Sunday, May 1, 2016

The Most Important Date of World War II

Wednesday August 2, 1939

Albert Einstein Charlie Chaplin
Albert Einstein and Charlie Chaplin in 1931

When you are in the history business, you get asked all sorts of abstract questions. "Why did the Germans lose," for instance. "Would Hitler have won if he hadn't attacked this place or that [insert your nation of choice]?"

One of those rather silly questions is, "What was the most important date of World War II?" There are so many, and the first choice is usually something like 1 September 1939, 7 December 1941, 22 June 1941, 6 June 1944, 8 May 1945, 2 September 1945 - you know the drill. Perhaps you have your own, more obscure date between 1 September 1939 and 2 September 1945. Whatever it is, I'm sure it indeed was important, and people died and suffered, and bad or good things happened to a lot of people. But it isn't the most important date of World War II.

I am going to propose a completely different date as the most important of World War II. The date is none of the above, and it quite possibly is a date you've never even considered. If you are a student, and you put this date down in answer to such a question on an exam, I think you will blow your teacher's mind - because you will be right, and your answer will be more right than whatever answer the person grading your test probably has in mind.

The most important date of World War II, the one any student of the war should have at hand if ever asked that question, is: 2 August 1939.

Let me explain.

Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein had been born in Ulm in the German Empire, but by 1939 he had been living abroad for decades. Einstein acquired Swiss citizenship in 1901, and worked in the patent office there while establishing his reputation as a scientist. Later, he visited New York in 1921, and Asia the following year. He still wasn't sure where he wanted to settle down - his native Germany still looked pretty good, but he was more appreciated abroad.

Albert Einstein

Einstein took a research fellowship at California Institute of Technology, and later a professorship there. By April 1933, he had decided that he no longer wished to live in Germany under the Hitler regime. The Germans had seized his property there to turn into a Hitler Youth camp. Einstein spent some time in Belgium deciding what to do next. Ultimately, he walked into the German consulate, renounced his German citizenship, sailed back to America with his wife, and settled in Princeton, New Jersey. He was only loosely affiliated with the university there, though many associate Einstein with Princeton.

Albert Einstein

By now, Einstein, a Nobel Prize winner, was the most famous scientist in the world. He spent time with Hungarian émigré Leó Szilárd and physicist Edward Teller, who informed him of the feasibility of an atomic bomb. Einstein admitted that he had never considered the idea, with which he is often wrongly tarred and feather by his critics. Realizing Einstein's celebrity status and international connections, Szilárd asked Einstein to sign a 2 August 1939 letter to President Franklin Roosevelt. It warned of the German work on the atomic bomb and proposed that the United States take action to develop one themselves.

October 11 1939 Einstein Szilard
Albert Einstein and Leo Szilárd re-enact their August 1939 meeting about the letter the latter had drafted to President Roosevelt about the atomic bomb.

The 2 August 1939 letter would not be delivered to Roosevelt until 11 October 1939 because, quite simply, the fools who reviewed it had no idea of its mind-blowing importance. When FDR finally reviewed the letter, the straightforward idea expressed in the letter would make a big impression on him, especially considering that the war in Europe had broken out in the meantime. FDR was wise enough to start the ball rolling toward the Manhattan Project and the successful development of the atomic bomb by the United States in 1945. October 11, 1939, thus, is the second most important date of World War II - and unless you are really a student of the Manhattan Project, I can virtually guarantee that 11 October 1939 has never registered with you before, because nothing much else of long-term, fate-of-nations importance happened that day.

Albert Einstein
From 1943 until 1945, Grand Junction, Colorado was the center of the Manhattan Project’s secret effort to mine and refine uranium ore from surrounding mills in the Colorado Plateau. This obscure place in the Rockies was the most important location of World War II. Without the uranium, nothing else was going to happen.

The importance of the Manhattan Project cannot be overstated. Once the United States started down that path, the Axis was doomed. No matter what Adolf Hitler or Stalin or anyone else did, their plans and schemes would come to a dead end eventually due to the development of the atomic bomb. The inescapable truth is this: whoever developed an atomic bomb by 1945 was going to win World War II. Period. Paragraph.

Albert Einstein
Hiroshima, 1945.

Thus, histories that claim that this or that battle of World War was decisive are nonsense. No single battle decided World War II. Instead, it was a project begun by a simple letter sent through the United States mail.

Albert Einstein
The K-25 Plant in Oak Ridge used the gaseous diffusion process to enrich the uranium mined in Colorado. It is the second most important location of World War II.

There is an ironic aspect to this date. The one man who made it significant, Albert Einstein, later deeply regretted that he did what made the day important at all.

Albert Einstein

A committed pacifist, Einstein wished he had never sent the 2 August 1939 letter to President Roosevelt. So, he probably did not appreciate magazine covers like the one below.

Albert Einstein

The Manhattan Project has become a synonym for total government commitment to solve an urgent problem, and thus itself is worthy of study. I did not, however, write this page to detail the evolution of the Manhattan Project, the atomic bomb, the career of Albert Einstein, or anything like that. I may do that elsewhere, but now is not the time. Instead, this page is here to address and answer a simple and straightforward question: what was the most important day of World War II?

Manhattan Project
"This new phenomenon would also lead to the construction of bombs."

So, a simple conclusion: 2 August 1939 is the most significant date of World War II and it is not even highlighted or sometimes even mentioned in most histories of the war.

Manhattan Project
Calutron operators at the Manhattan Project.



  1. Hello and thank you for your time
    I disagree entirely with the premise of this entry ( that the 2nd of august 1939 is the most important date of the war ) and especially with your conclusion that "2 August 1939 is the most significant date of World War II"

    Allow me to explain :

    While the value of the atomic bomb is undeniable, it only becomes a vital strategic tool if you have : a viable delivery system AND, in the case of the united states, a solid justification for using it.

    You once said that wars are won because of greater strategic reasons ( and not because you set your army north east instead of south east ) . I think this is one case where that is true. In that specific case, the two atomic bombs were dropped because the U.S. had complete control of the air. The U.S. had complete control of the air because japan and germany had little to no ressources to build, arm, and fly fighters, and, in 1944 - 1945, too few skilled pilots to fly them. Take away little boy, and replace it with 2 000 tons of conventional bombs instead, you'll get roughly the same result.

    So let us look at japan and the impact the atom bomb had on the will of the japanese. It's simple, it barely had any. Japan was ALREADY razed to the ground for the most part when the bombs fell, and the japanese high command initially thought it was just another firebombings that had razed just another japanese city, like hundreds before.

    I have to quote (sourced) wikipedia here :
    Operation Meetinghouse air raid of 9–10 March 1945 was later estimated to be the single most destructive bombing raid in history. Incidentally, Hirohito's tour of the destroyed areas of Tokyo in March 1945 was the beginning of his personal involvement in the peace process, culminating in Japan's surrender six months later. The Operation Meetinghouse firebombing of Tokyo on the night of 9 March 1945 was the single deadliest air raid of World War II, greater than Dresden, Hiroshima, or Nagasaki as single events

    I mean no disrespect to all the victims of the bomb here, i just want to point out that objectively, from a strictly military point of view, the two atomic bombs that hit japan in 1945 were little different from the previous massive bombing operations of that same and the previous year ( it is touched very briefly in "The Fog of War Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara 2003" ).
    The real reason why the japanese ended up surrendering was a combination of the soviet union going to war against them and the emperor finally finding his nuts and saying "hey maybe we should stop this whole war thing".

    Moreover you have to remember that the average nuke today is a multiple warhead device wherein each warhead is maybe twenty or thirty times hiroshima's worth of destruction, and that after dropping these two bombs the U.S. would have had to wait another 6 months at least to be able to get a third bomb, and at that point the germans had been producing jet fighters for 2 years.

    Now, let's try to envision a situation wherein the germans build the atomic bomb first.

    Marti18 4096 char, will continue post below

  2. Now, let's try to envision a situation wherein the germans build the atomic bomb first.

    Even if the germans had started working on the bomb in 1936, i cannot quite conceive a way for their project

    to really get going until at least after they've started conquering and pillaging other european countries.

    That means at least 1940 - 1941. Which in turn means that it would have been damn near impossible for them to

    have a working device until at least late-1943, also known as " after kursk ". I am not even including the

    possibility of, say, a norweigian commando, trained by the british, landing in norway and spending months

    living in extreme conditions just to sabotage a heavy water factory here.

    And then what could the germans do with it ? First they have to get it into a plane and that plane needs to

    be BIG enough to carry the heavy ass bomb, the germans did not have very many heavy bombers, they favored

    light and medium and did not quite have powerful enough engines in sufficient quantity anyways . Then they

    have to make sure the plane doesn't get shot down before dropping its payload. So night bombing then ?
    And what do you bomb ? An army ? Hiroshima was one of the most densely populated cities of the time, and the

    highest estimates are at around 200 000 death ( the most common i've seen says "approximately 70,000 died

    immediately from the explosion and another 70,000 died from radiation within five years." )The soviet had

    literal millions of combattants and they did not in fact sleep packed like sardines. 200 000 Dead soldiers

    barely makes a dent in the soviet armies. And if you think that "being 6 months away from dying from

    radiation poisoning" can get you honorably discharged in the red army in 1943 you are clueless. I guess you

    could do far more damage by dropping it in great britain but even there you would have to know what to bomb

    and where to find it. Good luck flying a recon mission with all the fighters stationed there plus radars and

    command and control capabilities.

    So you bomb a city then ? Which one ? I guess Moskau and London are good targets but although you might

    freeze the soviets for a while through logistics and chain of command problems, you would still only delay

    the inevitable as one of the communist party opportunists would just takeover, order the army forward, and

    execute anyone who complains. Those are the guys who used cows and P.O.W. to clear mine fields. As for the

    british, by that point they had built up a resilience from the blitz and churchill that just wasn't going to

    go away. Everyone was in too deep in 1943.

    I think there would have been a way for an atomic bomb to have a truly strategic impact for the axis and that

    is if it had been ready just before the battle of kursk. The concentration of soviet troops in that battle

    means that, if, the germans had had a bomb and dropped it there, they might have won that battle while

    sustaining small enough casualties to retain some form of small strategic initiative. But even then where do

    you go from there ? What do you do with that strategic initiative ? The odds are still stacked against the

    axis forces here and it would take both military and diplomatic geniuses to not lose the war outright and

    negociate a good enough deal with either side to make yourself seem valuable enough, scary enough, and above

    all, worth the trouble. If anything, germany dropping an atomic bomb in late 1943 to 1945 would have only

    increased the pressure on U.S. and british militaries to use everything at their disposal ( including gas ?

    Just a thought ) to win the war as quickly as possible. And keep in mind that even the US which had already

    invested massively in the manhattan project, and had been relatively unscathed from the war, still estimated

    they needed at least another 6 months to get another bomb after dropping theirs.


    Marti18 4096 char this approval thing is obnoxious

    1. The Germans had a delivery system. The Me 264 was ready by 1943 and had a payload of 13,200 kg (29,101 lbs) in the internal bomb bay at 8,600 km (5,343 miles). There were other Luftwaffe bombers that could carry a Little-Boy sized bomb to England, too, such as the Ju 390. Germany had delivery systems in plenty of time, and they also could have put it on a U-boat.

  3. Conclusion : the bomb may have marked the end of the war, but it did not have, and, unless ready to be

    dropped in mid-1943, would not have had a massive impact on the war itself. Although i will concede that had

    it been dropped in europe, more specifically London or Moscow, it could have radically changed the post-war


    As for the most important date of World War Two ...

    What happens if the japanese empire does not attack the united states ?
    The japanese attack on pearl harbor December 7, 1941
    All of a sudden, declaring war on germany less than 30 years after a bloody world war against that country,

    at a time when the public opinion of the U.S. was massively isolationnist ( think Lindbergh ) would not have

    been easy.

    And if we go with that narrative, we could also ask " What would have happened had general ishiwara not

    violated orders and staged a chinese attack to start the war in japan ? "
    So how about instead, the mukden incident ? September 18, 1931
    Ishiwara does not set a precedent to violate orders and does not start a war in china. The chinese communists

    and Chiang Kai-shek's nationalists aren't forced to unite and the japanese military, which doesn't have the

    figure of the great hero general who ( goes rogue and ) disobeys orders and starts a war. This in turn keeps

    China divided and, although ishiwara's inaction would not have resolved japan's political instability, it

    would not have aggravated it, and perhaps Ishiwara would not have had to put down the rebellion in the army

    which propelled Hideki Tojo to his position of immense power within the japanese empire.
    And if japan doesn't start the war in China, what reason would Roosevelt have had to block profitable sales

    of strategic ressources to japan, with the memory of the 1929 crash fresh in the minds of the american people

    ? Without : a japanese army bogged down in china and the U.S. openly hampering Japan's war effort by cutting

    off japan's ressources and sending american white men as volunteers ( flying tigers anyone ? ) to fight for

    the chinese against the japanese, why would japan even go to war against the U.S. ? Under what narrative ?

    They gained so much from the british colonies at a time when the americans really didn't like those redcoat

    imperialists, hell they even got vietnam ( french indochina ) for free just by being on hitler's side.
    That it it for this specific hypothesis, if you haven't already, i respectfully suggest you read up ( or wat
    ch ) on general ishiwara. There was a great short documentary on him made by paul jenkins in 2012, which

    included good insight from japanese historians, it is called : "General Ishiwara, the Man who Triggered the


    Finally keep in mind that it was the germans who first discovered that fabricating an atomic bomb was even

    possible at all in the first place ( in 1936 ) and made it public like a bunch of idiots . Imagine if one of

    the nazis had declared all scientific research to be top secret until approved to be publicly released or


    I'm sorry i went on a bit of a rant here in the last part, i guess i ended up saying that the most important

    date of the war is the day Ishiwara started the war in the first place. But i'm posting it anyway because i

    think it's important to remember that history cannot be "cut" into small pieces and analyzed in a vacuum. It

    should be viewed as a flow of continuous events which can be separated neither from their causes nor from

    their consequences.

    Marti18 4096 char, there's one last paragraph i want to post.