On the eve of the 75th anniversary since the Allies formally accepted Nazi Germany’s surrender in World War 2 – known as Victory in Europe Day – it’s easy to forget just how close Adolf Hitler came to overtaking the world with his fascist Nazi philosophy. Today, nuclear weapons are just another part of the huge military arsenal possessed by nations across the world as a constant deterrent against military conflict, but in 1939 the idea of a nuclear bomb was alien. But, a year earlier, in December 1938, physicists Lise Meitner and Otto Frisch made the startling discovery of nuclear fusion in a Berlin laboratory that would immediately revolutionise nuclear physics and lead to the atomic bomb.
Fears among scientists who were refugees in Germany soon became heightened over the possibility of Hitler getting his hands on the breakthrough and so, in August 1939, Hungarian-born physicists Leo Szilard, Edward Teller and Eugene Wigner drafted a letter that would change the course of history.
The document read: “In the course of the last four months it has been made probable – through the work of [Frederic] Joliot in France as well as [Enrico] Fermi and [Leo] Szilard in America – that it may become possible to set up a nuclear chain reaction in a large mass of uranium, by which vast amounts of power and large quantities of new radium-like elements would be generated.
“Now it appears almost certain that this could be achieved in the immediate future.
“This new phenomenon would also lead to the construction of bombs, and it is conceivable – though much less certain – that extremely powerful bombs of a new type may thus be constructed.
Albert Einstein warned the US about atomic weapons
Tomorrow is the 75th anniversary of VE Day
“A single bomb of this type, carried by boat and exploded in a port, might very well destroy the whole port together with some of the surrounding territory.
“However, such bombs might very well prove to be too heavy for transportation by air.”
It also specifically warned about Germany.
It added: “I understand that Germany has actually stopped the sale of uranium from the Czechoslovakian mines which she has taken over.
“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 Weizsäcker, is attached to the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institut in Berlin where some of the American work on uranium is now being repeated.”
Adolf Hitler threatened to overtake the world
Speaking in the documentary “The Moment in Time” Dr Teller explained why the scientists were so concerned.
He said in 2008: “I came from Hungary in Germany, I have seen many things first-hand.
“I was dreadfully worried about my family and all my friends and I do not believe that people today realise how tremendous those dangers had been.
“Because Hitler indeed could have taken over the world, and with a hair’s breadth, he could do so.
“Those of us who came from Europe were more aware of that than our native American friends.”
The series went on to reveal how the letter was delivered to Roosevelt.
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Einstein’s letter to Roosevelt
Franklin Roosevelt acted on the letter
It explained: “It was this concern that led refugee German physicist Leo Szilard to reveal that possibility to the US government.
“Together, with Albert Einstein and Edward Teller, he composed a letter to Franklin Roosevelt, it told of a terrible possibility.
“Germany had the talent and the knowledge to research and develop an atomic weapon.
“Delivering the weapon to Roosevelt on their behalf was economist Alexander Sachs, a friend of Szilard’s and economic advisor to the President.”
The documentary detailed what happened next.
It continued: “Roosevelt said: ‘Alex what you are after is to see that the Nazi’s don’t blow us up, this requires action’.
The Manhattan Project was a success
The Big Three meeting in 1945
“Intelligence reports from Europe indicated that the Nazis were working on such a weapon, but no-one knew how much effort they were devoting to it.
“The one certainty was that if Hitler developed the bomb, he would win the war.
“The letter to Roosevelt paved the way for the creation of a top secret military project, one that would have the highest priority and tightest security.”
Their words would go on lead to the creation of the Manhattan Project.
Led by nuclear physicist Robert Oppenheimer, the research and development programme carried out at the Los Alamos Laboratory led to the first operational nuclear weapons.
Albert Einstein would later regret the move
The project was sanctioned by the US with the support of Britain and Canada and the first nuclear device ever detonated was a bomb dropped at a New Mexico test range in July 1945, after Germany’s surrender.
Just a month later, atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, prompting the swift surrender of Imperial Japan and bringing an end to World War 2.
In military terms, the Manhattan Project was a success. Dr Oppenheimer tested and created the world’s first nuclear weapon which was pivotal in ending the war.
But, in later life, Einstein would note: “Had I known that the Germans would not succeed in producing an atomic bomb, I would have never lifted a finger.”
Published at Thu, 07 May 2020 15:35:00 +0000