Volume 23, Number 3 July 1994


Genius In the Shadows

I would like to comment on David Hafemeister's review of Genius in the Shadows: A Biography of Leo Szilard (January 1994).

I have known the author, William Lanouette, for about 20 years. After I read his biography of Szilard, I wrote him to say that it might be misleading. He replied that he had tried to describe how Leo operated and how he sometimes achieved his objectives and often failed to do so.

Hafemeister's review may convey the impression that it was Leo Szilard who proposed how the United States should approach international control of atomic energy after the war ended in 1945. It is true that Leo invented and patented nuclear energy before fission had been discovered, led the allied effort to develop nuclear weapons, and in 1945 inspired the scientists at Chicago to consider what to do with the new technology after the war and to propose that the weapon be demonstrated to Japan rather than be dropped on a city. He was not successful in the latter case. As soon as the war was over he led the effort to block the May Johnson bill for control of nuclear energy because it would have permitted an active military officer to be on the part-time board of directors. As is explained in The New World, the first volume of the official history of the US Atomic Energy Commission, Vannevar Bush was the proponent of this bill which President Truman opposed. Niels Bohr was the thoughtful scientist who proposed what became the Achesson-Lillienthal plan for international control, embodied in and embellished by Bernard Baruch, who presented it to the United Nations in the spring of 1946. In 1943 Bohr tried to sell his proposal to Winston Churchill, who was not impressed. He visited Los Alamos several times in 1945 and I remember his discussing the subject with Robert Oppenheimer and several others at Oppie's house in the evening.

After leading the opposition to the May-Johnson bill, Leo was not much help in preventing the McMahon bill from becoming even more subject to military intervention than the original bill. Leo was not a team worker. I don't remember his ever supporting anyone else's ideas, e.g., the Acheson-Lillienthal proposal. In the fall of 1945, the Atomic scientists formed the National Committee on Atomic Information (NCAI), a voluntary association of about 60 national organizations ranging from the League of Women voters to the American Federation of Labor, to help in educating the public. Early in 1948, the NCAI decided to raise some funds to support our joint office. Harold Oram, the fund raiser, said that we had to have Einstein as a sponsor. To get him, we needed Leo Szilard; so we included them and several other distinguished physicists in the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists. The first appeal was enormously successful. As soon as Leo saw how much money had been collected, he persuaded Einstein and the other members of the committee to incorporate and to take charge of the money. He gave some of it to the NCAI. The rest of the money he spent on expensive brain storming sessions to generate ideas for international control. The only result that I remember is the proposal, mentioned by Hafemeister, to guarantee immunity for scientists or others who reported on violations of arms control agreements. It was a good idea, but ahead of its time.

Leo Szilard was a brilliant man. Bill Lanouette, with the assistance of Leo's brother, Bela, describes Leo's roots, modus operandi, accomplishments and failures very well indeed. Leo was a fascinating man, too sure that he was right, sometimes frustrating and often frustrated. It is a great book.

W.A. Higinbotham
7010 Jot-em-down Road
Gainesville, Georgia 30506