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Psychology and East-West Tension, by Bertrand Russell

In: Preventing World War III: Some Proposals, ed. by Quincy Wright, William M. Evan, and Morton Deutsch. Simon and Schuster, c1961.
Repr. in: Bertrand Russell's Fact and Fiction (London; George Allen & Unwin, c1961)pp.209-221.

The hostility between East and West,as it exists at the present day,is a cause of the gravest anxiety to all sane men. It involves the catastrophic possibility of an all-out nuclear war and,short of that,demands continually increasing expenditure upon continually more deadly and more expensive weapons of war to which no end can be seen except reducing both East and West to subsistence level. In view of these obvious facts, a great many people perceive the desirability of producing more friendly relations,especially between Russia and America. But efforts in this direction have hitherto proved fruitless,and their failure has, if anything,augmented the general danger. It seems,therefore,that,if peaceful co-existence is to be successfully promoted,some fresh diagnosis must be found and other methods must be sought.
It is my belief that the source of the trouble lies in the minds of men and not in any non-mental facts. I think that the place where conciliation ought to begin is in the beliefs of statesmen and plain men as to the true character of the conflict. I think that, If these beliefs were changed,the difficulties which at present make disarmament congresses abortive would melt away. At each present,side is firmly persuaded of the other's wickedness,so firmly as to believe that any concession by one's own side,however slight,has the character of surrender to Absolute Evil.While this mood persists,it is obvious that no negotiations can succeed.
In analysing (analyzing) the present troubles,there are two kinds of facts to be borne in mind. There are what might be called hard facts,concerned with armaments,risks of unintended war,Western obligations to West Berlin,Russian tyranny in Hungary,and so on. There are also what,in comparison, maybe called soft facts.These consist of the hopes and fears that have inspired actions which have increased hostility.There is a continual inter-action between these two sets of facts,and to debate which set should come first may seem like the old problem of the hen and the egg. I think,however,that a smaller effort is needed to change the soft facts than to change the hard ones,and that the easiest way to change the hard facts is to tackle the soft facts first.
Let us,for the moment,consider the matter from the point of view of human welfare rather than from that of the victory of either side.It is obvious that,if the feelings of East and West towards each other were friendly and neither had any wish to exterminate the other,both sides would perceive the futility of immense expenditure on weapons of mass destruction. Both sides would emerge from the cloud of fear which now darkens every moment in the life of every thinking person. Both sides could combine to lessen the load of poverty and malnutrition which still weighs down the majority of the population of the globe. All the immense and truly remarkable skill which is now employed in the technical business of new armaments could be employed,instead,in inventions that would make human life happier and more prosperous. What is needed to bring about this charge? Only that both East and West should have friendly,instead of hostile,feelings towards each other.
'But',both sides will say,'how is it possible to have any friendly feeling towards people so abysmally wicked as the other side?' The rest of this speech,from our side,is sadly familiar.‘Do you not know, we shall be told,that the Soviets are atheistical materialists? Do you not know that they permit no individual freedom in any country that they dominate? Have you not heard of their brutal tyranny in Hungary and Eastern Germany? Were you unaware of their barbarous expulsion of Germans from formerly German territory in 1945? Can you ask us to tolerate the monsters who put in Arctic concentration camps every man and woman throughout Communist territory who showed one spark of independence? So much for the Western case. But the East,also,believes that it has a case,Which is the only one that its subjects are allowed to hear.The East maintains that the West is incurably imperialistic and that,while it prates of individual liberty,it suppresses national liberty wherever it can in Asia,Africa,or Latin America. Communists,we are assured,stand for world peace,Which the imperialistic West is continually threatening. And as for the supposed love of freedom in the West,how about its ally Franco who estab1ished a brutal military tyranny by the help of Hitler and Mussolini,and to this day enforces a censorship against all the beliefs by which the West pretends that it is inspired. Moreover, they assure each other that American wage-earners to this day are as badly off as the British wage-earners of 1844 whose plight was so eloquently depicted by Engels.
Each of these speeches is a mixture of truth and falsehood.Each produces furious vituperative retorts from the other side.Both speeches are made by eminent statesman at meetings of the United Nations,but,to everybody's astonishment,they do not generate friendly feeling between East and West.
Propaganda,however,is seldom a prime cause of the emotions which it is intended to stimulate. At the beginning of the First World War,stories of German atrocities, however untrue,were eagerly absorbed and repeated throughout Britain.At the end of the Second World War,far worse atrocity stories about German concentration camps,though completely authenticated,were shrugged off by the British public as unrealistic propaganda. The difference lay solely in the popular mood. In 1914, the great majority of the British public felt warlike and was glad of reasons to justify its feelings. In 1945, with victory assured, war-weariness caused an exactly opposite reaction. The moral of these two sets of facts is that what is believed about an opposing group depends upon prevailing fashions much more than upon what is happening.
It would be idle to deny that both East and West have had reasons for mutual hostility such as,in an earlier state of armaments,might, without complete insanity, have been thought to justify a war. In 1917 and 1918,the new Bolshevik Government did several things that annoyed the West: It made a separate peace treaty with Germany;it repudiated the Czarist national debt;and it confiscated the Lena gold fields. As a consequence of these acts,Britain,France,Japan,and Czechoslovakia joined in an attack on Russia. Unfortunately for the governments which ordered this attack, the soldiers and sailors felt no hostility to the Bolsheviks and mutinied so vigorously that they had to be withdrawn. The baffled governments tried to sway public opinion by invented stories of the nationalization of women and similar fables, but they did not at that time succeeded in rousing hostility to Russia among wage-earners. They did succeed,however, in rousing a deep-seated and passionate hostility to Western governing classes in most politically conscious Russians.
All this might have simmered down in time if it had not been for nuclear weapons.These produced,first in Russia and then in the Western world,a new feeling of terror and a new conviction of each other's wickedness.This was,of course,the sort of reason that psychiatrists study in mentally afflicted patients who, when they are in danger,are apt to do everything possible to increase the danger. Governments have always acted in this way. When I was a boy,the British Government was afraid that Russia, advancing through central Asia, would be in a position to invade British India. It was feared that Afghanistan might help them in this project, and the British therefore made two wars on Afghanistan under the impression that this would cause Afghans to love the British. This was a folly, but a little one. The present folly is psychologically very similar,but on a global scale,and may bring disaster to the whole world.
The present trouble is caused by the vast mass emotions of fear,hate,and suspicion which each side feels towards the other.I do not deny that on each side there are grounds for these feelings. What I do deny is that acts which they inspire are such as to diminish danger. They are, on both sides, essentially insane reactions in the sense that they make the danger immensely greater than it would otherwise be. If both sides were capable of thinking rationally about the danger, they would minimize the ground of conflict instead of using all the arts of propaganda to inflame it.
Take, as a very noteworthy part of the conflict,the difference of ideologies between East and West. We are told that the Russians are atheists,and that it is our religious duty to oppose them in every possible way. In our time this accusation has an old−fashioned sound.Socrates was accused of atheism,and this was one of the grounds on which he was put to death. The early Christians were accused of atheism because they did not believe in the Olympic Gods. As Gibbon states it:‘Malice and prejudice concurred in representing the Christians as a society of atheists, who, by the most daring attack on the religious constitution of the Empire,had merited the severest adimad-version of the civil magistrate'(Decline and Fall, Chapter XVI). But in later times atheism,like other kinds or unorthodox theology, has come to be tolerated. The Chinese became atheists in the eleventh century、and remained so until Chiang Kai-shek came to power,but this was never alleged as a ground for fighting the Chinese, even at times when we were at war with them.The ideological differences between Christianity and Islam were thought, for many centuries, to make peace between the two impossible. When it was found that neither side could win, it was realized at last that adherents of the two ideologies could live together without any difficulty. Britain had the same hostility to Russia as it has now from 1854 to 1907, although at that time the Russian Government was earnestly Christian and a whole-hearted supporter of capitalism. When I was a boy,hostility to Russia was taken for granted in England until Gladstone excited the country against the Turks. One of my amusements in those days consisted of demolishing, nettles, which I,and all other English boys,called 'Russians'. But in 1907,it was decided by the British Government that we were to hate the Germans and not the Russians.All the disputes that caused a half-century of enmity between Russia and Britain were solved by a month or two of negotiation,and from then unti1 1917 any criticism of the Czarist Government was frowned upon. At the present day, if China increases in power and becomes a threat to Russia, the ideological conflict between Russia and the West will be quickly forgotten.
Another of the grounds alleged for hostility to Russia is the question of freedom versus dictatorship. There is one curious fact about this,which is that those who profess the greatest eagerness to defend Western freedom against the Communist menace are the very men who are doing the most to diminish Western freedom and produce an approximation to the Soviet system, whereas those in the West who have a genuine love of freedom are,for the most part,those who are most firmly persuaded that peaceful co-existence with Communism is both possible and desirable. The spectacle of McCarthyism in defence of freedom is so ludicrous that,if a fiction writer had invented it,he would have been thought unpardonably fantastic. To anyone not deafened by slogans,it should be obvious that the lack of freedom in the East and the grave threat to freedom in the West are both products of fear,and that the first step towards increase of freedom must be diminution of fear. Perhaps,without being accused of paradox,one might add that freedom is not very useful to corpses,and that any defence of freedom conducted by means of a nuclear war can only be supported by those who deserve to be patients in psychiatric wards. To an impartial observer,it must,therefore,be obvious that the professed love of freedom in the West is a pretext, usually unconscious,to cover up aims which are not avowed.
Militarists,in the past,have often been able to achieve their aims .History,in fact,may be viewed as a long series of imperialistic conquests. The Persians subdued the Ionian Greeks,the Romans subdued everybody who lived near the Mediterranean. When Rome fe1l,hordes of barbarians established new kingdoms and,in many cases - for example,in Britain − exterminated most of the former inhabitants.For a time,imperialist leadership was acquired by the Mohammedan, but,with Columbus and Vasco da Gama,it returned to the West.There was no shadow of legal justification for white dominion over Indians, either in the Western hemisphere or in India.The pursuit or world dominion inspired success the Spaniards,the French,the British,and the Germans.This long history,from the time of Cyrus to the time of Hitler,has become deeply imbedded in the unconscious aspirations of militarists and statesmen both in the East and in the West− and not only of militarists and statesmen,but of a very large part of the general population.
It is difficult,especially for those accustomed to power at home, to realize that the happy days of successful slaughter have been brought to an end. What has brought them to an end is the deadly character of modern weapons of war. The influence of weapons of war on social structure is no new thing. It begins at the dawn of history with the conflict between the horse and the ass,in which,as was to be expected,the horse was victorious.The age of chivalry, as the word implies,was the age of the horse. It was gunpowder that put an end to this age. Throughout the Middle Ages,barons in their castles were able to maintain freedom against the central governments of their countries. When gunpowder was able to demolish their castles, the barons,though they made all the speeches in defence of freedom which are being repeated in our own day,were compelled to submit to the newly strengthened monarchies of Spain,France,and England. All this is familiar. What is new is the impossibility of victory. This new fact is so unpalatable that those in whom history has inspired a belief that the defeat of enemies is noble and splendid are totally unable to adapt themselves to the modern world. Fabre describes a collection of insects which had the habit of following their leader. He placed them on a circular disc which their leader did not know to be circular. They marched round and round until they dropped dead of fatigue. Modern statesmen and their admirers are guilty of equal and very similar folly.
There are those in the West world,and presumably also in the East, who carry folly a step farther than it was carried by Fabre's insects. When forced to acknowledge that victory in a general war is no longer possible,they take refuge in applauding the heroism of those who die fighting,and they,almost invariably,conclude their rhetoric by quoting Patrick Henry. It does not occur to them that Patrick Henry,if he should die in the struggle,expected to leave behind him others who would enjoy the fruits of his heroism. His modern would-be imitators profess to think that one should fight for the Right even if assured that the only outcome will be a world without life. Although many of the people who take this extreme view profess to be democrats,they nevertheless consider that a small percentage of fanatics have a right to inflict the death penalty upon all the rest of mankind.This morbid view involves an extreme of religious persecution surpassing all that previous ages have known. I do not doubt that it would have horrified Torquemada almost as much as it horrifies me. It is scarcely possible to doubt that there is an element of unconscious insincerity in those who would prefer the end of Man to the victory of a faction which they dislike. It seems probable that they find the impossibility of victory through war so intolerably painful that in a corner of their minds they reject it and continue to believe that in a nuclear war some miracle will give the victory to what they consider the Right. This is a common delusion of fanatics. But it is a pity when such men control the policy of a great State.
The first step towards the recovery of sanity in our mad world should be the public and solemn recognition by both sides that the worst thing that can possibly happen is a general nuclear war.I should like to see the statesmen or East and West declare that the success of their opponents would be a smaller misfortune than war. If this were acknowledged sincerely and after due study,it would become possible for the two sides to come together and examine how peaceful co-existence could be secured without sacrifice of the vital interests of either. But it seems hardly worth while to prolong the tedious process of negotiations while each side hopes that negotiations will continue to end in failure and secretly cherishes the belief that,against all the evidence,its own side would,in war,achieve a victory in the old-fashioned sense. I am credibly informed that the young men who undergo military training in the United States are instructed as to what to do when war comes, not if war comes. I have little doubt that the same is true in Russia. This means that young men at an impressionable age are encouraged by the authorities of their country to expect,if not to desire,a course of events which must be utterly catastrophic,although all imaginable pains are taken to prevent the young men from becoming aware of the magnitude of the disaster towards which they are told to march. This sort of thing will have to be changed if the danger of war is to be diminished.
How can such a change be brought about? I think it wi11 have to begin at the summit. Publicity and propaganda have now such influence that the majority in any powerful country is pretty sure to believe whatever its government wishes it to believe. It is unlikely that what the government wishes us to believe will be what the government believes to be the truth, and it is still more unlikely that it will be what,in fact, is the truth. Power impulses in great States have such a hold upon men's desires and instincts that it is very difficult to secure acknowledgment of facts when such acknowledgment thwarts the impulse to dominion. This is the psychological truth which underlies the warlike preparations of East and West. The mutual talk about each other's wickedness is merely a smoke-screen behind which conscience can hide.I do not mean that either East or West is impeccable. On the contrary, I think the governments of both are deeply criminal. But I do not think that this fact, if it be a fact,is a reason for desiring the extermination of the populations of both and also of neutral countries. Propaganda which promotes mutual hate serves no useful purpose,and those who indulge in it are encouraging mass murder.
I believe,I repeat, that conciliation will have to begin at the top. Camp David might have been a beginning, but was sabotaged by the militarists of West and East, who continued the U−2 flights and their interception during the preparations for the Summit Meeting which consequently proved abortive. What I should like to see is the establishment of a very small body, which might be called the Conciliation Committee, consisting of eminent men from East and West and, also, certain eminent neutrals,who should spend sometime in each other's company until they had become accustomed to thinking of each other as individuals and not as emissaries of Satan.This committee could be appointed by the United Nations,given the previous admission of China.I should wish these men,in the early stages of their association,to make no attempt at concrete and definite proposals. I should wish them,at first, only to arrive at a state of mind in which agreement seemed possible and the necessity of reaching agreement had become evident. After the mellowing influence of propinquity had produced this state of mind,it would then become possible to proceed to the tackling of questions as to which agreement is difficult.
It may be thought that nothing would come of such a procedure except renewed quarrels and increased bitterness.There is,however,some evidence to the contrary. The Pugwash Conferences in which scientists,Eastern and Western and neutral,all meet,have found it possible to preserve good personal relations and to arrive at unanimous resolutions. The melodramatic picture of each other which East and West have created through the years does not easily survive close personal contact. In the course of such contact,people become aware of each other's common humanity. They share sensations of heat and cold,of hunger and thirst, and even,at long last,an appreciation of each other's jokes,and it comes gradually to be felt that the political part of each of us is only a small part,and that the common humanity which we share covers a larger area than the abstract creeds in which we differ.Such a group of men as I have in mind,if encouraged by their governments,could gradually become a source of sanity, and accustom East and West, alike, to admit the limitations of their power which have resulted from the modern possibility of mass destruction and have made victory in the old-fashioned sense impossible for either side.
Perhaps the first work which such a body should recommend to governments would be the spread of truthful knowledge about each other. At present such knowledge is regarded on both sides as dangerous. In America,books giving truthful information about Russia are banned from public libraries. In Russia,there is almost complete prohibition of accurate knowledge about the West. At the end of the Second World War,Russian soldiers who had been prisoners in the West were all suspect to the Russian Government because they knew that the West is not what Russian propaganda present it as being. The governments of East and West should do what lies in their power to moderate the virulence and untruthfulness of the Press and to use the Press to refuse such popular misconceptions as are calculated to inflame suspicion.
The primary motive in any attempt at conciliation should be the prevention of war,and correct information about what a war would mean should be widely disseminated. It should be made clear to the nations of both East and West that survival is not to be secured by multiplying weapons of war or by exacerbating hatred and suspicion.
The world at present,not only that of Communists and anti-Communists,but also that of uncommitted nations,is living in daily and hourly peril of complete extinction. If this peril is to be lessened,it will be necessary to diminish the autonomy of those who control the major weapons of war. The present state of tension has made it seem necessary to both sides to be prepared for instant retaliation, since each side believes the other to be capable of an unprovoked attack and has devised fallible methods of detection which may cause a false belief that such an attack has been perpetrated. The life of each one of us is at the mercy of those who control technical inventions of marvelous ingenuity. These men, as is humanly inevitable,tend to regard the modern triumphs of technique as ends in themselves and to deplore anything that would divert technical skill into less dangerous channels. While the tension between East and West persists, those who have technical control are thought to be the guardians of our safety,whereas,in fact, they are the exact reverse. They will not be felt to be a danger until the feelings of East and West towards each other have grown less suspicious and less filled with fear. The dangerous state of the world is caused, I repeat,by the dangerous passions of ordinary men and women,which have been inflamed by unwise propaganda on both sides. It is these wide spread passions that must be assuaged if we are to be no longer exposed to the imminent risk of total annihilation.
If the governments of East and West were at last persuaded that the safety of each demands successful negotiations, many things would quickly become possible. I should put first the total abolition of nuclear weapons under a system of inspection conducted by neutrals,for,until this is achieved,the present state of popular terror on both sides is difficult to mitigate If this had been achieved,I should invite the conciliation Committee to approach both sides with a view to finding acceptable solutions of difficult problems such as that or Germany and Berlin.Such solutions should not alter the balance of power between East and West,and should be such as each side could accept without loss of face,for,if these conditions are not fulfilled,there will be little hope of both sides accepting the suggested solutions. The Conciliation Committee should have only an advisory capacity,but it may be hoped that it would in time acquire such moral authority as would make resistance to its proposed solutions difficult. If it achieved success and had been appointed by the United Nations,the United Nations should take up its work and might lead the way to the creation of a real World Government endowed with the only powerful armed forces in the world. In any case,only a World Government affords a long term hope of the survival of the human race. In the present temper of the Great Powers, World Government is not possible,but for all friends of Man it must remain the goal towards which our efforts should tend.