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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 Jun 30 '16 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. – Pieter Geerkens Jun 30 '16 at 13:32
  • Let us continue this discussion in chat. – Benjamin Jul 1 '16 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. – Mark C. Wallace Jul 9 at 12:08
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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 Jun 30 '16 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". – Brian Drummond Jun 30 '16 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 Jun 30 '16 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 Jun 30 '16 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. – JMS Jul 8 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 Jul 11 '16 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 Jul 11 '16 at 0:39
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Question:
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. 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?

Short Answer:
Grey area really, I would lean towards No.

Yes:

Yes the entire US program was created because Germany was seeking the bomb and the U.S. feared a German monopoly on atomic weapons.

The earliest US government funded efforts into uranium came after and was directly related to the August 1939 Leo Szilard Letter. In that way Szilard, Eugene Wigner and to some extent Enrico Fermi got the ball rolling. Szilard wrote the Einstein Letter who's clout they used to get a their letter before President Roosevelt, Wigner attended the meetings with Einstein and Szilard. Fermi, the most accomplished of the three was mentioned in the Letter along with his study into the field, but didn't attend the meetings or have much to do with the letter.

No:
The funding was really minimal and effectively sidelined both Szilard and Enrico Fermi both deemed security risks or outright pro Nazi Fascists. Fermi got federal funding for his research at the University of Chicago but only $6000. He wasn't permitted to join the Manhattan project until late 1944, and then only in a subordinate role. Fermi was kept busy working on side projects. Engineering the production facilities rather than designing the bomb or research on critical mass which was his specialty in the 1930s. Neither he nor Szilard were foundational members of the Manhattan project.

The US really began to understand the importance of nuclear research after Britain decided to share their research in 1940. Collaboration lead to the British discovery that their own effort they deemed insufficient was significantly more robust than the Americans effort in late 1940. This lead to a lot of discussions which ultimately after Pearl harbor lead to a more robust funding. The "Manhattan Project" or Manhattan Engineer District was formed in August of 1942 lead by General Leslie Groves, named like other engineering districts after the city where they were headquartered. That really marks the beginning of serious military involvement seeking an atom bomb. Szilard and Fermi were only tangentially involved.

I would put most of the credit thus on the British, and not Szilard nor Fermi.

Detailed Answer:
Szilard's letter is widely regarded as the beginning of the US nuclear program, however that's misleading. The US quickly attributed the letter as from Szilard and then fairly quickly dismissed him. The letter itself is not primarily a warning of German efforts into Uranium. It only mentioned Germany in the last of 8 paragraphs tangentially. It was really an advertisement to get the US to fund Szilard's "research". Research that Szilard wasn't conducting. Szilard when he wrote the letter was not associated with any American University or Research facility. Szilard never played a prominent role in US research. Szilard's letter wasn't the starting gun marking the beginning of US nuclear research. Szilard was not seen as credible, nor was his proposed research partner Enrico Fermi.Szilard misrepresented himself as being associated with a University and as a Nuclear researcher. He misrepresented the letter as coming from / addressed from Einstein. The 8 paragraph letter consisting of 2 pages was an advertisement for the US to fund Szilard's non existing research.

enter image description here

Roosevelt handed the letter ( August 1939 ) to an advisory board and it was they who really fleshed out the need for US funded research. The net result of the Szilard letter was a $6000 grant for Enrico Fermi for his research conducted at the University of Chicago in 1939. Fermi was believed by US intelligence to be a Fascist so he was only tangentially involved in the Manhattan project until 1944, but conducted independent research at the University of Chicago funded by the US. In 1944 he was ultimately recruited by Oppenheimer to join Los Alamos.

Szilard's involvement in us funded nuclear research ended pretty quickly. His non existent but alluded to research was never funded. He was not given a prominent role in US future effort.

US Intelligence report on Szilard and Fermi written 10 days after Roosevelt received the Einstein Letter written by Szilard: enter image description here

I would argue the US almost entirely dismissed Szilard and Fermi from the beginning. It was really the credibility of British Scientists and their political leadership working among their American peers which made the US take nuclear technology seriously, and then only after Pearl Harbor.

Comments:

From: @PieterGeerkens
How do you reconcile your statement on Fermi with this: "Fermi moved to the University of Chicago and was placed in charge of building the first atomic pile in the squash court under the West Stands of the University's Stagg Field. Today, a plaque at the site reads: "On December 2, 1942, man achieved here the first self-sustaining chain reaction and thereby initiated the controlled release of nuclear energy.""? Building the first atomic pile was an essential prerequisite for the mathematics performed at Los Alamos by Bethe, Feynman, and others including the (mostly) female "calculators".

Fermi was at Columbia University prior to the Aug 1939 Szilard Letter. As the posted Intelligence report states unlike Szilard Fermi, was recognized as well respected, Nobel Prize winning, brilliant physicist, actively involved in nuclear research. US Intelligence also believed he "was almost certainly a Fascist" and recommended he not be employed doing secret research. My statement was he was not a foundational contributor to the Manhattan project but kept on the periphery. Which he was until mid 1944 when Oppenheimer recruited him for an associate directors position, a subordinate role for a nobel prize winning physicist. He was not employed as one of the hundreds of theoretical physicists seeking a solution to chain reaction and construction of the bomb. Understanding Chain reaction was what earned Fermi his nobel prize. Fermi was however kept out of the effort to design the bomb at least until after mid 1944.

From: @PieterGeerkens
Fermi was the expert in one particular prerequisite; and one in particular that could be started at an accelerated pace. He was placed in charge of that sub-project. That was a position of extreme trust, especially as he would be running the atomic pile project largely independent of any supervision.

As I said Fermi's brilliance as a physicist was never the issue. He was sidelined initially because his loyalties were questioned. Fermi was a citizen of Fascist Italy, and an enemy alien from the date of his immigration to his naturalization in 1944. He could not travel freely inside the US, nor were scientists free to share information with him, his immigration status was on a series of 90 day permits. It took years, until mid 1944 for him to be offered a position within the Manhattan project and then only in a subordinate role.

Bringing Fermi in on the Bomb (1943)
In the very early years of the bomb work, Vannevar Bush (head of OSRD which was in charge of almost all American Military R&D during WWII including the Manhattan Project) was unsure about bringing Fermi in. It wasn’t that Bush doubted Fermi’s loyalties — I think it would seem pretty clear that Fermi was no Fascist spy — but it wasn’t clear what the military brass would say. “The Army is going to talk about the case of Fermi… [and] I am sitting tight until I hear about these conversations. …in the interim we are not giving him information.”1 It required “a good deal of protest” for the Army to finally clear Fermi, and only on a very small part of the work being done at Columbia, and in a subordinate role. “I am not at all sure that the Army would reverse its point of view on this matter where an Italian citizen is concerned,” Bush wrote in the summer of 1941.2

Through at least the summer of 1941, both Fermi and Szilard — enemy aliens highly-connected to the project — were not even allowed to travel freely within the United States! They had 90-day permits that let them travel to specific cities (Fermi could go to New York; Washington, DC; Chicago; Beverly, Mass.; and Princeton, N.J., and that’s it), and that had to be renewed when it ran out. Arthur Compton thought this was pretty ridiculous as far as situations went; but James Conant didn’t want to push it.

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    How do you reconcile your statement on Fermi with this: "Fermi moved to the University of Chicago and was placed in charge of building the first atomic pile in the squash court under the West Stands of the University's Stagg Field. Today, a plaque at the site reads: "On December 2, 1942, man achieved here the first self-sustaining chain reaction and thereby initiated the controlled release of nuclear energy.""? Building the first atomic pile was an essential prerequisite for the mathematics performed at Los Alamos by Bethe, Feynman, and others including the (mostly) female "calculators". – Pieter Geerkens Jul 8 at 21:18
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    Fermi was the expert in one particular prerequisite; and one in particular that could be started at an accelerated pace. He was placed in charge of that sub-project. That was a position of extreme trust, especially as he would be running the atomic pile project largely independent of any supervision. – Pieter Geerkens Jul 8 at 21:19
  • @PieterGeerkens, responded in the post. The issue which sidelined Fermi initially involved his status as a citizen of Fascist Italy and the military's question of his loyalty. During this period he was considered an enemy combatant, unable to travel freely within the US, his immigration status dependent upon a series of 90 day permits. – JMS Jul 8 at 22:38
  • You continue to conflate Los Alamos with the entire Manhattan Project. That is egregiously incorrect. Los Alamos wasn't even selected as a project site until after Fermi had, successfully, proven self-sustaining nuclear fission in Chicago. Of the 130,000 or so people employed on the Manhattan project i doubt more than 15% of them were ever at Los Alamos. Chicago, oak Ridge, Hanford, and the three Canadian sites were all also quite substantial. – Pieter Geerkens Jul 8 at 23:12
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    @PieterGeerkens I never claimed Los Alonso’s was the entire Manhattan Project. In truth it wasn’t even the majority of the Manhattan Project. It was however the heart and brains were the bomb was designed physically and theoretically. It’s where the leadership worked. Regardless Fermi wasn’t employed by the Manhattan Project until mid 1944. – JMS Jul 9 at 1:22
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This question seems to be attracting poor quality answers. Some tangential discovery by some scientist is held up as being critical to the bomb. This shows a total lack of understanding.

Here is some actual background:

http://www.coldwar.org/articles/40s/links.asp

The atomic bomb was an extrapolation of critical pile experiments conducted at various locations in the 1930s. These had little to do with Jews, Szilard, or anything of the sort. The actual development of the bomb again had little to do with Jews. Atomic bombs are quite simple devices, especially the ones used over Japan. They are little more than a ring of explosives or gun that compresses uranium into a small space to attain criticality. It's absurd to claim that any one group of people was essential in figuring them out.

There was no way that Germany could ever come anywhere close to developing the bomb because it requires vast amounts of energy to process the uranium. The US created the city of Oak Ridge to get this done, and mined uranium from Canada. Germany had nowhere near that kind of hydro and uranium resource, and the Allies easily destroyed their attempts to build heavy water plants in Norway.

In short the accepted answer is completely ahistorical and has no relation to physical reality. No, Jews had no particular essential role in creating the bomb.

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    A number of prominent physicists of the era were German, Hungarian, etc and happened to be Jewish. They could have worked on a bomb for Germany, but they fled the rise of Nazism. So... they worked on it in the UK and the USA. – RonJohn May 25 '19 at 21:12
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    This answer reflect very little knowledge both on technical and science history related to question. Describing the engineering the bombs as simple... – Greg Jul 9 at 5:07

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