UW News

August 6, 2013

Documents that Changed the World: Einstein’s letter to FDR, 1939

UW News

Albert Einstein's Aug. 2, 1939, letter to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Albert Einstein’s Aug. 2, 1939, letter to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.National Archives online

The latest Documents that Changed the World podcast is about the serious business of Albert Einstein being persuaded to write President Franklin D. Roosevelt to warn of a growing nuclear threat from Germany’s Third Reich.

But the idea came to Joe Janes, UW Information School professor and author of the popular podcast series, when he read about the somewhat sillier business of highly-educated physicists roaming Long Island by car looking in vain for Einstein’s house. After a while, Janes writes, “they asked a kid on the street who led them right to the world-famous Nobel laureate, father of relativity, in a T-shirt and grubby pants.”

Documents that Changed the World:

Documents that Changed the World is an ongoing podcast series by Janes that explores the origin and often evolving meaning of historical documents both famous and less known. UW Today presents these periodically, and all of the podcasts are available online at the Information School website as well as on itunes, with 40,000 downloads there so far.

Albert Einstein, left, and President Franklin Roosevelt.

Albert Einstein, left, and Franklin D. Roosevelt

The physicists persuaded Einstein to send Roosevelt a letter outlining the threat and suggesting that the president make “permanent contact” with American physicists working toward a similar atomic capacity.

“The letter itself seemed very much to be the catalyst for the American effort to make some sort of weapon from newly-discovered atomic energy,” Janes said, discussing the podcast. “It’s possible that it would otherwise have arisen, but Einstein’s name and reputation certainly helped.

“And of course, Einstein’s deeply felt pacifism adds an extra, somewhat poignant dimension as well.”

From there in the podcast, Janes briefly discusses the history of the personal letter, a practice once deeply embedded in our social lives that has since become a sort of cultural dead man walking — lifeless, but not yet quite ready to lie down.

Janes said the topic was compelling also because “it gets into letters, their forms and genesis, how they led to other forms such as passports and currency, and provokes thinking about the future of the letter and postal services in general.”

The end of the story is known to all — the U.S. dropped a nuclear weapon on Hiroshima, Japan, on Aug. 6, 1945, and the Germans never developed a weapon of their own.

Einstein, Janes reports, later said if he knew Germany was not going to create its own atomic bomb, “I never would have lifted a finger.”