Albert Einstein, the Pacifist Whose Work Helped Kill Tens of Thousands

Actual photos of the Hiroshima (L) and Nagasaki (R) atomic bomb blasts on August 6 and 9, 1945. (Image: Charles Levy/Wikimedia Commons)
Actual photos of the Hiroshima (L) and Nagasaki (R) atomic bomb blasts on August 6 and 9, 1945. (Image: Charles Levy/Wikimedia Commons)

On August 2, 1939, the German-born genius Albert Einstein changed how the world would fight wars.

All it took was a 2-page letter he wrote to President Franklin D. Roosevelt on August 2, 1939 to start a nuclear arms race against the Nazis.

Einstein was a pacifist who fled Nazi Germany after learning that three scientists in Berlin had used nuclear fission to successfully split the uranium atom; he decided to write the letter. Einstein was telling Roosevelt that “through the work of Frédéric Joliot in France, as well as Enrico Fermi and Leo 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 quantities of new radium-like elements would be generated. Now it appears almost certain that this could be achieved in the immediate future.”

Einstein was talking about what we now know as the “atomic bomb.”

“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.”

After two years and many letters from Einstein, the U.S. created what was known as the “Manhattan Project.” This project was centered on designing and building the most powerful weapons ever built up to that time.

Einstein was unable to gain a security clearance, so he was unable to work on the Manhattan Project. The first official account of the development of the atomic bomb was in 1945, in a report by physicist Henry DeWolf Smyth in which Einstein’s simple eloquent formula E=mc² appeared. Einstein’s letters played a bigger role in the construction of the bomb than his equation. His formula showed that atomic bombs were theoretically possible, but the equation was irrelevant in the creation of a bomb. On August 6, 1945, the U.S. dropped a 5-ton atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

The blast killed 80,000 people immediately, and flattened four square miles of the city.

Three days later, another bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, killing approximately 40,000 people instantly; thousands more died from radiation poisoning.

Actual 1946 film footage of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atom bomb blasts and their inconceivable destruction:

Eight days later, Japan informally surrendered, effectively ending World War II. This undoubtedly saved many lives by preventing a protracted war, but it came at an incredible price. I’m not saying that Einstein did anything wrong, but it certainly tarnished his image as a pacifist.

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