EINSTEIN, Albert. Typed letter signed ("A. Einstein") TO PRESIDENT FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT, Peconic, Long Island, 2 August 1939, 1½ pages, 4to (10 7/8 by 8½ in.), on one side each of two sheets of typewriter bond paper, tiny punctures in upper right corners from stapling faint penciled note by Leo Szilard at top: "Original, not sent!"
EINSTEIN, Albert. Typed letter signed ("A. Einstein") TO PRESIDENT FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT, Peconic, Long Island, 2 August 1939, 1½ pages, 4to (10 7/8 by 8½ in.), on one side each of two sheets of typewriter bond paper, tiny punctures in upper right corners from stapling faint penciled note by Leo Szilard at top: "Original, not sent!"

EINSTEIN, Albert. Typed letter signed ("A. Einstein") TO PRESIDENT FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT, Peconic, Long Island, 2 August 1939, 1½ pages, 4to (10 7/8 by 8½ in.), on one side each of two sheets of typewriter bond paper, tiny punctures in upper right corners from stapling faint penciled note by Leo Szilard at top: "Original, not sent!"

EINSTEIN, Albert. Autograph letter signed ("A. Einstein") to Dr. Leo Szilard (1898-1964), n.p. [Peconic, Long Island], n.d. [probably 9 August 1939], ½ page, 4to, expertly matted with the above and framed with a photographic portrait of Einstein, after Karsh. For text see below.


The atomic bomb, tested successfully at Alamogordo, New Mexico on 15 July 1945 and first used in warfare with chilling and awesome destructive effects less than a month later at Hiroshima (6 August), was the culmination of a massive and prolonged secret research project involving hundreds of American, British and European refugee scientists engineers and technicians. Its achievement decisively split human history into pre-atomic and atomic eras. The Manhattan Project was itself the outgrowth of a committee convened at the order of the President Roosevelt in October 1939. Roosevelt's historic and momentous initiative was itself a direct response to a remarkable letter from the world's foremost theoretical physicist and an avowed pacifist; a man who, at that time, seemed a virtual personification of modern science: Albert Einstein. This, the alternate version of this fateful letter, reads in full:

INDENT THIS TEXT IN BOLD "Recent work in nuclear physics made it probable that uranium may be turned into a new and important source of energy. New Experiments performed by E. Fermi and L. Szilard, which have been communicated to me in manuscript, make it now appear likely that it will be possible to set up a chain reaction in a large mass of uranium and thereby to liberate considerable quantities of energy. Less certain, but to be kept in mind, is the possibility of making use of such chain reactions for the construction of extremely powerful bombs. Such bombs may be too heavy for transportation by air plane, but not too heavy for being carried by boat, and a single bomb exploded in a port might very well destroy the port together with the surrounding territory."

"This being the situation, you may find it desirable that some contact be established between the Administration and the group of physicists who are working in this country on the subject of chain reactions. One possible way of achieving this would be for you to entrust a person who has your confidence, and who could perhaps act in an inofficial capacity, with this task. I understand that Germany has stopped the sale of uranium. That she should have taken such early action might perhaps be understood on the ground that the son of the German Under-Secretary of State, von Weizdcker, is attached to the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institut in Berlin where some of the American work on uranium is now being repeated. The United States has only poor ores of uranium. Better ores in moderate quantities are mined in the former Czechoslovakia and in Canada, while the most important source of uranium is Belgian Congo."

The impulse which led to the letter originated not with Einstein but with the Hungarian-born physicist Leo Szilard, a former student of Einstein's, who, like Fermi, Teller, Einstein and a host of other European scientists and researchers, had been driven from his homeland to the United States by the threat of Hitler's European aggression and persecution. In fact, the collaboration of Einstein and Szilard, motivated by their fears of German war preparations and nuclear research, generated not one, but two nearly identical letters: both composed at the same time, both typed on the same typewriter and finally, both signed with the same pen by Einstein. One of the two, longer by a few sentences, was delivered to the President. That version--arguably the most influential single letter of the twentieth century, its text quoted in many histories and biographies--has rested, since 1945, in the permanent collections of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library at Hyde Park, New York. The other, alternate version of that historic communication, retained by Szilard, is offered here, together with Einstein's handwritten letter transmitting both letters to Szilard. (A good account of the letter is Robert E. Lapp, "The Einstein Letter that Started It All," New York Times Magazine, 2 August 1964, pp. 13ff.).

Szilard, who has been justly termed "the prophet of the nuclear age" and "the father of the bomb" had taken out a patent in England as early as 1934 outlining the process by which a chain reaction might be created and controlled experimentally. But it remained a purely theoretical construct, though, until German scientists at the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institut in Berlin, accidentally chanced upon an isotope of uranium, U235, the only naturally occurring element whose special atomic structure rendered it fissionable. News of the splitting of the atom was communicated to Szilard and other American physicists through Neils Bohr of Denmark on a visit to the United States in January 1939. Within a few weeks, the German experiments had been confirmed and duplicated by several researchers in different laboratories: Joliet-Curie in Paris, Szilard and Pegram at Columbia University and Enrico Fermi at Princeton. The sinister military implications of the liberation of the atom's energy were not lost on these men, and in Leo Szilard's mind, the possibility of the Nazi regime developing and perfecting such a weapon constituted a harrowing and frightful threat to the free world.

Szilard enlisted Columbia physicist Enrico Fermi (1901-1954), winner of the 1938 Nobel Prize in physics for the discovery of the neutron-induced nuclear reaction, and, at Szilard's urging, Fermi approached officials in the Office of the Naval Operations in Washington in March 1939. The results were profoundly disappointing: the committee showed virtually no interest in the military possibilities of uranium. In the meantime, Hitler had seized Czechoslovakia, gaining control of some of the world's only active uranium mines, and had immediately placed an embargo on uranium ore, powerfully signaling that Germany might already be planning to build, and use, an atomic weapon. Next, Szilard approached Princeton physicist, Eugene Wigner, and the two discussed ways to prevent German access to the other main source of uranium, the mines in the Congo controlled by Belgium. As Szilard has recounted:

"...It occured to me that Einstein knew quite well the Queen of Belgium, and so I suggested [to Wigner] that we visit Einstein, tell him about the situation, and ask him whether he might not write to the Queen. We knew that Einstein was somewhere out on Long Island, but we didn't know precisely where, so I phoned the Princeton office and was told he was staying at Dr. Moore's cabin at Peconic, Long Island. Wigner had a car and we drove out to Peconic and tried to find Dr. Moore's cabin." (S.R. Weart and G.W. Szilard, eds. Leo Szilard: His Version of the Facts, Cambridge [Mass.], 1968, pp. 82-83).

Einstein was briefed by the two physicists at a wooden table on the cabin's screen porch. He was immediately receptive to their plan regarding Belgian uranium, but suggested a letter to a Belgian cabinet minister. It was also agreed a copy would be sent to the American State Department. Returning to New York, Szilard typed out a draft letter and mailed a copy to Einstein. In the meantime, Szilard conferred with Dr. Alexander Sachs of the Lehmann Corporation, an influential economist who had earlier worked for Roosevelt in the National Recovery Organization. "Sachs proposed that Einstein write another letter. The subject was far too important for any government department. Sachs would deliver the message personally to President Franklin D. Roosevelt...Delighted to agree that only the White House could help him, Szilard drafted a letter to Roosevelt, mailed it to Einstein, and asked for comments over the telephone. Einstein preferred another meeting" (Peter Wyden, Day One: Before Hiroshima and After, New York, 1985, p. 33).

This time, Szilard recruited Edward Teller of George Washington University, another expatriate Hungarian physicist, to drive him to Einstein's retreat in Peconic. Einstein, wearing slippers and an old robe, served them tea. In Szilard's words: "Einstein dictated a letter in German which Teller took down, and I used this German text as a guide in preparing two drafts of a letter to the President, a shorter one and a longer one, and left it up to Einstein to choose which he liked best. I wondered how many words we could expect the President to read. How many words does the fission of uranium rate?" (Weart & Szilard, p.84).

The two letters were sent to Einstein for his final approval and signing. (Szilard at this time also relayed a suggestion made by Sachs that perhaps the aviator Charles Lindbergh or Bernard Baruch might be an even better emissary to deliver the letter). The version in the Roosevelt papers consists of 45 lines; this Szilard version is a more condensed 25 lines. The opening text regarding Fermi and Szilard's work and the possibility of building a bomb is broken into four short paragraphs in the Hyde Park version, rather than the single large paragraph of the shorter draft. The term "nuclear physics" in the first line of the Szilard version is absent in the longer letter, but it adds a mention of "new quantities of new radium-like elements." Both letters contain nearly identical paragraphs describing the world sources for uranium ore and the German embargo of Czechoslovakian ore, but the position of the two is interchanged. The shorter letter does not include the suggestion that a liaison person help secure a supply of ore for the U.S.A. and that private funding and industrial cooperation be sought. Where the Hyde Park draft speaks of establishing "some permanent contact" between government and physicists, the Szilard draft adopts the wording "some contact" (Weart & Szilard, pp. 94-96).

Einstein signed both letters, "his signature reflecting the old man's legendary modesty; it was barely larger than the typing" (Wyden, p.35), and returned then to Szilard with a letter of transmittal in German (included here) which reads: "I have just signed both letters but would give preference to the more detailed one. I also attach an introduction to Lindbergh. I now hope that you will finally conquer your inner resistance ["widerstand"]; it is always dubious ["bedenklich"] when one wants to accomplish something too cleverly." Szilard acknowledged Einstein's letter on 9 August and wrote to Lindbergh. In the end the approach to Lindbergh came to naught: he maintained later that he had not received such a letter. On 15 August, Szilard mailed Sachs the longer of the two letters to Roosevelt. Sachs chose not to contact Roosevelt immediately, and on 1 September Hitler's armies invaded Poland; matters concerning the European war filled the President's schedule. It was not until 11 October that Sachs was finally ushered into the President's White House study, carrying Einstein's letter and a quantity of technical reports and papers supplied by Szilard. At their first meeting on the subject, Roosevelt seemed distracted and Sachs was unable to communicate the depth of the scientists' concern. At a second meeting the following morning, Sachs began with a long parable concerning Napoleon Bonaparte's lack of interest in Fulton's steamboat, whose invention might have enabled him to invade England. "Alex," Roosevelt interrupted, "what you are after is to see that the Nazis don't blow us up." He called in his secretary, Brigadier General Edwin M. ("Pa") Watson, handed him the papers and said "Pa, this requires action." "Sachs left the room with Watson and by evening the Briggs Committee had been set up, a small group of men presided over by Dr. Lyman J. Briggs, director of the U.S. Bureau of Standards, charged with investigating the potentialities of nuclear fission" (Ronald W. Clark, Einstein: The Life and Times, New York, 1984, p. 677).

It is highly ironic that, despite his crucial role as a catalyst in initiating the research which led to the development of the atomic bomb, Einstein came to bitterly regret his involvement. In 1950, to A.J. Muste, he wrote that his only contribution to the project had been "a letter to Roosevelt" (Clark, p. 694). Einstein was never informed, officially or even unofficially, of the progress of the secret project on which so many of his scientific colleagues would be engaged for the next five years. On 6 August 1945, while vacationing at Lake Saranac, the author of the Theory of Relativity overheard a radio announcement of the destruction of Hiroshima: the horrific, spectacular proof of his 1905 equation of equivalence: E = mc2. When asked by a reporter for his opinion on the bomb, Einstein remarked "The world is not ready for it." Late in life, he confided to Linus Pauling that "I made one great mistake in my life--when I signed a letter to President Roosevelt recommending that atom bombs be made" (Clark, p.672).

1. Leo S. Szilard (1898-1964)
2. Gertrude Weiss Szilard, wife of the preceding
3. A relative of the above
4. Anonymous owner (sale, Christie's, 19 December 1986, lot 68).
5. Malcolm S. Forbes.


View All
View All