The Bomb


Leo Szilard had a dream.  As a boy in Budapest, reading H.G. Wells’ novel about a nuclear war that destroys most of Europe’s cities, he concluded that the world should be governed by a group of gifted scientists.  He envisioned the development of atomic energy as both a limitless power source and a weapon that might force nations into peace.  Devoting his life to that end—living in hotels, doing his thinking in bathtubs—he hit on the idea of an atomic chain reaction, filing the patent in 1934. 

In 1939, faced with the possibility that Hitler might develop an atomic bomb, Szilard, who had fled Germany in 1933, convinced Einstein to send a letter to Roosevelt advising the president that a nuclear bomb might be possible.  In a room beneath the stadium stands at the University of Chicago, Szilard built a reactor and achieved a controlled chain reaction, proving that a bomb was feasible.  He called it “a black day in the history of mankind.” 

Shunned by the military as a suspect foreigner, he had Einstein sign a second letter to Roosevelt threatening to publish his results unless the project was funded.  Ironically, Roosevelt approved the Manhattan Project the day before Pearl Harbor.  As the project moved forward, Szilard and Einstein had a change of heart, sending a third letter to FDR pleading with him not to use the bomb.  But Roosevelt died before the letter reached him.

On July 16, 1945, the first atomic bomb was detonated on a hundred-foot tower in the New Mexico desert.  Those present described an enormous flash of light that filled the whole sky, the brightest light anyone had ever seen; and a blinding heat in the cold desert morning.  Watching in awe, project leader Robert Oppenheimer recalled a line from the Bhagavad-Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” 

On August 6th, a uranium bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.  Two days later an even more powerful plutonium bomb, dubbed “Little Boy,” was dropped on Nagasaki with an estimated 75,000 dead and 145,000 wounded.  The name seemed appropriate since a large percentage of the casualties were children.  Haunted by Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Szilard abandoned physics for biology, while Einstein regarded his role in the project as “the one great mistake of my life.”

The invention of the atomic bomb was inevitable.  The significance of Einstein’s letter lay in the timing.  Were it not written, it’s possible that nuclear weapons might have developed later without the historical precedent set at Hiroshima; though even that holds less significance now that a single individual can—and likely will—destroy some future city.  

Einstein’s letter was the first contact between science and government.  In the wake of the Manhattan Project came a new sense of the power of science, which became a Janus-faced tool of government.  The utopian face of earlier decades would now realize the dark side foreseen by Hawthorne, Mary Shelley, and the romantics.  While the utopian face would culminate in the image of man on the moon, the defining image of the dystopian face became—and may ever remain—the Bomb.


This appeared as a review of the documentary “Ten Days that Unexpectedly Changed America: Einstein’s Letter” in the Journal of American History, December 2006.

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