The story that changed the course of history?

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you'll know all about Aristotle's three forces of influence. The following story gave me fresh insight into the three forces in action...

As a quick reminder, Aristotle argued that persuasion was a combination of three forces. The first force, ETHOS is an index of your trustworthiness. It’s your credibility or pedigree with a particular domain or subject matter. The second force, LOGOS is linked to the strength of your argument, how truthful, reasonable or logical it is, and your ability to rally supporting evidence and data to back it up. The third force, PATHOS is the greek word empathy and is your ability to help our listeners develop an emotional or human connection with the subject matter in question.

Listening to "The Bomb", a fascinating podcast from the BBC I heard a story about the early days of the atomic age. It was the spring of 1939 and the world stood on the brink of another great war. This would be no conventional war: In 1945 the United States would unleash on the Empire of Japan, the most formidable weapon yet: the atom bomb. But in 1939, only three physicists believed such a weapon possible. The men, Leo Szilard, Eugene Wigner, and Edward Teller, were Jewish refugees from Germany living in the United States and they had, after much experimentation, proved that a Uranium chain reaction could be weaponized.

From left to right: Teller, Wigner and Szilard


Thus in the winter of 1938, after hearing that Nazi Germany had commenced its own experiments with Uranium the trio worried that the bomb might soon fall into the wrong hands. The threat had been broached in recent years with the navy, state department, and White House but all three had remained unmoved. As British Journalist Alistair Cooke wrote, “the possibility seemed as remote as a man landing on the moon”. A new warning was imperative but there was a problem: The three physicists were technically brilliant but none had any influence over the critical audiences.

Only one man could help them - someone known affectionately to them as “The Old Man'' and who they were vaguely aware lived in a beach house at the far end of Long Island. On a hot summer’s day in July 1930, Wigner and Szilard drove out on a hit and miss search for America’s most celebrated scientist and himself a Jewish refugee from Germany. Albert Einstein. Once located, It didn't take them long to convince Einstein of the danger. He agreed to write a letter to President Roosevelt warning of the possibility of a nuclear chain reaction that could “unleash immense destructive force” and advising the administration to take “quick action”. Armed with the letter, the two scientists returned to New York City to face a new problem: who would get the letter onto the desk of the president?

The task fell to Alexander Sachs, a banker, and an economist who had served a key advisory role on the President's economic recovery committee. But it was fully 8 weeks before he could get an appointment. On October 11, 1939, Sachs met with President Roosevelt and presented both Einstein’s letter and a more comprehensive and technical memorandum written by Leo Szilard. The results of his presentation, much to Sach’s despair, were underwhelming.

The detail was too much for the harassed president who was used to the piercingly clear and insightful memoranda of his staffers. After several hours, an exhausted Roosevelt told Sachs that he found it all very interesting but considered government intervention to be premature at this stage. In a last-ditch effort, Sachs managed to convince the President to grant him one more audience the following day. Sachs spent the night pacing the corridor of his hotel and even ventured out to sit and contemplate on a nearby park bench. After much soul-searching, it dawned on Sachs that reams of scientific evidence would not persuade the president. The two met for breakfast early the next morning in a Washington hotel.

"All I want to do is to tell you a story,” said Sachs, reassuring the president that it would not take long.

"All I want to do is to tell you a story"

Sachs related the true story of Robert Fulton, a young American scientist who had patented the first steamboat and submarine. During the Napoleonic Wars, Fulton came to the French Emperor and offered to build a fleet of ships that could, in spite of uncertain weather, land in England. Ships without sails. Napoleon scoffed and showed Fulton the door.

Later, English historians would use this as 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 and even twentieth centuries could have taken a very different course.

Meanwhile, Roosevelt sat silently for a few moments before ordering up a bottle of old French brandy from the Napoleonic Era. He poured them each a glass and raised his in a toast. “Alexander”, he said with a smile, “what you are after is to see that the Nazi’s don’t blow us up”

"Precisely." said a gobsmacked Sachs

With that, Roosevelt summoned his attaché and pointed to the pile of documents that Sachs had brought along. "This requires action!" he said.

I hope you can spot the three elements of persuasion at work in this amazing story.

Szilard, Wigner, and Teller were LOGOS and little else. For all their brilliance, all they had was the scientific data to prove that a uranium chain reaction could be weaponised. With the help of Einstein, they dramatically ramped up their credibility and trustworthiness - in other words, their ETHOS. Indeed, without this, Alexander Sachs might never have gotten an audience with the president in the first place. But something was still missing: PATHOS. A compelling reason for the President to connect with the science behind the message and to take action. It took a cautionary tale from history to move him. Thank goodness Sachs had one when it mattered and was able to tell it so convincingly.

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