Einstein's Letter to Roosevelt, 1939
A two-page letter from a great mind to a great leader to warn of a growing nuclear threat from Germany’s Third Reich.
What was the last real letter you wrote, or received for that matter? I get lots of things in the mail, much of which one could politely call “junk:” flyers, credit card offers, those annoying big political postcards around election time, along with the bills and, once in a great while, an actual letter. Overall, as the doggedly earnest Postal Service commercials betray, the mail ain’t what it used to be. Statistics go back a couple of centuries; the number of items handled peaked in 2000 at 207 billion and by 2012 it was back down to 159, only 68 of which were first-class mail, roughly the same number as 1984. If you add it all up, something around 9 trillion pieces of mail have been handled in the US since 1789.
Of that staggering mass of letters that have been written, sent, read, ignored, lost, treasured, one— that didn’t even get mailed—went from one of the greatest minds of the 20th century to one of its greatest political leaders, politely and reservedly calling his attention to a situation of some concern that wound up putting us all under a cloud we may never emerge from.
I’m Joe Janes of the University of Washington Information School. It all started with the Queen Mother of Belgium. Sort of. In the summer of 1939, the Hungarian physicist Leó Szilárd is growing increasingly concerned about the possibility of the use of newly-discovered atomic fission to make bombs, particularly by increasingly belligerent Germany. He’s also worried because Germany has stopped exporting uranium ore from newly-occupied Czechoslovakia. He tries to figure out how to get somebody to raise the alarm—and who better than Albert Einstein, who was enjoying a sailing vacation. The story is repeatedly told of Szilárd and another colleague driving around Long Island without knowing quite where Einstein was living, about to give up, until they asked a kid on the street who led them right to the world famous Nobel laureate, father of relativity, in a t shirt and grubby pants.
As they talked, the question got around to who to contact. Another major source of uranium was in the Congo, then a colony of Belgium which was itself in jeopardy of further invasion by the Nazis, so perhaps their foreign minister or ambassador would do. Or the queen mother, who Einstein knew and had a correspondence with. A moment’s reflection led them away from writing to foreign governments on the eve of war, so they turned their minds toward Roosevelt. Szilárd composed a 4-page draft which Einstein thought too long; he dictated a shorter alternative in German and around they went through several drafts until finally agreeing on a 2 page version, dated August 2nd.
The letter itself is unremarkable; typed and double-spaced, it starts like a scientific paper, and the tone is detached, unemotional, even understated in parts. The word “bombs” doesn’t appear until the third paragraph, and only on the second page do we get “you may think it desirable to have some permanent contact [with]...physicists working on chain reactions in America.” Today, one might expect something more like “OMG Hitler’s gonna nuke us.” The typist hired by Szilárd to take his dictation recalled later she was convinced she was working for a nut. Roosevelt replied with a brief note of his own, just a few paragraphs.
But how does one get a letter to the President? Charles Lindbergh was briefly considered as a conduit and was actually contacted, though he never responded and was likely a crypto-Fascist anyway. Alexander Sachs, an economist at Lehman Brothers and unofficial Roosevelt adviser, offered to hand deliver it. That was all very fine and wonderful, except he couldn’t get in; his reputation as a talker led FDR’s staff to keep him at arms’ length to save the President’s time, frustrating everybody. Finally, on October 11, over a month after the invasion of Poland, Sachs gets an appointment and reads the letter out loud, to which Roosevelt drolly replies, “Alex, what you are after is to see that the Nazis don’t blow us up.” He forms a committee, things move slowly, Einstein writes a second letter to prod things along, J. Edgar Hoover gets involved to blackball Einstein from participating in what would become the Manhattan Project in 1941 because he’s a pacifist and it’s all just too dreary.
Einstein wrote 4 letters in all, the last of which in 1945 urged FDR to meet with scientists to discuss the implications of the atomic bomb and its potential internationalization—it was found on Roosevelt’s desk, unread, when he died that April.
There’s evidence that letters are one of the earliest forms of writing; many scholar believe that administrative and business records came first but that letters both personal and diplomatic were commonplace about 4,000 years ago, as were relay and messenger systems for delivery. The Romans even had postal inspectors. There’s a whole story to be told—another time—about postal services; my favorite part of that is that the only really efficient, well-managed, and profitable aspect of the Confederate government was their post office.
Back in the day, official written texts were often read aloud; after all, writing can be forged and perhaps the receiver couldn’t read. It’s possible that some conventions of letters—the greetings, the sincerely-yours close, emerge from that tradition. Letters also formed the foundations of other written forms such as newspaper and scholarly journal articles, passports, bank notes, and of course many books of the bible are epistolary.
They’re generally personal, or at least 1-to-1; perhaps that’s why there’s no suggestion Einstein and his colleagues considered any other method of communication than a business letter rather than a memo or technical report. That’s just one of many forms or genres of letters—a 1945 handbook describes letters of condolence, introduction, recommendation, invitation, and apology among others and further suggests that effective letters should be brief, neat, attractive, well worded and opportunely timed. There’s also open letters, intended to be public, chain letters, hate mail, form letters, love letters. In all cases, these are forms deeply embedded in social practice, which also affect how letters are written and sent—think of the different kinds of paper, tone, vocabulary used for different genres, for example. No doubt digital message-sending will continue to specialize as time and experience go on as well, though it’s difficult to imagine this kind of rich variety and complexity evolving for texts or emails.
You know how the story ends—the bomb got built, the bomb got dropped. Time magazine’s cover of July 1, 1946 shows Einstein, a mushroom cloud, and the impossibly simple E=mc2 formula; he told Newsweek a year later that if he’d known Germany wouldn’t develop one of their own, “I never would have lifted a finger.” In one of those heartbreaking quirks of history, because of that single letter, Einstein, the avowed lifelong pacifist, has gotten the credit, or taken the blame, for kickstarting the atomic age. Letters, whether sealed with a kiss, or sealing one’s fate, speak to us and for us in ways no other method does.
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President (1933-1945 : Roosevelt). (1939). Letter from Albert Einstein to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, 08/02/1939. Retrieved from http://research.archives.gov/description/593374
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Retrieved June 10, 2013, from http://docs.fdrlibrary.marist.edu/psf/box5/folo64.html