On October 9, 1941, one of the most important, lonely and secret decisions in the course of the Second World War was made by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In a small meeting with only Vice President Henry Wallace and the head of the National Defense Research Committee Vannevar Bush present, Roosevelt committed the United States government to embark upon a program of intensified research into the feasibility of a fission bomb. The major questions of how much money, construction projects, personnel, and administrative structures needed to build an atomic bomb were not decided at this meeting. In Vannevar Bush, Roosevelt was giving the green light to a man he trusted to develop those frameworks as needed, and Roosevelt was aware that Bush would use Presidential authority to aggressively push the project forward. The United States was still technically a neutral nation in October 1941, yet Roosevelt became the first national leader to commit his nation to the effort to achieve a nuclear device. In so doing, he also decisively changed the nature of the relationship between American government and American science, a cultural change that has persisted to the present day.
Once begun down this pathway, the Americans would be the first to successfully detonate a nuclear bomb with the Trinity test in the desert of New Mexico on July 16, 1945. But there was nothing inevitable in the story of what would be officially christened as the Manhattan Project in August, 1942. Before the culmination of the technical project, however, Roosevelt’s decision established important political parameters for the future of the nation and the world long after the end of the war. He did not wish to consult on nuclear issues with the American Congress which voiced the democratic concerns of the public, the military forces which would use the weaponry, or the scientists who developed and implemented the technology. He did not wish to develop the technology in an international effort with the Allies (although it will be seen that Great Britain made a deep contribution to Roosevelt’s decision to pursue the project in October 1941). Almost instinctively, Franklin Roosevelt reserved all major policy aspects of the atomic bomb to himself and the American presidency.
The Bohr-Heisenberg Meeting at Copenhagen: 70th Anniversary September 15-21, 1941
In the fall of 1941, the course of history in the Second World War took a different pathway based upon a mere conversation between two men. At first glance, it would appear unlikely such an event could have such an effect, particularly since both men were intentionally vague with each other, each later maintained misunderstandings of the other’s intention, and to this day the conversation remains shrouded in mystery. The two men were civilians, not soldiers; they were scientists, not politicians; they met in Nazi-occupied territory, not in free lands where they could speak frankly. Lastly and most importantly, they were thinkers dedicated to the discovery of knowledge of the natural world, not the mass destruction of human life.
But when the participants in this uncertain conversation were Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, then the import of the event becomes clearer. On the surface, the Dane of Jewish descent and the German Lutheran, separated in age by sixteen years, did not have much in common. But their lives were deeply intertwined with each other on personal, intellectual, and professional levels. They began as an internationally recognized physics professor and gifted student when they first met in 1922, the year Bohr became a Nobel laureate. But they became much more than that. Personally, Heisenberg virtually became another of Bohr’s sons and shared the intimacy of his family life. Intellectually, Bohr’s manner of thinking about physical problems in which he attempted to comprehend phenomena as a whole found balance, advancement and authenticity through collaboration with Heisenberg, whose fascination with and ability to find the music of mathematics located within physical events led to great scientific breakthroughs.
Picture this scene: a man stands up to speak his mind at a community meeting. He’s not a town leader or a wealthy businessman. He’s a farmer, or a truck driver, or maybe a factory worker. But at this civic gathering, he delivers his opinion with the knowledge that his right to speak his mind is ingrained in the law of the land. It’s a simple scene, but one that Norman Rockwell seared into the American consciousness as part of his 1943 “Four Freedoms” series.
Today, the Museum opens a special exhibit titled Roosevelt, Rockwell, and the Four Freedoms: America’s Slow March from Isolation to Action (September 2—November 13). This exhibit explores a lesser-known side of WWII history—the time period before Pearl Harbor, when Americans debated what to do about the wars in Europe and Asia. From the Neutralities Acts passed in the mid 1930s to “Cash and Carry” to the Lend Lease program, American politicians, newspaper editors, community leaders, and everyday Americans argued between isolation and intervention, between staying out and helping out. As President Roosevelt became convinced that the United States must aid Great Britain in its solitary fight against Nazi Germany, he knew he needed to provide a moral justification to persuade his fellow Americans to go along. In his January 6, 1941, State of the Union Address, he spoke of a post-war world where four freedoms reigned: Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear. That speech and the ever-more frightening realities on the ground in Europe helped usher in a more aggressive anti-Nazi, pro British foreign policy. Two years later, with the United States in the war, popular American artist Norman Rockwell turned Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms into four iconic paintings, which in turn were turned into four of the best known American propaganda posters of WWII.
Come see these original posters, a timeline of pre-war American foreign policy, and a provocative audio-visual presentation that will get you thinking about whether Mr. Roosevelt’s vision has come true or not.
With the 70th anniversary of Pearl Harbor on the horizon, we turn our attention to the eve of US involvement in the war that changed the world. This entry by the Museum’s Senior Director of History & Research, Keith Huxen, is just one of many historical essays on 70th anniversaries we will be posting in coming years. You can also keep up with significant dates by following the Museum’s Twitter feed, @wwiitoday.
The Atlantic Charter: 70th Anniversary, August 14, 1941
In the summer of 1941 the historical pathway of the Second World War was rapidly changing. In Asia, Japan found herself still struggling after four years to complete and consolidate her conquests in China without recourse or access to the raw materials spread further across the Southeast Asian archipelago. Pressure in the European war was also reaching critical mass. Great Britain, having survived the previous summer by fending off Operation Sea Lion, Hitler’s planned invasion across the English Channel, had continued to fight Germany alone. Unable to complete Britain’s defeat by late October 1940, Hitler gambled and unleashed Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion and double-cross of the Soviet Union. The Germans believed that total victory over the USSR could be completed in six months. Germany’s gamble would achieve four great objectives: Soviet defeat would rob Britain of her last potential European ally and force Britain to a separate peace; Hitler would eliminate the Soviet Communist regime which he regarded as his great ideological enemy; Hitler would acquire through invasion the vast Lebensraum or eastern living space in Ukraine where he intended to build a purely Aryan empire; and last, as the German army acquired and controlled the territories of Eastern Europe, Hitler would gain control of two-thirds of Europe’s Jewish population (along with other racial undesirables in the Nazi lexicon) which he intended to extinguish from European life. Unleashed on June 22, 1941, the Nazi invasion and strategy appeared to have a good chance of success as the Nazis drove deep into Soviet territories.
Despite a long and dedicated political opposition to Communism, Britain’s Prime Minister Winston Churchill immediately welcomed Joseph Stalin and the Soviets as an ally in the fight against Nazism. When questioned on his political pivot, Churchill famously observed that “if Hitler invaded Hell, I would at least make a favorable reference to the Devil.”
The National WWII Museum tells the story of the American Experience in the war that changed the world - why it was fought, how it was won, and what it means today - so that all generations will understand the price of freedom and be inspired by what they learn.