Convention Buildup; Trump and Brexit; Dems and Guns; a Cataclysmic Decision

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Good morning, it’s Monday, June 27, 2016. Seventy-six years ago today, Franklin D. Roosevelt officially committed the United States to the task of building an atom bomb. This presidential action came in the form of a classified directive creating the National Defense Research Committee, an innocuous-sounding addition to the Council of National Defense, which was created in 1916 -- just before America entered what then was called the Great War.

The world conflagration that followed two decades later was even greater, if greatness can ever be measured in human death and suffering. The morality of war had changed since 1918: In World War II, noncombatants were singled out as often as military targets. Meanwhile, technological advances had made armed conflict even more lethal.

Although only a handful of people on Earth knew it on June 27, 1940, that technology was about to take a quantum leap. Here is now Carnegie Institution President Vannevar Bush, the man tapped by FDR to head the new advisory council, explained it later:

“World War II was the first war in human history to be affected decisively by weapons unknown at the outbreak of hostilities.”

President Roosevelt grasped this point even before the U.S. formally entered the war. FDR had become persuaded that civilians such as Bush, the former dean of the school of engineering at MIT, were essential to the nation’s defense.

The reason was that even our ablest military leaders -- men such as George C. Marshall -- were unfamiliar with rapid advances taking place in the field of particle physics. These looming breakthroughs suggested that if it fell into the wrong hands, this new technology could plunge the world into a thousand years of darkness.

I’ll have more on this, and on the unsung role played by a female chemist in making sure it didn’t happen, in a moment.

First I’ll point you to our front page where we aggregate columns, videos, news stories, editorials -- and showcase RealClearPolitics’ polling averages. We also offer a daily complement of original material from our own reporters and contributors, including the following:

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Campaigns Gear Up for July Conventions. Caitlin Huey-Burns has the story.

Is Brexit a Good Omen for Trump? In a column, I consider the common denominators on both sides of the Atlantic that are giving the political establishment pause.

Orlando Shooting, Sanders Staying In: How They Affect Polls. David Brady and I assess new findings from YouGov.

Can Democrats Ever Win the Gun Debate? Bill Scher writes that if gun control advocates are going to overcome the NRA’s power, they have to work harder not in liberal states but in select Republican areas.

How Dem Convention Will Boost Philly. David Fiorenza explains in RealClearMarkets.

Modern Military Demands Upgraded Intel Systems. In RealClearDefense, Larry Harrington stresses the need for better logistics, planning and technological components to effectively conduct warfighting.

Three Hypotheses to Explain Mars' Methane. Ross Pomeroy reports on a new study offering explanations for the presence of the organic molecule methane on Mars.

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In December of 1938, two German scientists, Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann, succeeded in splitting the atom. The two men, working at Berlin’s Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, weren’t quite sure what they had. They knew that things were moving fast in their field. Enrico Fermi was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics that same month for showing that slow neutrons could start a nuclear reaction.

Hahn and Strassmann’s experiment was different -- and more ominous. But what had they discovered, exactly? The two scientists were unsure themselves. By bombarding uranium with neutrons, they had split uranium atoms into substances of nearly equal atomic weight, one of which they believed to be radium.

The following month Hahn wrote a letter to a former colleague, a brilliant chemist named Lise Meitner. World War II had not started yet, unless you count the Allies’ acquiescence to Czechoslovakia being carved up pursuant to Hitler’s whims. But things were already bad in Germany and Austria for Jews, which was why Meitner has fled to Sweden: She was Jewish.

So, too was Fermi’s wife. The Fermis had sailed for New York directly from Stockholm after he received his Nobel.

The much-beloved Otto Hahn was no Nazi. Nor was he anti-Semitic, or even political, which is probably why he wrote to Meitner. He wasn’t trying to alert the Allies to danger; he was trying to solve a scientific riddle: What had happened in his lab?

Meitner was the right person to ask. She recognized that barium, not radium, was the element produced by the Germans’ success at achieving nuclear fission. She also realized the immense implications of their experiment. Using Albert Einstein’s famous 1905 equation (E = MC2), Meitner calculated that a nuclear reaction involving a mere a pound of uranium would produce an explosion the likes of which the world had never seen.

Alarmed, she alerted a nephew, who was also a physicist, about her theory; he, in turn, informed Niels Bohr, a Danish scientist (and another Nobel laureate) who was about to leave for Washington, D.C., which was hosting an international conference on physics.

Fermi was present at that conference, as was yet another European expat, a Hungarian named Leo Szilard. They took their concerns to the U.S. Navy -- which blew them off -- before deciding to ask Einstein himself to write a letter to Roosevelt.

Szilard persuaded Lehman Brothers head Alexander Sachs to deliver it personally to Franklin Roosevelt.

“Alex,” said the president, “what you are after is to see that the Nazis don’t blow us up.”

In “March to Armageddon,” historian Ronald E. Powaski recounted what happened next. After Sachs nodded in affirmation, Roosevelt replied, “This requires action.”

“And with these words,” wrote Powaski, “the United States had entered the arms race.”

The National Defense Research Committee created by FDR was soon dispensing grants. One of the biggest went to Fermi’s Columbia University lab, though eventually most of the work on what became the Manhattan Project would be shifted to a facility in the New Mexico desert.

As for Otto Hahn, he won a Nobel Prize in 1944, but was jailed by the Allies after the fall of Berlin in 1945. Hahn learned about the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki while in custody in England.

“The news completely shattered him,” wrote American historian Lawrence Badash. “He felt… personally responsible for the thousands of deaths in Japan.” 

Tomorrow: The “Fermi Paradox.”

Carl M. Cannon  
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics
@CarlCannon (Twitter)

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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