Wednesday, August 02, 2006

August 2: Urgent Letter Day

Today is the anniversary of a letter that changed history. The letter, dated August 2, 1939, was written by physicists Albert Einstein and Leo Szilard; it was addressed to the President of the United States Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The letter's content warned the president of the Nazi's possible use of uranium for the development of atomic weapons.

The story behind this historic letter that led to the Manhattan Project, begins in Germany, which prior to 1933 was a hotbed of scientific inquiry: Germany had been awarded 99 Nobel Prizes in science compared to the United States' 6 Nobel Prizes. The rise of anti-semitism and of Aldolf Hitler, however, caused many Jewish scientists to flee Germany.

One of those who fled was physicist Leo Szilard who relocated to England. While sitting at a London traffic light in 1933 he had an epiphany: theoretically the atom could be split, creating a chain reaction of enormous power.

Szilar's idea moved from theory to fact in 1939 when German scientists successfully split an atom. The fact that German scientists now had the knowledge of the potentially destructive power of the atom in their hands alarmed Szilard.

Traditionally scientists around the world published their breakthroughs for all to see. Szilard was afraid that the German scientists were using this information to develop a bomb. His fears were heightened when Germany invaded Czechoslovakia in 1939 and stopped all exports of uranium ore from the occupied country.

He urged scientists outside of Germany to delay publication of their findings in fission-related areas, and he initiated a meeting with his former teacher Albert Einstein.

Einstein, like Szilard, was a Jew and had fled Germany during the rise of Hitler. By 1939 Einstein's theory of relativity had made him an international celebrity -- just the kind of name recognition that Szilard needed to get his alarm bell heard by world leaders.

Szilard met with Einstein in New York on July 30. Einstein dictated the letter to Szilar in German, and Szilard later translated it into a typed final draft for Einstein's signature.

The letter's opening read as follows:

Some recent work by E. Fermi and L. Szilard, which has been communicated to me in manuscript, leads me to expect that the element uranium may be turned into a new and important source of energy in the immediate future. Certain aspects of the situation which has arisen seem to call for watchfulness and if necessary, quick action on the part of the Administration. I believe therefore that it is my duty to bring to your attention the following facts and recommendations.

To see the entire letter visit

Even Einstein's signature, however, did not guarantee that the letter would get the attention it deserved. Einstein and Szilard entrusted the letter to Alexander Sachs, an unoffical advisor to F.D.R., but Roosevelt was preoccupied with the growing war in Europe and Sachs was unable to get an appointment with him until October 1939.

To persuade Roosevelt, Sachs used a historical analogy. He told Roosevelt about an American inventor who met with the French emperor during the Napoleonic Wars. The inventor offered to build a fleet of steamships that could invade England regardless of the weather. Napoleon was incredulous, unable to think beyond ships with sails. He sent the American away. The shortsightedness, arrogance, and lack of imagination of Napoleon saved England and sealed Napoleon's fate. It was a powerful analogy, and despite the fact that it took time for the Manhattan Project to get off the ground, it was the letter and Sach's persuasiveness that led to the development of the atomic bomb that Harry Truman had dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.

Ironically, near the end of the war the Allies discovered that the Germans were at least two years away from developing the bomb. Furthermore, both Szilard and Einstein objected to the United States' use of the bomb. Even though Einstein did not work directly on the Manhattan Project, he called his decision to sign the letter to President Roosevelt the "one great mistake in my life" (1).

For a more detailed account of the letter and its impact on history, read the chapter on "Einstein's Letter" in Ten Days that Unexpectedly Changed America.

Today's Challenge: Notes, Missives, and Epistles

Below are excerpts from 6 letters by famous people from Rosalie Maggio's book How They Said It:

E.B. White
Dylan Thomas
Abraham Lincoln
Groucho Marx
Samuel Johnson

See if you can guess which man wrote which letter:

1. I am, by accident, not by nature, so abominably rude and unreliable that I have to spend the best part of the first week after my regular short visits to town in writing frantic letters of apology.

2. Never come near me again! You are a faithless cur, and may the hangman take all faithless curs.

3. . . . . I had to tell someone (and it might as well be you since you're the author) how much I enjoyed "The Dud Avacado." It made me laugh, scream, and guffaw (which, incidentally, is a great name for a law firm) . . . .

4. I have been hindered from writing to you by an imagination that it was necessary to write more than I had time for . . . .

5. I am a member of a party of one, and I live in an age of fear. Nothing lately has unsettled my party and raised my fears so much as your editorial, on Thanksgiving Day, suggesting that employees should be required to state their beliefs in order to hold their jobs. . . . I can only assume that your editorial writer, in a hurry to get home for Thanksgiving, tripped over the Fifth Amendment and thought it was the office cat . . . .

6. The bearer of this is a young man who thinks he can be a lawyer. Examine him if you want to. I have done so and am satisified. He's a good deal smarter than he looks to be.

Quote of the Day: We lay aside letters never to read them again, and at last we destroy them out of discretion, and so disappears the most beautiful, the most immediate breath of life, irrecoverable for ourselves and for others. --Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Answers: 1. Dylan Thomas 2. Beethoven 3. Groucho Marx 4. Samuel Johnson 5. E.B. White 6. Abraham Lincoln

1 - Gillon, Steven M. Ten Days That Unexpectedly Changed America. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2006.

2 - Maggio, Rosalie. How They Said It: Wise and Witty Letters From the Famous and Infamous. New York: Prentice Hall, 2000.

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