On this day in 1942, underneath the bleachers of the unused Stagg Field at the University of Chicago, Enrico Fermi produced the first man-made nuclear chain reaction. The crucial hurdle to making use of the potential of nuclear power had been leapt.
Fermi had received the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1938. Though Mussolini’s fascist government had forbidden Fermi to leave the country, he was granted a special exit visa so that he could attend the prize ceremony in Stockholm for the glory of Italy.
Fermi took advantage of the trip to defect to the United States. He was not merely opposed to the fascist ideology, he had a more pressing, personal concern: his wife was Jewish, and Hitler’s Germany had been pressing Italy to address its “Jewish Problem.”
The institutionalized intolerance and oppressive actions of the fascist regimes in Italy and Germany cost both countries many of their best and brightest scientists. The flight of these scientists to the freedom of America permitted the United States to develop the first nuclear weapons. And though such awful weapons be loathesome, surely it would have been a ghastly world in which Hitler developed nuclear weapons first.
Dogmatic oppression weakens even powerful, militaristic regimes; Freedom truly is strength.
Flower Mound, Texas