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Impearls: Freeman Dyson on another War

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Earthdate 2004-07-12

Freeman Dyson on another War

Physicist Freeman Dyson, in his tremendously thought-provoking book Weapons and Hope, had this to say with regard to popular anticipations in Britain in advance of the Second World War: 1

By that time we had made our break with the establishment and we were fierce pacifists.  We saw no hope that any acceptable future would emerge from the coming war.  We had made up our minds that we would at least not be led like sheep to the slaughter as the class of 1915 had been.  Our mood was no longer tragic resignation, but anger and contempt for the older generation which had brought us into this mess.  We raged against the hypocrisy and stupidity of our elders, just as the young rebels raged in the 1960s in America, and for similar reasons.  […]

We looked around us and saw nothing but idiocy.  The great British Empire visibly crumbling, and the sooner it fell apart the better so far as we were concerned.  Millions of men unemployed, and millions of children growing up undernourished in dilapidated slums.  A king mouthing patriotic platitudes which none of us believed.  A government which had no answer to any of its problems except to rearm as rapidly as possible.  A military establishment which believed in bombing the German civilian economy as the only feasible strategy.  A clique of old men in positions of power, blindly repeating the mistakes of 1914, having learned nothing and forgotten nothing in the intervening twenty-four years.  A population of middle-aged nonentities, caring only for money and status, to stupid even to flee from the wrath to come.

We looked for one honest man among the political leaders of the world.  Chamberlain, our prime minister, we despised as a hypocrite.  Hitler was no hypocrite, but he was insane.  Nobody had any use for Stalin or Mussolini.  Winston Churchill was our archenemy, the man personally responsible for the Gallipoli campaign, in which so many of our six hundred died.  He was the incorrigible warmonger, already planning the campaigns in which we were to die.  We hated Churchill as our American successors in the 1960s hated Johnson and Nixon.  But we were lucky in 1938 to find one man whom we could follow and admire, Mahatma Gandhi.  […]

We had grand visions of the redemption of Europe by nonviolence.  The goose-stepping soldiers, marching from country to country, meeting no resistance, finding only sullen noncooperation and six-hour lectures.  The leaders of the nonviolence being shot, and others coming forward fearlessly to take their places.  The goose-stepping soldiers, sickened by the cold-blooded slaughter, one day refusing to carry out the order to shoot.  The massive disobedience of the soldiers disrupting the machinery of military occupation.  The soldiers, converted to nonviolence, returning to their own country to use on their government the tactics that we had taught them.  The final impotence of Hitler confronted with the refusal of his own soldiers to hate their enemies.  The collapse of military institutions everywhere, leading to an era of worldwide peace and sanity.  […]

[The lack of revolt by Hitler's troops from the cold-blooded slaughter of his concentration camps shows just how likely that dream was of coming true.  When the war actually began, reality turned out to be quite different from expectations…. –Imp.]

So this was the war against which we had raged with the fury of righteous adolescence.  It was all very different from what we had expected.  Our gas masks, issued to the civilian population before the war began, were gathering dust in closets.  Nobody spoke of anthrax bombs anymore.  London was being bombed, but our streets were not choked with maimed and fear-crazed refugees.  All our talk about the collapse of civilization began to seem a little irrelevant.

Mr. Churchill had now been in power for five months, and he had carried through the socialist reforms which the Labour party had failed to achieve in twenty years.  War profiteers were unmercifully taxed, unemployment disappeared, and the children of the slums were for the first time adequately fed.  It began to be difficult to despise Mr. Churchill as much as our principles demanded.

Our little band of pacifists was dwindling.  […]  Those of us who were still faithful continued to grow cabbages and boycott the OTC, but we felt less and less sure of our moral superiority.  For me the final stumbling block was the establishment of the Petain-Laval government in France.  This was in some sense a pacifist government.  It had abandoned violent resistance to Hitler and chosen the path of reconciliation.  Many of the Frenchmen who supported Petain were sincere pacifists, sharing my faith in nonviolent resistance to evil.  Unfortunately, many were not.  The worst of it was that there was no way to distinguish the sincere pacifists from the opportunists and collaborators.  Pacifism was destroyed as a moral force as soon as Laval touched it.  […]

Those of us who abandoned Gandhi and reenlisted in the OTC did not do so with any enthusiasm.  We still did not imagine that a country could fight and win a world war without destroying its soul in the process.  If anybody had told us in 1940 that England would survive six years of war against Hitler, achieve most of the political objectives for which the war had been fought, suffer only one third of the casualties we had in World War I, and finally emerge into a world in which our moral and human values were largely intact, we would have said, “No, we do not believe in fairy tales.”


1 Freeman Dyson, Weapons and Hope, 1984, Harper & Row, New York; pp. 111-113, 115-116.

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