Einstein’s Letters

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The Manhattan Project: the code name for the effort to develop atomic bombs for the United States during WW2. The definition of this historical project is not that difficult to come by. But what was the reason behind it? Why did the United States have a need to develop atomic bombs? The answer to these questions lies with a series of four letters written by legendary physicist Albert Einstein to President FDR between 1939 and 1945 at the request of friend/former-student Leo Szilard and fellow physicist Eugene Wigner.

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Although, this answer seems to raise a couple more questions doesn’t it? Like, why did these two young men need Einstein to write a letter to the president? Not an answer, but fun fact, FDR wasn’t going to be the recipient when these two young men came to Einstein and the story hasn’t even begun yet.

Einstein had never expected to write such a letter; it may not have been written by Einstein and Einstein alone but that’s not the point. It was perfectly natural for Szilard and Wigner to seek out the most famous scientist in the world his name would command much more respect than their own. Along with the fact that Einstein was the author of relativity theory and the equation relating mass and energy to which all atomic development could be traced and many other reasons as well, Einstein seems to be the best man to take initiative; and he was.

One day in mid-July of 1939, Szilard and Wigner came to the Long Island summer home of Albert Einstein to ask for his immediate help with a gargantuan concern. At this point in time, Germany had recently stopped the sale of uranium from mines in Czechoslovakia and to Szilard, this could only mean one thing: Nazi Germany was developing an atomic bomb. Originally, Szilard wanted Einstein to write a letter to Queen Mother Elisabeth of Belgium, seeing as the Belgian Congo was rich in uranium, and Szilard was worried that if the Germans were able to get their hands on the ore, they may have all the materials they needed to make the ultimate weapon. After Szilard expressed his concerns and explained to Einstein the theory upon which the weapon rested, Einstein was astonished but not willing to write the Queen Mother. However, hope was not lost; Wigner, after seeming to be a silent supportive figure through all this, was able to convince Einstein to write a note to one of Belgium’s cabinet members. Wigner recorded what Einstein dictated in German and the two physicians left Einstein to return to New York with the draft soon after. Although, within days of returning to New York, Szilard received a proposal from Alexander Sachs, an adviser to President FDR. Szilard asked himself if he should transmit such a letter to FDR instead. A series of drafts followed, with the final longer version being approved by Einstein, dated August 2, 1939, and signed A. Einstein before being sent off to the president. And all of this was just the beginning.

After the first letter had been sent off, Alexander Sachs comes into play again as he was the one to brief the president on the letter’s content and main points. In the beginning, the president expressed more concern over locating the necessary funds than concern for the situation itself. However, by the next meeting, FDR had come to understand the severity of the situation. The president first responded to Einstein’s first letter in October of that same year; informing the physicist that a committee consisting of civilian and military representatives had been set up with the primary purpose of to investigate the current state of research on uranium to recommend an appropriate role for the federal government. Truth be told though, events were sometimes stalled for months as decisions were delayed and deferred. During this period Szilard became so perturbed that he complained bitterly about lack of progress. Secrecy around the atomic research became so tight that he was moved to protest. Einstein did not write his second letter until March of 1940, in which he does not seem to have a growing sense of urgency with the committee or the matter at hand, but more so he just seems to inform the committee of updates on previously given information he even says should you think it advisable to relay this information to the president, please consider yourself free to do so. This quote alone signifies that Einstein’s sense of urgency did not seem to grow at least with the second letter.

Einstein’s third letter was sent the very next month in April of 1940 and you could say his sense of urgency may have grown slightly with the third letter; as he says he was convinced as to the wisdom and the urgency of creating the conditions under which that and related work can be carried out with greater speed and on a larger scale than hitherto. Einstein had obviously by the time of his third letter had grown agitated with the lack of progress the committee had made (not nearly as much as his colleague Szilard, but agitated none the less); he thought they were more than capable of attaining more progress than they have and seemed to have been subtly reminding them of the severity of the situation and saying they can and should achieve more than they had been in less time and on larger scale of progression.

By the time of the fourth letter almost five years later in March of 1945, the preferred amount of progress had still not been met. The purpose of the fourth letter was formally introducing the president to Szilard and to ask the president to hear Szilard’s views about setting policies for the A-bomb, as it had become clear several months prior in the winter of 1944, that the A-bomb would not be used against Germany because it would not be ready in time. FDR sadly never received the letter as he had passed before receiving it. The next president Harry Truman learned of the A-bomb shortly after taking office after FDR’s death. Truman had made the decision to use the bomb against Japan. Many scientists working within the secret A?project, especially men like Szilard. raised strenuous objections to such use of the weapon. They had been racing against time to beat Germany to the bomb. There was no danger of Japan making one. But the president’s mind was made, and the bomb was used on Hiroshima in early August of 1945.

News of Hiroshima broke quickly, and it was a reporter who had broken the news to Einstein. It may have not been within one of his letters, but after Hiroshima is when Einstein seemed to have been at his most urgent. Later Einstein was more voluble and expressed nothing more than regret for his first letter to FDR, saying Had I known that the Germans would not succeed in developing an atomic bomb, I would have never lifted a finger. In this both Szilard and Wigner expressed agreement. Within a year after Hiroshima, Einstein assumed an active role as spokesman for scientists who were worried about the bomb. The tragic fact is, Einstein seemed to have expressed more urgency to make sure nothing like Hiroshima happened again and more regret for it all than anything else he had felt for the project as a whole.

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