Einstein and Oppenheimer/Wikimedia Commons

The invention that won America the World war

As Einstein put it, “I know not what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”

It was October 11, 1939 and Alexander Sachs knew that it was his turn to enter the President’s office. He was allotted a brief amount of time to meet the President. But what Sachs had in mind to say was no ordinary matter – the World War had begun, with the German invasion of Poland just over a month ago. Franklin D Roosevelt was on an absolutely busy schedule. But this was the only time Sachs was going to get – to alert and advise the President of the United States of a possible nuclear attack from Germany.

As Einstein put it, “I know not what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”  

Just over a month ago Sachs was contacted by Leo Szilard, an American-Hungarian physicist.  He discussed potential application of element uranium, to sustain a nuclear chain reaction, creating vast amounts of energy that could even level whole cities.

Szilard discussed with Albert Einstein the potential use of such nuclear weapons by Germany

Szilard discussed with Albert Einstein the potential use of such nuclear weapons by Germany. Einstein signed a letter drafted by Szilard and requested Sachs to read it out to the President, primarily because of Sachs’ closeness to President Roosevelt and the fact that he would get clearance immediately. Sachs agreed to deliver the message, added with his own summary of the consequences of nuclear technology.

Franklin D Roosevelt. Image: Wikimedia Commons

In the limited time he conversed with Roosevelt, Sachs was unsure whether he struck a chord with the President over the potential use of nuclear energy as a weapon of mass destruction. Additionally, Sachs mentioned the German move to bar the sales of uranium ore from neighboring Czechoslovakia, and linked it to a possible sign of development in their nuclear ambition.

Sachs remembered Napoleon’s rejection of an offer from Robert Fulton during the Napoleonic Wars to create steamships that could invade England directly. However, Napoleon thought ships without sails could never be created. This shortsightedness led the British to invent and use steamships to defeat the French in the end of the war

Nevertheless, Roosevelt invited Sachs again for breakfast the next day at the White House. Sachs paced about his hotel room that night, and even strolled out to meditate, as he planned how to present his argument.

Later that morning over breakfast, Sachs, in his moment of inspiration, remembered Napoleon’s rejection of an offer from Robert Fulton during the Napoleonic Wars (1800-1815) to create steamships that could invade England directly. However, Napoleon thought ships without sails could never be created. This shortsightedness led the British to invent and use steamships to defeat the French in the end of the war.

Roosevelt realized the potential threat the German possession of these nuclear weapons would pose, and was famous to have told his aide, General Edwin “Pa” Watson, immediately “Pa, this needs action!”

Roosevelt had set up the Uranium Committee to research the potential application of uranium to build nuclear weapons. However, the Committee barely scratched the surface for over 2 years, since the US was not at war yet. It was only in December 1941, that the US put effort into the nuclear weapons program. However, concluding that it would take a huge load of a thousand tons to detonate these devices slowed down progress. But the breakthrough arrived, when their British allies, as part of their own MAUD Committee (similarly researching the feasibility of nuclear weapons) discovered the “critical mass” of uranium-235 (the isotope used in nuclear fission chain reactions) is barely 10 kg.

Robert Oppenheimer, who led the nuclear program remarked at the end of the Trinity test, “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds,” a quotation from the Bhagavad Gita

It was an important revelation and the subsequent Quebec Agreement, between the British and the US governments (signed by Winston Churchill and Frank Roosevelt), sealed their special relationship in transferring and cooperating nuclear energies and technologies. And hence the British nuclear program (a.k.a. Tube Alloys), was merged with the US nuclear program (a.k.a. Manhattan Project).

The project progressed over the next 27 months, culminating at the deserts of Jornada del Muerdo, in the state of New Mexico – with the detonation of the first nuclear device – the “Gadget” as part of Trinity (code name for the test). Robert Oppenheimer, who led the nuclear program remarked at the end of the Trinity test, “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds,” a quotation from the Bhagavad Gita.

Credit:Wikimedia Commons

It later dawned on the US in 1945, that the Germans did not possess a nuclear weapon, or did not try to build one – although they had a division researching uranium during the war. With imminent German defeat, the use of a nuclear weapon against them was now unjustified. However, the Japanese became the natural target as they were the only functioning adversary.

It dawned to Leo Szilard that the US may consider using the bomb, especially after the unsuccessful conclusion to the Postdam Conference, where they discussed a policy to coerce the Japanese into surrendering unconditionally.

Before Szilard’s new letter arrived at the White House, asking then President Harry Truman to reconsider the use of nuclear weapons in war, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were both destroyed in nuclear strikes, forcing the Japanese to surrender a week later, thus ending the World War.

The creation of the atomic bomb heightened the consequences of war

The use of the bomb has rather been controversial. On one side, people doubted the indiscretion displayed by Truman, calling the killings of thousands of civilians as a war crime. However, Truman said he was convinced that if he did not order the attack, the Japanese would have never surrendered and prolonged the war, adding more death, destruction and misery.

Albert Einstein. Image credit: Pixabay

The creation of the atomic bomb heightened the consequences of war. After the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan and North Korea created their own nuclear weapons – some of them thousands of times more powerful than the bomb detonated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the world has realized largely that another World War would end in mutual destruction.

As Einstein put it, “I know not what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”  

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