Thursday 3 September 2015

Einstein's Letter to FDR Sparks the Manhattan Project

"In the course of the last four months, it has been made probable -- through the work of Joliet in France as well as Fermi and Szilard in America -- that it may be possible to set up a nuclear chain reaction in a large mass of uranium, by which vast amounts of power and large quantities of new radium like elements would be generated." (Albert Einstein)

It was the summer of 1939.  America seemed years away from war.  Its population was slowly coming out of the Depression and war was the last thing on its mind.  But war was brewing in Europe.  One European immigrant, with dishevelled white hair and a thick moustache, felt compelled to warn the President about a new invention, a possible weapon of war that was in the works.

Inventor Albert Einstein was lounging on his boat off of Long Island, when he was approached by fellow inventor Leo Szilard.  Szilard pleaded with Einstein to speak to government officials about the rising threat of an atomic bomb, given the recent discovery of uranium fission six months before.  Szilard had discussion the possibility of atomic energy with Alex Sachs, an unofficial adviser to President Franklin D. Roosevelt who suggested that he draft a letter to the President.

While Einstein was a life long pacifist, he agreed to help Szilard, wanting to keep such a weapon out of the hands of Nazi Germany.  Szilard wrote a four-page draft which he had Einstein proofread.  In turn, Einstein wrote a two page letter in German, which he had Szilard translate into English.  It was the second letter which Sachs delivered personally to Roosevelt on August 2, 1939.  

In the meantime, the storm clouds of war opened up over Europe that September.  Back in America that October, Sachs was given a private audience with the President.  America was still very much isolationist and had no interest in entering the Second World War.  However, Roosevelt did agree to form the Uranium Committee which was given $6,000 to research atomic energy, a drop in the bucket.  Roosevelt and his followers remained skeptical until December 6, 1941, the day before Pearl Harbor was bombed when an official atomic energy committee was set up.  It became the Manhattan Project in 1942.  

The atomic bomb, of course, was dropped on August 6, 1945 on Hiroshima, Japan, six years almost to the day after Einstein first sent his letter to President Roosevelt.  Nazi Germany never did get the atomic bomb.  Many of its great scientists, like Einstein, immigrated to America, some of whom helped with the Manhattan Project.  

Note:  For a copy of the letter, visit

einstein and roosevelt

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