Leo Szilard’s Failed Quest to Build a Ruling Class

U.S. Department of Energy, Historian's Office/Leo Szilard, 1960

Leo Szilard wanted to save the world, and he had an idea for how to do it. We remember Szilard as the scientist who first conceived of the nuclear chain reaction, one of the fathers of the atomic age, but he had bigger ambitions. He called his project the “Bund”—German for “bond” or “league.” The Bund was supposed to be a society of the best, brightest, and most benevolent, carefully selected from promising teenagers, trained to think originally about humanity’s biggest problems and to work together to solve them.

In Szilard’s words, the Bund would be “a spiritual leadership class with inner cohesion which would renew itself on its own.” Thanks to its emphasis on independent thought, it would not fall prey to the dogmatism of religious orders and academic science, but instead would regularly discard ruling opinion to approach closer and closer to the truth.

Szilard’s new ruling class was to have almost monastic discipline. Members would be completely dedicated to the cause, forgoing any personal glory and any money beyond the minimum required to live. Many would even make a vow of celibacy. Organized in cells of a few dozen each, they would acquire key positions in the main institutions of society and exercise a guiding hand on public opinion and the direction of the world. This society, Szilard wrote, “was not supposed to be something like a political party…but rather it was supposed to represent the state.”

The Bund resembles Plato’s Guardians, but it also mirrors the scientific community that Szilard was a part of when he conceived of the idea in the 1920s. For Szilard, members of the Bund were the ideal scientists. It was a vision in which scientists exercised the authority Szilard considered them worthy of.

Szilard believed that the scientific approach was as applicable to the social world as it was to the natural. He wrote later in life:

Political issues are often complex, but they are rarely anywhere as deep as the scientific problems which were solved in the first half of the century. These scientific problems were solved with amazing rapidity because they were constantly exposed to discussion among scientists, and thus it appears reasonable to expect that the solution of political problems could be greatly speeded up…if they were subjected to the same kind of discussion.

It’s easy to forgive Szilard for the implicit self-regard when considering the state of the scientific community in his day. This was the golden age of physics, and in the 1920s Szilard was at its epicenter in Berlin. Planck, Einstein, von Laue, Hahn, Meitner and other mythical figures were all there, and Szilard worked closely with many of them.

National Archives of the Netherlands/Walther Nernst, Albert Einstein, Max Planck, Robert Millikan, and Max von Laue in Berlin, 1931

Even in 1920s Berlin, Szilard could not have imagined that within 20 years the scientists would make their most momentous contribution, directing the fundamental forces of nature to create the most powerful weapon ever: the atomic bomb. But he did imagine it in 1933, a few months after he fled from Berlin to London to escape the Nazis. Szilard tried to experimentally demonstrate a nuclear chain reaction in the following years, but before he could, nuclear fission was discovered by other researchers in 1938. After learning of their work, Szilard dropped everything to focus on fission.

The prospects for a nuclear world were terrible and great. There was the potential to destroy civilized life, but also the possibility of a radically more powerful source of energy and the great achievements it could fuel. In Szilard’s intellectual circles in the 1920s, an idea circulated that the answer to humanity’s problems was a world government oriented towards expansion into space. Szilard believed this would require nuclear power:

If I came to the conclusion that [expansion into space] was what mankind needed, if I wanted to contribute something to save mankind, then I would probably go into nuclear physics, because only through the liberation of atomic energy could we obtain the means which would enable man not only to leave the earth but to leave the solar system.

Szilard also saw nuclear fission as an opportunity for the realization of the Bund. This new creation of the scientists could determine the fate of humanity. What better time, then, for scientists to assume a position of authority, and to lead the world away from destruction and towards the stars?

But first, Szilard had a more urgent concern. He feared that the Nazis might get the bomb before the Allies. If they did, he was convinced that destruction was inevitable. The Allies had to build the bomb first. This mission consumed him from 1938 until its achievement seven years later.

During this time, he never forgot the Bund. The idea permeated all of his efforts, leading him to clash many times with the civilian and military authorities of the Allies, particularly the United States. And though he was certainly the most zealous proponent of the cause, Szilard was not alone in this quest. He had a coterie of followers assembled from bright students, and many of his peers had similar views, including Einstein. These allies supported his efforts and mounted their own. Nonetheless, they were defeated in their quest to shape the development and use of nuclear technology. Instead of the scientists, it was the politicians, the generals, and the bureaucrats who took control of nuclear technology and determined how it would be used.

Szilard’s False Start of the Manhattan Project

Szilard is often credited with initiating the U.S. government nuclear program with the Einstein-Szilard letter, but the truth is more complicated. Written by Szilard and signed by Einstein, whose name carried more weight, the letter warned that recent developments in physics might enable the creation of bombs of unprecedented power, and that the Germans might be working to create them. It urged the Roosevelt administration to provide funds to accelerate American research into fission.

Szilard did not just send the letter by mail. An old Berlin acquaintance introduced him to Alexander Sachs, a friend of President Roosevelt’s, and Szilard got Sachs to deliver the letter directly to FDR in late 1939. Sachs discussed the letter’s contents with FDR, and persuaded him of the importance of the matter. Roosevelt immediately directed a close aide to get a government program set up.

In a supplemental text delivered with the main letter, Szilard had suggested the appointment of a liaison between the administration and the nuclear scientists, implicitly recommending himself for the position. This would have been one step in the direction of the Bund, but it did not happen. Instead, Roosevelt’s administration set up the Advisory Committee on Uranium, headed by Lyman J. Briggs—a 40-year veteran of the federal research and development bureaucracy—along with a couple of military officers. It’s quite possible FDR himself never read Szilard’s actual letter, let alone the supplemental text.

Buried in the bowels of the bureaucracy, the Briggs Committee went nowhere. Briggs was slow, and the committee was skeptical. Lieutenant Colonel Keith Adamson, the Army officer on the committee, told Szilard that it took two wars to know whether a weapon was any good or not, and besides, it was troop morale that won wars, not weapons. The committee authorized a modest $6,000 (equivalent to about $100,000 today) to fund exploratory research, which it took months to actually distribute, and did little else. Szilard’s efforts had fizzled out.

The British Bomb Report and Official Channels

It wasn’t until two years later that U.S. fission research kicked into high gear, and it wasn’t Szilard who caused it, but the British, who had been carrying out their own research program. In 1941, they sent a report to the Americans that said a bomb could be made by the end of 1943, and it would be decisive in the war. With this official report in hand, Vannevar Bush, the head of the U.S. government’s wartime research agency, the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD), met with FDR and in one meeting secured the approval and black budget funding to massively accelerate American fission research. FDR made clear that decisions on the use of any technology developed would be made by him, in consultation with a “Top Policy Group” consisting of the Vice President, the Chief of Staff of the Army, the Secretary of War, as well as Vannevar Bush and James Conant. Conant was Bush’s second-in-command, in charge of the most important division of the OSRD, the National Defense Research Committee. Briggs was quickly set aside, and Bush eventually brought in General Leslie Groves to lead the fission project.

When things got serious, it was the statesmen, generals, and academic administrators who assumed control, not the scientists. Though Bush and Conant had brilliant technical careers—Bush as an engineer and Conant as a chemist—both had long since become administrators. Conant had been President of Harvard since 1933. Bush was Vice President of MIT for several years and then led a major D.C. research foundation. Both were genteel university men, with a strong sense of proper procedure and official lines of responsibility. They readily deferred to the president and rigidly defended the regimented structure of the wartime research bureaucracy, which they had staffed with their friends in the American academic establishment.

U.S. Government/Ernest Lawrence, Arthur Compton, Vannevar Bush, James Conant, Karl Compton, and Alfred Loomis at Berkeley, 1940

In the months before the British officially transmitted their report, scientists regularly urged Bush and Conant to prioritize fission research. Both generally dismissed this advice because it did not come through official channels. When Conant visited England in early 1941 to coordinate American and British research, a scientist there exhorted him to accelerate research related to fission. Conant later wrote, “Since his complaints were clearly ‘out of channels,’ I quickly terminated the conversation and forgot the incident.”

Soon after, the great American physicist Ernest Lawrence badgered Conant back in the United States, persuading Conant to relay Lawrence’s concerns to Bush, who then met with Lawrence. Bush recounted of the meeting:

I told [Lawrence] flatly that I was running the show, that we had established a procedure for handling it, that he could either conform to that as a member of the NDRC and put in his kicks through the internal mechanism, or he could be utterly on the outside and act as an individual in any way that he saw fit.

Bush’s approach was to disregard anything outside official channels. To assess the potential for fission, he commissioned the National Academy of Sciences to write a report, which basically agreed with Lawrence. Skeptical, Bush commissioned another report on this report. He also disregarded an unofficial version of the decisive British report—it was only when he received this document through official channels months later that he went to see the president.

It may all sound like a farce, but there was a logic to it. Bush and Conant understood bureaucracy. They believed that their ability to direct the massive organization they oversaw, and to coordinate it with other organizations, depended on its members respecting the official chain of responsibility. If people could change a policy by routing around this chain, then it would cease to serve its purpose as a direct channel of communication and direction, threatening the organization’s integrity and its ability to function.

Bush and Conant also had good reason to doubt strong claims about fission’s promise. Much like a venture capitalist, they had to sift through a deluge of proposals and requests for funding, all claiming to be critical to the war effort, carefully assessing them to distinguish real potential breakthroughs from empty hype. This position naturally engendered caution and skepticism.

The Glass Ceiling for Scientists

Bush and Conant’s way of operating was a shock to Szilard, who was used to the open model of the scientific community. Szilard had shown up in Berlin in 1920 without credentials or any other kind of official legitimacy, but he was able to directly approach the top members of the physics community and, on the strength of his genius, earn their respect, and the authority that came with it. Washington was different.

Of his difficulty in getting the government to take fission seriously, Szilard later said, “I had assumed that once we had demonstrated that in the fission of uranium neutrons are emitted, there would be no difficulty in getting people interested; but I was wrong.” This approach worked in the physics community, where a relatively small group of experts directly evaluated each other’s work, and where inquiry was carried out in good faith. Washington, on the other hand, was a more adversarial and dishonest environment, where lobbyists, bureaucrats, and sophisticated grifters competed for funding and official mandate. It did not work like science.

Once they were at last convinced of the importance of fission research, Bush and the veterans of the establishment moved in and exercised strict control. They were running the show, and they carefully guarded this authority. The scientists were to be strictly subordinate to the state.

Szilard continued to bang his head against the government to no avail. He worked on the Manhattan Project at the Metallurgical Laboratory in Chicago, which specialized in reactor design. He did not like the way the project was being run—more like a military operation than a university, with strict restrictions on information-sharing between research groups, and worst of all, no input from scientists regarding how their work should be used. He frequently fought over these issues with General Groves, who put him under surveillance and even considered imprisoning him. No changes were made to how the project was run.

Later in the war, after the Germans were defeated and the Manhattan Project proved successful, Szilard’s primary concern became preventing the Americans from dropping the bomb on Japan. He believed that using the bomb was unnecessary to win the war and would destroy America’s moral authority. He also feared a post-war arms race and nuclear war between the United States and Russia. To prevent this, he wanted to establish a system of international control of nuclear technology, which would be led by scientists. Szilard had not abandoned his dream of the Bund, and still hoped the scientists could secure authority over how nuclear technology would be used then and after the war.

By this time, Szilard had lost whatever confidence he may have had in “official channels.” He aimed directly at trying to influence the new president, Harry Truman, who had just been inaugurated following FDR’s sudden death. Without a direct connection to Truman, Szilard charmed his way to old associates of the president in Kansas City, through whom Szilard managed to get an appointment for a White House meeting.

When Szilard showed up to the appointment, the president wouldn’t meet with him, but wanted Szilard to talk to James F. Byrnes, an experienced statesman who would soon be Truman’s Secretary of State. Szilard promptly traveled to Byrnes’ South Carolina estate, where he gave his arguments against using the bomb on Japan, warned of a post-war arms race, and proposed the creation of a group of scientists to advise the Cabinet directly on the use and further development of nuclear weapons. Only the scientists, he argued, had the knowledge to evaluate these matters effectively.

Byrnes did not respond well. He summarized the meeting as follows: 

Szilard complained that he and some of his associates did not know enough about the policy of the government with regard to the use of the bomb. He felt that scientists, including himself, should discuss the matter with the Cabinet, which I did not feel desirable. His general demeanor and his desire to participate in policymaking made an unfavorable impression on me.

Once again, Szilard was defeated. He continued to try to influence the decision about the bomb, but he failed, and the bombs were dropped.

Szilard expected authority over nuclear technology to be assigned on the basis of expertise in its science and politics, where he considered himself unsurpassed. But the men of Washington, informed by a very different logic, considered his expertise relevant only to the technical problems of research and development. For them, his attempts to affect policy were an egregious overstep into their domain.

Szilard’s experience was not unique. Those who create powerful technology often do not end up deciding how it is used. As in the case of nuclear fission, the existing political system subsumes their creations into its own tightly controlled structures, which are difficult to influence. Genius, technical expertise, and access do not guarantee that decision-makers will listen.

Bush’s Anti-Bund

Bush, Conant, and their clique of research administrators were the anti-Bund—a well-organized group of technical types who skillfully attained control of the development of the bomb and other powerful new technologies, but who did not have ambitions to govern. Instead, they subordinated themselves to the existing regime.

Bush’s establishment of the NDRC in 1940 was exactly the kind of back-channel play that Szilard continually failed to pull off. In the late 30s, Bush saw a war coming, and his experience working on submarine detection technology during the First World War had convinced him that existing institutions for wartime research did not work well. He decided to do something about it, and that Washington was the place to do it, so he left MIT to head a prestigious research institute in D.C. 

There, as he put it, he “learned quite a bit of the mysterious ways in which one operates in the Washington maze.” With some of his fellow research administrators, he formed a plan for a new wartime research organization that would report directly to the president. Then he went around Washington securing support from key players in the military, Congress, and the administration, most important among them Harry Hopkins, FDR’s close advisor and right-hand man. Hopkins warmed up the president and then brought in Bush to see him. In less than ten minutes, Bush recalled, “I came out with my ‘OK-FDR’ and all the wheels began to turn.” 

In his memoirs, Bush wrote of the experience:

There were those who protested that the action of setting up the NDRC was an end run, a grab by which a small company of scientists and engineers, acting outside established channels, got hold of the authority and money for the program of developing new weapons. That, in fact, is exactly what it was. Moreover, it was the only way in which a broad program could be launched rapidly and on an adequate scale. To operate through established channels would have involved delays—and the hazard that independence might have been lost, that independence which was the central feature of the organization’s success.

Bush’s appreciation of the power of going outside “established channels” no doubt influenced his vigilance in preventing it in his own organization. He might defend his apparent hypocrisy by arguing that, although a back-channel play was needed at first to circumvent the dysfunctional Washington research bureaucracy, once this effective alternative was established and running smoothly, its organizational integrity had to be strictly protected.

Bush succeeded where Szilard failed because he better understood the workings of the state, he was in a better social and institutional position to affect it, and his people were better organized. Despite his schemes for the Bund, Szilard did not effectively organize his fellow scientists. He could get them to sign petitions, but when push came to shove, he had no strong backing, no leverage, and little political skill. The independent nature of scientific work made poor organization the default, and Szilard failed to overcome it. Bush, on the other hand, had an organizational plan and people to staff it who were used to working in a hierarchy.

Szilard was uncompromising and wanted to guide both the development and use of nuclear technology. Bush knew how to make deals and considered his role only to cover development, generally leaving policy to the generals and statesmen.

Szilard was half-outsider, half-insider. He was a Hungarian Jew in an America still dominated by WASPs. Yet he was also a preeminent figure in the international scientific community and was always maneuvering to the center of the action, like the Manhattan Project. Bush, the scion of a blue-blooded Massachusetts family, was pure insider.

Szilard displayed an unusual combination of traits—foresight, charisma, originality, unshakeable conviction, eccentricity, technical mastery, and insane ambition—qualities also found in today’s famous technology entrepreneurs. One wonders what might have happened if Szilard had been able to create his own organization for building the bomb—his own Manhattan Project. Would he have retained control of nuclear technology and gained the political influence he craved, or would he have simply lost a bigger fight?

Today, many think that technology itself is a path to bringing about their vision for society, a means by which they can avoid the messy difficulties of politics. Szilard’s example shows the flaws in this approach. It is hard to avoid politics when you are trying to do great things, because when you have a useful tool, politics will come to you. And even if politics doesn’t arrive on your doorstep, to actually change the world, one has to handle problems of internal organization and external coordination—in other words, one has to engage in politics. In recent years, the big technology companies have learned this lesson the hard way.

Aftermath

After his sobering defeats during the war, Szilard finally began building institutions. He started having more success organizing fellow scientists to shape public opinion and play the Washington game. He helped found a number of political organizations for scientists: the Federation of Atomic Scientists, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists, and the Pugwash Conferences. Later in life, he also created a lobbying organization called The Council for a Livable World. These institutions shaped the powerful anti-nuclear movement, and all except ECAS still exist today.

Szilard even had some revenge against his nemesis General Groves. In the immediate aftermath of the war, it was unclear who or what entity would be responsible for the American nuclear program. The military moved to remain in control, but Szilard mounted an aggressive campaign for civilian control in the media and in the halls of Washington. To an extent, it worked: civilian—but not scientist—control was achieved with the Atomic Energy Act. An irate Groves speculated that Szilard had written it.

Despite these victories, Szilard was still ultimately frustrated. International cooperation did not come about. The arms race was not averted, though nuclear war was. In Szilard’s view, continued survival in this situation was basically a matter of luck, and in the end, the world must choose either unity or destruction.

He also never realized the Bund. Even in these later years, when Szilard and the scientists were able to exert some political force, they remained shut out of the high circles of decision-making. In his final years, Szilard carried out a correspondence with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, and was constantly angling to facilitate a rapprochement between Soviet and American leaders. But he found himself once again blocked by a blue-blooded Boston Brahmin: McGeorge Bundy, Kennedy’s National Security Adviser. 

In a 1963 letter to Kennedy, Szilard suggested a scheme for avoiding conflict in Berlin, based around both the Americans and Soviets pre-committing to honor certain requests by the other. He also offered to present the proposal to Khrushchev himself. Bundy replied on behalf of the President: “Yours is a characteristically original proposal, but I doubt it would be useful for us to conduct our relations with President Khrushchev through you.”

It was a microcosm of Szilard’s life. Right at the center of things, but somehow still utterly on the outside.

Zachary Lerangis is an entrepreneur based in Austin and New York. You can reach him at zachary.lerangis@protonmail.com.