In the midst of World War II, while engaged abroad in a major conflict with Germany and Japan, the United States was also working furiously at home toward the completion of the Manhattan Project. This huge research and development project was begun in June 1942 to develop a superexplosive weapon based on the nuclear fission process. It was hoped that such a superweapon would end the war. Two years before such an experimental atomic bomb was detonated successfully near Alamogordo, New Mexico, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) wrote to J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904-1967), the scientist in charge of its development. The letter is reproduced below. Why was it essential that Oppenheimer's work be kept secret? Why does President Roosevelt not refer to atomic research in his letter? Why do you think President Roosevelt wrote the letter?
THE WHITE HOUSE
My dear Dr. Oppenheimer:
I have recently reviewed with Dr. Bush the highly important and secret program of research, development and manufacture with which you are familiar. I was very glad to hear of the excellent work which is being done in a number of places in this country under the immediate supervision of General L.R. Groves and the general direction of the Committee of which Dr. Bush is Chairman. The successful solution of the problem is of the utmost importance to the national safety, and I am confident that the work will be completed in as short a time as possible as the result of the wholehearted cooperation of all concerned.
I am writing to you as the leader of one group which is to play a vital role in the months ahead. I know that you and your colleagues are working on a hazardous matter under unusual circumstances. The fact that the outcome of your labors is of such great significance to the nation requires that this program be even more drastically guarded than other highly secret war development. I have therefore given directions that every precaution be taken to insure the security of your project and feel sure that those in charge will see that these orders are carried out. You are fully aware of the reasons why your endeavors and those of your associates must be circumscribed by very special restrictions. Nevertheless, I wish you would express to the scientists assembled with you my deep appreciation of their willingness to undertake the tasks which lie before them in spite of the dangers and the personal sacrifices. I am sure that we can rely on their continued wholehearted and unselfish labors. Whatever the enemy may be planning, American science will be equal to the challenge. With this thought in mind, I send this note of confidence and appreciation.
Though there are other important groups at work, I am writing only to you as the leader of one which is operating under very special conditions, and to General Groves. While this letter is secret, the contents of it may be disclosed to your associates under pledge of secrecy.
Very Sincerely Yours
Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Dr. J. R. Oppenheimer