Chemical Warfare, WWII, the Atomic Bomb, and Einstein

Einstein the Pacifist

Due to the construction of the atomic bomb, I feel that Einstein offered the greatest impact to science for the twentieth-century. Specifically because of the mass destruction that the A-bomb enforced, science was able to create unimaginable horrors to inflict upon its enemy. The military turned to science for warfare development and gained immeasurably due to advancing technologies such as automatic machine-guns, chemical gases, and biological weapons. As a local historian, I assisted in founding in the WWII History Project for Fairmont State University in 2005-2006 by interviewing civilians and veterans involved in the effort. The process consisted of a personalized account of the individual’s experience with the war, followed by the interviewer’s questions, and recorded on video for later transcription. The documents were then transferred to the National Library for permanent record. One of the civilians I interviewed was a woman from West Virginia who applied for a government job she noticed listed in the newspaper. She applied and was excited when she found out that she would be flying in a plane for the first time to her new job. She worked in a factory making parts for the government. Later, she found out that the parts she was constructing were components to the atomic bomb. Apparently, for security purposes and to prevent society from learning of the atrocious abilities of nuclear warfare, there were only a handful of individuals who knew what was being built – and chances were that if they knew, they still would not know where the parts were located.

Bowler and Morus discussed the importance of chemical war as the military turned to science for better explosives and poisonous gases from 1914-1918.[1]Science and the military did not always agree, but the military saw scientific ability as useful for purposes of war. Even if the military asking for service did not want to use harmful substances, they did not want the enemy to be able to construct a substance that they did not understand or know how to create in terms of defense. Bowler and Morus said, “The British and the French responded much more rapidly than the Germans expected, and the rest of the war saw a succession of developments including the use of gas shells and the introduction of new chemicals such as mustard gas.”[2]

The fear of the enemy advancing to surpass their level of scientific success terrorized the Allied forces during WWII. If the Allies knew about the ability to create an atomic bomb, then the possibility that the information could be discovered by the Axis force, and used against whole cities was a real threat. In efforts to surpass Hitler, the Manhattan Project formed to develop the bomb: “When Heisenberg and his colleagues were interrogated after their capture by the Allies, it became clear that they had vastly overestimated the critical mass needed to start a chain reaction in uranium and had told the German military that the bomb could not be made.”[3] German science, fortunately, had not been able to advance as the Allies feared. The military seized control of scientific research and procedure, and “Oppenheimer realized that scientists would have to learn to work in these new ways if they were to have any influence over what was being done with their work.”[4]

While his theories may have depended on concepts formulated by Michelson and Morey, Einstein successfully married the refutation of ether with his theories of relativity.[5] Ofer Ashkenazi noted Einstein’s attachment to the peace movement even though his discoveries were used to construct the Atomic bomb.[6] Einstein interacted with political officials in efforts to work towards peace in avoidance of conflict, death, or suffrage. Ashkenazi said, “The shift of emphasis from the national to the transnational aspects of the anti-war struggle thus places Einstein’s views and activity well within the framework of the mainstream peace movement.”[7] Why then, would Einstein ever agree to formulate the bomb? Ashkenazi noted Einstein accepted the notion of defense but was a pacifist.[8] He agreed to assist the military as means of preserving peace; after Hitler stormed Europe, Einstein could no longer claim to be a pacifist.[9] Doug Long said, “Einstein’s greatest role in the invention of the atomic bomb was signing a letter to President Franklin Roosevelt urging that the bomb be built.”[10] Vannavar Bush did not trust Einstein to keep the project secret, and the scientist was excluded from production. In the end, Einstein regretted advising for the bomb to be built, but he was so afraid that Germany would build one first – Einstein made sure the Allies had the bomb first.



Ashkenazi, Ofer. “Reframing the Interwar Peace Movement: The Curious Case of Albert Einstein.” Journal of Contemporary History, 46.4 (2011): 741-766. JSTOR. Web. 19 Jan 2016.

Bowler, Peter J. and Iwan Rhys Morus. Making Modern Science: A Historical Survey. Chicago, Illinois: The University of Chicago Press,2005.

Long, Doug. “Albert Einstein and the Atomic Bomb.” Unk. date. Webpage. 19 Jan 2016.

Picture c/o:

[1] Bowler and Morus, Making Modern Science, p. 465.

[2] Bowler and Morus, Making Modern Science, p.467.

[3] Bowler and Morus, Making Modern Science, p. 472.

[4] Bowler and Morus, Making Modern Science, p. 475.

[5] Bowler and Morus, Making Modern Science, p. 264.

[6] Ashkenazi, “Reframing the Interwar Peace Movement: The Curious Case of Albert Einstein,” Journal of Contemporary History, p. 742.

[7] Ashkenazi, “Reframing the Interwar Peace Movement: The Curious Case of Albert Einstein,” Journal of Contemporary History, p. 743.

[8] Ashkenazi, “Reframing the Interwar Peace Movement: The Curious Case of Albert Einstein,” Journal of Contemporary History, p. 741-2.

[9] Long, “Albert Einstein and the Atomic Bomb.”

[10] Long, “Albert Einstein and the Atomic Bomb.”