Alexander Sachs (1 August 1893 – 23 June 1973) was a Jewish-American economist and banker. In October 1939 he delivered the Einstein–Szilárd letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, suggesting that nuclear-fission research ought to be pursued, with a view to possibly constructing nuclear weapons, should they prove feasible, in view of the likelihood that Nazi Germany would do so. This led to the initiation of the United States' Manhattan Project.
Life and career
Born in Rossien, Lithuania, Sachs moved to the U.S. in 1904 to join his brother, Joseph A. Sachs, who was instrumental in his further education. He was educated at Townsend Harris High School in New York City, the City College of New York, and Columbia College. In 1913 he joined the municipal bond department at Boston-based investment bank Lee, Higginson & Co., but in 1915 returned to education as a graduate student in social sciences, philosophy and jurisprudence at Harvard College. In later life he was on the faculty at Princeton University.
From 1922 to 1929 he was economist and investment analyst for Walter Eugene Meyer in equity investment acquisitions. He then organized and became Director of Economics Investment Research at the Lehman Corporation, a newly established investment company of Lehman Brothers. From 1931 he joined the board at Lehman. He was Vice President from 1936 to 1943, remaining on the board until his death in 1973.
In 1933, Sachs served as organizer and chief of the economic research division of the National Recovery Administration. In 1936, he served on the National Policy Committee. During the war, he was economic adviser to the Petroleum Industry War Council, and special counsel to the director of the Office of Strategic Services. He was knighted by the Queen of England and at the time of his death held the title of Sir Alexander Sachs. He is survived by his nephew, Zachary H. Sacks, an attorney in Los Angeles, California.
It was nearly ten weeks before Alexander Sachs at last found an opportunity, on October 11, 1939, to hand President Roosevelt, in person, the letter composed by [Leo] Szilard and signed by [Albert] Einstein at the beginning of August . In order to ensure that the President should thoroughly appreciate the contents of the document and not lay it aside with a heap of other papers awaiting attention, Sachs read to him, in addition to the message and an appended memorandum by Szilard, a further much more comprehensive statement by himself. The effect of these communications was by no means so overpowering as Sachs had expected. Roosevelt, wearied by the prolonged effort of listening to his visitor, made an attempt to disengage himself from the whole affair. He told the disappointed reader that he found it all very interesting but considered government intervention to be premature at this stage.
Sachs, however, was able, as he took his leave, to extort from the President the consolation of an invitation to breakfast the following morning. "That night I didn't sleep a wink," Sachs remembers. "I was staying at the Carlton Hotel [two blocks north of the White House]. I paced restlessly to and fro in my room or tried to sleep sitting in a chair. There was a small park quite close to the hotel. Three or four times, I believe, between eleven in the evening and seven in the morning, I left the hotel, to the porter's amazement, and went across to the park. There I sat on a bench and meditated. What could I say to get the President on our side in this affair, which was already beginning to look practically hopeless? Quite suddenly, like an inspiration, the right idea came to me. I returned to the hotel, took a shower and shortly afterwards called once more at the White House."
Roosevelt was sitting alone at the breakfast table, in his wheel chair, when Sachs entered the room. The President inquired in an ironical tone:
"What bright idea have you got now? How much time would you like to explain it?"
Dr. Sachs says he replied that he would not take long.
"All I want to do is to tell you a story. During the Napoleonic wars a young American inventor came to the French Emperor and offered to build a fleet of steamships with the help of which Napoleon could, in spite of the uncertain weather, land in England. Ships without sails? This seemed to the great Corsican so impossible that he sent [Robert] Fulton away. In the opinion of the English historian Lord Acton, this is an example of how England was saved by the shortsightedness of an adversary. Had Napoleon shown more imagination and humility at that time, the history of the nineteenth century would have taken a very different course."
After Sachs finished speaking the President remained silent for several minutes. Then he wrote something on a scrap of paper and handed it to the servant who had been waiting at table. The latter soon returned with a parcel which, at Roosevelt's order, he began slowly to unwrap. It contained a bottle of old French brandy of Napoleon's time, which the Roosevelt family had possessed for many years. The President, still maintaining a significant silence, told the man to fill two glasses. Then he raised his own, nodded to Sachs and drank to him.
Next he remarked: "Alex, what you are after is to see that the Nazis don't blow us up?"
It was only then that Roosevelt called in his attaché, [Brigadier] General [Edwin] "Pa" Watson, and addressed him—pointing to the documents Sachs had brought—in words which have since become famous:
"Pa, this requires action!"
- "Papers of Alexander Sachs". Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum.
- Hailey, Jean R. (1973-06-28). "Alexander Sachs, 79, Prominent Economist, Dies". Washington Post.
- Hakim, Joy (1995). A History of Us: War, Peace and all that Jazz. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-509514-6.
- Robert Jungk, Brighter than a Thousand Suns: The Story of the Men Who Made The Bomb, translated [from the German] by James Cleugh, New York, Grove Press, 1958.
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