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Bertrand Russell

Over his long career Bertrand Russell made significant contributions to mathematical logic, analytic philosophy, education, political theory and religious studies. In 1916 his pacifist views cost him his position at Trinity College, Cambridge, and later in life he went on to become a prominent figure in the anti-war and anti-nuclear movements, in particular leading public reaction to the first hydrogen bomb tests by the United States in 1952 and the Soviet Union in 1953. He established the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation in 1963.

This is an edited extract from a longer recording.


Ladies and gentlemen, it is a great pleasure to have this opportunity to address this very great and important gathering. I find it reassuring in looking about this congress to see that there are so many people who do not desire the extermination of the human race: I did not know there were so many in the world; it’s a comfort.

The present congress, which has met in spite of unexpected obstacles, is an encouragement to all who wish to avert nuclear disaster. As yet, the danger to which the human race is exposed has not been sufficiently widely realised. It must be the business of all who think as we do, to spread knowledge of the facts, and of the dire possibilities, as widely as lies within our power.

The duty which lies before us is not an easy one. It is not enough to abstain from supporting nuclear armaments or to advocate measures which, however desirable, have no chance of acceptance. What we have to do is not merely to abstain from participating in what we consider evil. We have to work actively with a creation of such a state of opinion and such new institutions as shall prevent any large scale war, not only in the immediate future but for centuries to come. This is a serious and difficult undertaking but nothing less will give security for the survival of mankind.

The spread of H-bombs to new powers is imminent and very dangerous. As you all know, it is because hitherto neutral Switzerland wishes to acquire H-bombs that we were prevented from holding our projected congress at Basel. France, Germany and Sweden are well on the way to membership of the nuclear club. It is, of course, obvious that their example will be followed by communist China and it is in the highest degree improbable that there will, in the end, be net gain to either East or West. What, however, there certainly will be is a greatly increased risk of nuclear war: either as a result of accidental misinterpretation or as the reckless act of some irresponsible government. I should wish to see an agreement that only Russia and America, in the meantime, should possess H-bombs and that to facilitate such an agreement Britain should be willing to give up the bomb.

Such measures, however, would only present an increase in the danger of nuclear war. More is required if the danger is to be diminished. I think the first thing necessary is a change of outlook, both in the West and in the East. I think it is necessary that each side should realise the impossibility of defeating the other side except by defeating itself. Statesmen on each side will have to learn what at present they seem unable to grasp: that the common interests of East and West vastly outweigh their divergent interests. The most important of the common interests is survival, but there are others of which the importance is hardly yet realised: one of these is the lightening of the economic burden of our armaments. This burden is already vastly greater than at any earlier time, but with every technical advance it is bound to become still greater.

East and West are alike determined to occupy the Moon and we are told on high authority that if that gives no decisive advantage Mars and Venus will be occupied. It is obvious that competition on this scale must, before long, cause intense hardship both in the East and in the West and all the time we shall be told that ‘of course, these expensive weapons shall never be used but are to serve only to terrify the enemy’. If there were any common sense in governments it would occur to them that weapons which are never to be used may as well not be manufactured and an agreement to that effect is what any set of sensible men would regard as an obvious solution.

The main difficulty that prevents the adoption of wise measures by either side is ideological intolerance. Each side feels that it is the champion of great ideals and that victory for these ideals is worth almost any sacrifice. There is nothing new in this ideological fanaticism: it prevailed for centuries between Christianity and Islam and for a hundred and thirty years between Catholics and Protestants. In each case, the attempt to impose one’s own ideology by force of arms was, at last, seen to be futile: Christians and Mohammedans, Catholics and Protestants learnt to endure each other’s existence to the great benefit of mankind.

I should like to say in conclusion that our appeal must be at least as much to hope as to fear. In our present world, every thoughtful man and woman is oppressed with a load of terror and guilt and consciousness of vast hatreds. The human spirit cannot free itself to rejoice in the progress of knowledge and in the consciousness of a world-wide cooperation towards happiness and freedom of spirit. The long ages of human misery were due to ignorance and folly: hitherto, though ignorance has grown less, folly has remained. It is open to mankind, if it will allow itself to enter up into the entirely possible heritage of joy, to inaugurate a new era surpassing anything known in previous history. The decision rests with human beings: if they so choose, a new glory is theirs; we must hope that they will not prefer a dark and unnecessary doom.

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