The Einstein Letter and the Atomic Bomb


Simon D. Murray, MD: How did he, who was a pacifist really, get from E = mc2 to the atomic bomb? How did that happen? How did Franklin Roosevelt find out about all of that? Because I know he had regrets about that.

Frederick E. Lepore, MD: He did. He didn’t tumble to the ramifications of E = mc2. It had to be brought to his attention. I think it was Leo Szilard who was the guy who got Albert Einstein to write the letter to Roosevelt. But Szilard, who’s this brilliant Hungarian physicist, goes out to Long Island where Einstein is sailing at this point. He says that the Germans could potentially harness nuclear fission. And that was really coming into its own only in the late 1930s. He says it is conceivable—I think Einstein wrote this—that something the size of a suitcase put in a freighter in a harbor could level the harbor. I guess Szilard said this. And Einstein—I forget the German quote, but it’s in my book—says, “I never thought of that.” He didn’t think about weaponizing what was a measurement of pure nature to him.

But he was a quick learner. Szilard said, “You know this could happen. You got out of Germany in 1933, so you know what these guys are capable of.” At this point, he writes a letter to Roosevelt, and that probably did help focus Roosevelt’s administration on starting the Manhattan Project, coming up with the development of the atomic bomb. Having written that letter, though, Einstein was a person who was suspected, because of his far-flung liberal interests, he never was allowed to work on… He did some calculations for the Naval office, but they didn’t invite him down to Los Alamos to work on atomic bomb. They didn’t trust him. Herbert Hoover had a file on him as a very dangerous character, simply because he marched to his own drum beat. He was a pacifist and he did believe in a world peace organization.

Transcript edited for clarity.

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