicity. “The road to Damascus is a road to peace,” Pelosi insisted. “Unfortunately,” replied George W. Bush’s national security council spokesman, “that road is lined with the victims of Hamas and Hezbollah, the victims of terrorists who cross from Syria into Iraq.”
Honest observers must reluctantly conclude that the adage is wrong. American politics does not, in fact, stop at the water’s edge. It never has, and maybe it shouldn’t. Though it may be commonplace, American political actors who contradict the president in the conduct of their own foreign policy should be judged on the policies they are advocating. In the case of Iran, those who seek to convince the mullahs and their representatives that repressive theocracy and a terroristic foreign policy are dead-ends are advancing the interests not just of the United States but all mankind. Those who provide this hopelessly backward autocracy with the hope that America’s resolve is fleeting are, as John Kerry might say, on “the wrong side of history.”
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Michael Wolff is its Marquis de Sade. Released on January 5, 2018, Wolff’s Fire and Fury became a template for authors eager to satiate the growing demand for unverified stories of Trump at his worst. Wolff filled his pages with tales of the president’s ignorant rants, his raging emotions, his television addiction, his fast-food diet, his unfamiliarity with and contempt for Beltway conventions and manners. Wolff made shocking insinuations about Trump’s mental state, not to mention his relationship with UN ambassador Nikki Haley. Wolff’s Trump is nothing more than a knave, dunce, and commedia dell’arte villain. The hero of his saga is, bizarrely, Steve Bannon, who in Wolff’s telling recognized Trump’s inadequacies, manipulated him to advance a nationalist-populist agenda, and tried to block his worst impulses.
Wolff’s sources are anonymous. That did not slow down the press from calling his accusations “mind-blowing” (Mashable.com), “wild” (Variety), and “bizarre” (Entertainment Weekly). Unlike most pornographers, he had a lesson in mind. He wanted to demonstrate Trump’s unfitness for office. “The story that I’ve told seems to present this presidency in such a way that it says that he can’t do this job, the emperor has no clothes,” Wolff told the BBC. “And suddenly everywhere people are going, ‘Oh, my God, it’s true—he has no clothes.’ That’s the background to the perception and the understanding that will finally end this, that will end this presidency.”
Nothing excites the Resistance more than the prospect of Trump leaving office before the end of his term. Hence the most stirring examples of Resistance Porn take the president’s all-too-real weaknesses and eccentricities and imbue them with apocalyptic significance. In what would become the standard response to accusations of Trumpian perfidy, reviewers of Fire and Fury were less interested in the truth of Wolff’s assertions than in the fact that his argument confirmed their preexisting biases.
Saying he agreed with President Trump that the book is “fiction,” the Guardian’s critic didn’t “doubt its overall veracity.” It was, he said, “what Mailer and Capote once called a nonfiction novel.” Writing in the Atlantic, Adam Kirsch asked: “No wonder, then, Wolff has written a self-conscious, untrustworthy, postmodern White House book. How else, he might argue, can you write about a group as self-conscious, untrustworthy, and postmodern as this crew?” Complaining in the New Yorker, Masha Gessen said Wolff broke no new ground: “Everybody” knew that the “president of the United States is a deranged liar who surrounded himself with sycophants. He is also functionally illiterate and intellectually unsound.” Remind me never to get on Gessen’s bad side.
What Fire and Fury lacked in journalistic ethics, it made up in receipts. By the third week of its release, Wolff’s book had sold more than 1.7 million copies. His talent for spinning second- and third-hand accounts of the president’s oddity and depravity into bestselling prose was unmistakable. Imitators were sure to follow, especially after Wolff alienated himself from the mainstream media by defending his innuendos about Haley.
It was during the first week of September that Resistance Porn became a competitive industry. On the afternoon of September 4, the first tidbits from Bob Woodward’s Fear appeared in the Washington Post, along with a recording of an 11-minute phone call between Trump and the white knight of Watergate. The opposition began panting soon after. Woodward, who like Wolff relies on anonymous sources, “paints a harrowing portrait” of the Trump White House, reported the Post.
No one looks good in Woodward’s telling other than former economics adviser Gary Cohn and—again bizarrely—the former White House staff secretary who was forced to resign after his two ex-wives accused him of domestic violence. The depiction of chaos, backstabbing, and mutual contempt between the president and high-level advisers who don’t much care for either his agenda or his personality was not so different from Wolff’s. What gave it added heft was Woodward’s status, his inviolable reputation.
“Nothing in Bob Woodward’s sober and grainy new book…is especially surprising,” wrote Dwight Garner at the New York Times. That was the point. The audience for Wolff and Woodward does not want to be surprised. Fear is not a book that will change minds. Nor is it intended to be. “Bob Woodward’s peek behind the Trump curtain is 100 percent as terrifying as we feared,” read a CNN headline. “President Trump is unfit for office. Bob Woodward’s ‘Fear’ confirms it,” read an op-ed headline in the Post. “There’s Always a New Low for the Trump White House,” said the Atlantic. “Amazingly,” wrote Susan Glasser in the New Yorker, “it is no longer big news when the occupant of the Oval Office is shown to be callous, ignorant, nasty, and untruthful.” How could it be, when the press has emphasized nothing but these aspects of Trump for the last three years?
The popular fixation with Trump the man, and with the turbulence, mania, frenzy, confusion, silliness, and unpredictability that have surrounded him for decades, serves two functions. It inoculates the press from having to engage in serious research into the causes of Trump’s success in business, entertainment, and politics, and into the crises of borders, opioids, stagnation, and conformity of opinion that occasioned his rise. Resistance Porn also endows Trump’s critics, both external and internal, with world-historical importance. No longer are they merely journalists, wonks, pundits, and activists sniping at a most unlikely president. They are politically correct versions of Charles Martel, the last line of defense preventing Trump the barbarian from enacting the policies on which he campaigned and was elected.
How closely their sensational claims and inflated self-conceptions track with reality is largely beside the point. When the New York Times published the op-ed “I am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration,” by an anonymous “senior official” on September 5, few readers bothered to care that the piece contained no original material. The author turned policy disagreements over trade and national security into a psychiatric diagnosis. In what can only be described as a journalistic innovation, the author dispensed with middlemen such as Wolff and Woodward, providing the Times the longest background quote in American history. That the author’s identity remains a secret only adds to its prurient appeal.
“The bigger concern,” the author wrote, “is not what Mr. Trump has done to the presidency but what we as a nation have allowed him to do to us.” Speak for yourself, bud. What President Trump has done to the Resistance is driven it batty. He’s made an untold number of people willing to entertain conspiracy theories, and to believe rumor is fact, hyperbole is truth, self-interested portrayals are incontrovertible evidence, credulity is virtue, and betrayal is fidelity—so long as all of this is done to stop that man in the White House.
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Review of 'Stanley Kubrick' By Nathan Abrams
Except for Stanley Donen, every director I have worked with has been prone to the idea, first propounded in the 1950s by François Truffaut and his tendentious chums in Cahiers du Cinéma, that directors alone are authors, screenwriters merely contingent. In singular cases—Orson Welles, Michelangelo Antonioni, Woody Allen, Kubrick himself—the claim can be valid, though all of them had recourse, regular or occasional, to helping hands to spice their confections.
Kubrick’s variety of topics, themes, and periods testifies both to his curiosity and to his determination to “make it new.” Because his grades were not high enough (except in physics), this son of a Bronx doctor could not get into colleges crammed with returning GIs. The nearest he came to higher education was when he slipped into accessible lectures at Columbia. He told me, when discussing the possibility of a movie about Julius Caesar, that the great classicist Moses Hadas made a particularly strong impression.
While others were studying for degrees, solitary Stanley was out shooting photographs (sometimes with a hidden camera) for Look magazine. As a movie director, he often insisted on take after take. This gave him choices of the kind available on the still photographer’s contact sheets. Only Peter Sellers and Jack Nicholson had the nerve, and irreplaceable talent, to tell him, ahead of shooting, that they could not do a particular scene more than two or three times. The energy to electrify “Mein Führer, I can walk” and “Here’s Johnny!” could not recur indefinitely. For everyone else, “Can you do it again?” was the exhausting demand, and it could come close to being sadistic.
The same method could be applied to writers. Kubrick might recognize what he wanted when it was served up to him, but he could never articulate, ahead of time, even roughly what it was. Picking and choosing was very much his style. Cogitation and opportunism went together: The story goes that he attached Strauss’s Blue Danube to the opening sequence of 2001 because it happened to be playing in the sound studio when he came to dub the music. Genius puts chance to work.
Until academics intruded lofty criteria into cinema/film, the better to dignify their speciality, Alfred Hitchcock’s attitude covered most cases: When Ingrid Bergman asked for her motivation in walking to the window, Hitch replied, fatly, “Your salary.” On another occasion, told that some scene was not plausible, Hitch said, “It’s only a movie.” He did not take himself seriously until the Cahiers du Cinéma crowd elected to make him iconic. At dinner, I once asked Marcello Mastroianni why he was so willing to play losers or clowns. Marcello said, “Beh, cinema non e gran’ cosa” (cinema is no big deal). Orson Welles called movie-making the ultimate model-train set.
That was then; now we have “film studies.” After they moved in, academics were determined that their subject be a very big deal indeed. Comedy became no laughing matter. In his monotonous new book, the film scholar Nathan Abrams would have it that Stanley Kubrick was, in essence, a “New York Jewish intellectual.” Abrams affects to unlock what Stanley was “really” dealing with, in all his movies, never mind their apparent diversity. It is declared to be, yes, Yiddishkeit, and in particular, the Holocaust. This ground has been tilled before by Geoffrey Cocks, when he argued that the room numbers in the empty Overlook Hotel in The Shining encrypted references to the Final Solution. Abrams would have it that even Barry Lyndon is really all about the outsider seeking, and failing, to make his awkward way in (Gentile) Society. On this reading, Ryan O’Neal is seen as Hannah Arendt’s pariah in 18th-century drag. The movie’s other characters are all engaged in the enjoyment of “goyim-naches,” an expression—like menschlichkayit—he repeats ad nauseam, lest we fail to get the stretched point.
Theory is all when it comes to the apotheosis of our Jew-ridden Übermensch. So what if, in order to make a topic his own, Kubrick found it useful to translate its logic into terms familiar to him from his New York youth? In Abrams’s scheme, other mundane biographical facts count for little. No mention is made of Stanley’s displeasure when his 14-year-old daughter took a fancy to O’Neal. The latter was punished, some sources say, by having Barry’s voiceover converted from first person so that Michael Hordern would displace the star as narrator. By lending dispassionate irony to the narrative, it proved a pettish fluke of genius.
While conning Abrams’s volume, I discovered, not greatly to my chagrin, that I am the sole villain of the piece. Abrams calls me “self-serving” and “unreliable” in my accounts of my working and personal relationship with Stanley. He insinuates that I had less to do with Eyes Wide Shut than I pretend and that Stanley regretted my involvement. It is hard for him to deny (but convenient to omit) that, after trying for some 30 years to get a succession of writers to “crack” how to do Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle, Kubrick greeted my first draft with “I’m absolutely thrilled.” A source whose anonymity I respect told me that he had never seen Stanley so happy since the day he received his first royalty check (for $5 million) for 2001. No matter.
Were Abrams (the author also of a book as hostile to Commentary as this one is to me) able to put aside his waxed wrath, he might have quoted what I reported in my memoir Eyes Wide Open to support his Jewish-intellectual thesis. One day, Stanley asked me what a couple of hospital doctors, walking away with their backs to the camera, would be talking about. We were never going to hear or care what it was, but Stanley—at that early stage of development—said he wanted to know everything. I said, “Women, golf, the stock market, you know…”
“Couple of Gentiles, right?”
“That’s what you said you wanted them to be.”
“Those people, how do we ever know what they’re talking about when they’re alone together?”
“Come on, Stanley, haven’t you overheard them in trains and planes and places?”
Kubrick said, “Sure, but…they always know you’re there.”
If he was even halfway serious, Abrams’s banal thesis that, despite decades of living in England, Stanley never escaped the Old Country, might have been given some ballast.
Now, as for Stanley Kubrick’s being an “intellectual.” If this implies membership in some literary or quasi-philosophical elite, there’s a Jewish joke to dispense with it. It’s the one about the man who makes a fortune, buys himself a fancy yacht, and invites his mother to come and see it. He greets her on the gangway in full nautical rig. She says, “What’s with the gold braid already?”
“Mama, you have to realize, I’m a captain now.”
She says, “By you, you’re a captain, by me, you’re a captain, but by a captain, are you a captain?”
As New York intellectuals all used to know, Karl Popper’s definition of bad science, and bad faith, involves positing a theory and then selecting only whatever data help to furnish its validity. The honest scholar makes it a matter of principle to seek out elements that might render his thesis questionable.
Abrams seeks to enroll Lolita in his obsessive Jewish-intellectual scheme by referring to Peter Arno, a New Yorker cartoonist whom Kubrick photographed in 1949. The caption attached to Kubrick’s photograph in Look asserted that Arno liked to date “fresh, unspoiled girls,” and Abrams says this “hint[s] at Humbert Humbert in Lolita.” Ah, but Lolita was published, in Paris, in 1955, six years later. And how likely is it, in any case, that Kubrick wrote the caption?
The film of Lolita is unusual for its garrulity. Abrams’s insistence on the sinister Semitic aspect of both Clare Quilty and Humbert Humbert supposedly drawing Kubrick like moth to flame is a ridiculous camouflage of the commercial opportunism that led Stanley to seek to film the most notorious novel of the day, while fudging its scandalous eroticism.
That said, in my view, The Killing, Paths of Glory, Barry Lyndon, and Clockwork Orange were and are sans pareil. The great French poet Paul Valéry wrote of “the profundity of the surface” of a work of art. Add D.H. Lawrence’s “never trust the teller, trust the tale,” and you have two authoritative reasons for looking at or reading original works of art yourself and not relying on academic exegetes—especially when they write in the solemn, sometimes ungrammatical style of Professor Abrams, who takes time out to tell those of us at the back of his class that padre “is derived from the Latin pater.”
Abrams writes that I “claim” that I was told to exclude all overt reference to Jews in my Eyes Wide Shut screenplay, with the fatuous implication that I am lying. I am again accused of “claiming” to have given the name Ziegler to the character played by Sidney Pollack, because I once had a (quite famous) Hollywood agent called Evarts Ziegler. So I did. The principal reason for Abrams to doubt my veracity is that my having chosen the name renders irrelevant his subsequent fanciful digression on the deep, deep meanings of the name Ziegler in Jewish lore; hence he wishes to assign the naming to Kubrick. Pop goes another wished-for proof of Stanley’s deep and scholarly obsession with Yiddishkeit.
Abrams would be a more formidable enemy if he could turn a single witty phrase or even abstain from what Karl Kraus called mauscheln, the giveaway jargon of Jewish journalists straining to pass for sophisticates at home in Gentile circles. If you choose, you can apply, on line, for screenwriting lessons from Nathan Abrams, who does not have a single cinematic credit to his name. It would be cheaper, and wiser, to look again, and then again, at Kubrick’s masterpieces.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
Is American opera in terminal condition?
At the Met, distinguished singers and conductors, mostly born and trained in Europe, appeared in theatrically conservative big-budget productions of the popular operas of the 19th century, with a sprinkling of pre-romantic and modern works thrown in to leaven the loaf. City Opera, by contrast, presented younger artists—many, like Beverly Sills, born in this country—in a wider-ranging, more adventurously staged repertoire that often included new operas, some of them written by American composers, to which the public was admitted at what were then called “popular prices.”
Between them, the companies represented a feast for culture-consuming New Yorkers, though complaints were already being heard that their new theaters were too big. Moreover, neither the Met nor City Opera was having any luck at commissioning memorable new operas and thereby expanding and refreshing the operatic repertoire, to which only a handful of significant new works—none of them, then or since, premiered by either company—had been added since World War I.
A half-century later, the feast has turned to famine. In 2011, New York City Opera left Lincoln Center, declaring bankruptcy. It closed its doors forever two years later. The Met has weathered a nearly uninterrupted string of crises that climaxed earlier this year with the firing of James Levine, the company’s once-celebrated music director emeritus. He was accused in 2017 of molesting teenage musicians and was dismissed from all of his conducting posts in New York and elsewhere. Today the Met is in dire financial straits that threaten its long-term survival.
And while newer opera companies in such other American cities as Chicago, Houston, San Francisco, Santa Fe, and Seattle now offer alternative models of leadership, none has established itself as a potential successor either to the Met or the now-defunct NYCO.1
Is American opera as a whole in a terminal condition? Or are the collapse of the New York City Opera and the Met’s ongoing struggle to survive purely local matters of no relevance elsewhere? Heidi Waleson addresses these questions in Mad Scenes and Exit Arias: The Death of the New York City Opera and the Future of Opera in America.2 Waleson draws on her experience as the opera critic of the Wall Street Journal to speculate on the prospects for an art form that has never quite managed to set down firm roots in American culture.
In this richly informative chronicle of NYCO’s decline and fall, Waleson persuasively argues that what happened to City Opera (and, by extension, the Met) could happen to other opera companies as well. The days in which an ambitious community sought successfully to elevate itself into the first rank of world cities by building and manning an opera house are long past, and Mad Scenes and Exit Arias helps us understand why.As Waleson reminds us, it was Fiorello LaGuardia, the New York mayor who played a central role in the creation of the NYCO, who dubbed the company “the people’s opera” when it was founded in 1943. According to LaGuardia, NYCO existed to perform popular operas at popular prices for a mass audience. In later years, it moved away from that goal, but the slogan stuck. Indeed, no opera company has ever formulated a clearer statement of its institutional mission.
Even after it moved to Lincoln Center in 1966, NYCO had an equally coherent and similarly appealing purpose: It was where you went to see the opera stars of tomorrow, foremost among them Sills and Plácido Domingo, in inexpensively but imaginatively staged productions of the classics. The company went out of its way to present modern operas, too, but it never did so at the expense of its central repertoire—and tickets to its performances cost half of what the Met charged. Well into the 21st century, City Opera stuck more or less closely to its redefined mission. Under Paul Kellogg, the general and artistic director from 1996 to 2007, it did so with consistent artistic success. But revenues declined throughout the latter part of Kellogg’s tenure, in part because younger New Yorkers were unwilling to become subscribers.
In those days, the Metropolitan Opera, NYCO’s next-door neighbor, was still one of the world’s most conservative opera houses. That changed when Peter Gelb became its general manager in 2006. Gelb was resolved to modernize the Met’s productions and, to a lesser extent, its repertoire, and he simultaneously sought to heighten its national profile by digitally simulcasting live performances into movie theaters throughout America.
Kellogg was frustrated by the chronic acoustic inadequacies of the New York State Theater and sought in vain to move City Opera to a three-theater complex that was to be built (but never was) on the World Trade Center site. He retired soon after Gelb came to the Met. Kellogg was succeeded by Gérard Mortier, a European impresario who was accustomed to working in state-subsidized theaters. Mortier made a pair of fateful decisions. First, he canceled City Opera’s entire 2008–2009 season while the interior of the State Theater underwent much-needed renovations. Then he announced a follow-up season of 20th-century operas that lacked audience appeal.
That follow-up season never happened, because Mortier resigned in 2008 and fled New York. He was replaced by George Steel, who had previously served for just three months as general manager of the Dallas Opera. Under Steel, NYCO slashed its schedule to ribbons in a futile attempt to get back on its financial feet after Mortier’s financially ruinous year-long hiatus. Then he mounted a series of productions of nonstandard repertory that received mixed reviews and flopped at the box office.
The combined effect of Gelb’s innovations and the inept leadership of Mortier and Steel all but obliterated City Opera’s reason for existing. Under Gelb, the Met’s repertory ranged from such warhorses as Rigoletto and Tosca to 20th-century masterpieces like Benjamin Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream and Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, and tickets could be bought for as little as $20. With the Met performing a more interesting repertoire under a wider range of directors, and in part at “people’s prices,” City Opera no longer did anything that the Met wasn’t already doing on a far larger and better-financed scale. What, then, was its mission now? The truth was that it had none, and when the company went under in 2013, few mourned its passing.
As it happened, Gelb’s own innovations were a mere artistic Band-aid, for he was unwilling or unable to trim the Met’s bloated budget to any meaningful extent. He made no serious attempt to cut the company’s labor costs until a budget crisis in 2014 forced him to confront its unions, which he did with limited success. In addition, his new productions of the standard-repertory operas on which the Met relied to draw and hold older subscribers were felt by many to be trashily trendy.
The Met had particular difficulty managing the reduced circumstances of the 21st century when it came to opera. Its 3,800-seat theater has an 80-foot-deep stage with a proscenium opening that measures 54 feet on each side. (Bayreuth, by contrast, seats 1,925, La Scala 2,030, and the Vienna State Opera 2,200.) As a result, it is all but impossible to mount low-to-medium-budget shows in the Metropolitan Opera House, even as the company finds it is no longer able to fill its increasingly empty house. Two decades ago, the Met earned 90 percent of its potential box-office revenue. That figure plummeted to 66 percent by 2015, forcing Gelb to raise ticket prices to an average of $158.50 per head. On Broadway, the average price of a ticket that season was $103.86.
Above all, Gelb was swimming against the cultural tide. Asked about the effects on audience development of the Met simulcasts, he admitted that three-quarters of the people who attended them were “over 65, and 30 percent of them are over 75.” As he explained: “Grand opera is in itself a kind of a dinosaur of an art form…. The question is not whether I think I’m doing a good job or not in trying to keep the [Metropolitan Opera] alive. It’s whether I’m doing a good job or not in the face of a cultural and social rejection of opera as an art form. And what I’m doing is fighting an uphill battle to try and maintain an audience in a very difficult time.”
Was that statement buck-passing defeatism, or a fair appraisal of the state of American opera? Other opera executives distanced themselves from Gelb’s remarks, and it was true—and still is—that smaller American companies have done a somewhat better job of attracting younger audiences than the top-heavy Met. But according to the National Endowment for the Arts, the percentage of U.S. adults who attend at least one operatic performance each year declined from 3.2 percent in 2002 to 2.1 percent in 2012. This problem, of course, is not limited to opera. As I wrote in these pages in 2010, the disappearance of secondary-school arts education and the rise of digital media may well be leading to “not merely a decline in public interest in the fine arts but the death of the live audience as a cultural phenomenon.”3D oes American opera have a future in an era of what Heidi Waleson succinctly describes as “flat ticket income and rising expenses”? In the last chapter of Mad Scenes and Exit Arias, she chronicles the activities of a group of innovative smaller troupes that are “rethinking what an opera company is, what it does, and who it serves.” Yet in the same breath, she acknowledges the possibility that “filling a giant theater for multiple productions of grand operas [is] no longer an achievable goal.”
If that is so, then it may be worth asking a different question: Did American opera ever have a past? It is true that opera in America has had a great and glorious history, but virtually the whole of that history consisted of American productions of 18th- and 19th-century European operas. By contrast, no opera by an American classical composer has ever entered the international major-house repertoire. Indeed, while new American operas are still commissioned and premiered at an impressive rate, few things are so rare as a second production of any of these works.
While a handful continue to be performed—John Adams’s Nixon in China (1987), André Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire (1995), Mark Adamo’s Little Women (1998), and Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking (2000)—their success is a tribute to the familiarity of their subject matter and source material, not their musico-theatrical quality. As for the rest, the hard but inescapable truth is that with the exception of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess (1935), virtually all large-scale American operas have been purpose-written novelties that were shelved and forgotten immediately after their premieres.
The success of Porgy and Bess, which received its premiere not in an opera house but on Broadway, reminds us that American musical comedy, unlike American opera, is deeply rooted in our national culture, in much the same way that grand opera is no less deeply rooted in the national cultures of Germany and Italy, where it is still genuinely popular (if less so today than a half-century ago). By comparison with Porgy, Carousel, Guys and Dolls, or My Fair Lady, American opera as a homegrown form simply does not exist: It is merely an obscure offshoot of its European counterpart. Aaron Copland, America’s greatest composer, was not really joking when he wittily described opera as “la forme fatale,” and his own failed attempts to compose an audience-friendly opera that would be as successful as his folk-flavored ballet scores say much about the difficulties facing any composer who seeks to follow in his footsteps.
It is not that grand opera is incapable of appealing to American theatergoers. Even now, there are many Americans who love it passionately, just as there are regional companies such as Chicago’s Lyric Opera and San Francisco Opera that have avoided making the mistakes that closed City Opera’s doors. Yet the crises from which the Metropolitan Opera has so far failed to extricate itself suggest that in the absence of the generous state subsidies that keep European opera houses in business, large-house grand opera in America may simply be too expensive to thrive—or, ultimately, to survive. At its best, no art form is more thrilling or seductive. But none is at greater risk of following the dinosaurs down the cold road to extinction.
1 The “New York City Opera” founded in 2016 that now mounts operas in various New York theaters on an ad hoc basis is a brand-new enterprise that has no connection with its predecessor.
2 Metropolitan Books, 304 pages