In an essay titled “The Future of Mankind,” British philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) laid out three possibilities: “The end of human life,” “a reversion to barbarism” or “unification of the world under a single government.” He saw the third as the only alternative to either of the first two. For better or worse, our fate would be settled, he said, “before the end of the present (20th) century” — within 50 years of the time of writing.

From his mid-20th-century perspective Russell looked back on a catastrophic world war, and forward to an accelerating nuclear arms race and an intensifying Cold War. What were the prospects, in such a climate, of “unification?” The war that had just ended offered, paradoxically, a ray of hope. Its horrors, still fresh, had surely taught us something? Applying the lessons learned, however, “would require courageous and imaginative statesmanship in a number of countries.” There, of course, was the rub.

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