Kurt Gödel and how the US could become a dictatorship

Kurt Gödel is widely recognized as being one of the premier mathematical logicians of all time whose incompleteness theorems revealed a stunning limitation on the limits of the axiomatic approach. “His findings put an end to logicist efforts such as those of Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead and demonstrated the severe limitations of David Hilbert’s formalist program for arithmetic.” He was also notoriously eccentric. After suffering from severe digestive disorders due to an ulcer, later in life he became convinced that he was being poisoned and his wife acted as his food taster. But his digestive problems and his refusal to eat led to him finally dying of starvation in 1978 at the age of 71.

Like other eccentric figures in science and mathematics (Paul Dirac being another), many stories circulated about the strange and funny things they said and did. A lot of these were just folklore and legend without any basis. One story was about his hearing in 1946 to become a US citizen but just recently documentation turned up and this story turns out to be true.

Gödel had been told that there would be a test during his naturalization interview and although his friends Albert Einstein and Oskar Morgenstern assured him that it was a highly cursory affair with the most superficial questions (“Who is in charge of the executive branch?”, “How many justices are there on the US Supreme Court?”), Gödel, being Gödel, took the prospect of the test extremely seriously and studied for it like it was for a PhD defense on US history, its system of government, and the constitution. He studied the settlement of the US by Europeans, the history of the indigenous people, US constitutional law, even the origins of the town he was living in (Princeton, NJ) and the structure of its local government. In short, anything that was remotely connected, he pursued.

Being the expert logician he was, he naturally found all manner of contradictions in all these things but what particularly intrigued him was the discovery of a loophole in the US constitution that seemed to him to allow somebody, in a perfectly legal manner, to become a dictator and set up a Fascist regime. He wanted to discuss this interesting finding with his naturalization examiner but Einstein and Morgenstern, whom he had taken as his two witnesses to the hearing, knew that this was not a good idea and implored him not to do so and he seemed to acquiesce.

But at the interview the examiner started making small talk with his eminent interviewee and Morgenstern recounted that to his dismay the conversation went exactly where he hoped it would not go.

Examinor: Now, Mr. Gödel, where do you come from?
Gödel: Where I come from? Austria.
The Examinor: What kind of government did you have in Austria?
Gödel: It was a republic, but the constitution was such that it finally was changed into a dictatorship.
Examinor: Oh! This is very bad. That could not happen in this country
Gödel: Oh yes! I can prove it.

To Einstein and Morgenstern’s horror, Gödel seemed to see this as an invitation to present his thesis of how the US could become a dictatorship but to their relief, the examiner seemed to realize that allowing Gödel to expand on this topic was not a good idea and he quickly ended the interview.

Variations of this story circulated for a long time but there was no documentation and it was thought to be just another legend until much later Morgenstern’s wife Dorothy found a document that had been written by her late husband in 1971 putting down his recollections of the event. The document makes for amusing reading about Einstein and Gödel. It had been in the archives at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton where Gödel, Einstein, and Morgenstern worked, but did not receive wider publicity until 2006 when a large section was quoted in an IAS newsletter.

Jeffrey Kegler provides more background to this story and says that Gödel’s naturalization examiner was a judge Forman who was a friend of Einstein and had administered the oath of citizenship to him, which may explain why he shut down the interview before Gödel could cause problems for himself. Interestingly, Kegler says that nowhere among Gödel’s copious papers is there any sign of the proof that he alluded to. As a result, it is not known exactly what the loophole is that Gödel discovered in the US constitution that would enable someone to become a dictator.

I am sure that Donald Trump and the other authoritarians surrounding him would be very interested in finding Gödel’s proof.


  1. says

    E.T. Bell’s book “men of mathematics” amazon has lots of great stories of weird mathematicians.

    IAS sounds like an amazing place. George Dyson did a talk at USENIX a bunch of years ago, about how when Von Neumann’s computer was shut down on his death, they just padlocked the door and forgot about it. He went in and did pictures and scans of the first system logs (system logging is a thing of mine..) and the whole thing. There may be a version of the talk on youtube (runs off to look)

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