Excerpt: The Prometheus Bomb

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The following is an excerpt from The Prometheus Bomb: The Manhattan Project and Government in the Dark (Potomac Books, December 2016) by Neil J. Sullivan. Sullivan is a professor in the Austin W. Marxe School of Public and International Affairs at Baruch College–City University of New York. 

From the Introduction

E=mc2 in the hands of Adolph Hitler. In the summer of 1939, that nightmare was on the minds of two Martians as they drove through the North Fork of Long Island hoping to get the signature of the one man who might forestall catastrophe.

Leo Szilard and Edward Teller were fellow Hungarians, fellow physicists, and fellow Jews who fled Germany after they received PhDs and before the Nazi vise tightened. Both delighted in the tale that so many geniuses hailed from their native Budapest because they were descendants of visitors from the neighboring Red Planet passing among us as Magyars.1

As they raced along Route 25, Szilard and Teller knew that German scientists were among the pioneers of quantum physics, that ample quantities of fissile uranium had come under the control of the Reich, and that the combination of knowledge and material could produce a bomb that would lead to swastikas flying over the capitals of Europe.

Making a right turn onto Skunk Lane in Cutchogue, Szilard and Teller were a couple of miles from the summer residence of Albert Einstein. The drive was a return trip for Szilard, who had visited Einstein a few weeks before with Eugene Wigner, another Hungarian physicist. Szilard’s familiarity with the area meant that he and Teller would find the house on Old Grove Road without getting lost on Nassau Point, the custom for first-time visitors looking for the great man.

The purpose of the trip was to try to wrap up a letter that Szilard needed to send to somebody in authority to sound the alarm about a Nazi bomb. He realized that, if he contacted a public official directly, the reaction he could expect would be, “Who the hell is Leo Szilard?” Not only was Einstein the most famous scientist in the world, but he also knew everybody. And somewhere in his collection of admirers was the person to whom the letter should be sent.

The queen of Belgium was a possibility. Her country had colonized the Congo, where vast supplies of the crucial element uranium-235 were held, a relatively easy target for Nazi extraction. Einstein had met her, but he thought a minister in the Belgian government was a more sensible choice. Learning of that idea, Wigner countered that, with Europe on the brink of war, immigrants contacting a foreign official without going through the State Department could be hard to explain to a congressional committee.

Showing that genius has its limits, Einstein and company prepared to ask Charles Lindbergh to carry the message to Franklin Roosevelt. They soon realized that the Lone Eagle was busy crafting a national address that trumpeted the wisdom of isolationism and, unable to repress his antisemitism, hinted at the patriotic duty of the barons who controlled American media to refrain from luring the nation into war.

Alexander Sachs turned out to be their man. He knew FDR personally, having written speeches on economics for him in the 1932 campaign. Sachs determined that the letter was too important for him to limit himself to being its postman. He told Einstein and Szilard that he not only would deliver the letter himself but would explain its contents to the president, lest its message die a common bureaucratic death.

Weeks passed with no word from Sachs. What could possibly be holding up a matter of such urgency? Sachs was looking for the right moment when the president would have the time and focus to absorb the ominous news. The opportunity came finally in the middle of October. After hearing Sachs, FDR commanded, “This requires action,” setting in motion what would become the Manhattan Project.

None too soon. Six weeks before, the German army had rolled into Poland, turning a question of theoretical physics into a race for the decisive weapon of the war.

Notes:

  1. See Hargittai, Martians of Science.