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October 11: Einstein’s Letter to FDR

October 10, 2015

1e68dc77e0b98600b80c19d09e2cd419On this date in 1939, Alexander Sachs, an economic adviser to President Franklin Roosevelt, delivered and summarized a letter written to the president on August 2nd by Albert Einstein, in consultation with Leó Szilárd, describing the possibility of building an atomic bomb and noting that “Germany has actually stopped the sale of uranium from the Czechoslovakian mines which she [sic] has taken over.” Einstein urged FDR “to speed up the experimental work” and warned that a “single bomb of this type, carried by boat and exploded in a port, might very well destroy the whole port together with some of the surrounding territory.” In between the writing and delivery of the letter, Germany invaded Poland and World War II began in Europe. “Alex,” Roosevelt said to Sachs after grasping the contents of Einstein’s letter, “what you are after is to see that the Nazis don’t blow us up.” “Precisely,” Sachs said. FDR then set in motion a military inquiry, which eventually led to the establishment of the Manhattan Project. “Had I known that the Germans would not succeed in producing an atomic bomb,” Einstein later said, “I would have never lifted a finger.”

“Einstein wrote three more letters to President Roosevelt, with the last one being received by the White House after the President’s death on April 12th, 1945. In it, [Einstein] expressed concern that the scientists working on the Manhattan Project (Einstein was not one of them) did not have access to the policymakers in Washington. In short, he did not believe that the politicians in Washington had an appreciation of how nuclear weapons would change the world.” —Matt Datillo