Living in a nuclear age/The political wisdom of Albert Einstein
Einstein in America: The Scientist's Conscience in the Age of Hitler and Hiroshima, by Jamie Sayen. New York: Crown. 340 pp. Illustrated. $17.95. IN November 1932, the Woman Patriot Corporation, a women's group that had fought against female suffrage, warned the State Department about the impending visit of Albert Einstein, a ``German Bolshevik,'' whom they also accused of being a pacifist, an anarchist, and the exponent of a worthless but subversive ``theory of relativity.'' Einstein nonetheless arrived in America in January 1933, never to return to his native Germany. The charges by the women ``patriots,'' and others in a similar vein, would resurface during the McCarthy period in a dossier on Einstein kept by the FBI. Einstein's pacifism during World War I, his opposition to Hitler, his interest in international regulation of atomic energy in the wake of Hiroshima, and his opposition to Sen. Joseph McCarthy's tactics were considered evidence of possible anti-A merican, pro-communist sympathies.
Such hostility and willful obtuseness, whether on the part of private citizens, the press, or government agencies, is shocking -- or certainly should be. In the long run, of course, Einstein's prestige as one of the greatest minds of our time, and the fact that his name had become a byword for genius, even the aura of gentle saintliness that surrounded his image as a person, were unaffected by these attacks.
But Jamie Sayen, who has lived most of his life in Einstein's adopted ``hometown'' of Princeton, N.J., is concerned about what he judges to be the consensus on Einstein as a political thinker: noble, idealistic, but hopelessly naive. ``Einstein in America,'' Mr. Sayen's first book, is a critique of this image, an attempt to place Einstein's political views in the context of political history and to measure them with the yardstick of reality. Sayen not only proposes Einstein as a moral leader worthy of s erious consideration, a figure in the tradition of Thoreau, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr., but he also attempts to show that nearly all of Einstein's political positions were -- and still are -- correct.
In some respects, ``Einstein in America'' seems a rather transparent effort to add the luster of Einstein's name to today's peace movement by restoring his prestige as a cultural hero.
Evidence and arguments from a variety of sources have been stitched together like a patchwork quilt. But despite a certain lack of finesse, Sayen makes a number of valid and valuable points.
Because there is a tendency to regard great scientists -- or, indeed, outstanding people in any field -- as oracles of wisdom on all aspects of life, there is also a need for demythologizing cultural heroes. Ronald W. Clark's 1971 biography, ``Einstein: The Life and Times,'' was just such an attempt to give us the man, not the myth. Clark took the view that the great physicist was sometimes out of his element when it came to politics. Sayen's study offers itself as direct refutation of this view, provid ing evidence of the soundness of Einstein's ideas on such issues as Zionism, racial discrimination, relief for the refugees of Nazism, the strengths and limitations of absolute pacifism, and McCarthyism.
In defending Einstein's opposition to the cold war, Sayen argues that Einstein was not unduly naive in assuming that Stalin, however evil his domestic policies, might not have been bent on world domination. Whether or not this assessment was accurate, it was the viewpoint of a number of political experts who were no more politically naive than that consummate politician, Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Because Einstein came to America as a middle-aged man, Sayen's book concentrates on the years when he was already a public figure and when his chief scientific contributions had already been made. With the calm, almost religious devotion that had always characterized his approach to understanding the physical universe, Einstein continued throughout these years with his fruitless search for a unified field theory. It was an endeavor widely considered by the scientific community to be a waste of time, but
it was one from which he could no more desist than he could abandon his faith in the unity of the universe. To dedicate himself to solving this seemingly hopeless scientific problem was perhaps not so very different from continuing to urge and to hope for some solution to the unprecedented problems of living in a nuclear age. Einstein himself, speaking in 1918 in honor of the physicist Max Planck's 60th birthday, revealed the nature of such a commitment: ``The state of mind that enables a man to do work of
this kind is akin to that of the religious worshiper or the lover; the daily effort comes from no deliberate intention or program, but straight from the heart.''
Yet Einstein, as Sayen points out, was aware of the difference between universal principles -- whether of physics or of morality -- and of the need to take a particular stand at a particular time and place. Thus, Einstein supported Zionism, despite his general distrust of any form of nationalism. And in his hope for a binational state in Palestine, he showed both realism and morality.
Einstein demonstrated political wisdom of another kind in knowing his own limitations. He spoke out in accordance with his conscience, but considered himself totally unsuited to holding political office of any sort. His sagacity, in at least one instance, was superior to that of Sigmund Freud: While the founder of the ``reality principle'' stayed on in Vienna, convincing himself that the Nazis were not a fatal threat, the cosmicly absent-minded physicist understood the threat and departed forthwith. Whi le Freud had to be rescued, Einstein, safe in America, did all in his power to rescue others. If not an oracle, he was assuredly an honest laborer in the fields of light.