Wednesday, January 2, 2019

October 9, 1941: FDR Orders Atomic Bomb Research

Thursday 9 October 1941

CAM ship Empire Tide 9 October 1941 worldwartwo.filminspector.com
Catapult-armed merchant (CAM) ship SS Empire Tide, showing a Sea Hurricane MK. IA on the catapult, at anchor at Hvalfjord, Iceland, 9 October 1941 (Parnall, C.H. (Lt) © IWM (A 10115 )).
Battle of Atlantic: President Roosevelt slowly has been ratcheting up the pressure on the U-boat menace in the Atlantic. This has included, among many other things, sending U.S. warships on armed neutrality patrols for the benefit of the Royal Navy and escorting convoys from the United States to Iceland. As a major escalation in this process, FDR on 9 October 1941 FDR sends a message to Congress asking it to amend the Neutrality Act to permit U.S. flag merchant vessels to be armed for self-defense:
We cannot permit the affirmative defense of our rights to be annulled and diluted by sections of the Neutrality Act which have no realism in the light of unscrupulous ambition of madmen. We will not let Hitler prescribe the waters of the world which our ships may travel…The American flag is not going to be driven from the seas either by his submarines, his airplanes or his threats.
This follows long-established United States Navy police (which continues actively into the 21st Century) to keep open international sea lanes. Since FDR's political party controls Congress, approval of this request is a foregone conclusion.

British Commandos 9 October 1941 worldwartwo.filminspector.com
British Commandos from No. 6 Special Service Brigade train around Inverary, Scotland (October 9, 1941). The front soldier carries an Artillery Luger fitted with a 32-round "snail" magazine. The other Commando wields a Thompson submachine gun with the 100-round larger drum magazine.
Manhattan Project: In line with his increased determination to confront Hitler's Germany at sea and to support his enemies with Lend-Lease supplies, President Franklin Roosevelt repeatedly authorizes actions in 1941 to shift the United States to a war-time posture even though the nation is at peace. On 9 October 1941, in addition to ramping up the war at sea, FDR takes a major step on a completely different track in his efforts that will have much more dramatic and long-lasting implications. These revolve around the development of nuclear weapons.

Stuka at Tobruk October 1941 worldwartwo.filminspector.com
A Luftwaffe Junkers Ju 87 Stuka dive bomber attacks a supply depot within the British Tobruk perimeter in North Africa, October 1941 (AP).
President Roosevelt has been a supporter of research into atomic energy since receiving Albert Einstein's and  Leó Szilárd's famous 2 August 1939 letter urging research and development of nuclear energy and perhaps an atomic bomb. That letter stated in pertinent part:
This new phenomenon would also lead to the construction of bombs, and it is conceivable — though much less certain — that extremely powerful bombs of a new type may thus be constructed.
Roosevelt authorized such research in October 1939 (after the letter was brought to his attention) and has received periodic briefings ever since. He has taken periodic organizational steps to push the project forward. The British also have been investigating prospects for an atomic bomb, which resulted in its British Military Application of Uranium Detonation (MAUD) Committee Report on the topic. However, neither government is anywhere close to developing an atomic bomb. On 9 October 1941, this process speeds up dramatically.

Dr. Vannevar Bush and Arthur Compton in 1940 worldwartwo.filminspector.com
Dr. Vannevar Bush and Arthur Compton in 1940.
Dr. Vannevar Bush, chairman of the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD) since 28 June 1941, briefs FDR and Vice President Henry A. Wallace on the MAUD Report today. The MAUD Report, in brief, postulates that an atomic bomb of immense power is possible. Further, Bush briefs the two on Tube Alloy research and the very little that is known of German nuclear research. Bush advocates cooperating with the British and indicates that he will begin corresponding with his British counterpart, Sir John Anderson.

Replica of Illinois statehouse 9 October 1941 worldwartwo.filminspector.com
Illinois state employees Joseph Haverly, left, and Joseph Murphy with a scale model of the statehouse. It was on a flatbed truck after being retrieved from New York City, where it had been on display at the World's Fair (File/The State Journal-Register).
Impressed, Roosevelt authorizes Bush to explore further what it would take to build such a bomb - which remains completely theoretical and uncertain - and how much it would cost. He creates the Top Policy Group composed of himself, Wallace, Bush, James B. Conant, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, and the Chief of Staff of the Army, General George Marshall to review progress. In essence, Bush becomes a "Bomb Czar" with outsized influence to create organizational structures and to commandeer resources to pursue development of an atomic bomb. There is little question that Bush is the "prime mover" behind nuclear weapons development and deserves much of the credit - or blame - for their eventual appearance. While there are many important dates in the progress of the Manhattan Project (which is not yet its name, that happens in 1942), the events of 9 October 1941 are perhaps the biggest acceleration in the development of nuclear weapons.

Joe Louis exhibition featured in Rockford Morning Star 9 October 1941 worldwartwo.filminspector.com
Joe Louis featured in the Rockford (Illinois) Morning Star for an exhibition match at Camp Grant, 9 October 1941.

2019

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