Albert Einstein/the Manhattan Project

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Historical Question: How did Albert Einstein influence the creation and evolution of the Manhattan Project and why did Einstein’s thoughts and involvement in the Manhattan Project change throughout World War II?

Albert Einstein was undoubtedly one of the geniuses of the twentieth century. His work with gravity, relativity, light, and the universe helped to herald in a golden age for the study of science, of which scientists are still marveling at and studying today. Additionally, he was well-known for his participation in the Manhattan Project and the construction of the two atomic bombs. Along with numerous other scientists such as Fermi and Szilard, Einstein came to the realization that Nazi Germany was on its way to constructing weapons with enormous amounts of energy. Einstein’s letter to President Roosevelt sparked the formation of the Manhattan Project with J. Robert Oppenheimer as the technical lead, while Einstein’s theories provided much of the basis of what was to be used in the construction of the bombs. Einstein, however, did not play an active role in the creation of the weapons. A self-declared pacifist, he quickly regretted his decision and could only watch the aftermath that ensued in Japan.

1939 was a landmark year in atomic physics, as a great migration of physicists from Europe to England and America was underway, because of the foreshadowing of another great war. Hitler’s ascension to power through cruel methods, such as the persecution of many political opponents and ethnicities, and his increase in territory only signaled that another massive war was nearly underway. These physicists brought with them not only critical scientific intelligence but also a sense of acute political emergency. Two of these physicists, Leo Szilard and Eugene Wegner drafted a letter for President Roosevelt with the help of Albert Einstein. Interestingly, Szilard and Wegner asked just Einstein to sign it, as he had many political connections and more authority because of his Nobel Prize and work with dozens of theories. As a result, “Einstein’s” letter to the president is truly the work of three men. This small, short, and seemingly over alarming letter was eventually the cause of the formation of the Manhattan Project. (Norris, 10 from USMA library website) The letter warned that, “This new phenomenon would also lead to the construction of bombs, and it is conceivable — though much less certain — that extremely powerful bombs of a new type may thus be constructed. 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.” (Einstein) Roosevelt responded to the scientists’ letter by creating the Advisory Committee of Uranium. U.S. policymakers, however, were more worried about Hitler’s invasion of Poland and so little attention shifted to the new danger. The committee was allotted only a budget of six-thousand dollars in which to begin testing with. Through the years, the field of power for the creation of the atomic bomb shifted as intelligence gathered from the Office of Strategic Services hinted that Nazi Germany was growing closer to creating an atomic bomb. Beginning with the Advisory Committee of Uranium, the project moved to the National Defense Research Committee, then the Office of Scientific Research and Development, until, finally in 1942, nearly three years after President Roosevelt read Einstein’s letter, the Manhattan Engineering District attained full control of the new, more weapons-oriented project. From this point on, the research on atomic energy gained the legendary title, the “Manhattan Project.” As mentioned before, Einstein’s involvement with the Manhattan Project was not an active role. He did not show up to Alamogordo, New Mexico, the headquarters of the Manhattan Project, everyday. Rather the decades of work that he had spent his lifetime on was the main effort behind the research and eventual...
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