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Published: Saturday, 7/19/2003

FDR's decision revealed no WMDs either

BY MEL BARGER

IF NO significant weapons of mass destruction show up in Iraq by next year's elections, the Democrats now attacking George Bush on this issue should have further ammunition for their attacks, even if the war on terror goes well.

There are good political points to score in arguing that the President either knew deceitfully that there were no WMDs or foolishly wasted lives and treasure in seeking weapons that were never there.

However it goes, Mr. Bush could at least find some justification in another American president's costly decision to counter a weapons threat that, in the end, came to nothing.

It was Franklin D. Roosevelt, the year was 1939, and the threat was that Nazi Germany could be developing a nuclear weapon that would surely give Hitler the power he needed to conquer the entire world.

What basis was there in 1939 for such a belief? The basis was outlined in a now-famous letter sent secretly to Mr. Roosevelt on Aug. 2, only a month before German tanks smashed across the Polish border to launch World War II. While signed by Albert Einstein, the letter had largely been prepared by physicists Leo Szilard and Enrico Fermi.

In a few well-constructed paragraphs, the letter informed the president that recent developments in uranium now made it possible to develop a single bomb that could destroy an entire port. But the only uranium sources were in Canada, Czechoslovakia, and the Belgian Congo.

The Einstein letter then urged the president to move ahead with experimental work and supply funds for U.S. uranium development.

Though production of an actual bomb was not specified, it was clearly implied - especially by the final paragraph, which noted ominously that Germany had control of Czechoslovakia's uranium and was repeating uranium work that had been done in the United States.

Unlike George Bush in the Iraq venture, FDR had no army capable of overwhelming Germany to stop what our own scientists believed was a serious threat. Instead, he moved boldly but secretly to launch what became known as the Manhattan Project and would consume an investment of $2 billion.

As some wit might say, this was back when $2 billion was real money, and it had to be done in secrecy so tight that hardly anybody in government knew what was going on.

It's said that the project was so closely guarded that Vice President Truman never learned about it until Roosevelt's death left him with the still controversial decision to use the atom bomb against Japan.

As everybody knows, the Manhattan Project, once it started rolling, was successful in ways that even Einstein couldn't have imagined. It was a gamble requiring huge risks and precise coordination of systems and processes that had never been tried before.

Out in Los Alamos, N.M., where thousands of scientists and others worked under the brilliant leadership of J. Robert Oppenheimer, there were certainly some doubters and others who believed the project might fail or the bomb would blow up the entire state of New Mexico when tested.

But all of them certainly believed they were in a race with German scientists who had, after all, been the first to demonstrate nuclear fission. Some of the scientists at Los Alamos were also Jewish refugees from Germany who believed that their former colleagues in the Reich had both the means and the ability to produce an atomic weapon of mass destruction.

The stakes were high for the United States and must have seemed even higher for these refugees from Nazi oppression.

But Germany fell in April, 1945, and no WMDs were anywhere to be found as Allied troops overran the country. In fact, the records clearly showed that Germany was never within a country mile of producing an atomic bomb.

Historian William Shirer wrote, “As for the German atom bomb project, which had given London and Washington much worry, it had made little progress due to Hitler's lack of interest in it and Himmler's practice of arresting the atom scientists for suspected disloyalty or pulling them off to work on some of his pet nonsensical `scientific' experiments which he deemed more important.”

Other sources have speculated that Germany's atom bomb project failed because of incompetence or foot dragging on the part of leading German scientist Werner Heisenberg.

Whatever the reasons for failure, Germany's atom bomb proved to be a weapon that never was.

Since President Roosevelt died before our own atomic bomb was revealed, he never had to explain why he had spent $2 billion to oppose a phantom threat.

He made the bet largely because he had reliable people such as Albert Einstein, Enrico Fermi, and Leo Szilard to assure him that a real threat was there.

And why shouldn't they have felt the threat, since Hitler had both the uranium and the scientists needed for such an effort?

But as our luck would have it, he had no Albert Einstein to sell him on the idea.



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