On August 13, 1940, Lt. Col. S.V. Constant of US Military Intelligence reported: “ENRICO FERMI…. He is supposed to have left Italy because of the fact that his wife is Jewish…. He is undoubtedly a Fascist…. Employment of this person on secret work is not recommended.” “MR SZELARD. [sic] He is a Jewish refugee from Hungary. It is understood that his family were wealthy merchants in Hungary and were able to come to the United States with most of their money…. He is stated to be very pro-German…. Employment of this person on secret work is not recommended.”
Fermi was not a fascist, and Szilard lived in terror of the Germans; his family was neither wealthy nor had it come to the United States, but no matter. Had military intelligence been heeded, the atomic bomb would not have been built and the coming of the atomic age would have been at least delayed.
Leo Szilard was born in Budapest in 1898, the son of a successful Jewish civil engineer. He was mentally precocious but physically lazy, preferring to organize his playmates than to take part in games himself; he made close friends and suddenly dropped them, habits that he was to maintain throughout his life. Szilard’s mother, though originally Jewish and a nonbeliever, had worked out her own practical religion based on Jesus’ teaching, and she inculcated strong ethical values in her children. They were to guide one side of Leo’s life; another was guided by the persistence and multiplication of his childhood terrors.
As engineering students at Budapest’s Technical University in 1919, Leo and his brother Bela supported Bela Kun’s short-lived Communist regime. After Kun’s government was overthrown, they were hounded by the police and attacked by anti-Semitic students. Leo decided to continue his studies in Berlin. To mislead the border police, he took an excursion steamer going up the Danube to Vienna. As he sadly watched the Hungarian shores recede, an old Hungarian farmer returning to Canada after a home visit tried to console him: “Beglad, as long as you live, you’ll remember this as the happiest day of your life!” Szilard would not have become famous if he had stayed at home, but he was to spend the rest of his lonely life as a vagabond in hotels and temporary lodgings.
In Berlin Szilard enrolled as an engineering student at the Technical University as his father wished, but engineering soon bored him. On discovering the weekly physics seminars at the Friedrich-Wilhelm University attended by Albert Einstein and other eminent scientists, Szilard switched to physics. For his Ph.D. he wrote a brilliant mathematical thesis on a theory of fluctuations derived from thermodynamics which was later published, and he followed this with an ingenious paper on how entropy in a thermodynamic system can be reduced by the intervention of intelligent beings, showing that information is equivalent to negative entropy, i.e., to less disorder. 1 The second paper foreshadowed the information theory that was later developed by Claude E. Shannon and Warren Weaver.
These two papers were to remain Szilard’s only major scientific publications. In his remaining years in Berlin he published only two short notes on X-rays, for which most of the credit probably belongs to his senior coauthor, Hermann Mark. On the other hand, Szilard filed several ingenious patents, one with Einstein on an electromagnetic pump using fluid metals, which later proved useful in the Manhattan Project, and two on atomsmashing machines before other physicists began to build them: a linear particle accelerator in 1928 and a cyclotron in 1929. The patents are original and sound, but Szilard never developed them even to a preliminary experimental stage.
Max Volmer, one of Berlin’s leading physicists, described Szilard as “one of the most capable and versatile people I have ever met. He unites in a rare fashion a complete understanding of the development of modern physics with a capacity for dealing with problems in all fields of classical physics and physical chemistry.” Years later the great zoologist Konrad Lorenz recalled Szilard as one of the most intelligent people he had ever encountered. Anna Kapitsa, widow of the famous Russian physicist Peter Kapitsa, said that ideas flowed from Szilard as water from a fountain, while Erwin Schroedinger, the founder of wave mechanisms, wrote that “what he had to say was always profound and original” and of a kind that “would not occur to anyone else.”
What was it that inhibited this brilliant man from following up his ideas, except on one occasion when he was driven by sheer terror? Dostoevsky used to write his novels when he had gambled away all his money, but lack of money did not induce Szilard to apply himself to the daily grind of research. He had an aversion to being tied to a piece of scientific work, a job, a home, or a woman, and remained a wanderer all his life. Viktor Weisskopf called him an intellectual bumblebee, which may seem derogatory but also implied that he fertilized many people’s scientific work.
Szilard invariably foresaw the worst, and was often proved right. A few days after Hitler came to power in January 1933, he went to visit his family in Budapest and told them to emigrate, because Hitler would soon overrun all Europe. On March 30, 1933, he left Berlin by train for Vienna with his savings hidden away in his shoes. The very next day he read that Nazi guards had started to search passengers riding the same train. After that Szilard always lived with two packed suitcases, in case he had to flee from wherever he happened to be.
In Vienna Szilard made the first of several great contributions to help his fellow scientists. His deep concern about the German Jewish academics whom the Nazis had ousted from their jobs led him to initiate the Academic Assistance Council, a charitable organization financed largely by voluntary contributions from British academics, which helped displaced scholars to become re-established abroad. The council later changed its name to the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning, with its seat in London; it has helped thousands of academics persecuted for their race, religion, or political beliefs to find new homes and opportunities for work, and continues to do so to this day.
Thanks to warm recommendations from Berlin, Szilard could immediately have found jobs in Britain, but an account of a lecture by Lord Rutherford, the physicist and discoverer of the atomic nucleus, changed the course of his life. According to the account in the scientific journal Nature, which is the one Szilard is most likely to have read at the time, Rutherford concluded his lecture “with a timely word of warning to those who look for sources of power in atomic transmutations—such expectations are the merest moonshine.” Szilard objected that even the great Rutherford could not know what someone else might invent. The previous year James Chadwick, one of Rutherford’s young colleagues at Cambridge, had discovered the neutron when he bombarded a thin foil of beryllium with alpha-particles. Szilard recalled:
As I was waiting for the light to change…to green and I crossed the street, it suddenly occurred to me that if we could find an element which is split by neutrons and which would emit two neutrons when it absorbed one neutron, such an element if assembled in sufficiently large mass, could sustain a nuclear chain reaction. I didn’t see at the moment just how one would go about finding such an element or what experiments would be needed, but the idea never left me.
At first Szilard thought only of the generation of power and tiled a patent for his idea. It includes the following words:
We shall now discuss the composition of the matter in which the chain reaction is to be maintained…. (a) Pure neutron chains…are only possible in the presence of a metastable element…the mass of which is sufficiently high to allow the disintegration of its parts under liberation of energy. Elements like uranium or thorium are examples….
The patent was dated March 12, 1934, four and a half years before Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann discovered the fission of uranium by neutrons. They would have been unaware of Szilard’s prescient patent, because he eventually realized its military implications and assigned it to the British admiralty with an injunction to keep it secret.
Happily for the world, Szilard never tried to bombard either uranium or thorium with neutrons, but first bombarded beryllium and later indium, neither of which undergo nuclear fission. After four years’ intermittent and futile research Szilard wrote to the Admiralty on December 21, 1938, from New York, asking them to withdraw his useless patent, only to hear a month later that Hahn and Strassmann had verified his ideas. On February 2, 1939, Szilard therefore wrote to the Admiralty again, asking them to keep his patent after all. At first he was delighted to have been proved right, but soon he became terrified that the Germans might build an atomic bomb and put it into Hitler’s hands.
Szilard was on a scientific visit to the United States when he learned that on September 30, 1938, Chamberlain and Daladier signed the Munich pact with Hitler; fear of war made him decide not to return to the research that he was then doing in Oxford. He wrote to Professor Lindemann, later Lord Cherwell, that he would not be able to concentrate on it any longer:
It seems to me that those who wish to dedicate their work to the advancement of science would be well advised to move to America where they may hope for another ten or 15 years of undisturbed work.
The idea that in the event of war British scientists would want to stay and do their duty by their country did not occur to him.
In New York Szilard met Enrico Fermi, the Italian physicist who had started the irradiation of uranium with neutrons in Rome in the hope of generating elements heavier than uranium, then the heaviest one known, but had missed detecting its fission. Fermi had just collected the Nobel Prize for his work and used it as a pretext for leaving Italy and emigrating with his family to the United States directly from Stockholm.
Fermi doubted Hahn and Strassmann’s results at first, but others quickly confirmed and extended them. In March 1939 Szilard and Walter Zinn found that the bombardment of uranium by neutrons was indeed accompanied by the emission of more neutrons, as he had feared. In Paris, Frédéric Joliot, Hans von Halban, and Lew Kowarski obtained the same result and published it as a letter to Nature. A month later they followed it with another letter, claiming that 3.5 neutrons were emitted for every uranium atom split (the correct number is between 2 and 3). After the fall of Paris in June 1940, Halban and Kowarski continued their experiments in the room immediately underneath my office in the old Anatomy School of Cambridge University. I have often wondered how heavily they irradiated me with their neutrons, but so far it seems to have done me no harm.
Their result implied that the construction of an atomic bomb was possible in principle, thus confirming Szilard’s fears, but it was not known how large the piece of uranium would have to be before it exploded. Moreover, uranium was known to be a mixture with a major component of mass 238 and a minor one of mass 235, and it was not clear which was the fissionable one until Niels Bohr showed on theoretical grounds that it was the minor component, which makes up only 0.71 percent of natural uranium. All the same, the stage was set.
In the summer of 1939, Germany became the first country to establish a research unit for the study of the military applications of nuclear fission. Szilard suspected this, and he and his Hungarian colleague Eugene Wigner feared that Germany might attack Belgium in order to gain control of the uranium mines in the Belgian Congo. Knowing that Einstein was friendly with the Belgian King and Queen, they asked him to warm them. Together with Einstein, they drafted an appropriate letter, but Szilard had an uneasy feeling that it was being sent to the wrong address. He discussed the matter with Dr. Alexander Sachs, a Wall Street economist who knew Roosevelt personally and offered to take a letter to him.
After weeks of agonizing over its text, Szilard and Wigner warned the President that “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.” They recommended that the President should appoint someone to maintain contact with the physicists, keep government departments informed, and recommend action, especially to secure uranium supplies. That person should also use his contacts to secure private funds and equipment from industrial laboratories for experimental work on the chain reaction. In those days the idea of the government itself financing that research did not even seem to have occurred to Szilard, Wigner, or Einstein.
The letter to Roosevelt was dated August 2, 1939, but Sachs failed to get an appointment before October 11, 1939, six weeks after Germany’s invasion of Poland. On hearing its message, Roosevelt asked Lyman J. Briggs, the head of the National Bureau of Standards, to set up an advisory committee to study the problem. The committee held its first meeting ten days later and was joined by Szilard, Wigner, and Edward Teller, who secured a promise of $6,000 for their uranium research.
Szilard then sent a ten-page report to Briggs, outlining the research needed to find out whether uranium could sustain a chain reaction, and he organized a drive to locate the necessary supplies of chemically pure uranium and graphite. He also recruited Fermi’s help for the design of a pile made up of a lattice of alternate lumps of the two elements, but he had no job and received no pay for any of this work. At the end of 1939, he wrote bitterly to a rich friend who had lent him $2,000:
Unfortunately, I have not earned anything during this year, as I was tied up with this work on uranium. It looks as though I shall not be able to earn anything next year either.
The promised $6,000 was not released until six months after the meeting of the Briggs committee, by which time Fermi’s interest in the project had waned, while Szilard had become increasingly alarmed by reports of German progress. When the money finally arrived, it allowed them to buy the uranium and graphite needed for a crucial experiment. The carbon atoms in graphite were thought to make the neutrons emitted by uranium fission bounce backward and forward between them and slow them down without absorbing them. The slowed neutrons would induce fission in other uranium atoms, which would emit more neutrons. The experiment was to test whether this was true, but it required graphite free from impurities of other atoms known to absorb neutrons.
Szilard succeeded in finding a manufacturer who made sufficiently pure graphite. He and Fermi then proved that such pure graphite absorbed few enough neutrons to sustain a chain reaction. Fermi wanted to publish their result, but Szilard restrained him, fortunately, as we now know, because the Germans did the same experiment, but with impure graphite, and concluded wrongly that graphite absorbed too many neutrons to sustain a chain reaction; they therefore decided to use heavy water instead. This decision proved one of the main stumbling blocks that prevented them from ever establishing a chain reaction in their atomic piles. Had Fermi and Szilard published their result, the Germans would have realized their fatal mistake.
Censorship of papers on nuclear fission became an issue once more in May 1940 when the Princeton physicist Louis A. Turner sent Szilard a review suggesting that absorption of neutrons by uranium 238 might transform it into the fissile element 239, later called plutonium, which would be easier to separate from uranium than its fissionable isotope 235 was and therefore better suited for a bomb. Szilard lacked the necessary authority to stop publication of Turner’s paper, but his anxieties were relieved by the decision of Roosevelt’s newly formed Defense Research Committee that all papers on uranium must be censored.
That decision had an unforeseen and fateful effect. In 1942 George N. Flerov, a bright young Russian physicist who had begun his own research on nuclear fission before the war, got a few days’ leave from the army in the town of Voronezh. He went to the library of the physics institute to see what had been published in his field since he had been called up. When he found that publication of American papers on this hot subject had suddenly been stopped, he wrote a letter to Stalin warning him that the Americans must be working on an atomic bomb. Stalin had apparently discounted previous reports on similar lines from his spies as too fanciful, but Flerov’s letter convinced him, and he ordered work on a Russian bomb to be started forthwith. Hence the imposition of nuclear censorship in the US may have deprived Germany of valuable information, but it also started the nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union. Lanouette does not mention this.
In the US, the building of the nuclear pile began first at Columbia and later at Chicago under Arthur Compton. Fermi took charge of experimental work and did much of it with his own hands while Szilard never dirtied his; instead he poured out ideas and made a search for supplies of pure graphite and uranium. After Pearl Harbor Compton offered Fermi and Wigner, but not Szilard, high positions. Wigner recalls in his autobiography that when he accepted, he “was quite conscious of an immoral element in my action. But I was far more concerned with the moral failings of a man across the ocean: Adolf Hitler.”2 He describes how the entire team was driven by the constant nagging fear that one small error might yield the lead to the Germans.
Edward Teller and John von Neumann were two other Hungarian theoreticians drawn into the project. Wigner has written that Teller’s imagination was more fertile than that of any of the others, or any one he had ever known, that he did not linger over elegant mathematical formulations as other theoreticians were apt to do, but studied the physical phenomena themselves with brilliant insight. One now wishes Teller’s fertile imagination had not run amok in conceiving the futile and costly “Star Wars” program and foisting it on President Reagan. Wigner recalls that von Neumann contributed an expert knowledge of explosions His precise calculations helped to convince Robert Oppenheimer and others that implosions (compression of the fissile material by conventional explosives all around it) would ignite the atomic bomb.
Von Neumann, Teller, Wigner, and Szilard, old friends from school days in Budapest, were part of an entire generation of brilliant Jewish Hungarian émigrés. Wigner attributes part of their success to the superb high schools in Budapest, which gave them a good start, and part to forced emigration and their need to establish their reputations in a new country.
In his autobiography, Wigner writes that Szilard, as the initiator of the Manhattan Project, expected a high position and preferably full control of the laboratory in Chicago, but believes that Compton was right not to give it to him, because he was incapable of leading a group of scientists, and was not a good enough physicist. Though he was a prolific source of original ideas, he expected others to work them out, no matter whether they were sound or crazy, and had no stomach for the daily grind of science, either in theory or experiment. Wigner denies that Szilard ever contributed any really good new idea to science, but this strikes me as unjustified in the light of the posthumously published collection of his scientific papers and patents and the many tributes from scientists who benefited from his casually thrown out ideas. All the same, Szilard was gradually pushed to the margins of the project and never allowed to join the team at Los Alamos that finally designed and constructed the bomb.
Lanouette describes how Szilard’s open disdain for authority and his erratic and undisciplined ways grated on General Leslie R. Groves, the commander-in-chief of the Manhattan Project. Apparently, Groves considered Szilard to be the villain in the Manhattan Project, a man of “doubtful discretion and uncertain loyalty,” while Szilard considered Groves a fool and showed it. Eventually, Szilard infuriated Groves so much that Groves drafted the following letter to be sent to the attorney general by the secretary of state for war, Henry L. Stimson:
The United States will be forced without delay to dispense with the services of Leo Szilard of Chicago, who is working on one of the most secret War Department projects.
It is considered essential to the prosecution of the war that Mr. Szilard, who is an enemy alien, be interned for the duration of the war. It is requested that an order of internment be issued against Mr. Szilard and that he be apprehended and turned over to representatives of this department for internment.
When Stimson refused to sign, Groves put the FBI on Szilard’s trail with orders to follow his every step. There is no mention of any of this vindictive persecution in Groves’s autobiography. He must have become ashamed of it later.
Pushed to the sidelines, Szilard had time to think about the consequences of the bomb. Once more he enlisted Einstein’s help to put his case before President Roosevelt. On March 25, 1945, he warned the President that “our ‘demonstration’ of atomic bombs will precipitate a race in the production of these devices between the United States and Russia and that if we continue to pursue the present course, our initial advantage may be lost very quickly in such a race.” In an earlier draft, he wrote prophetically, “After this war it is conceivable that it will become possible to drop atomic bombs on the cities of the United States from very great distances by means of rockets.” Szilard suggested delaying the bomb’s use and called for international control, but Roosevelt died before Szilard’s memorandum reached him. Szilard could not have known that the nuclear arms race had already started three years earlier and that Stalin was unlikely to stop it or accept international controls. Besides, his letter was preceded by one from General Groves promising Roosevelt that use of the bomb would end the war against Japan, as indeed it did.
From 1945 onward, Szilard led a frantic life of public appearances and private negotiations aimed at saving the world from his own invention. In 1961, the broadcaster Edward R. Murrow said of him that the bomb “has left him with one driving purpose, and that is to try to help dismantle the era of terror he helped to create.” Szilard himself later declared on CBS television that he felt no guilt, but his denial is belied by his attempt in 1945 to stop publication of the Smyth Report, which described the scientific basis and the construction of the bomb together with the vast administrative organization and industrial effort behind it. Szilard feared that the report would brand him as a war criminal; after its publication he insisted, unsuccessfully, that the army should furnish him with a personal bodyguard.
In May 1946, Szilard called on Einstein to help him found the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists to raise money for public education on atomic energy. If the nuclear arms race was not controlled, Szilard recommended dispersing 30 to 60 million Americans from big cities all over the countryside.
Szilard campaigned against the anti-Communist witch hunt of the House Un-American Activities Committee of the late Forties and early Fifties, and proposed that all academic staff take a 1 percent cut in their salaries to support their dismissed colleagues. According to Lanouette, Szilard was outraged that no one spoke up against the committee’s activities, but I know at least one courageous member of the Harvard faculty who did. The biochemist John T. Edsall wrote letters of protest to The New York Times and to Lewis L. Strauss, the head of the Atomic Energy Commission. According to Edsall about two thirds of the scientists called to testify at Oppenheimer’s hearings spoke in his favor.
On October 13, 1951, Szilard finally married his lifelong friend, the Viennese physician Trude Weiss. After parting from her the next morning he was already overcome by terror at being confined by marriage ties and wrote to her: “I lost all hope of ‘freedom’ and I felt terrible; almost incapable to work at the lab., absentminded, sweats, and high pulse rate. This has been going on for three days.” Unable to control his fears, he inquired about divorce proceedings in several states. His patient bride repeated earlier suggestions that he should see a psychoanalyst, psychiatrist, or marriage counselor, but to no avail, and eventually Szilard apparently came to accept his new bondage.
Meanwhile Szilard concocted plans for surviving the nuclear war that he feared to be imminent. He made plans to found a school in Mexico where his friends’ children might go. In 1958, when Eisenhower sent American troops to Lebanon, he declared, “If a confrontation develops I shall leave the country.” He really did pack his belongings into fifteen pieces of luggage and fled to Geneva together with his wife during the Cuban missile crisis, and he did not return until several months later. In Geneva Szilard walked into the office of Viktor Weisskopf, director of CERN, the European Laboratory for Nuclear Research, with the words “I am the first refugee from the third world war.” By then Szilard’s interests had shifted to molecular biology. Realization of the great stimulus that CERN had brought to European physics led Szilard to suggest that an international laboratory run on similar lines would give a much needed boost to European molecular biology. His initiative led me and my colleagues to found the European Molecular Biology Organization, which financed traveling fellowships and workshops and later persuaded European governments to set up the laboratory that Szilard had envisaged.
Some years earlier Szilard had concocted a scheme for limiting a nuclear conflict whereby the US and Soviet Union would agree on “sister cities” designated for mutual destruction, which each side would evacuate when the conflict started. He wrote two wordy, convoluted, repetitive articles for the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists on this subject and urged several other impractical schemes in “How to Live with the Bomb and Survive.” Convinced that he was cleverer than the politicians, he decided to negotiate directly with Khrushchev, and actually managed to have a two-hour discussion with him when Khrushchev visited New York in September 1960.
In a memorandum translated into Russian, Szilard proposed that the United States and the Soviet Union should agree on a nuclear test ban whose observance should be monitored by independent citizens, Americans in the US, Russians in the USSR, who should be paid $1 million for reporting any genuine violation. Khrushchev had declared a unilateral moratorium on nuclear tests two years earlier. Szilard blamed the Americans for wanting to continue testing for the sake of developing tactical nuclear weapons in which Khrushchev said he was not interested. Szilard’s memorandum also recommended that America and Russia install direct telephone connections between their governments which would be readily available in an emergency. This appealed to Khrushchev, but it was done only after the Cuban missile crisis, when it would have been most needed. Szilard later told an interviewer that in Khrushchev he had found “a kindred spirit…a bold and intuitive strategist who was personally committed to controlling nuclear arms.”
Szilard did not know (nor does Lanouette) that his kindred spirit had declared a unilateral nuclear test ban only because an explosion had destroyed the Soviet plutonium plant. When that had been rebuilt, Khrushchev’s personal commitment to the control of the nuclear arms race ceased. The Soviet Union was to explode fifty weapons, including the new fifty-six-megaton hydrogen bomb, built under the supervision of Andrei Sakharov, the largest ever exploded, for which Khrushchev and Brezhnev publicly embraced Sakharov in front of the entire Politburo.
In October 1960 Szilard went to Moscow to attend a meeting of the Pugwash Group, founded by Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell in 1955 to bring American, West European, and Soviet atomic physicists together to discuss limitations to the nuclear arms race. Szilard stayed in Moscow for some time after the meeting, but despite persistent efforts he failed to get another appointment with Khrushchev.
Later that year, when Kennedy was elected President, Szilard installed himself and his wife in a Washington hotel. The same mixture of conceit and naiveté that had turned him into a self-appointed negotiator with Khrushchev now made him decide to advise the new administration on peace and disarmament, undeterred by being told that “people in government pay more attention to the advice they invite than to the advice they are offered.” He also founded a movement of “Scientists for Peace” because “besides being cleverer than congressmen, scientists should lead this movement, because, unlike politicians, they have integrity and purity.” Szilard may have been fortunate not to have lived long enough to have his faith in scientists’ integrity and purity shaken.
In January 1962 he founded the Council for a Livable World, a pressure group financed by citizens interested in the control of nuclear weapons and general disarmament; it supports the election and activities of senators favorable to their cause and still continues its work today. Inspired by his postwar interest in molecular biology, he conceived the idea for the highly successful Salk Institute for Biological Studies, a laboratory for fundamental research at La Jolla, California, where he and his wife set up in his first home since he left Budapest forty-five years earlier. He died there three months later of a heart attack.
Was it a life well spent? It was lonely and haunted by fears, both rational and irrational, stoked by Szilard’s vivid imagination. For example, when Szilard was at Oxford in his thirties, he made a date with a girl to go out on the river Isis, but when they arrived there he pulled the boat up onto the bank because he was terrified of even that sluggish river’s shallow waters. He even refused to pull the chain in the bathroom, because he had never overcome his childish terror of the water rushing down. On one occasion this saved his life. When the Hungarian oncologist George Klein used the bathroom after him, he saw blood in Szilard’s urine and diagnosed that Szilard suffered from cancer of the bladder. Klein recommended surgery. Szilard, after much vacillation, rejected this, studied the literature on the effects of radiation on tumors, prescribed his own radiation treatment, had it carried out at the Sloan-Kettering Memorial Hospital in New York, and was cured.
Szilard’s great abilities as a scientist were largely wasted because he lacked the application needed for systematic research. All he needed, he thought, was ideas; their working out could be left to lesser mortals. Only when driven by panic fear that the Germans might do it first did he work hard on the verification of the neutron chain reaction, the behavior of graphite under neutron bombardment, and the design of the first atomic pile. Terror of the Germans drove him to start work on the atomic bomb and terror of its consequences ruled the rest of his life. Was Szilard’s terror of the Germans justified? Release of the Farm Hall transcripts and other evidence shows that the German scientists neither succeeded in establishing a nuclear chain reaction in a uranium pile nor had any idea of the critical mass needed for a bomb.3
Was it justified to drop the bomb on Japan? Lanouette quotes a source saying that there was no need, because Japan was about to surrender, but the historian Gordon Craig informs me that there exists no convincing historical evidence that the Japanese military commanders were prepared to surrender. Had the bombs not been dropped, the US Army would have had to invade Japan, with untold numbers of casualties that President Truman did not wish to risk. According to Laurens van der Post, who was a prisoner of the Japanese in Java, their army was under orders to kill all the Allied prisoners in the event of an American invasion. These circumstances should be kept in mind before we condemn the decision to drop the bomb.
In general, Lanouette’s book is eminently readable and thoroughly researched, but some of his statements are fiction. He describes Szilard’s visit to Hermann Mark in the chemistry department of the “imposing compound of the University of Vienna.” Having spent my own undergraduate years there, I know that the chemistry laboratory is half a mile from the university. The author romanticizes Szilard’s train ride from Vienna to Passau “through the snow-bright Alps,” but the train goes through the plains a long way out of sight of the Alps. Max von Laue is described as a formal Prussian gentleman who devised a way of measuring X-ray wavelengths, but he was born in the Rhineland, brought up in Strasbourg, and received the Nobel prize, not for devising a way of measuring X-ray wavelengths (W.L. Bragg did that), but “for his discovery of X-ray diffraction by crystals.” Cathode rays are wrongly described as X-rays and wave mechanics as “a practical extension of the quantum theory,” instead of as an entirely new way of looking at the behavior of atomic matter. But these are minor blemishes in an excellent book spiced with telling anecdotes about a strange man who influenced world history.
October 7, 1993