Most letters are of consequence to the writer, the recipient and perhaps a few other people. Some letters, however, have a longer reach. They can set history on a different course. Consider the following three historical letters. Had they not been written, world events might have taken a much different turn.
Da Vinci Emerges from Obscurity
Consider how much poorer the world would be without the contributions of Leonardo Da Vinci. Not only did he paint the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, but his anatomical sketches immeasurably advanced our understanding of the human body. He foretold parachutes, gliders, tanks and helicopters, and he built the first self-propelled cart. He understood geometry and construction and designed churches, fortresses and other buildings.
In 1482, however, Leonardo was an obscure 30-year-old with an interesting mix of talents but little outlet for them. He wrote a letter to Ludovicio Sforza, the Duke of Milan, offering his services. He cited his ability to make weapons and told the Duke he could help him launch attacks and also defend his own territory. He also talked about how he could construct bridges and plan buildings.
The Duke accepted Da Vinci into his employ, and Leonardo live in Milan and served the Duke until the ruler lost power in 1499. It was under this sponsorship the Leonardo Da Vinci was able to share his exceptional abilities with the wider world.
Hitler Takes a Leave of Absence
In 1932, Adolf Hitler, an Austrian, became a German citizen. Four days after his citizenship became official, he wrote to his employer, the State of Brunswick. He requested a leave in order to campaign for president of the German Reich.
He joined the campaign, and, although he lost to Paul von Hindenburg, his political career was underway. The following year Hindenberg, thinking he could control Hitler, appointed him chancellor.
Once Hitler had some power, he continued to build on it. Later in 1933, he passed a law suspending civil liberties. Still later he pushed through the Enabling Act granting him four years of dictatorship. In 1934 he smashed his opponents in the “Night of Long Knives,” and later that year, when Hindenburg died, Hitler merged the offices of chancellor and president. Eventually he held all the important reins of power in Germany.
The letter requesting leave was one of the first in a chain of events that led to Adolf Hitler’s devastating impact on the world. This historical letter has reappeared and now provides a valuable glimpse into the mind of the great villain of the 20th century.
Einstein Envisions the Atomic Bomb
Einstein, like many others, was worried about Hitler. Specifically, he feared that the Germans might use uranium to construct a super-weapon. On August 2, 1939, Einstein laid out his concerns in a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
It took a few months for Roosevelt to act on the letter, but, when he did, the effect was world-changing. Roosevelt formed a Uranium Committee to study the military possibilities. Out of that came the Manhattan Project and the bombs that were exploded over Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Later, Einstein regretted the letter and its outcome. It turned out that Germany had not put an emphasis on nuclear weaponry and had no significant program to build an atomic bomb. Einstein’s historical letter, however, had already had its impact.