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The impact of the advances in physics between 1900 and 1938 could have never been predicted at the time of their discovery. The discoveries being made would change not only the world of physics, but also the world as a whole. Because developments were being made in the fields of fission, atoms, and atomic energy, government officials now had to take into consideration the possibility of atomic warfare when making related to international policy. The first of the major world powers to realize the military use of the discoveries in physics was Germany. Soon after, the United States and Britain would begin organizing research teams in the field of fission and nuclear warfare. The fates of these research projects were constantly in question. The decision by Germany, the United States, and Britain to continue research would be influenced by many factors including the progress of other countries’ research, each country’s confidence in their ability to complete the atomic bomb, and each country’s confidence in the inability of other countries to produce the atomic bomb.
The discovery of fission, in December of 19381, would begin the world’s quest to unleash the power of the atom and formulate a way to utilize that power for atomic warfare. This discovery, made in Germany, gave the Germans a head start on the extensive research still to be done in order to produce an atomic bomb. This advantage would soon prove to be short lived. While this discovery overwhelmed the physics world with amazement, it also caused great concern among many physicists and government officials because of the implications in atomic warfare it held. This fear would become the most basic reason for the United States and Britain to pursue atomic research, particularly for military use. Germany was unaware of not only the pressure they were exuding, in the form of fear, on other countries, but also the research that was beginning out of this fear. Germany’s ignorance of this research allowed the German research project to continue at the same rate and escape feeling pressure from other countries2. Without pressure from other countries Germany had a false sense of security, which allowed the urgent need to begin research to be ignored.
For many years the best physicists and scientists studied and trained in Germany, because of its unrivalled reputation as the best location for scientific education and training available3. After completing their education many scientists chose to remain in Germany doing research or teaching. Prior to 1933 this would have provided Germany with an invaluable resource of information and ideas, but the increasing anti-Semitic attitude in Germany forced many scientists to flee the country. Among the refugees escaping Hitler’s anti-Semitism were some of the most crucial contributors to the development of the atomic bomb, such as Albert Einstein and Leo Szilard4.
Leo Slizard fled from Germany on March 31, 19335, at which time he went to Britain where he conceived his neuron chain reaction. Slizard continued his research at Oxford in Britain until 1938 at which time he moved to New York City in anticipation and fear of the outbreak of World War II6. Upon moving to New York Slizard and Eugene Wigner began work on plans to avert attainment of an atomic bomb by Germany. In 1939 Slizard and Wigner approached Einstein to help warn the US of the threat posed by Germany. Slizard drafted Einstein’s letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt expressing their fear and knowledge of the German Uranium project7. The letter to Roosevelt was powerful enough to convince the US to organize their research on the atomic bomb.
While the research in the US was making constant progress, including Rudolf Peierl’s calculation of the critical mass in Dec. 1940, and Alfred Nier’s successful separations of natural uranium into U238 and U235 8, the Germans were facing a great deal of frustration. In 1941 Heisenberg reported negative results from his first experiments using a reactor, which caused him to conclude that heavy water must be used9. This premature conclusion would affect the progress and fate of the Uranium project. The next set back came in September of 1941 when the previously favored Clusius-Dickel isotope-separation method was abandoned due it becoming thought of as unworkable because of corrosion from Uranium Hexafluoride10. The head of the Army Weapons Research showed doubts about the Uranium Project on Dec. 5, 1941 when he ordered a review of the project and indicated that soon Germany would not be able to support the research11. When support was cut, the atomic bomb was believed to be impossible. This, along with the predicted time need for the project and the estimated funds needed, gave Germany encouragement to end the Uranium Project.
Meanwhile, the US research was quickly progressing, leading the government to increase funds and resources. The US and Britain were expecting a long, torturous war, which allowed the Allied forces to proceed with their research free of a time constraint imposed by the length of the war. The question of the length of war was a deciding factor for the German Uranium Project. Germany predicted a short war, without the possibility of producing an atomic bomb before the war’s end. Because of this prediction research began to seem futile and unnecessary. This is another example of how Germany’s self-confidence was allowed to influence their decisions. Germany’s pride and self-assurance led them to believe they were the only country capable of producing an atomic bomb. The Allied forces never doubted Germany’s production capability, but at the same time they were confident in their own ability to produce the atomic bomb. The belief in Germany’s ability to produce an atomic bomb was the main instigator pushing the Allied forces to not only start research, but also to pursue it vigorously. If they doubted the Germans’ capabilities and intentions to finish an atomic bomb, the emphasis and resources put into research by the Allied forces would not have been as intense.
While the decisions made by each country impacted the plans of other major world powers, those made by Germany seemed to have the greatest influence and largest impact. Although Germany was a very powerful country, this was not the reason that their decisions were able to change so many aspects of the war. Germany allowed themselves to be overrun with self-confidence, thereby affecting the way they made decisions regarding the war, atomic research and government policy in general. Because they were so consumed with pride the Germans made decisions without fully looking at their consequences and long-term implications. This is demonstrated by the fact that the most influential members of the US research team were German refugees. The key to the atomic bomb was in Germany from the beginning, yet Hitler neglected this fact in order to continue his attack on the Jewish community. In addition, the Germans made decisions without looking at the situation objectively. For example by discounting other countries’ ability to produce an atomic bomb. By doing this, the Germans became too comfortable and at ease with what they saw as a guaranteed victory, to efficiently evaluate a situation in order to make the best-fitting decision. Many times Hitler sacrificed Germany’s hopes of winning the war in order to pursue his personal mission of eradicating the Jewish population. This inability to observe the full range of factors, implications, and consequences of a situation caused Germany to hastily make decisions, which eventually leaded their defeat.
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