Scientists who escaped from dictatorships in Hungary, Germany, Italy, and other European countries during the 1930’s played a major role in the successful development of the American atomic bomb and other projects during World War II.
European immigrants who came to America during the nineteenth century were mostly farmers, construction workers, domestic servants, or day laborers. Only very few scientists with professional training came over, usually to take advantage of broader opportunities than were available in their homelands. For example, the Scottish inventor
It should be pointed out that many Jews had separated themselves from the religious tradition of their parents or grandparents and in some cases had been baptized as Roman Catholics or Protestants. Nevertheless, these governments classified all people of Jewish heritage into the same category.
University scholars who had lost their livelihood in Europe anxiously looked to the United States for employment. American universities would have liked to add distinguished Europeans to their faculty, but the Great Depression limited the availability of funds for new positions. An organization of American university presidents, the
One interesting immigration anecdote relates to the Italian physicist
In January of 1939, a dramatic discovery was announced by two scientists in Germany: the fission of the uranium nucleus into two pieces, accompanied by a large release of energy. The amount of nuclear energy emitted per atom is a million times greater than the chemical energy that is released by traditional explosives. That meant that if uranium could be purified sufficiently, it might be possible to build a weapon of terrifying power. Two
The story of the subsequent development of the atomic bomb during World War II has been told by numerous authors. As in any research project, there was uncertainty at many points about the eventual outcome. The large reactor that was built for plutonium production at Hanford, Washington, almost failed because of an unanticipated problem with a previously unknown neutron absorber. At Oak Ridge, Tennessee, three different technologies for uranium isotope separation were attempted with no guarantee that any of them could be made to work. The test explosion at Alamogordo, New Mexico, in June of 1945 could have been a dud if the unusual detonation mechanism of an implosion had fizzled. A spirit of cooperation developed among the scientists, the Army, and the private contractors, without which the project could not have been completed within four years.
European scientists were few in number in comparison to the many Americans who worked on the atomic bomb and other war research projects. However, the Europeans made major contributions, often in leadership roles. The magnitude of the immigrants’ contributions can be appreciated by listing the accomplishments of some of the most prominent individuals.
Russian-born physicist George Gamow in 1961.
Compton, Arthur H. Atomic Quest: A Personal Narrative. New York: Oxford University Press, 1956. The best account of the American atomic bomb development written for a nontechnical audience. The author knew all the leading scientists personally and describes their contributions. Fermi, Laura. Atoms in the Family: My Life with Enrico Fermi. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1954. Describes the difficult conditions in Italy under Mussolini’s Fascism and the Fermi family’s escape to America, with perceptive personality sketches of the author’s husband’s scientific colleagues. _______. Illustrious Immigrants: The Intellectual Migration from Europe, 1930-1941. 2d ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971. Overview of the large wave of notable scientists and other professionals who came to America to escape fascism. Discusses how they contributed to their new homeland. Groves, Leslie R. Now It Can Be Told: The Story of the Manhattan Project. New York: Da Capo Press, 1962. General Groves was the chief military officer for all aspects of the American bomb project from 1942 to 1946. He had responsibility for the construction of the three atomic laboratories at Oak Ridge, Hanford, and Los Alamos, while maintaining secrecy for the whole project. Hargittai, István. The Martians of Science: Five Physicists Who Changed the Twentieth Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. Biographies of five extraordinary Hungarians: Leo Szilard, Eugene Wigner, John von Neumann, Edward Teller, and Theodore von Karman. All were born in Budapest, immigrated to America, and had leading scientific roles during and after World War II. Contains much personal information not found elsewhere. Sayen, Jamie. Einstein in America: The Scientist’s Conscience in the Age of Hitler and Hiroshima. New York: Crown, 1985. This biography describes Einstein’s many nonscientific, social involvements from 1933 to 1955, including his assistance to refugees, his letter to President Roosevelt, and his opposition to military H-bomb test explosions.
Bell, Alexander Graham