By United Press International
1985 U.S. military experts considered poisoning 500,000 Germans during World War II with radioactive food, according to a letter released Friday from J. Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb, to physicist Enrico Fermi.
Oppenheimer wrote Fermi, an Italian-born physicist working in Chicago, on May 25, 1943, about the plan to poison the Germans` food with radioactive strontium. There is no evidence the plan was carried out.
Oppenheimer, who was in charge of the Manhattan Project--the top-secret atomic bomb development team--recommended that Fermi delay work on the plan until some of the technical problems could be worked out.
''I should recommend delay if that is possible,'' Oppenheimer said in the letter. ''In this connection I think that we should not attempt a plan unless we can poison food sufficient to kill a half a million men, since there is no doubt that the actual number affected will, because of nonuniform distribution, be much smaller than this.''
Barton Bernstein, a professor of history at Stanford University who discovered the letter, said he was not sure why Oppenheimer requested a delay. ''Oppenheimer may have been trying to establish a nearly impossible standard of lethality as a way of gently blocking the plan on technical grounds without directly raising moral objections,'' Bernstein said.
''Or, to suggest a less charitable interpretation, he may have lacked, or already overridden, personal doubts about the ethics of mass killings; he may have been troubled only by technical matters of efficacy and access to resources.''
Bernstein discussed his findings in Technology Review, a magazine published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The fact that U.S. scientists ''seriously considered'' the plan, he said, is largely unknown. He said that he showed the letter to 16 Manhattan Project scientists including Edward Teller and Frank Oppenheimer, J. Robert`s brother, and that none of them remember hearing about the plan.
Bernstein said the letter is important because ''it illustrates an important fact.''
''Amid the horror of World War II, including German concentration camps and the mass killings of Jews, many U.S. scientists, like rank-and-file civilians, were willing to devise new ways to kill the enemy by the thousands and even hundreds of thousands.''