It happened today - August 2, 2015

Letter from Einstein to Roosevelt Albert Einstein isn’t exactly Dr. Strangelove, now is he? The famously bushy-haired, pacifist physics genius was a kindly, gentle man frequently quoted as telling an interviewer in 1949 “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.” And yet it was on this date back in 1939 that he wrote to President Franklin Roosevelt expressly urging the United States to research nuclear weapons.

Back then the stakes were horribly clear. Hitler had achieved conventional military superiority of a sort that might well give him domination of the Eurasian land mass. And if he did it would not only be disastrous for those who lived there, especially those like Einstein, by then in America, who were Jewish by descent if not belief. If he had conquered Russia and Britain, can anyone doubt based on his career that the Nazi leader would have turned his sights on infiltrating South and Central America preparatory to a combined German-Japanese attack on Canada and the United States?

That the Nazis’ racial doctrines made them unlikely allies with the Japanese, whose own ethnic views did not bear close examination, or rather cried out for it, would have been cold comfort had they ended up quarreling lethally over our corpses. And Einstein saw that all these things could come to be if the democracies did not find some way to combat Hitler. It wasn’t just a question of our finding an atomic “superweapon” to overcome the Blitzkrieg and the U-boats and other Nazi weapons and tactics. It was a question of getting there before Hitler did.

As it turned out, the Nazi nuclear program wasn’t very effective, partly though not primarily due to Allied bombing of heavy water facilities and efforts to deny Germany key raw materials. And while I remain convinced that the U.S. atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki saved millions of Japanese lives as well as hundreds of thousands of American ones, World War II would in fact have been won without nuclear weapons.

It is after the war that the wisdom of Einstein’s course became clear. For seven decades, the primary guarantee that world affairs cannot get completely out of hand has been the American capacity for massive nuclear retaliation against any foe who menaces the core of the West. Presidents from Reagan to Obama who dream of nuclear disarmament know not what they do. A world in which Beijing, or Pyongyang, or Teheran had nukes and Washington and London and Jerusalem did not, or even one in which we had no sure defence against the conventional might of tyrants, would be such a nightmare that even a pacifist should not be able to bear it.

Einstein couldn’t in 1939. And that’s good enough for me.