Einstein, the Fair, and the Bomb


James Mauro

When I began writing my book, Twilight at the World of Tomorrow: Genius, Madness, Murder and the 1939 World’s Fair on the Brink of War (Ballantine Books, 2010), I had two key questions burning in my mind:
1. What makes a Fair successful, love or money?
2. Why would Albert Einstein, the most notable pacifist of his day, agree to sign a letter to President Roosevelt advocating the development of a terrible new weapon of war?
The first, as it turned out, was easy. Visitors to the Fair whom I interviewed were overwhelmingly enamored of the Fair. It introduced such culture-changing innovations as television (to the American public, at least), nylon, and the fax machine. The Fair was also a stunning display of American ingenuity and architectural design, and, on a global scale, it brought together more than 60 foreign nations — every major world power save for Germany, alas — under one gleaming, hopeful canvas in the face of war.
True, the Fair ended in bankruptcy, but, to my mind at least, that mattered little. The attempt alone was worth the cost.
Now Einstein — he was a tougher subject. I canvassed many original documents in my research: the incredible collection housed at The New York Public Library, comprised of literally hundreds of boxes of memos and mementos donated by the World’s Fair Committee in 1941; and handwritten speeches provided by the Albert Einstein Archives at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Together, they painted a picture of a turbulent time in American history — the decade leading up to the beginning of World War II.

Albert Einstein watches the dedication of the Jewish Palestine Pavilion.

Most of us remember that war as beginning on December 8, 1941, the day after Pearl Harbor. But of course the truth is that Europe had been officially at war since September 1939, the tail end of the first season of the World’s Fair. Einstein himself had immigrated to the United States when conditions in his native Germany became intolerable, but for the most part he busied himself in his work at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. He was a man in exile, robbed of his homeland, his possessions, and eventually his wife, Elsa, who died in 1936.
He had every reason to hate the Nazi government that had so unjustly taken away his rights and those of his Jewish kinsmen. But, I wondered, would that lead a man who in 1929 had stated, “I shall unconditionally refuse to do war service, directly or indirectly,” to promoting atomic weapons a decade later?
Some interesting facts came to light in the research. I had been unaware of the extent to which Einstein was involved in the World’s Fair: he gave a notorious speech on Opening Day that ended in a spectacular power failure; he wrote a message for the Westinghouse Time Capsule that was both prophetic and frightening (“Anyone who thinks about the future must live in fear and terror”); and he was named Honorary Chairman of the Fair’s Science Advisory Committee.

Bombshells being moved into the exhibition of the British Pavilion.

Bombshells being moved into the exhibition of the British Pavilion.

Albert Einstein addresses the crowd with a notorious speech at the opening of the Jewish Palestine Pavilion.

But perhaps most significantly, he was chosen over key Zionist leaders such as Chaim Weizmann, president of the Jewish Agency for Palestine, to dedicate the opening of the Jewish Palestine Pavilion. This, to my thinking, influenced Einstein in ways I hadn’t read before in any of his numerous biographies or profiles. For one thing, it meant that Einstein was being recognized not only as a great scientist, but also formally as a de facto leader of the Jewish people. For another, his continued presence at the Fair that summer of 1939 propelled him out of the quiet privacy of scientific study and into the stormy political arena.
In many ways, the World of Tomorrow, as the Fair was known, was a microcosm of the world in the face of coming war. One by one the foreign pavilions erected by European governments began to represent nations that, for all practical purposes, no longer existed: Austria, Belgium, France, and Poland, among others; each nation’s collapse ringing like a death knell in the ears of the American public. After combing through the research, I have no doubt that these shuttered pavilions had a profound effect on Einstein, and may have promoted his sense of urgency to do something about it.

An artist's sketch of the entrance to the Jewish Palestine Pavilion.

An artist's sketch of the entrance to the Jewish Palestine Pavilion.

Albert Einstein at the Jewish Palestine Pavilion.

The timing of the Palestine Pavilion’s opening was also prescient. On May 17, 1939, less than two weeks before Einstein was scheduled to speak, the British government published its new policy regarding Palestine. Meant to settle the 20-year conflict between Arabs and Jews, the report did anything but. The new policy called for an independent Palestine to be governed by both Arabs and Jews, and restricted the number of Jewish immigrants to Palestine to 75,000 over the next five years, at which point the Jewish population would be frozen at a one-third minority.
Einstein, like his brethren, was incensed. On May 28, he stood in front of an angry crowd numbering more than 100,000 and said:
“The World’s Fair is in a way a reflection of mankind. But it projects the world of men like a wishful dream. Only the creative forces are on show, none of the sinister and destructive ones which today more than ever jeopardize the happiness, the very existence of civilized harmony. Such a presentation seems fully justified, though it be one-sided....
“[Palestine] is exposed to constant attack, and every one of its members is forced to fight for his very life.... Nothing of this shows here. We see only the quiet, noble lines of a building and within it a presentation of the Palestine homeland.”
For me, those words speak volumes. Einstein, faced with his task, was comparing the beauty and splendor of the World’s Fair with what he knew was happening, and what was going to happen, in the real world of tomorrow. Here, in Flushing Meadows, was the world in miniature. Here was war destroying nations and taking away the basic freedoms. And here was a representation of all that man could achieve, and all that could be destroyed. He simply could no longer ignore it.

Einstein "perpetuated in bronze" in the pavilion's art exhibit.

Einstein "perpetuated in bronze" in the pavilion's art exhibit.

When Leo Szilard and Eugene Wigner, two physicists who were concerned over the vast quantities of uranium the Germans were amassing from the Belgian Congo, drove out to Einstein’s summer cottage on Long Island, they had no idea whether he’d be receptive to their worries. But Einstein, after a brief discussion about chain reactions and their possible use in nuclear weapons, responded, “I never thought of that!”
And the rest, as they say, is history. Einstein signed several letters to FDR urging him to begin research on the development of atomic weapons, which led eventually to the creation of the Manhattan Project. Much to his dismay, they were never needed to defeat Germany. When the first bomb was dropped on Japan, Einstein’s response was, “Oh, my God!”
“I made one great mistake in my life,” he would say years later, close to death, “when I signed the letter to President Roosevelt recommending that atom bombs be made.”
Whether the 1939 New York World’s Fair played a part in his fateful decision can only be speculated upon. Personally, I have no doubt. All one has to do is follow the research, reconstruct a timeline, read his words and come to the conclusion that the World of Tomorrow represented, to Einstein, the extent to which we must sometimes act in order to preserve “the positive side of man’s aspirations” and “to protect and, if necessary, to fight with all his might in defense of what has been achieved.”

The Zionist flag (which would become Israel's flag in 1948) waves behind the Administration Building.

James Mauro is the author of Twilight at the World of Tomorrow: Genius, Madness, Murder, and the 1939 World's Fair on the Brink of War(Random House, 2010). He has also written articles for magazines such as Radar, Details, Ladies Home Journal, Cosmo, and a host of others.

You can visit his website at http://www.jamesmauro.net/.


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