RE: virus: Prisoners my Derrida!

Deron Stewart (
Thu, 18 Mar 1999 23:07:07 -0800

In light of Carl's impressive post, I guess I should provide more detail than I did previously about Russell's position on preventive war. I had to dig Poundstone's book out of a box, but I've found a number of relevant citations from it.

Keep in mind here that the point is not to demonize Russell. This topic started as a discussion about whether reason can be just as much a refuge from fear and irrationality as faith. Russell lived to be almost 100 years old (1872-1970), which is more than enough time for a rational person to change their beliefs many times.

So here's what Poundstone (and Russell) have to say. From _The Prisoner's Dilemma_, Doubleday, 1992 hardcover. There are many references to this issue in the book...I'll just provide the first, the last, and a denial.



The first Poundstone reference:

Russell, one of the mainsprings of the preventive war movement, spoke in favor of an ultimatum threatening the Soviet Union with nuclear devastation unless it surrendered sovereignty to a US dominated world state. In a 1947 speech, Russell said, "I am inclined to think that Russia would acquiesce; if not, provided this is done soon, the world might survive the resulting war and emerge with a single government such as the world needs."

Von Neumann took a harder line yet, favoring a surprise nuclear first-strike. Life magazine quoted Von Neumann as saying, "If you say why not bomb them tomorrow, I say why not today? If you say today at 5 o'clock, I say why not one o'clock?"

Neither man had any love of the Soviet Union. But they believed preventive war was foremost a matter of logic, the only rational solution to the deadly dilemma of nuclear proliferation. As Russell put it in an article advocating preventive war in the January 1948 issue of "New Commonwealth": "The argument that I have been developing is as simple and as unescapable as a mathematical demonstration."

Russell's denial:

In late 1950 the Cambridge University Labor Club passed a resolution censoring its own president, Bertrand Russell....Russell responded curtly, "I have never advocated a preventive war, as your members would know if they were to ascertain facts."

This was the first in a long string of denials that continued for most of the decade. In a letter published in the October 1953 issue of the "Nation", Russell credited the whole thing to a Communist plot:

"The story that I supported a preventive war against Russia is a Communist invention....<snip details>"

The last Poundstone reference:

In a 1959 BBC broadcast, Russell finally admitted his former stand on preventive war. Interviewer John Freeman asked, "Is it true or untrue that in recent years you advocated that a preventive war might be made against communism, against Soviet Russia?"

Russell answered, "It's entirely true, and I don't repent of it. It was not inconsistent with what I think now. What I thought all along was that a nuclear war in which both sides had nuclear weapons would be an utter and absolute disaster....<snip details of proposal to internationalize nuclear weapons, the "Baruch" proposal> that the world should accept; not that I advocated a nuclear war, but I did think that great pressure should be put upon Russia to accept the Baruch proposal, and I did think that if they continued to refuse it might be necessary actually to go to war. At that time nuclear weapons existed only on one side, and therefore the odds were the Russians would have given way...."

What if push came to shove: would Russell really have favored bombing the Soviets, Freeman asked. "I should", Russell answered, adding that "you can't threaten unless you're prepared to have your bluff called."

-----Original Message-----

From:	Deron Stewart []
Sent:	Thursday, March 18, 1999 11:30 AM
To:	''
Subject:	RE: virus: Prisoners my Derrida!

[Bill Roh]
>If you by chance have a source for
>Russell's pro nuke stance, I would be interested in seeing it.

I am a huge Russell fan myself. As far as the proactive strike positions that Russell took, my knowledge of it comes from Poundstone's book which has all the appropriate references.

Russell apparently (and understandably) later said that he never supported such a thing, but Poundstone makes it pretty clear that he did at one point.

Russell lived an incredibly long life -- you could say he lived many lives. In one of them he wanted to preemptively nuke the ruskies. In another he went to jail for pacifism. It's a funny, wonderful world!