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Churchill and the Bomb

Winston Churchill doubted whether politicians would be equal to the challenge of such powerful weapons.

By Graham Farmelo Published 2013

Franklin Roosevelt (front left) and Winston Churchill (front center) in Quebec, September 1944; both leaders ignored Bohr's warnings.

In the early evening of March 15, 1933, a group of London socialites gathered in a Westminster mansion to hear a special lecture on the latest developments in nuclear science. The talk was chaired by Winston Churchill. The speaker—Churchill’s friend Frederick Lindemann, a friend of Einstein’s and a professor of physics at Oxford University—discussed John Cockcroft and Ernest Walton’s recent artificial splitting of the atom and James Chadwick’s discovery of the neutron. Churchill had foreseen an important role of this subatomic particle fifteen months before in his essay “Fifty Years Hence,” read widely in Britain and North America. He had told his readers in this article that scientists were looking for “the match to set the [nuclear] bonfire alight.”

“Fifty Years Hence” was by no means the only article in which Churchill looked forward to the nuclear age. He first did so in 1927 in another popular article, “Shall We All Commit Suicide?” where he alluded to the weapon envisaged by his friend H. G. Wells in the novel The World Set Free, where the term “atomic bomb” first appears. A decade later, Churchill warned four million readers of the News of the World in Britain that nuclear energy may soon be harnessed. He was right: Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann, working in Hitler’s capital, discovered nuclear fission eight weeks after Churchill’s piece appeared.

Of all the international leaders who were to become involved in the early development of nuclear weapons, none was better prepared than Churchill. He had foreseen them, warned of the challenges they would pose to international leaders, and had a strong record of encouraging the military to make the most of new science. His nuclear scientists were behind him, more than willing to drop their research and join the fight against Hitler. Soon, Churchill became the first national leader to be advised by his scientists that nuclear weapons could be built—a way of making such a bomb was first discovered in March 1940 by two physicists at Birmingham University, both officially classified as “enemy aliens,” less than two months before Churchill became Prime Minister.

In “Fifty Years Hence,” Churchill had doubted whether politicians would be equal to the challenge of such powerful weapons:

Great nations are no longer led by their ablest men, or by those who know most about their immediate affairs, or even by those who have a coherent doctrine. Democratic governments drift along the line of least resistance, taking short views, paying their way with sops and doles, and smoothing their path with pleasant-sounding platitudes.

Now, under pressure of leading a country at war, he himself was about to see whether he would be up to that challenge. Given his familiarity with the concept of nuclear weapons, it was remarkable that he recognized the importance of working closely with the United States in building the first ones, only three years later, in April 1943. By then, it was obvious that the British could not possibly build the Bomb alone during the War, and the gargantuan Manhattan Project was surging ahead, with the British playing only a relatively minor role. Churchill had been able to make only very limited political use of the nuclear bomb established by his nuclear scientists. He did, however, strike a secret deal with President Roosevelt at Quebec in August 1943 that required both British and American leaders to approve the first use of the weapon. Churchill later agreed that the Bomb could be used on Japan, a decision he never regretted.

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The idea of writing Churchill’s Bomb first occurred to me in the spring of 2008. This was soon after I completed my biography of the theoretical physicist Paul Dirac, who set aside most of his research in the early 1940s to work on the British nuclear project. Dirac was among the dozens of scientists who did something remarkable—in only weeks, they switched most of their research from their curiosity-driven studies of subatomic physics to investigating how to make nuclear bombs, working entirely in secret for their government. I became fascinated in the nexus of international politics and nuclear science, especially by Churchill’s dealings with his scientists and also with American leaders, notably Presidents Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Dwight Eisenhower.

At that time, I had little sense of the size of the project I had taken on, though I was soon to be disabused of my ignorance. I found that there is already an enormous literature on Churchill, along with several authoritative accounts of the early history of the Bomb and dozens of academic papers probing the fine details of the nuclear policies pursued by the first nations to build the weapons. In this mountain of literature, however, no one had brought Churchill’s role to the fore and highlighted his dealings with his nuclear scientists. In order to write Churchill’s Bomb, I had to spend some three years delving not only into Churchill’s huge archive but into the papers, biographies, and memoirs of the three American presidents and some two dozen nuclear physicists. Among the leading scientists in the story were several colorful characters—a gift for a biographer—including foremost nuclear pioneer Ernest Rutherford, his experimentalist students Patrick Blackett, John Cockcroft, and James Chadwick, and his only theo­retician protégé, Niels Bohr, known to British government officials as “the great Dane.”

Bohr is one of the story’s leading characters. It was he who had the crucial insight into the fission of uranium nuclei that opened the path toward the first nuclear weapon; he who became the most thoughtful counselor to the leading British and American scientists working on the project; he who first saw clearly that the Anglo-American policy of producing the Bomb without informing their Soviet ally would almost certainly lead to an expensive and dangerous arms race after the War; and he who was allowed to explain these worries to Churchill and Roosevelt, neither of whom took his views seriously, to the disappointment of several leading scientists working on the Manhattan Project, including its scientific director, J. Robert Oppenheimer, later a Director of the IAS.

In the course of researching the book, I used dozens of archives, especially in the United Kingdom and the United States. One especially rich source of gems is the Institute’s Shelby White and Leon Levy Archives Center, which includes correspondence that illuminates Institute Director Frank Aydelotte’s attempt to provide an academic sanctuary to Bohr, soon after he escaped from Nazi-occupied Denmark in September 1943. A remarkable letter, which I found in the UK National Archive, from Bohr’s British colleague Wallace Akers to a colleague, indicated why the great Dane did not accept Aydelotte’s offer of an appointment at the Institute—it would not be wise to work alongside Faculty member Albert Einstein, whose tongue on top-secret matters concerning the Bomb could be disconcertingly loose.

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Churchill’s thinking about nuclear weapons changed rapidly after it became clear in the early 1950s that both superpowers would soon have the hydrogen bomb, making possible what would become known as “mutually assured destruction.” In February 1954, toward the end of his second term as British Prime Minister, Churchill read a report on a speech by Sterling Cole, Chair of the U.S. Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, which first brought home to him the extent of the H-bomb’s destructiveness. This realization drove him, in his final months on the international stage, to urge the Soviet and American leaders to meet with him with the aim of easing the tensions of the Cold War, to reduce considerably the risk of a conflagration. He became a pioneer of détente, though an unsuccessful one, and left office privately fearing that nuclear war was all but inevitable.

The threat of the H-bomb was the theme of his last great speech in the House of Commons, on March 1, 1955. He began by looking back proudly on his record of keeping abreast of nuclear science, citing
proph­etic words he had written almost a quarter of a century before in “Fifty Years Hence.” This was not an occasion to express regret. I have often wondered, however, what Churchill felt when, preparing for his
speech, he re-read the astonishingly far-sighted comments he had made about the possi­bility of nuclear weapons almost a decade before they became viable. As a nuclear visionary, Churchill had been more
effective as a writer than as a politician. 

Graham Farmelo is a By-Fellow at Churchill College, Cambridge. He wrote much of Churchill’s Bomb (Basic Books, 2013) and his biography of Paul Dirac, The Strangest Man (Basic Books, 2009), as a Director’s Visitor at the Institute. You may listen to a podcast of Farmelo and Nima Arkani-Hamed discussing the future of physics at http://ow.ly/rsKK8/.

Published in The Institute Letter Fall 2013