The atom bomb warning of 1939 - 8 August 1970
Last week we saw, for the first time, a film made in Japan exactly 25 years ago, about what happened on that fine hot day in August to the town of Hiroshima.
It was enough to lacerate us and start up again the controversy which I suppose will never settle, about President Truman’s decision to drop the bomb.
I don’t want to get into that either, as an argument, except to say that I noticed how few of the humane men who now thought or had thought all along, that it was a moral mistake, how few of them, if any, had responsibility for the waging of the war against Japan, once the Germans were licked.
Without offering my own opinion or raising more dust over the bleached bones of Hiroshima there is one reminder I want to contribute, that the handful of men who had to make the decision – President Truman probably, and certainly General Marshall, and Henry L Stimson were men just as humane and tortured as you and I. But that in the end it came down to a gruesome choice, which I for one,would not have wanted to have to make for all the offers of redemption from all the religions in the world.
What the president and his advisors did not know, what we rather confidently know now, is that the Japanese, in August 1945, were at the end of their rope. The plans were going forward, with awful misgivings on the part of Marshall and his staff, for a step-by-step invasion of the Japanese islands.
The best estimate was that it would take five million American men, and could not succeed till the end of 1946. The probably casualties of Americans, Japanese and Japanese civilians, went from about one and a half million to three millions.
Was there an alternative? The atomic scientists in New Mexico reported "We can propose no technical demonstration likely to bring an end to the war, we see no acceptable alternative to direct military use". And with this bleak answer in its hands the small band of presidential advisors, led by old Secretary of War Stimson and General Marshall began again to assess the power of the Japanese to resist an invasion.
They studied the problem for a month and at the end of it, they reluctantly decided that the alternative was between killing say, 200,000 Japanese now, or two million Japanese and a million Americans later on.
I suppose we must all have wondered, in a distraught way, at some time or other, how it all started. To be painstakingly scientific about it you could of course take it back far beyond Einstein and Rutherford and the quantum theory. If you really got going, you could find yourself back in the 5th Century BC, with Empedocles, who worked on the assumption that an atom is the smallest indivisible particle of matter.
But let us leap, say, 23 centuries forward, to the slowly dawning idea that a bomb could be made. And what first occurred to a scattered band of Jewish refugees in 1939, that the bomb might get into the wrong hands. It was, perhaps Hitler’s most decisive, as well as his most obscene error, to persecute and drive out the Jews.
Well, it began, on a drenching hot day in midsummer day 1939 with two men, two refugees getting up in the morning, and getting out a map and deciding to drive to the end of Long Island. In more ways than one this is a letter from Long Island. I meant to tell you at various anniversary times, about this never-publicised little excursion. I know about it by the sheer accident of living in the place they were driving to, a point of land, a two-mile peninsula that drops like an arrowhead from the north fork of the two forks that divide Long Island, and enclose a large bay known as Peconic Bay. Later on, I wrote to the two men who took the trip, and checked on the facts.
Well, at the end of July 1939 these two refugees, both Hungarians who had been run out of their labs in Germany, heard through the underground of their old friends who’d fled to various countries of Europe, two things. One was that there had been a secret meeting of German physicists, in Berlin, and, that Germany had, quite suddenly and secretly, forbidden all exports of a certain kind of ore from the occupied country of Czechoslovakia.
These two refugees wondered, if the American state department had any notion what the coincidence of these two items could signify. They were both highly intelligent men, obviously, passionately anti-Nazi, and they sat up nights in their modest digs in New York, and wondered how to make their information known. If they had gone in person to the state department or the White House they would quite likely have been waved away, or locked up as nuts. Let us call them Mr W and Mr S.
Mr S suddenly remembered the old man, another refugee, but better known. He might carry a little weight. That was it, get to the old man, tell him what was meant by the equation: one secret meeting plus one export ban. But where was the old man? Well, one of them had heard that he was down at the end of Long Island, summering in a cottage rented from a local doctor. Doctor... doctor... wait a minute, Moore that was it? But now the place... Mr W, who remembered all this, but couldn’t recall the name of the nearest village.
Now Long Island is 120 miles long and full of place names. And the English names might be forgettable enough to a couple of Hungarians, but how about the Indian names? Aquabog and Nowak and Mattituck and Ronkonkoma and Apaquogue and the like.
It was spelled, said Mr W, with a "P". They saw a name 90 miles down the island on the map in red letters, "Patchogue, that's it, that's the one". So they drove off. And they got out, and they asked in stores and petrol stations, "Anybody know the whereabouts of Doctor Moore's cottage?". Nobody had ever heard of him. They got into the car again and sweated over the map. "Could it be", said Mr S, looking up to the bay to the north of them, "Peconic?".
"That's it", cried the other, "now I remember". So they drove north and east along the north fork, and came to the minute town of Peconic which, to this day is one small saloon, one shop, and a battered railroad station.
"Doctor Moore, please". Doctor Moore was unheard of. It was one of those hideous days of a grey leaden sky and the heat up in the 90s, and the map was like a towel in their hands. They were irritable and in despair and they turned to drive the hundred miles back to the city.
But less than two miles from Peconic, on the old, two-lane highway you have to go through another one-street town called Cutchogue. They stopped at the drugstore to get some trifle, they don’t remember now what. And, one last try, they mentioned again the name of Doctor Moore. Nothing.
Well how about simply asking where the old man lived? They saw a boy, about seven years of age, standing on a corner with a fishing rod in his hand. The old man was a great fisherman. "Sure", said the little boy, "he lives in Doctor Moore’s cottage". And he climbed in and he led them there.
The old man came out in his slippers and they told him their news. And they had a hot hour explaining to him what it all meant, or could mean. They thought at first it would be better to write to the Belgium government, who had the only other source of this particular ore and then send a copy to the state department.
So they drove back to New York and there they had more misgivings. The letter might vanish in the yawning files of the state department. They began to tremble at the awful possibilities of a long delay. Maybe they should get the old man to write even to the president of the United States?
Now these young Hungarians were tense types but they were scientists they were not by any means used to this Perry Mason sort of caper. They made discreet enquiries of other friends, other obscure refugees, and a German knew a banker who was the personal friend of Roosevelt. Maybe he could be the courier?
So they sat down and they drafted a bold and simple letter. The great thing would be get the old man to sign it. And so, on 2 August, they drove off again. Not the same couple. Mr W had to go to California, and Mr S couldn’t drive, so he invited another Budapest refugee, Mr T.
They drove the hundred miles with no fears this time of losing their way. Not Patchogue with a P' not Peconic with a P, but Cutchogue with an "ogue" – an easy mistake to make, our visiting friends do it all the time. The old man was in his slippers again and they went inside, into his small living room and they read a German draft, and an English one. And, at last, the old man nodded, and he put his pen to it.
Next step, on to the banker in the White House. It read "Nassau Point, Peconic, Long Island, August 2nd 1939, FD Roosevelt, President of the United States, the White House, Washington DC. Sir, some recent work of E Filmy and L Szilard which has been communicated to me, in manuscript, leads me to expect that the element uranium may be turned into a new and important source of energy in the immediate future.
Certain aspects of the situation which has arisen, seem to call for watchfulness and if necessary, quick action on the part of the administration. I believe, therefore, that it is my duty to bring to your attention the following facts, and recommendation. In the course of the last four months it has been made probable by the work of Joliot in France, as well as Fermi and Szilard in America, that it may become possible to set up a nuclear chain reaction in a large mass of uranium.
By which, by which, my dear Mr President it might be possible to unleash an immense destructive force".
The president got the letter, not before the following October, and he thought it interesting enough, and mentioned it to two scientific advisors, and put aside $200 in executive funds to have them look into it. They did, later on, to the tune of $2,000million.
By the way, the Mr S, who went on both Long Island excursions was Leo Szilard and his driver the second time was Edward Teller. The old man? The signature was, of course, A Einstein.
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