Nehru's Word: The atom bomb’s threat to humanity

"When you fight a war, you fight it to attain certain objectives. Victory is not the objective but a step, the removal of an obstruction, so that you may attain the objective."

India's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru
India's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru
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Jawaharlal Nehru

Israel’s refusal to heed counsel from across the world to halt hostilities against Palestinians and the unwillingness of powerful countries to exert sufficient pressure to stop the genocide reveals how far we are from achieving a peaceful world. Jawaharlal Nehru was deeply concerned about the way the world, even after the intense suffering caused by two World Wars, kept getting sucked into war-like situations. In this third and final part of his speech to the University of Chicago in 1949, he highlights the implications of the atom bomb for world peace and wonders how far the Gandhian technique is applicable. 

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In the present-day world, people talk of the atom bomb and are afraid of all the possible consequences which the present generation might have to face. It is a very extraordinary situation, because one may say that science and the application of science have developed so much that it should be easily possible for the whole world to satisfy not only the primary needs of humanity but other needs also, and have full opportunities for individual or group development without conflict.

I think that it can be mathematically shown that it is possible for the whole world to prosper if the resources of the world were turned in the direction of the betterment of humanity instead of being wasted on war and the preparation for war. For the first time in history, mankind has the key to its happiness in its own hands.  

If this problem had arisen two or three hundred years ago, it would, perhaps, have been difficult to solve, because all mankind could not prosper together at that time. And yet, just when we can solve a problem which has affected the world through ages past, we—so to speak, by our own volition—raise this new problem which may be exemplified today by the atom bomb.

Of course, the atom bomb is only a symbol of other things. We live in fear of it all the time, not knowing when sudden disaster may descend upon us. I am not terribly afraid of it because I do not think that there is much likelihood of that disaster descending upon us in the near future or for some years to come.

I hope that if these years are properly utilised, it will never come, provided we work to that end consciously and also provided we are not terribly afraid. The real danger of the situation is fear and the wrong steps that might be taken because of fear.

We have got into a vicious circle. I am quite certain that in the world today there are very few persons who can conceivably think of war, and that in every country, a vast number of people, almost everyone, desires peace. And yet, in spite of that, there must be something wrong with our thinking or with our actions.


Why should we be caught in this web? We may say, of course, that it is not our fault; it is other people’s fault. And it is, doubtless, true. Nevertheless, there is something wrong about our getting caught in that dilemma. Gandhi always told us that you have no business to blame the British for the failures in your national movement as the failures lay in what you tried to do.

Of course, the British government would try to check you—that was their function. So long as they do not agree and so long as the whole question is not settled, they will check you. So, what is the good of blaming them because they check and defeat you? It shows your failure. It is always your failure if you do not succeed, not the Britishers’ failure. It is not much good our blaming others.

Others, no doubt, are to blame. That is not the point. But we should find a way out and not depend upon the goodwill or the ill will of others, for then we become dependent on what others do in regard to war and peace.

I have obviously no magical formula to offer anybody in regard to this dilemma, which is a very difficult one for a politician, because any person with responsibility cannot afford to risk his country. He has to prepare for every eventuality. He has to prepare against any possible aggression. He cannot, humanity being what it is, just take up the line of complete passive resistance and say that we shall do nothing and hope that nobody else will do anything.

He cannot take any risk and he has to be ready for every possible contingency. On the other hand, the very act of that preparation sometimes goes so far as to bring a possible conflict nearer, and it is obvious that a conflict, if it comes on a world scale, is likely to be a disaster of unparalleled magnitude.

Nobody knows exactly what will happen but one thing is dead certain— that the modern world, as it functions today, and modern civilisation as it is, will hardly survive. If that is so—and we must realise that that is likely to happen—then it is not merely a question of victory and defeat. Of course, victory is always desirable so that we may do what we want to do. But the question is a much deeper one—that of achieving certain objectives you aim at.

When you fight a war, you fight it to attain certain objectives. Victory is not the objective but a step, the removal of an obstruction, so that you may attain the objective. If you forget that objective, then the victory you gain becomes a hollow victory. It is some relief, no doubt, but you have not gained the objective.

Hence, the last two wars, which have seen tremendous victories in the military sense, have somehow not relieved the tensions of the world. Perhaps, in this context, it is worthwhile thinking how far the Gandhian technique is applicable.

I do not know how far it is applicable practically, because there are innumerable difficulties, but I do think that whether or not it is practically applicable, in our mental and psychological life, it may help us a great deal.

(Selected and edited by MRIDULA MUKHERJEE, former professor of history at JNU and former director of Nehru Memorial Museum & Library)

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