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Einstein to Roosevelt, August 2, 1939

[LEO SZILARD] In the summer of 1939, six months after the discovery of uranium fission, American newspapers and magazines openly discussed the prospect of atomic energy. However, most American physicists doubted that atomic energy or atomic bombs were realistic possibilities. No official U.S. atomic energy project existed.

Leo Szilard was profoundly disturbed by the lack of American action. If atomic bombs were possible, as he believed they were, Nazi Germany might gain an unbeatable lead in developing them. It was especially troubling that Germany had stopped the sale of uranium ore from occupied Czechoslovakia.

Unable to find official support, and unable to convince Enrico Fermi of the need to continue experiments, Szilard turned to his old friend Albert Einstein... [continued below]

[IMAGE OF EINSTEIN LETTER - PAGE 1]

[IMAGE OF EINSTEIN LETTER - PAGE 2]
Szilard photo and Einstein letter courtesy Argonne National Laboratory

Einstein was enjoying a sailing vacation in Peconic on the northern tip of Long Island, New York. On or about July 12, Szilard and fellow Hungarian physicist Eugene Wigner made the short drive from Manhattan in Wigner's car. Einstein, true to his simple tastes, greeted his visitors wearing an undershirt and rumpled, rolled-up pants. He showed them to his cabin's large, screened-in porch.

Szilard explained the state of international research on uranium and the evidence that a bomb might be possible. Given the seriousness of the situation, Szilard's request was quite modest. He asked if Einstein would warn the Belgian Queen Mother, whom he knew, to prevent the large stockpile of uranium ore in the Belgian Congo from falling into Nazi hands. Einstein agreed to the idea, but he preferred to write to another friend, the Belgian ambassador. Einstein dictated a letter in German, which Wigner took down.

Within days, however, the plan became much more far-reaching when Szilard discussed the matter with economist Alexander Sachs. Sachs, who was an unofficial adviser to President Franklin Roosevelt, urged that Einstein should write directly to the President. If Einstein wrote such a letter, Sachs promised to deliver it to the President personally.

If they could gain the ear of the President, the Belgian uranium ore became a minor issue. Szilard produced a four-page draft letter, which he mailed to Einstein on July 19. By telephone, Einstein asked to discuss it with Szilard in person.

In the last days of July, Szilard returned to Einstein's vacation cabin. Because Wigner was out of town, Hungarian physicist Edward Teller acted as Szilard's chauffeur. Einstein again greeted his guests informally, wearing old clothes and slippers. He served them tea on the shady porch while they discussed the new approach.

Einstein was willing to write to the President. As a life-long pacifist, he opposed the making of weapons, but he could not allow the Nazis sole possession of such destructive power. His only objection was that Szilard's letter was long and somewhat awkward. He preferred a shorter message stressing the main points. Einstein dictated a short draft in German which Szilard took down.

Over the next few days, Szilard translated Einstein's dictation, going through draft after draft. In the end, he prepared both a short and a long version. On August 2, he mailed them to Einstein. Einstein returned both versions signed, but he expressed a preference for the longer version. This was the version, dated August 2, that Szilard gave to Sachs for delivery to the President.

Einstein's letter did not reach the President quickly, however, nor did it have much effect. On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland and World War II began. Sachs finally met with the President on October 11 and presented Einstein's letter. The President appointed a "Uranium Committee," but it approved only $6,000 to buy graphite and uranium for experiments Szilard proposed.

For the next two years, official skepticism continued to stall U.S. research efforts. A large-scale U.S. atomic project did not begin until December 6, 1941, one day before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. It became the "Manhattan" Project in August 1942.

Copyright 1996-1998 Gene Dannen


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Created: May 12, 1996 Last modified: July 26, 1998
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Gene Dannen / gene@dannen.com