Political Genius of Einstein

In 1921, during a seemingly endless reception in his honor in Washington, Albert Einstein said to the diplomat next to him, "I’ve just developed a new theory of eternity." That quip came to mind after two new Einstein biographies, which together total more than 1,000 pages, thudded on my doorstep.

Well, his scientific theories notwithstanding.. and despite what others say about his knowledge of politics .. he did a good job with his views!

Isaacson nonetheless feels compelled, as he should, to justify his decision to toss yet another Einstein book onto the pile of more than 500 already printed. It is our duty as good citizens, he suggests, to understand Einstein’s scientific achievements, which underpin so much modern science and technology. Even more important, a close examination of Einstein’s scientific genius may yield lessons that can help us in "this new century of globalization, in which our success will depend on our creativity." The emphasis, not surprisingly, is on Einstein’s scientific career.

But when I look around the world today, I sense more of a need for political than for scientific guidance. And that is why I’m glad to have read the Isaacson and Neffe biographies, both of which gave me a much deeper appreciation of Einstein’s remarkable intuition in political affairs.

Einstein has often been described as a kind of idiot savant: scientific savant, political idiot. "His genius is limited to science. In other matters he is a fool," his supposed friend, the novelist and pacifist Romain Rolland, said.

Actually, as Isaacson and Neffe demonstrate, Einstein navigated the tumult of the 20th century with extraordinary grace. He weighed in on all the divisive isms of his time — communism, fascism, McCarthyism, capitalism, anti-Semitism, Zionism, racism — and, for the most part, history has confirmed his Solomonic choices. How many of his contemporaries have fared so well? How many modern opinion leaders will?

Einstein became a renowned figure almost overnight in 1919, after measurements by the British physicist Arthur Eddington during a solar eclipse confirmed the theory of general relativity’s predictions about how gravity should bend light. "Lights All Askew in the Heavens," The New York Times exulted. "Einstein Theory Triumphs." Ambivalent about his fame, Einstein nonetheless exploited it for the rest of his life to speak out on issues that mattered to him.

Horrified by the carnage of World War I, he pronounced himself a "militant pacifist." He advocated a form of civil disobedience called the 2-percent solution, which assumed that nations could not wage war if just one out of every 50 men refused military service.

But Einstein abandoned pacifism in response to Nazism, the shoal upon which pacifism still founders. When Hitler began threatening his neighbors, Einstein declared that if he were Belgian, he would volunteer for military service "cheerfully in the belief that I would thereby be helping to save European civilization."

Einstein considered himself a socialist throughout his life and deplored the callousness of capitalism. Initially he expressed cautious approval of the Soviet experiment, once remarking that "men like Lenin are the guardians and restorers of the conscience of mankind." But he also warned that socialists and communists must reject violence and embrace democracy, "lest the old class tyranny of the right be replaced by a new class tyranny of the left." He never denounced the Soviet Union, but he never visited it, either, despite frequent invitations to do so, and he never joined the Communist Party.

A nonbelieving Jew, Einstein did not flaunt his Jewishness, but he abhorred the notion that Jews should appease anti-Semites by assimilating. "The undignified mania of adaptive conformity among many of my social standing," he wrote, "has always been very repulsive to me."

He had early doubts about the creation of Israel. He called the militant Zionist Menachem Begin a "terrorist," and asserted that "without mutual understanding and cooperation with the Arabs, nothing will work." No wonder then, that after offering Einstein the presidency of Israel, in 1952, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion fretted that if Einstein accepted, "we are in for trouble." (Einstein declined, saying, "I am not the person for that, and I cannot possibly do it.")

In 1939, Einstein wrote a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, warning that the United States should attempt to build an atomic weapon lest the Nazis build one first. His advice helped to initiate the Manhattan Project. As it turned out, the FBI chief, J. Edgar Hoover — who never trusted Einstein and kept copious files on him — had him excluded from the project. "In view of [his] radical background," one unsigned FBI document stated, "this office would not recommend the employment of Dr. Einstein on matters of a secret nature."

After the United States bombed Japan, Einstein regretted his fateful letter to Roosevelt. "Had I known that the Germans would not succeed in producing an atomic bomb, I never would have lifted a finger," he said. His self-castigation seems harsh, given that in 1939 it was quite plausible that Werner Heisenberg and other German physicists might succeed in designing an atomic weapon.

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