Bertrand’s Conundrum

Bertrand, the third Earl of Russell entered this world on 18 May, 1872 and wouldn’t leave it until 97 years later on the 2nd of February 1970, and although he lived decades longer than the average life-span of his time, death seemed to be one of his closest friends. His mother, the Viscountess Amberley, died when Bertrand was only two years old, followed shortly after by his older sister Rachel. Only two years after that his father the Viscount died of bronchitis, and two years after that, after moving in with his paternal grandparents, his grandfather died. As a child, Bertrand had to watch his mother, his sister, his father, and grandfather die. 

Death affected young Bertrand so much that he would often fantasize about different and unique ways to kill himself all throughout his adolescence. Luckily, he found Euclid’s theories fascinating enough to give his life meaning. His religion became mathematics, and he applied it to his other interests such as social and political theory. 

When the Great War broke out, Bertrand realized that destruction and death on that level was a zero-sum game, so he was one of the very few academic leaders to proclaim himself a pacifist. For reasons known only to him, this man who held such a fascination of death, believed war, violence, and destruction was horrid, vile, and should by all means be avoided. He helped organize the Leeds Convention which drew thousands of anti-war socialists to join, and because of this he was fired from his post and convicted of crimes under the Defense of the Realm Act. The fine left him destitute, and eventually, he was thrown in prison.

During WWII when faced with the reality of the Nazis invading England, Bertrand famously said, “If the Germans succeed in sending an invading army to England we should do best to treat them as visitors, give them quarters, and invite the commander and chief to dine with the prime minister.” This is how much this man hated the idea of war and conflict. 

Even so, after the atomic dust clouds had settled over Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and the United States emerged from the Second Great War the only superpower with nuclear weapons, Bertrand Russell counseled then president Harry S. Truman and told him that the best course of action was to launch a preemptive nuclear strike on Russia. He told the leader of the free world to launch all his nukes and devastate a former ally with a strike that would kill millions of innocent people. 

Why? 

This man who lived his entire life fighting war and violence to the detriment of his profession and freedom, this man who would later win the Nobel Prize decided the best course of action in the peace following two world wars was to loose the entire nuclear arsenal at Russia. 

He was also quoted as saying, “Three passions, simple but strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind.”

Why do you think that he wanted to do that?

By Sean Davis

Sean Davis is the author of The Wax Bullet War, a Purple Heart Iraq War veteran, and the winner of the Legionnaire of the Year Award from the American Legion in 2015 and the recipient of the Emily Gottfried Emerging Leader, Human Rights award for 2016. His stories, essays, and articles have appeared in the the Ted Talk Book The Misfit’s Manifesto (Simon and Schuster), Forest Avenue Press anthology City of Weird, Sixty Minutes, Story Corps, Flaunt Magazine, The Big Smoke, Human the movie, and much more.

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