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I am reading The Nuclear Express by Thomas C. Reed and Danny B. Stillman and on page 8, it describes the forced immigration of Jewish scientists involved in "Jewish Physics" to the United States and it explains that this led to the United States developing the Atomic Bomb, therefore equating Hitler's actions to the development of the Atomic Bomb in the United States. How accurate is this account given that neither of the authors are historians?

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    Related: history.stackexchange.com/questions/8019/…
    – Benjamin
    Commented Jun 30, 2016 at 3:13
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    The progress Science has been inexorable over the past few hundred years, but not always at the same frantic pace. The imperative of victory or death certainly accelerated progress, but likely only by 5 or 10 years at most. Commented Jun 30, 2016 at 13:32
  • Let us continue this discussion in chat.
    – Benjamin
    Commented Jul 1, 2016 at 16:56
  • It is true that someone has constructed a narrative to that effect. I'm deeply suspicious of simple causal models in historical narrative. Were these individuals a contributing factor? Sure. Was their ethno-religious heritage relevant? If you're a racist, definitely, because racism doesn't require evidence. If you're not a racist, then the narrative will have to support why that factor is relevant.
    – MCW
    Commented Jul 9, 2020 at 12:08

2 Answers 2

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The discovery of uranium fission by Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann (German chemists) in the Jan 1939 issue of Die Naturwissenschaften (The Science of Nature) sparked great interest among physicists all around the world. Jewish Hungarian born physicist Leó Szilárd was among them.

Szilárd living in the US at the time, realized the importance of neutron-driven fission which could yield large amount of energy. Szilárd began working on nuclear reactors with Enrico Fermi. Szilárd was concerned that German scientists might also attempt this experiment.

Szilárd decided to draft a letter to Roosevelt warning him of implications of the a-bomb and also get him to fund nuclear research at home. Instead of drafting the letter alone, he sought aid of Einstein as he thought a letter from Einstein would be more "prestigious".

The letter warned that:

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 Szilárd 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. 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

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

After receiving the letter, Roosevelt decided that the letter required action, and authorized the creation of the Advisory Committee on Uranium. This committee initially funded small scale Szilárd and Fermi's nuclear experiments but later on became an all-out bomb development program called the Manhattan Project.

Leó Szilárd and Eugene Wigner both of them who drafted the letter studied in Berlin for a brief period of time but fled as soon as Hitler rose to power. In other words, the Nazis gained control of an academic system poised for unlocking the secrets of the atom, poised for developing the atomic bomb. But hatred of Jews prevented Hitler from allowing this situation to follow its natural trajectory

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    Thank you for this answer, while I like both, this one is more focused on what is mentioned in the book and therefore my question.
    – Benjamin
    Commented Jun 30, 2016 at 6:06
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    See also "MAUD Committee" which (after its report was buried for months) forcefully refocussed attention on "bomb" rather than "reactor". Commented Jun 30, 2016 at 15:29
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    Note that Szilard conceived of the chain reaction in 1933, when he was in England. The fission properties of uranium were discovered in 1938 (and don't forget to add Lise Meitner to the authors).
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Jun 30, 2016 at 17:34
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    I find this answer very US-centric. Szilard assigned his original patent to the British Admiralty, and Britain preceded the US in research. It was only in 1942, after Pearl Harbour and when it was obvious the UK 's wartorn economy was unable to pursue it that British research was transferred to the US as part of the Manhattan Project.
    – TheHonRose
    Commented Jun 30, 2016 at 22:05
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    @TheHonRose, US Nuclear research began in late 1939, not 1942. Britain and the United States had agreed to pursue Nuclear technology together sharing research prior to Pearl harbor in July of 1940. The funny thing is that when the British decided they did not have the resources to pursue the bomb independently and began sharing their research with the United States they discovered their program was larger than the US effort. It was only after British involvement that the US allocated the large resources which would see the project to succeed.
    – user27618
    Commented Jul 8, 2020 at 19:55
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Although Thomas C. Reed isn't a "historian," he is a historymaker, in his role as Secretary of the Air Force. Of all the types of people in a position to know about the U.S. nuclear program, he would be close to the top of the list. In this regard, he would be like Winston Churchill, writing about World War II.

Danny Stillman isn't a "historian" either. He is "only" a leading nuclear scientist. He was probably added as a co-author because of his "technical" knowledge.

In 1939, the balance of power in the nuclear physics world was held by the German-Jewish scientists. (I do not include in this group, Enrico Fermi who was Italian, not German, and whose wife was Jewish, not himself.) They represented 14 out of 26 "German" atomic scientists, and about one third of the total. That is, one third were German Jews, one third were German "Aryans," and one third were "westerners such as Britain's Ernest Rutherford, and America's Robert Oppenheimer.

Bottom line: If these two people claim that Hitler and his anti-Jewish policies were instrumental in leading to the American invention of the atomic bomb, I would regard their book as at least somewhat authoritative. Yes, there are some flaws in their book, but these would be identified by the resulting book reviews. Because the subject is so technical, the main usefulness of historians is to keep the scientists "honest," not to write about the topic themselves.

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  • But, the whole book seems a little over dramatized, which is why I wondered.
    – Benjamin
    Commented Jul 11, 2016 at 0:32
  • @Benjamin: If you Google "Danny B. Stillman," you will get a lot of book reviews. Here's an example:nytimes.com/2008/12/09/science/09bomb.html?_r=0 For a technical subject like this, you use historians to keep scientists honest, not to write about the topic themselves.
    – Tom Au
    Commented Jul 11, 2016 at 0:39

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