Leo Szilard

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Leo Szilard

Leo Szilard (born February 11, 1898 – May 30, 1964) was a Hungarian-born physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project.

Hungarian socialist

In Budapest during the 1919 Bela Kun Hungarian Soviet Republic, Szilard founded a socialist students association to "help clarify political and economic issues." The Hungarian Association of Socialist Students distributed a pamphlet on tax and monetary reform purportedly written by Leo.[1]

Both before and after World War I, the Szilard brothers had attended the Galilei Circle, a cultural movement of free-thinking students in Budapest, which was suppressed in 1919.[2]

The Galilei Circle (founded in 1908 by the brothers Michael Polanyi and Karl Polanyi, at the University of Budapest) to discuss and design the nationalistic future of Hungary.[3]

Leo Szilard was an enthusiastic supporter of Bela Kun's communist regime. When Kun's government fell, the backlash against communists and Jews persuaded Szilard to leave Hungary for Berlin.[4]

Michael Polanyi formed a "study group" in 1928 with Leo Szilard, Eugene Wigner, and John von Neumann to analyze Soviet affairs.[5]

'30s activism

In London in the 1930s, Szilard helped organize the Academic Assistance Council to aid refugee scholars. He also proposed enlisting Nobel laureates to protest Japan’s invasion of Manchuria, the first time this august group was politicized in this way.[6]

Political blackmail

Szilard’s best known political efforts involved his mentor and friend, Albert Einstein. In New York in 1939, Szilard proposed and drafted a letter from Einstein to President Franklin D. Roosevelt that warned about German nuclear weapons research and urged a U.S. counter-effort. Szilard had befriended Einstein in Berlin in the 1920s, and the two developed several joint patents for an electromagnetic pump. Einstein was known to Roosevelt, while Szilard was not. But also, as Szilard put it, “The one thing most scientists are really afraid of is to make a fool of themselves. Einstein was free from such a fear and this above all is what made his position unique on this occasion.”

Their letter prompted Roosevelt to convene a federal Advisory Committee on Uranium (with Hungarian physicists Eugene Wigner, Edward Teller, and Szilard as members) that promised money for Enrico Fermi and Szilard to conduct chain-reaction experiments at Columbia University. But when this funding from Washington hadn’t materialized by the spring of 1940, Szilard enlisted Einstein in a little-known effort at political blackmail. He drafted for Einstein a letter warning the White House that if those funds were not forthcoming, Szilard would publish a paper detailing just how a chain reaction in uranium could work. Soon, Fermi and Szilard received their money.[7]

Manhattan Project

Fermi and Szilard.gif

In 1942 General Groves, head of the newly-formed Manhattan Project declared Szilard to be detrimental to the project and that he should be arrested and interned for the duration of the Second World War.[8]

Accused Soviet source

According to Pavel Sudaplatov, former wartime director of the Administration for Special Tasks, an elite unit of the Soviet intelligence service, Leo Szilard, Robert Oppenheimer and Enrico Fermi, knowingly supplied information to Soviet contacts during their work on the Manhattan Project.


Sudaplatov claimed in his 1994 book "Special Tasks, Memoirs of an unwanted witness-A soviet Spymaster"[9].

The most vital information for developing the first Soviet atomic bomb came from scientists engaged in the Manhattan Project to build the American atomic bomb - Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, and Leo Szilard.
Oppenheimer, Fermi, Szilard, and Szilard's secretary were often quoted in the NKVD files from 1942 to 1945 as sources for information on the development of the first American atomic bomb. It is in the record that on several occasions they agreed to share information on nuclear weapons with Soviet scientists. At first they were motivated by fear of Hitler; they believed that the Germans might produce the first atomic bomb. Then the Danish physicist Niels Bohr helped strengthen their own inclinations to share nuclear secrets with the world academic community. By sharing their knowledge with the Soviet Union, the chance of beating the Germans to the bomb would be increased.
As early as 1940, a commission of Soviet scientists, upon hearing rumors of a superweapon being built in the West, investigated the possibility of creating an atomic bomb from uranium, but concluded that such a weapon was a theoretical, not a practical, possibility. The same scientific commission recommended that the government instruct intelligence services to monitor Western scientific publications ...
{p. 192} We were able to take advantage of the network of colleagues that Gamow had established. Using implied threats against Gamow's relatives in Russia, Elizabeth Zarubina pressured him into cooperating with us. In exchange for safety and material support for his relatives, Gamow provided the names of left-wing scientists who might be recruited to supply secret information. ...
Another route was from the mole who worked with Fermi and Pontecorvo. The mole in Tennessee was connected with the illegal station at the Santa Fe drugstore, from which material was sent by courier to Mexico. The unidentified young moles, along with the Los Alamos mole, were junior scientists or administrators who copied vital documents to which they were allowed access by Oppenheimer, Fermi, and Szilard, who were knowingly part of the scheme.
{p. 194} We received reports on the progress of the Manhattan Project from Oppenheimer and his friends in oral form, through comments and asides, and from documents transferred through clandestine methods with their full knowledge that the information they were sharing would be passed on. In all, there were five classified reports made available by Oppenheimer describing the progress of work on the atomic bomb.
{p. 195} Not only were we informed of technical developments in the atomic program, but we heard in detail the human conflicts and rivalries among the members of the team at Los Alamos. A constant theme was tension with General Groves, director of the project. We were told of Groves's conflicts with Szilard. Groves was outraged by Szilard's iconoclastic style and his refusal to accept the strictures of military discipline. The "baiting of brass hats" was Szilard's self-professed hobby. Groves believed that Szilard was a security risk and tried to prevent him from working on the Manhattan Project despite Szilard's seminal contribution to the development of the first atomic chain reaction with Fermi. ...
We knew that Oppenheimer would remain an influential person in America after the war and therefore our relations with him should not take the form of running a controlled agent. We understood that he and other members of the scientific community were best approached as friends, not as agents. Since Oppenheimer, Bohr, and Fermi were fierce opponents of violence, they would seek to prevent a nuclear war, creating a balance of power through sharing the secrets of atomic energy. This would be a crucial factor in establishing the new world order after the war, and we took advantage of this...
After our reactor was put into operation in 1946, Beria issued orders to stop all contacts with our American sources in the Manhattan Project; the FBI was getting close to uncovering some of our agents. Beria said we should think how to use Oppenheimer, Fermi, Szilard, and others around them in the peace campaign against nuclear{p. 208} armament. Disarmament and the inability to impose nuclear blackmail would deprive the United States of its advantage. We began a worldwide political campaign against nuclear superiority, which kept up until we exploded our own nuclear bomb, in 1949. Our goal was to preempt American power politically before the Soviet Union had its own bomb. Beria warned us not to compromise Western scientists, but to use their political influence.
Through Fuchs we planted the idea that Fermi, Oppenheimer, and Szilard oppose the hydrogen bomb. They truly believed in their positions and did not know they were being used. They started as antifascists, and became political advocates of the Soviet Union.

Attempt to stop Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Szilard drafted another little-known Einstein letter to Roosevelt in March of 1945, this time seeking to influence post-war nuclear arms control. When Roosevelt died in April, before seeing the letter, Szilard called on the Truman White House and was sent, in May, to meet with the new president’s atomic advisor (and soon Secretary of State) James F. Byrnes. Szilard brought along chemist Harold Urey, "pitting two scientists who had made the bomb and wanted to stop it against the politician who couldn’t wait to use it". The two scientists left the meeting frustrated by Byrnes, who saw the bomb as a way to appease the Congress and intimidate Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin.

In June 1945, Szilard helped in June to draft the Franck Report by Manhattan Project scientists urging an A-bomb demonstration – before dropping it on cities. When that was ignored, Szilard organized a petition to Truman in July signed by 155 Manhattan Project scientists that urged the president to weigh his moral responsibilities. But the Army delayed the petition, and after the war classified it “Secret”. It was finally declassified in 1961, and first published in 1963, a year before Szilard’s death.[10]

Federation of American Scientists

The Federation of American Scientists was founded in 1945 by scientists who had worked on the Manhattan Project to develop the first atomic bombs.

Hans Bethe, was one of the founders of FAS.[11] Leo Szilard, Philip Morrison, Richard L. Meier and Harold Urey[12] were others.

FAS was founded from the merger of thirteen smaller groups. It started with a membership of more than 2,000 scientists and an advisory panel that included Robert Oppenheimer, Harold Urey, Harlow Shapley, Smyth, Leo Szilard and Edward U. Condon.[13]

Anti "Bomb" activism

Once A-bombs leveled Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Szilard led American scientists to lobby Congress for civilian control of the atom. Beginning in 1945, he urged direct talks between U.S. and Soviet scientists to curb a nuclear arms race. Scientists should share ideas, he insisted, because they could bring much-needed reason to complex policy matters.

In 1946, Szilard joined with Albert Einstein, Harold Urey, and Hans Bethe in an Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists to educate the public about the dangers from A-bombs and a nuclear arms race. In 1957, Szilard joined the first Pugwash Conference on Science and World Affairs, and that fall urged that these talks among scientists be kept private, and not be expanded to a mass movement as co-founder Bertrand Russell preferred. Szilard’s view prevailed, assuring a back-channel dialogue for the nuclear superpowers.

In 1947, Szilard wrote an open letter to Stalin, urging nuclear restraint and proposing radio broadcasts to each others’ citizens by U.S. and Soviet leaders. The same year, Szilard wrote his political satire “My Trial as a War Criminal” to dramatize that scientists are responsible for their creations. When this story was re-published in 1961, the Russian nuclear physicist Viktor Adamsky read it, then translated it for his colleague Andrei Sakharov. According to historian Richard Rhodes, Sakharov took Szilard’s responsibilities to heart and began his own crusade to halt the arms race.[14]


Leo Szilard was, co-organizer of the first Pugwash conference in 1957.[15]

The Voice of the Dolphins

In 1960, Szilard advocated a new way to coerce public officials to do the right thing: bribery. In “The Voice of the Dolphins,” a political satire that correctly predicted how the US-Soviet nuclear arms race would run down in the 1980s, Szilard speculated that a fictional research institute might raise money, educate the public, and bribe corrupt officeholders to retire while rewarding honest ones who make politically tough decisions. “The book is not about the intelligence of the dolphin,” Szilard said, “but about the stupidity of man.”[16]

Meeting with Krushchev

Also in 1960, Szilard became playful and serious during a private meeting with Premier Nikita Khrushchev in New York City. During their two-hour conversation, Szilard gained the Soviet leader’s assent for a Moscow-Washington “hot line” to help prevent accidental nuclear war. As a gift, Szilard brought Khrushchev a new razor and promised to send him blades as long as there is no war. “If there is war,” said Khrushchev, “I will stop shaving. Most other people will stop shaving, too."[17]

Cuba intervention

In April 1961, a week after the CIA’s invasion at Cuba’s Bay of Pigs, Szilard was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, and he quickly tried to politicize its members. He invited Academicians to sign a petition to President Kennedy condemning his administration’s actions and policies. Only one-sixth of the Academy members signed,25 and an esteemed friend, physicist James Franck, censured Szilard. Franck had appreciated Szilard’s moral and political direction on the Franck Report, but this time he drew a harsh distinction. Franck objected that “scientists as a class believe that their scientific reputation is a proof that they are also experts in political reasoning.” And he warned that “we endanger our influence in these particular questions if we speak up as a group in matters not directly connected with our profession.[18]

Council for Abolishing War

In 1962 Szilard founded the Council for Abolishing War which was later renamed Council for a Livable World.[19]

After the Cuban petition fiasco, Szilard tried a new approach. How, he wondered, could he become a Washington insider? Szilard’s answer led him to his first and only popular and democratic political effort. In 1962, he founded the Council for a Livable World to raise money for U.S. Senators who favored arms-control treaties. By Szilard’s calculus, all states had two Senators, so votes came cheapest by supporting campaigns in the least populous states. The Council’s first successful candidate was Sen. George McGovern from South Dakota. Today the Council thrives by supporting candidates from all states and the House of Representatives as well. It is America’s first political action committee for arms control and disarmament.[20][21]

Institute for Policy Studies

In 1993 Szilard was listed as a among "former Visiting Fellows and Visiting Scholars and current TransNational Institute Fellows" on the Institute for Policy Studies 30th Anniversary brochure.