Albert Einstein's letters to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt
- Text of the Letters
- Annotated Bibliography
20 February 1997
Text of the letters
Einstein's first letter to Roosevelt
- The letter that launched the arms race. A warning to President Roosevelt of the possibility of constructing "extremely powerful bombs of a new type" with hints that the German government might be doing just that. Addressed and dated Peconic, Long Island, August 2nd 1939, it was most likely written by Leo Szilard, the scientist who invented the chain reaction. Nevertheless, Einstein took full responsibility for its consequences, calling it "the greatest mistake" of his life. I have tried to reproduce the formatting as it appeared in the original. This is the only letter for which I have done this.
- Public Domain. See the list of mirror sites to view photocopies of the original letter.
Albert Einstein Old Grove Rd. Nassau Point Peconic, Long Island August 2nd 1939 F.D. Roosevelt President of the United States White House Washington, D.C. Sir: Some recent work by E.Fermi and L. Szilard, which has been com- municated to me in manuscript, leads me to expect that the element uran- ium may be turned into a new and important source of energy in the im- mediate 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 recommendations: In the course of the last four months it has been made probable - through 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 vast amounts of power and large quant- ities 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 power- ful bombs of a new type may thus be constructed. 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.
-2- The United States has only very poor ores of uranium in moderate quantities. There is some good ore in Canada and the former Czechoslovakia. while the most important source of uranium is Belgian Congo. In view of the situation you may think it desirable to have more permanent contact maintained between the Administration and the group of physicists working on chain reactions in America. One possible way of achieving this might be for you to entrust with this task a person who has your confidence and who could perhaps serve in an inofficial capacity. His task might comprise the following: a) to approach Government Departments, keep them informed of the further development, and put forward recommendations for Government action, giving particular attention to the problem of securing a supply of uran- ium ore for the United States; b) to speed up the experimental work,which is at present being car- ried on within the limits of the budgets of University laboratories, by providing funds, if such funds be required, through his contacts with y private persons who are willing to make contributions for this cause, and perhaps also by obtaining the co-operation of industrial laboratories which have the necessary equipment. 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. Yours very truly, (Albert Einstein)
Einstein's second letter to Roosevelt
- No comments at this time.
- Ronald W. Clark. Einstein: The Life and Times. New York: Avon Books, 1970: 678-679.
March 7, 1940
I wish to draw your attention to the development which has taken place since the conference that was arranged through your good offices in October last year between scientists engaged in this work and governmental representatives.
Last year, when I realized that results of national importance might arise out of research on uranium, I thought it my duty to inform the administration of this possibility. You will perhaps remember that in the letter which I addressed to the President I also mentioned the fact that C. F. von Weizsäcker, son of the German Undersecretary of State, was collaborating with a group of chemists working upon uranium at one of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institutes - namely, the Institute of Chemistry.
Since the outbreak of the war, interest in uranium has intensified in Germany. I have now learned that research there is carried out in great secrecy and that it has been extended to another of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institutes, the Institute of Physics. The latter has been taken over by the government and a group of physicists, under the leadership of C. F. von Weizsäcker, who is now working there on uranium in collaboration with the Institute of Chemistry. The former director was sent away on leave of absence, apparently for the duration of the war.
Should you think it advisable to relay this information to the President, please consider yourself free to do so. Will you be kind enough to let me know if you are taking action in this direction?
Dr. Szilard has shown me the manuscript which he is sending to the Physics Review in which he describes in detail a method of setting up a chain reaction in uranium. The papers will appear in print unless they are held up, and the question arises whether something ought to be done to withhold publication.
I have discussed with professor Wigner of Princeton University the situation in the light of the information available. Dr. Szilard will let you have a memorandum informing you of the progress made since October last year so that you will be able to take such action as you think in the circumstances advisable. You will see that the line he has pursued is different and apparently more promising than the line pursued by M. Joliot in France, about whose work you may have seen reports in the papers.
Einstein's third letter to Roosevelt
- This is only a fragment of the letter's body.
- Ronald W. Clark. Einstein: The Life and Times. New York: Avon Books, 1970: 681.
April 25, 1940
I am convinced as to the wisdom and the urgency of creating the conditions under which that and related work can be carried out with greater speed and on a larger scale than hitherto. I mwas interested in a suggestion made by Dr. Sachs that the Special Advisory Committee supply names of persons to serve as a board of trustees for a nonprofit organization which, with the approval of the government committee, could secure from governmental or mprivate sources or both, the necessary funds for carrying out the work. Given such a framework and the necessary funds, it (the large-scale experiments and exploration of practical applications) could be carried out much faster than through a loose cooperation of university laboratories and government departments.
Einstein's fourth letter to Roosevelt
- Subject: Fourth Einstein Letter
Date: Mon, 08 Dec 97 16:07:03 EST
From: William Lanouette <[email protected]>
To: Glenn Elert <[email protected]>
This fourth letter to FDR was [also drafted] by Leo Szilard. In it Einstein proposed that the President hear Szilard's views about setting policies for the A-bomb. Einstein told FDR that it was Szilard who first raised the possibility of nuclear weapons and that this had led Einstein to write the first letter in August 1939. Einstein said that Szilard and other scientists were interested in communicating their views about policy to members of FDR's cabinet and that it was worth the President's time to hear what Szilard had to say. The letter failed to reach President Roosevelt before his death on April 12th 1945.
- William Lanouette with Bela Silard. Genius in the Shadows: A Biography of Leo Szilard, The Man Behind the Bomb. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994: 261-2.
112 Mercer Street
Princeton, New Jersey
March 25, 1945
The Honorable Franklin Delano Roosevelt
President of the United States
The White House
I am writing to introduce Dr. L. Szilard who proposes to submit to you certain consideration and recommendation. Unusual circumstances which I shall describe further below introduce me to take this action in spite of the fact that I do not know the substance of the considerations and recommendations which Dr. Szilard proposes to submit to you.
In the summer of 1939 Dr. Szilard put before me his views concerning the potential importance of uranium for national defense. He was greatly disturbed by the potentialities involved and anxious that the United States Government be advised of them as soon as possible. Dr. Szilard, who is one of the discoverers of the neutron emission of uranium on which all present work on uranium is based, described to me a specific system which he devised and which he thought would make it possible to set up a chain reaction in un-separated uranium in the immediate future. Having known him for over twenty years both from his scientific work and personally, I have much confidence in his judgment and it was on the basis of his judgment as well as my own that I took the liberty to approach you in connection with this subject. You responded to my letter dated August 2, 1939 by the appointment of a committee under the chairmanship of Dr. Briggs and thus started the Government's activity in this field.
The terms of secrecy under which Dr. Szilard is working at present do not permit him to give me information about his work; however, I understand that he now is greatly concerned about the lack of adequate contact between scientist who are doing this work and those members of your Cabinet who are responsible for formulating policy. In the circumstances I consider it my duty to give Dr. Szilard this introduction and I wish to express the hope that you will be able to give his presentation of the case your personal attention.
Very truly yours,
Mirror sites of the first letter
- FDR-24: Letter, Albert Einstein to FDR, August 2, 1939. Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library & Museum. The letter itself is in the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, NY. The link above takes you to a copy of this item in pdf form.
- Einstein to Roosevelt, August 2, 1939. Leo Szilard Home Page. Gene Dannen. An html document that includes an inline image of the letter with some insightful commentary on its origin. Part of the truly excellent Leo Szilard Online. (As noted earlier, Szilard was the primary author of the letter.) This is easily the best site from a content standpoint.
- Einstein/Sachs Document Collection. Manhattan Project Heritage Preservation Association. A series of 20 documents represent the complete written communication that took place between President Roosevelt and the scientific community (represented by Albert Einstein, Leo Szilard, Edward Teller, and Eugene Wigner) in the Fall of 1939.
- Albert Einstein Online. S. Morgan Friedman. The source of all things Einstein (formerly located at the University of Pennsylvania).
- Albert Einstein and My Grandfather. Chuck Rothman. An interesting brush with greatness story from the period in Einstein's life when he was approached to "author" the letter.
- Atomkeller-Museum. Stadt Haigerloch, Deutschland. The site where the last German experiments on nuclear fission were conducted during World War II. Werner Heisenberg, Carl-Friedrich von Weizsäcker, and Karl Wirtz headed the research. Includes audio files of interviews with Heisenberg.
- Einstein Archives Online. Itemized database of several thousand documents written by, written to, or written about Albert Einstein. Many items in his own handwriting. Does not contain any images of his letters to Roosevelt, however.
- Leo Szilard Online. Gene Dannen. The source of all things Szilard — the author of the famous first letter as well as the obscure fourth letter.