“First let me talk with this philosopher.—
What is the cause of thunder?”
—King Lear to Poor Tom.
There is an aged philosopher in Johnson’s Rasselas who has persuaded himself that he is personally responsible for ensuring that the sun rises in the morning and sets in the evening. He conscientiously devotes himself to discharging this responsibility, convinced that otherwise all life on our planet will languish in darkness or wither away in perpetual sunshine. Another aged philosopher, Bertrand Russell, is an almost exactly analogous case today. If he relaxes his efforts, he appears to suppose, a nuclear war must break out, and the human race become extinct; an eventuality for which, contrary to Russell, and especially after reading him, I often feel I simply cannot wait. In Unarmed Victory he provides an account of how, in his own estimation, he prevented the Cuban crisis and the Indo-Chinese frontier dispute from developing into such a catastrophe.
In describing these transactions Russell goes to considerable lengths to profess himself not a Communist. He is, he insists, a “democratic socialist.” Nonetheless, his exchanges with Khrushchev, Chou En-Lai, Nehru, and President Kennedy have clearly shown, he considers, that the Communist side was for peace, and the American or Western side ready in both instances to countenance resort to nuclear war. This conclusion is reached early on in the proceedings.
Thus, in one of his first press statements, Russell conveyed to us, his fellow-countrymen, the cheerful tidings that “within a week you will all be dead to please American madmen.” The following day he further explained in a leaflet that we were to die “not in the course of nature, but…because rich Americans dislike the Government that Cubans prefer, and have used part of their wealth to spread lies about it.” It is rather surprising, after these early and emphatic judgments, to find him remarking later on in the narrative that up to the point when Khrushchev offered to dismantle his missile bases in Cuba “there had not been very much to choose between American and Russian policies.” No word of Russian madmen came to us from his Welsh fastness. Any suggestion of the kind might, in any case, have involved embarrassment in view of the fact that the Cuban Embassy in London had kindly taken charge of his printing arrangements.
To a non-philosophical mind, there might seem a certain bias or unreason in Russell’s attitude. American madmen there unquestionably are in plenty, but it may be doubted whether it was exclusively at their behest that Mr. Kennedy decided to institute a blockade of Cuba with a view to preventing the further installation there of nuclear missiles. Nor, come to that, have the Kremlin’s policies through the years been such as to suggest a meticulous and enduring sanity among those responsible for them.
As for Khrushchev’s alleged duplicity (“the silly outery that Russia had acted deceitfully about nuclear installations in Cuba”), Russell fastens the blame, if any, on Zorin …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.
Bertrand Russell November 28, 1963