In 1946, secret research into the harnessing of nuclear fission was authorized for military purposes [continued from Part 1]. Manhattan Project Part 2 - A Fateful Decision by Eric Lipps
Many have speculated on what might have happened had America undertaken its atomic bomb program few years earlier, in time to make a weapon available during World War II rather than years after its end. In that case, the first cities to have been incinerated by nuclear fire might have been German and Japanese, rather than Russian, and the world would remember their names rather than those of Moscow and Leningrad.
But it was not to be. Einstein's fateful decision to return to Germany following his trip to the United States in December 1932 would foreclose that option. With the Nazis in power following Hindenburg's decision, on January 30, 1933, to name Hitler as chancellor of the German republic, the famous scientist found himself absorbed in efforts to defend his fellow scientists, and increasingly his fellow Jews, from persecution by the new regime. He had several opportunities in 1933 and '34 to leave the third Reich, but chose not to do so.
And then it was too late: by order of Hitler himself, he was arrested on the morning of January 3, 1935, and sent to the concentration camp at Dachau. While this camp was not yet the place of horror it would later become, it was nevertheless a brutal prison, and the incarceration of the world-renowned physicist within its walls ignited a storm of protest both outside Germany and within the Reich itself, where Einstein's defenders included physicists Werner Heisenberg and Abraham Esau (who, despite his name, had impeccable credentials as an 'Aryan'). Einstein was released in early February, but would spend the next ten years under various forms of house arrest. Following the fall of the Nazi regime in May 1945, Einstein would be freed and would leave Germany at last, first for England and then, in February 1946, for the United States.
It was after Einstein's arrival in the U.S. that he would be contacted by several other refugee scientists, among them Edward Teller and Leo Szilard, who had drafted a letter to President Truman warning of the potential for nuclear fission to be employed in an 'unimaginably powerful explosive of an entirely new type'--in other words, an atomic bomb. The letter warned that efforts toward developing such a bomb had been undertaken in Germany during the war and were believed to be ongoing in the USSR under the leadership of Igor Kurchatov. It read in part: 'While the Nazi effort ultimately failed, we believe this to be due not to the inherent impracticability of such weapons (this issue remains undecided) but primarily due to a combination of technical errors, organizational problems and shortages of key resources. It would be unwise to assume that the same factors will ultimately keep the Soviet Union from producing this new type of explosive, should it be physically possible to do so.'
The Einstein-Szilard letter arrived on President Truman's desk as he was grappling with the issue of the postwar division of Japan.
At Yalta, Soviet Union had promised to enter the war against the land of the Rising Sun within three months following the final surrender of Germany. On August 8, 1945, three months to the day after the German surrender, it did so, just as the U.S. was preparing for its planned invasion of the Japanese home islands, codenamed Operation Downfall. But American plans for Japan had no place for the Soviets: the last thing President Truman wanted was to have to share the occupation of that country with Communist Russia as he had been forced to do in the case of Germany. Nevertheless, that was what he had ended up with: as U.S. forces fought their way northward from their initial landing sites on Kyushu, the Soviets had struck from the north, seizing the island of Hokkaido by mid-September 1945 and pushing on, jumping to northern Honshu by the end of that month in hopes of reaching Tokyo before the Americans did. By early '46 it was clear that one way or another, the Soviets would hold take of Japan, and would be extremely difficult to dislodge by force, a situation mirroring that which was developing on the Asian mainland in the case of Korea.
So the news that the Soviets might be in a position to develop a devastating new weapon at some point in the near future was not greeted with enthusiasm at the White House. The Einstein-Szilard letter was, as Truman would put it in his memoirs, an 'alarm bell in the night,' and pushed the President into ordering a crash U.S. program, which would be codenamed the 'Manhattan Engineering District' (later colloquialized as the 'Manhattan Project').
Einstein's position regarding the project was an awkward one. It was, after all, his theory of relativity which had provided the fundamental basis for understanding atomic energy--yet Einstein, whose politics were considerably left of center, was deeply distrusted by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who insisted that he could not be trusted with knowledge of such a vital national defense effort. It proved impossible to keep him out of the loop entirely, however, and Hoover was forced to swallow his concerns, settling for surveillance of the scientist.
However, Einstein's letter to the Atlantic Monthly in 1948 insisting that the U.S. must not seek an 'atomic monopoly' nearly provoked Hoover to order his arrest for violating security. It was one of several such 'security breaches' to excite Hoover during the Project years; two others involved a short story for Astounding Science Fiction magazine and a Superman story written for Action Comics in 1949, both of which the government suppressed until after the atomic bomb had become public knowledge. Eventually it was pointed out to Hoover that his aggressive reaction to what seemed to be harmless fiction was merely feeding rumors of an actual bomb project, creating its own security breach.
In August 1946 the need for a U.S. nuclear program was dramatically emphasized when Soviet armed forces invaded Iran after failing to receive the concessions they had been promised in exchange for their withdrawal in May. According to Truman's memoirs, had the U.S. then possessed nuclear weapons, their use might have been threatened in order to force the Soviets to back off. Without them, a large conventional response was the only alternative.
But with U.S. forces already occupying Japan, western Germany and Italy, and more on their way to Korea and to bolster the French in Indochina, this meant that the brief glimmering of hope for a peaceful post-World War II era had to be sacrificed. At the urging of Emperor Hirohito and with the reluctant concurrence of War Minister Hideki Tojo, Japan had surrendered to the U.S. in October of '45, allowing Tokyo to be occupied by American forces rather than risking that it would fall to the Soviets--but occupation under General Douglas MacArthur tied down enormous numbers of troops, just as was the case in Europe. There would be no end to the military draft, no demobilization--and once battle was joined in Iran, fighting erupted everywhere U.S. forces faced their Soviet counterparts. Historians remain divided as to whether the new hostilities qualify as a third world war or as a continuation, with realigned sides, of the second.
The U.S.-Soviet conflict had far-reaching political consequences. In both Europe and Japan, it undermined support for vigorous war-crimes prosecutions, leading to what many would later feel was inadequate justice at Nuremberg and in Tokyo. And within America itself, first Parnell Thomas and then Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin would lead a crusade to root out 'subversives' and other undesirables everywhere. Their efforts would lead to the Internal Security Acts of 1947, '48 and '50, under which over twenty thousand Americans would ultimately be incarcerated in political prisons converted from the camps in which Japanese-Americans had been held after Pearl Harbor, including the notorious Manzanar. Many more would be driven from their jobs; some, including the famed silent-movie actor Charlie Chaplin, would flee the country. Chaplin would die in exile in Switzerland on Christmas Day, 1977.
And the defeat of the Soviets in 1950 would lead to no relaxation. By then, China had gone Communist under Mao Tse-tung, ushering in a renewed fear of the Yellow Peril fueled by a combination of anti-Communism and racism. Although at the time of Einstein's death the U.S. was still formally at peace with the Communist colossus, mostly because its resources were strained to the limit occupying its World War II adversaries and its former ally Russia, there seemed little doubt that another war would come sooner or later.
Einstein had been embittered at the use of his work in warfare. He had supported a bomb project primarily in hopes of developing a deterrent in case the Soviets got a bomb, and had privately hoped that the bomb research would prove a weapon was impossible after all. Although he had never been a Communist, when Moscow and Leningrad disappeared beneath mushroom clouds, he was inconsolable. The fact that even after the fall of the Soviets the U.S. refused to surrender its nuclear monopoly, going so far as to strong-arm Britain and France into ending their own independent nuclear programs, deepened his depression. In his final years, the father of relativity withdrew from public life, devoting his efforts entirely to abstract research in pursuit of the unified field theory of physics he believed was possible. He never found it.
Albert Einstein died April 18, 1955. Shortly before his death, when asked what he thought of his life's work, he replied sadly: 'If I had known, I should have been a plumber.'
Continues in Part 3