Volumes of The Collected Papers of Bertrand Russell

A Hypertextual Edition of Paper 58 in Volume 24

Table of Contents

“The Atomic Bomb” (1945)
Textual Notes
Bibliographical Index


Under its published title “The Bomb and Civilization”, Russell’s first known comment of any kind on the atomic bomb appeared as an article in the Glasgow Forward, 39, no. 33 (18 Aug. 1945): 1, 3 (B&R C45.14). He never reprinted the article, and it has remained largely unknown, even to histories of the anti-nuclear movement such as Wittner 1993. Forward, which had previously published Russell (see papers 33, 43 and 44), supported the Independent Labour Party. The article is notable for its call for a “new political thinking”.

The atom-bombing of Hiroshima on 6 August 1945 destroyed four square miles of the city. Three days later Russell was at work on this article. We know this because midway he remarks that he has just learned of the explosion of the second atomic bomb, over Nagasaki. This bomb was dropped about 2 a.m. GMT (Weintraub 1995, 482; Ham 2012, 364). He abandons the exposition and history of atomic theory to dwell on the danger to civilization posed by the new weaponry, and immediately states: “The prospect for the human race is sombre beyond all precedent.... A great deal of new political thinking will be necessary if utter disaster is to be averted.” This is in contrast to the guarded optimism of paper 48, finished a few days prior to the nuclear attack on Japan and perhaps, as a consequence, not published. In the last sentence quoted, Russell began using language that would occur repeatedly as he wrote about the prospect of nuclear warfare. In a cognate paper a month later (61) he wrote, “we must learn a new kind of political thinking” (324: 17–18). When the Soviets exploded their first atomic bomb, he gave a new paper the title “The Bomb: Can Disaster Be Averted?” (1949d). In “Man’s Peril” he wrote: “All, equally, are in peril, and, if the peril is understood, there is hope that they may collectively avert it. We have to learn to think in a new way” (1954a; Papers 28: 86). He closely reiterated these lines in the Russell–Einstein Manifesto (ibid., 28: 318).

Russell does not refer to the Manhattan project by name, although he may well have been cognizant of the physicists’ pre-war curiosity about producing an atomic explosion. By the time of writing he knew of the 1938 discovery of nuclear fission and that scientists on both sides of World War II had been working on the problem. Newspapers carried this information in early days of the nuclear age (see The Times 1945q and, there officially on the bomb’s origins, Churchill 1945a). The Times covered military and scientific aspects extensively (1945p, 1945r, 1945s). Some of Russell's information may have come from these sources.

The main outline and some details of his international policy for the next few years are visible, complete with an argument for forcing world government and a prediction that the U.S. would not internationalize the atomic secrets.

Russell could not comment here on whether the atomic bomb hastened the end of the war. Japan did not surrender until several days later, on 14 August. At the same time preparations were under way for massive Allied land invasions (Giangreco 2017). It remains uncertain whether it was the atomic bomb or the prospect of the invasions, including that of the Russians, which brought Japan to surrender. It was “a common observation that Japan at war’s end was vastly weaker than anyone outside the country had imagined—or anyone inside it had acknowledged” (Dower 1999, 44). However, this is not (Giangreco’s conclusion (see his 2017, xvii–xix).

The copy-text is a photocopy and scan of the manuscript, which Russell titled “The Atomic Bomb” (RA3 Rec. Acq. 840). The manuscript survived in the papers of Forward’s editor, Emrys Hughes (1894–1969; soon to be elected M.P. at this time). Its survival as the marked-up copy for the compositor is unusual in this volume. Additional changes were made, possibly to save space. There is no evidence that Russell read proofs of the newspaper publication, of which he kept two copies. Manuscript and print were collated. Several departures from Russell’s manuscript were made, none of which is accepted here. The substitution in the printed text of “hear” for the manuscript’s “learn” was a misreading of Russell’s hand, as was “expelled” for “repelled”. Forward silently deleted several commas in typesetting Russell’s manuscript, and others were inserted. The substantive variants are recorded in the Textual Notes.

Chronology (selected)

Life/Related Events


26 June 1945 U.N. charter signed. On the BBC Brains Trust.
5 July 1945 General election in U.K.
16 July 1945 First A-bomb tested at Alamogordo, New Mexico.
17 July–2 Aug. 1945 Stalin, Truman, Churchill (replaced by Attlee on 28 July) attend Potsdam Conference.
22 July 1945 9, “Make Divorce Easier” published.
26 July 1945 U.K. general election results: Labour victorious with 48% of the vote and 393 of 615 seats. Churchill resigns; Attlee becomes Prime Minister.
U.S., U.K. and China demand Japan’s unconditional surrender (“Potsdam Declaration”)
26–28 July 1945 10, “Proposal for a Free Rational Thought Club” written.
2 Aug. 1945 48, “Hopes and Fears for Tomorrow” written shortly thereafter but before 6 Aug.
6 Aug. 1945 U.S. drops A-bomb on Hiroshima.
8 Aug. 1945 Soviets declare war on Japan.
London Agreement sets rules for Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals.
9 Aug. 1945 U.S. drops A-bomb on Nagasaki. Soviets invade Manchuria.
London Agreement, setting up an International Military Tribunal for the trial of war criminals, is signed by U.S., U.K., France and U.S.S.R.
11–25 Aug. 1945 At Hotel Portmeirion, N. Wales.
14 Aug. 1945 Victory in Japan Day, after massive bombing raid previous night.
16 Aug. 1945 U.S. Smyth report (Atomic Energy for Military Purposes) published.
18 Aug. 1945 58, “The Bomb and Civilization” published.
21 Aug. 1945 U.S. abruptly ends Lend-Lease.
Sir John Anderson to be chairman of U.K. Advisory Committee on Atomic Energy
1 Sept. 1945 Writes to Gamel Brenan that preventive war is the only way to save the world, but he would never advocate it.

* Bertrand Russell Research Centre * Faculty of Humanities * Bertrand Russell Archives * McMaster University

The text for this page was prepared at McMaster University.
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