Albert Einstein 370.
(photo credit: Courtesy )
On August 2, 1939, Albert Einstein signed a letter to US President Franklin D.
Roosevelt urging him to create an atomic research program. Einstein’s support
was crucial in the president’s ultimate decision to invest in a large-scale
atomic project in 1941 – ultimately named the Manhattan Project – altering the
course of diplomatic discourse and warfare forever.
Once an ardent pacifist,
Einstein had opposed the creation of such weapons, but he could not watch the
Nazis gain sole possession of such a mightily destructive power.
Thus, in the
summer of 1939, six months after the discovery of uranium fission,
Hungarian-born American physicist and inventor Leo Szilard and his fellow
physicist Eugene Wigner visited Einstein’s holiday cabin in Peconic, on the
northern tip of Long Island, New York, to implore him to write to the Belgian
queen mother to prevent the large stockpile of uranium ore in the Belgian Congo
from falling into Nazi hands.
Instead, with the encouragement of
economist and unofficial-adviser to the president Alexander Sachs, they decided
to write directly to the American Roosevelt, hoping his ear would be of more use
than that of the Belgian queen mother. The letter recommended two approaches:
first, for government departments to put forward recommendations for government
action, “giving particular attention to the problem of securing a supply of
uranium ore for the United States,” and second, to “speed up experimental work”
without the confines of university laboratory funds.
Warning Roosevelt of the
consequences of an atomic bomb, which had been dismissed as unrealistic by much
of the American physicist community, the letter dictated: “This new phenomenon
would lead to the construction of bombs, and it is conceivable – though much
less certain – that an extremely powerful bombs of a new type may thus be
constructed.” Relaying that Germany had already forbidden the sale of
Czechoslovakian uranium ore, the letter prophesized, “a single bomb of this
type…might very well destroy the whole port together with some of the
Responding four months later, the president wrote:
I want to thank you for your recent letter and the most
interesting and important enclosure. I found this data of such import that I
have convened a Board consisting of the head of the Bureau of Standards and a
chosen representative of the Army and Navy to thoroughly investigate the
possibilities of your suggestion regarding the element of uranium.
I am glad to
say that Dr. Sachs will cooperate and work with this Committee and I feel this
is the most practical and effective method of dealing with the subject.
accept my sincere thanks."
Einstein took full responsibility for the consequences
of his letter. He was quoted as saying that if he had known the fear of
Nazi Germany acquiring the bomb was not justified, he would not have
participated in “opening this Pandora’s box”, for just six short years later,
the American B-29 bomber would release the first atomic bomb to be used in
warfare in Hiroshima, Japan, causing 66,000 instantaneous deaths. Three days
later, a second bomb was to be detonated on Nagasaki, annihilating nearly half
the population of the town.
In 1954, the last year of Einstein’s life, he
admitted to an old friend, "I made one great mistake in my life—when I signed
the letter to President Roosevelt recommending that atom bombs be made; but
there was some justification—the danger that the Germans would make them."