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Churchill's Bomb

A Hidden History of Science, War and Politics


Graham Farmelo


London: Faber & Faber, 2013

Hardcover. xi+554 p. ISBN 978-0571249787. £25.00


Reviewed by Antoine Capet

Université de Rouen



Considering the number of books devoted to the various aspects of Churchill’s life and career, it is extremely surprising that none had so far specifically dealt with such a major preoccupation of his wartime and later years. Churchill's Bomb evidently fills an essential gap, and as such will be welcome not only among “Churchill scholars”, but also by a wider readership.

The text follows a chronological progression – except for the Prologue, “February 1955 : Churchill, his nuclear scientists and the Bomb”, which starts from what Churchill told his doctor, Lord Moran, a few months before: “I am more worried by [the H-bomb] than by all the rest of my problems put together” [3]. He was then preparing his definitive speech on the question, given to the Commons on 1 March 1955.

Farmelo then works retrospectively, trying to ascertain and explain how Churchill’s thinking on the subject had evolved since he first contemplated the possibility of man ever building a bomb of gigantic power. This leads him – and us – into a complex exploration of who exactly first came up with the idea. All apparently derives from Henri Becquerel’s discovery of radium in 1896, which inflamed the imagination of at least two intellectuals: Anatole France in L’île des Pingouins (Penguin Island,1908) envisaged terrorists using a gas connected with radium while Frederick Soddy, in his book The Interpretation of Radium (1909), argued that “We stand today where primitive man stood with the energy liberated by fire” [22]. We do not know whether Churchill was familiar with these publications. We do know, however, that he undertook an improbable lasting friendship with the Socialist author H.G. Wells, who actually introduced the phrase “atomic bombs” in his 1914 novel The World set free, which he had provisionally entitled The Atom frees the World [22]. Frees the world from what? – From the oppression of bad government:

[In 1953] a special engine brings “induced radioactivity into the sphere of industrial production”, making energy available at negligible cost and rendering fossil fuels such as oil and gas too expensive to bother with. Out of economic chaos, incompetent governments wage war with the new “atomic bombs”. Although quite small – three of them would fit into a coffin – they are powerful enough to reduce a city the size of Chicago to a pile of radioactive rubble.

The result of this atomic war is in fact positive for mankind:

This wipes the Earth’s slate clean. […] People finally realise that war is pointless, nations and races become obsolete, conventional politics ends while a new age of leisure begins, and the entire world becomes a single state that speaks only English. One measure the government takes is to keep radioactive matter under strict control so that no bomb-makers can get their hands on it. [23]

Unlike the great Sir Ernest Rutherford, “the Christopher Columbus of the atomic nucleus” [47], Churchill was greatly impressed – not by the Utopian dimension, however: in fact, his view of Wells as a naïve Socialist dreamer was greatly reinforced when he defended Lenin and the action of the Bolsheviks after the Russian revolution, the exact opposite of his own position. Always interested in new weapons (his role in developing the “tank” during the First World War is well documented), Churchill was primarily interested in the military potential of such extraordinary bombs – if they could be built, that is.

Here, another lasting influence made itself felt, after his encounter with Frederick Lindemann, commonly known in Churchill’s family circle – which he often joined until his death in the 1950s – as “The Prof” (he was Professor of Experimental Philosophy [Physics] at Oxford from 1919). Lindemann in fact became his main scientific adviser, though Churchill always kept an open mind and tapped the expertise of a wide variety of specialists. Thus when Churchill obtained a commission for yet another of the remunerative articles which formed the mainstay of the family income – this time on the future of warfare – he naturally turned towards The Prof to make sure he wrote nothing which did not make sense in the existing state of scientific knowledge. The Prof told Churchill that nothing could substantiate the then fashionable idea of a “death ray” [30] – but atomic energy was in a different league, and Churchill made full use of its potential for inflaming the imagination of his readers. The resulting Nash’s Pall Mall Magazine article entitled ‘Shall We All Commit Suicide?’, published in September 1924, now sounds remarkably well-informed, and Farmelo gives its most forceful passages:

[…] A bomb no bigger than an orange [possessing] a secret power to […] concentrate the force of a thousand tons of cordite and blast a township at a stroke. […] Could not explosives […] be guided automatically in flying machines by wireless or other rays, without a human pilot […]? A base, degenerate, immoral race [could subjugate a more virtouous enemy by possessing] some new death-dealing or terror-working process [if they] were ruthless in its employment. [31]

Farmelo comments that this “made prescient reading fifteen years later, when it seemed that Hitler’s Germany might well beat its enemies to the acquisition of nuclear weapons” [31] – but he might well have added that the same prescience was at work with the later introduction of V-2 rockets and finally the ICBM with a nuclear warhead launched by submarine – perhaps the ultimate weapon, which Churchill did not see in operation as Prime Minister, though he knew it was being developed (it was finally commissioned in 1960). Hence his anxieties as expressed in his 1 March 1955 speech.

But then, was he blameless in the whole affair? “I am ready to meet my Maker. Whether my Maker is prepared for the great ordeal of meeting me is another matter”, he liked to say when he was in a jocular mood: but had he not himself gladly participated in the nuclear arms race which, he now warned in 1955, threatened the survival of God’s creatures? Farmelo’s answer is not clear because sometimes he reproaches Churchill with having given up too easily over the Manhattan project – the development of the Bomb in the United States during the war – thereby sacrificing Britain’s decided lead in the field in 1939; and sometimes he reproaches Churchill with his enthusiasm for nuclear energy in all its forms, industrial and military.

Farmelo has an excellent treatment of the complex game between the two war leaders, Churchill and Roosevelt, and above all their subordinates. Perhaps the best story is when Vannevar Bush, one of the President’s key men in the negotiations, receives a message from his boss when in London in July 1943. Bush reads the President’s cable as meaning that he should “review” the interchange of nuclear information with the British – that is, put a stop to the existing practice. When back in Washington, Bush learned to his dismay that in fact the President had dictated “renew” to his secretary, who got it wrong. Since Bush was in favour of “reviewing” rather than “renewing” the arrangements, he stuck to his first interpretation. Farmelo wittily comments: “If H.G. Wells had come up with this storyline in one of his political satires, it would have been condemned as laughably improbable” [232].

This was followed by the crucial Quebec Conference in August 1943, during which Farmelo describes Churchill as being hoodwinked by the astute Roosevelt, because “he gave the President an unprecedented veto on the development of nuclear power in Britain, a potentially profitable and strategically important industry” – and this, only in return for another inapplicable veto “on the other’s use of the Bomb against any other country”. “Lindemann appreciated this, to the irritation of Churchill, who always insisted that the agreement was the best possible one that Britain could have obtained in the circumstances”, Farmelo adds [241], before telling us that “The matter became a bone of contention between him [Lindemann] and the Prime Minister, who regarded it as the granitic foundation of Anglo-American nuclear politics” [243]. Farmelo has no doubt, however, that the whole thing was built on sand, not granite (he speaks of “a narrow and woolly agreement” [244])  – as he strives to show in the rest of his text.

One of the side effects of the resulting temporary strife between Churchill and The Prof was to ruin the visit to Downing Street which Lindemann had arranged for Niels Bohr, the world-famous nuclear scientist, on 16 May 1944. Churchill was suspicious of scientists like Bohr “meddling in Anglo-American politics”, his agenda being no less than obtaining a pledge that nuclear information should not be disseminated, in order to avoid nuclear proliferation after the war, while arguing that the Soviet Union was an exception. Churchill politely dismissed Bohr, suggesting that “scientists should mind their own business” [266]. What Farmelo unfortunately does not tell his readers is that Churchill never had time in his long life for well-meaning pacifists and anti-war activists: he always saw dangerously naïve preys to the unscrupulous bullies of the earth in them – so poor Bohr did not stand a chance. Even worse, Churchill suspected him of leaking secret nuclear information to Soviet scientists in the wrong-headed belief that this would generate Russian goodwill – and he informed the President of his suspicions [272-273]. For the rest of Roosevelt’s presidency, Churchill adhered to his subservient position regarding nuclear affairs, in full agreement with the President that Stalin should be left out of the whole business: we now know that in fact he was kept fully informed by idealists, though not Bohr, and spies – so much so that Farmelo can write that “Stalin knew roughly as much about it as Churchill” [302].

Churchill first learned of the success of the American nuclear bomb test at Potsdam, ironically as a guest of the Soviets. Farmelo then excellently documents his excitement, quoting from Lord Moran’s and Alan Brooke’s (the Chief of the Imperial General Staff) diaries, before concluding with words which present him as a nuclear warmonger rather than a sage preoccupied by the survival of mankind: “Churchill was greeting the advent of nuclear weapons less like a supremely gifted international statesman than a boy playing with his toy armies” [301]. Here, Farmelo is probably making good use of the biographies of Churchill which always insist on his comprehensive collection of toy soldiers and the countless hours he spent with them as a child.

But the Happy Warrior’s excitement did not last – is it because he would no longer be a participant after the results of the General Election were announced on 26 July? – and he reverted to his sombre mood over the real implications of the successful test: "We must indeed pray that these awful agencies will be made to conduce to peace among the nations, and that, instead of wreaking measureless havoc upon the entire globe, they may become a perennial fountain of world prosperity". [305]

Clement Attlee, his Deputy Prime Minister in the War Cabinet, and now the Labour occupant of Downing Street, had been “excluded from Churchill’s inner circle of nuclear confidants for five years” [298], just as “the Manhattan Project had been probably Truman’s biggest surprise when officials told him about it soon after the Presidency was thrust upon him” [293]. Indeed, Truman knew nothing of the secret deal at Quebec: he said that “he doubted the agreement’s existence” [316] when it was disclosed in the Commons by an MP who had managed to get the information in August 1945. His “officials could not find it and had to request a copy from London” [321]. The McMahon Act passed by Congress on 1 August 1946 totally ignored the document and made it illegal to share nuclear information with any foreign power, including the United Kingdom. Attlee decided to carry on alone, though there never was a debate on nuclear policy in Parliament.

Meanwhile, the Leader of the Opposition oscillated between advocating a pre-emptive strike against the USSR before it had the bomb and despair about the future of the human race because he felt that nuclear war was a certainty. Still, he fully backed Attlee’s decision to build a British bomb, if only for keeping Britain’s status as a Great Power. On 29 August 1949, President Truman announced that the Americans had detected a Soviet nuclear explosion: whatever the substance in Churchill’s past talk of a pre-emptive strike, it was no longer relevant. Only the balance of terror now made sense: “He never again spoke of showdowns and attacks on Moscow, but switched to the need to talk with the Soviets to avoid a nuclear Armageddon” [355]. Yet Farmelo clearly shows that Churchill remained impatient with what he denounced as Attlee’s incompetence in the field, especially his agreement to the establishment of American nuclear bases in East Anglia. Here one sees one of Churchill’s most unpleasant sides: he always believed that only he knew how to handle negotiations with American Presidents. In a remarkable, almost unconstitutional démarche, he wrote personally to Truman, by-passing the official channels, asking him to re-negotiate a latter-day version of the Quebec agreement – and the President of course declined to discuss these matters with any other than the Prime Minister.

Incredibly, when he came back to Downing Street in October 1951, he seemed to hesitate to give the go-ahead for the first British nuclear test, planned to take place imminently in Australia. Farmelo explains this surprising hesitation by his desire “to restore the warm Anglo-American relationship he believed he had bequeathed to Attlee, and in particular to persuade the Americans to repeal the McMahon Act” [383]. During his de rigueur trip to Washington in 1952, Churchill at last met Senator Brien McMahon, who told him that he knew nothing of the Quebec Agreement, adding “If we had known this, the Act would never have been passed” [386]. Yet “Senator McMahon certainly made no effort to reverse it before he died of cancer later that summer” [387]. In other words, Churchill’s hopes of renewed collaboration in nuclear research – as a substitute for a purely British effort – were dashed. The first British bomb exploded on 3 October 1952 – with the first American H-bomb following a week later. The leap-frogging process was set in train, as it was clear that the Soviets would soon have theirs. Churchill was advised that the Americans were relatively safe since Soviet planes could not reach their territory – unlike Britain. In case of nuclear war, he was told, “the primary target will be the UK” [388]. Yet, Farmelo argues, ‘his response to these challenges was weak” – he “was interested only in developing a nuclear policy that aligned Britain ever more closely to the United States” [389].

With the advent of President Eisenhower and the death of Stalin, a new period of uncertainty seemed to influence Churchill’s thinking. His pet idea of a summit between the Big Three became an obsession – and he could not understand why Eisenhower did not see the point. The Soviets tested their first H-bomb in August 1953: all the more reason, he pointed out, for arriving at an arrangement before it was too late. Farmelo then excellently documents the chain of events leading to what he calls “Churchill’s nuclear swansong” – this is the title of his final chapter, in which he argues that after the summer of 1954 and his fruitless trip to Washington to try once again to win Eisenhower over to the idea of a summit, “the only topic that still held his interest was the H-bomb” [427]. So much so, in fact that he gave the go-ahead to the British thermonuclear programme without consulting his Cabinet, contrary to his earlier promise. Hence the justification for the Commons speech of 1 March 1955: he had to explain to the country why he had made that decision – the only possible one in the circumstances – with a florid illustration of the principle of “defence through deterrence”, a process of “sublime irony”, in which “safety will be the sturdy child of terror, and survival the twin brother of annihilation” [431]. The speech received great applause – it was in fact his last major speech as Prime Minister.

Now, far from giving only a linear progress of Churchill’s attitude to nuclear weapons, all through the book Farmelo has plenty of excellent vignettes on the scientists and officials – British, American, or exiled Continental Jews – who participated in the Manhattan Project and in the building of the British A- and H-bombs. Some, like Klaus Fuchs, proved to be traitors, others (including the leading British physicist and Nobel Prize winner Patrick Blackett) were of the Socialist idealist type which Churchill always abhorred. A welcome Epilogue tells us about their later lives, after Churchill’s retirement. Another briefly discusses Churchill’s life after he left Downing Street on 6 April 1955, summing up the evolution of his position on nuclear subjects in the course of his long career.

The whole book is written in a lively style, free of jargon even when complex questions of nuclear physics cannot be avoided. Farmelo has an undoubted gift for character-drawing, though he was admittedly helped by the exceptional personality of his protagonists – Churchill foremost among them. The proof-reading was of the highest quality, as not a single typo was detected – an increasingly uncommon feature today. All University libraries should naturally have a copy of this superbly informative monograph, while it would make an excellent present for anyone, young and old, interested in Churchill.  


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