“Symbolic interactionists study how people use symbols to develop their views of the world and to communicate with one another. Symbols define for us what relationships are… without symbols, our social life would lack sophistication” (Henslin, 2006:15). The significance these happenings had on social change would mean nothing in our history if everyone and everything did not have a particular symbol. Unable to specify title, materials, or goals Albert Einstein would have not been labeled with the status he had achieved as world most famous physicist, Nazi Germany would have not been feared, Szilard would have not had his ideas he, the President would have not had the such tremendous power, the materials to build an atomic bomb would have not existed, there would be no wars, and so on. In a nutshell, “symbolic interactionists analyze how our behaviors depend on the way we define both ourselves and others. They study face-to-face interactions; they look at how people work out their relationships and how they make sense out of life and their place in it” (Henslin, 2006: 15). Leo Szilard knew at a young age he wanted to save the world. As a symbolic interactionist, Let us look at Szilard’s ideas and behavior and how they changed as symbols changed. The social interaction between Leo Szilard and Albert Einstein was a key factor in making the atomic bomb possible. Einstein’s fame and membership to a high social class enabled Szilard to make contact with the people who could put his plans in action. The letter Szilard drafted and signed by Einstein was symbolic; it was the first step of many toward peace in a war torn society. The reading of the letter to the President ushered in a new relationship between the government and physicists. In their first meeting to discuss this new technology, the American government did not think these men, with strong Hungarian accents, could be trusted. When funds for the building of this bomb were withheld, Szilard reverted by to his relationship with Einstein. Drafting up a second letter to blackmail the government into releasing the funds, Szilard wrote about publishing his reactor design if they did not receive the funds they were promised. Consequently, the committee freed up the money and the project continued through to completion. Once Szilard and his team removed the control rods from their test reactor, he realized the magnitude of what they had just built. Now drafting up letter number three, asking that the bomb not be used, Szilard was too late. President Roosevelt had died. Without the social connection with the current President, Harry S. Truman, Szilard was unable to relay his message before the bomb was dropped. The devastation forced Szilard to quit physics and pick up biology. He then dedicated his life to make sure the bomb was not used again. Albert Einstein also, devoted his life to insuring the atomic bomb was not used again. The fear of the Nazi’s building the weapon first and using it, was the original cause of him signing the letters, but after seeing what the bomb did, he was very regretful. If nothing else, Einstein could at least say that he had a big part in changing society by strengthening the relationship between the government and physicists.“Functionalist view society as being composed of various parts, each with a function that, when fulfilled, contributes to society’s equilibrium. Robert Merton used the term functions to refer to the beneficial consequences of people’s actions. In contrast, he used the term dysfunctions to refer to the consequences that harm society” (Henslin, 2006:16). Throughout this film, a functionalist would say the chain of events resulted in both functions and dysfunctions. The social change that ushered in the atomic bomb era began with the discovery of Uranium in the mines of Germany. Szilard feared that Hitler, with his hate filled agenda, would definitely be working on his own nuclear weapon. These premonitions drove Szilard into action. First, he met with his fellow physicists to devise a plan to get the government involved with his atomic bomb project. His idea was to make sure the United States of America was the first country to build such bomb; by doing so, war would be deterred due to the treat of the detonation of this scary weapon. For Szilard the manifest function of this atomic bomb was to save the world. With Einstein’s endorsement of the letters to the President urging the build of the atomic bomb, the relationship between the physicists and the government was now very important. While the physicist came up with how to build the atomic bomb, the government controlled the funds to build the bomb and the ultimate use of it. Upon completion the bomb was dropped on Japan, physicist realized the devastation they helped to create. The latent dysfunction of the bombing of Hiroshima, Japan left thousands killed and thousands more wounded and burned. After witnessing the aftermath of the bomb detonation, Szilard quit physics and opted for biology. A latent function of the bombing was Einstein and Szilard both dedicated their lives to making sure the atomic bomb was not used again. Society now had two very intelligent physicists working against the deployment of a weapon that would create such havoc. It was ironic that they were instrumental in building the atomic weapon, but then work tirelessly to rid the world of its destruction. At the end of the day, Szilard accomplished what he intended in the first place. “His weapon did end up saving the world by forcing humans to see what they do to each other, which in some way limited the destruction of our wars” (Williams, 2006). Therefore, Szilard’s manifest function for the purpose of the bomb changed our society forever; also, physicists are not as invisible to our government as they once were.
“Conflict theorists stress that society is composed of groups that are competing with one another for scarce resources” (Henslin, 2006: 18). The events of this historical time began with conflict. Hitler was using his power to brutally exterminate the Jews from Germany because of his prejudice toward them. Knowing the ruthlessness of this authoritarian leader, Szilard had legitimate reasons to be fearful. With Germany under Nazi control, Szilard felt that he was in a race to finish an atomic bomb before they did. As Leo Szilard and Enrico Fermi met with the government and explained what needed to happen, they had to do major convincing to get the support they needed. In this case, the bourgeoisie, capitalists who own the means to produce wealth, were the government officials; the proletariats, workers who are exploited by the bourgeoisie, were the physicists. The government promised to fund Szilard’s reactor project, but did not want to release the fund because they felt that the two physicists were security risks because of their accents and nationalities. According to Karl Marx, “The key to human history is class conflict” (Henslin, 2006:18). It was obvious these two groups were of completely different social classes because they continually bump heads on a collision course. The struggle between these two groups ended when Szilard wrote a second letter (blackmail letter) to the President, signed by Einstein. The President ordered the Uranium committee to release the funds for the Manhattan project. If the final say was up to the committee, the atomic bomb might have not been completed in America first. Who knows how that might have affected our society today? Nevertheless; the bomb was invented, which changed today’s society for the best. Knowing that the construction of an atomic bomb is possible keeps us alert and on our toes.
In conclusion, all three theoretical perspectives are important in analyzing any event. When a situation is only studied from one perspective it is very complicated to get the whole picture. Watching the film “Einstein’s letter” and interpreting what was happening from the perspective of the symbolic interactionist, showed us how important symbols are to the history of society. Without them there would have been no event to mention. While from a functionalist perspective, we see that everything in our society has a function, whether it is negative or positive. Throughout this film many parts, from the government official, the physicist, to the bomb itself, functioned together to create social change. Conflict theorist, illustrated how the capitalist wield their power over the physicists by denying them the resources that were needed for the project to continue. It took the order of the President, a higher power, to make them give the physicists what they were promised. For optimum understanding of the events depicted in the film, all the different perspectives had to be formulated and then combined. Only then can there be a bigger and better view of the whole picture.
Henslin, James M. (2006). Essentials of Sociology: A Down-to-Earth Approach. 7th ed. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.
Williams, Marco. 2006. “10 Days That Unexpectedly Changed America” [videorecording]/ a History Channel Production. New York: A&E Television Networks.