Famous Letters from World War II: Einstein’s Letter to Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Famous Letters from World War II: Einstein's Letter to Franklin Delano Roosevelt
source: atomicheritage.org

In August 1939, Einstein wrote a letter to Franklin Delano Roosevelt about what a bomb could do if it had the right configuration. Two months later, Alexander Sachs would sit down with FDR to talk about the letter and what its findings could mean to the US. Of all the famous letters in the world, this one might have had the biggest implications not just for America, but for the world at large.

Recent Research Suggests…

The letter was pretty cut-and-dry, and fills Roosevelt in on how fission chain reactions could produce an inordinate amount of power. With enough uranium, scientists could conceivably create an extremely powerful bomb. Einstein’s letter was largely spurred by the belief that Germans were already completing the same research, and he didn’t want the country to be caught unawares in the event the Germans found a way to put their findings into action.

Sachs was the one to boil down Einstein’s letter to its salient points, and at first, the President was largely concerned over how much money it would cost to fund the research. While noncommittal at first, though, FDR needed only sleep on it before he recognized just how critical it could be for the US to explore how atomic energy could be used in a real-world setting.

Einstein’s Work in the 1930s

Einstein was working with European scientists at the time he wrote the letter, including the Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard. This immigrant had left his homeland in the 1930s when Fascism showed no signs of slowing down. Szilard was extremely vocal about developing these bombs and he was emboldened by how the newest experiments proved that physics and chemistry could converge to make the most of the Earth’s available energy sources.

Those who worked with Einstein believed it was the group’s responsibility to at least provide leaders like FDR with the information, so they could make stronger decisions about how to move forward. It was a real possibility that the Germans would develop the bomb first. Should they do so, Hitler wouldn’t hesitate to use it as a weapon in his efforts to take over the world.

The Call to Action

Considering the gravity of what Einstein had to say, it was understandable for physicists to misinterpret Roosevelt’s silence in the months that followed. The fact that he didn’t respond until October was due to Roosevelt’s preoccupation with what was happening in Europe, though, as opposed to disinterest in the developments. Roosevelt wrote back to Einstein in October to update him about a newly formed committee (made up of both civilians and military representatives).

Thanks to his (somewhat stalled) action, the committee was the catalyst that would eventually lead to the Manhattan Project. FDR ultimately agreed with the physicists that the Germans should not have unilateral control over atomic power, particularly not as Hitler continued to successfully rally his forces. It was a good thing that he made the move when he did. Given the complexity of atomic power, there would be several stages before scientists could even make the tentative decision to build the bomb.

Famous Letters of History: The Scientific Contribution

When we think of famous letters from this time period, we might not think about Einstein’s plea to Roosevelt. However, it’s clear that the two typed pages had a profound impact on human history. While atomic power was certainly not the only factor in the end of World War II, it’s often credited as the final nail in the coffin.