Churchill’s Bomb

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As award-winning biographer and science writer Graham Farmelo describes in Churchill’s Bomb, the British set out to investigate the possibility of building nuclear weapons before their American colleagues. But when scientists in Britain first discovered a way to build an atomic bomb, Prime Minister Winston Churchill did not make the most of his country’s lead and was slow to realize the Bomb’s strategic implications. This was odd—he prided himself on recognizing the military potential of new science and, in the 1920s and 1930s, had repeatedly pointed out that nuclear weapons would likely be developed soon.

In developing the Bomb, however, he marginalized some of his country’s most brilliant scientists, choosing to rely mainly on the counsel of his friend Frederick Lindemann, an Oxford physicist with often wayward judgment. Churchill also failed to capitalize on Franklin Roosevelt’s generous offer to work jointly on the Bomb, and ultimately ceded Britain’s initiative to the Americans, whose successful development and deployment of the Bomb placed the United States in a position of supreme power at the dawn of the nuclear age.

After the war, President Truman and his administration refused to acknowledge a secret cooperation agreement forged by Churchill and Roosevelt and froze Britain out of nuclear development, leaving Britain to make its own way. Dismayed, Churchill worked to restore the relationship. Churchill came to be terrified by the possibility of thermonuclear war, and emerged as a pioneer of détente in the early stages of the Cold War.

Contrasting Churchill’s often inattentive leadership with Franklin Roosevelt’s decisiveness, Churchill’s Bomb reveals the secret history of the weapon that transformed modern geopolitics.

The President and the Prime Minister had much in common — their patrician upbringing, their lust for life, their love of power, their aversion to abstraction and doctrine, their blazing self-confidence? Yet there were important differences between them. Roosevelt was the more skilful politician, his gaze fixed optimistically on the future, while Churchill looked backwards to the British Empire when it was in its prime, fearful of what might lie ahead.

Roosevelt was cunning and manipulative, whereas Churchill usually got his way through charm and determination. Both men sparkled in company, though for different reasons: Roosevelt was a relaxed and intimate con- versationalist, whereas Churchill’s oratorical flights sometimes lapsed into bloviation.

It was a friendship of sorts, if a somewhat one-sided one — Churchill got rather less out of it than he put in.

After a visit to Canada, Churchill took a five-day break in the Florida sun, at the same time running Britain’s war effort from afar and monitoring the threatening news from South- East Asia. Japanese troops were advancing almost unopposed towards the fortress of Singapore and its hinterland, whose survival he regarded as ‘vital’.

It seems that Churchill and Roosevelt did not discuss the Bomb project to any significant extent — it probably seemed a far-fetched prospect compared with all the immediately pressing matters on their plate, including the Lend-Lease Bill, the Battle of the Atlantic and the advance of the japanese. When Churchill’s visit ended on 14 January, the President crafted his parting words perfectly to touch the Prime Minister’s heart: “Trust me to the bitter end.”

When he returned to London, Churchill told the King of the triumph — Britain and the United States, after many months of courting, ‘were now married’. This was a landmark in relations between Britain and America, the birth of the much-vaunted Special Relationship ‘that Churchill held so dear – they would never again be so close.

Roosevelt and his advisers had got the message about Churchill’s attitude to the Bomb — that, for him, it was not espe- cially important. Five days after the leaders parted, Roosevelt approved the top-secret proposal to build the weapon, suggesting to Bush that he keep the document in his own safe.

The President did not inform most of his senior White House colleagues, nor does he appear to have mentioned it to Churchill. Yet Roosevelt clearly saw the strategic value of the Bomb. Six weeks later, he told Bush that he wanted the programme “pushed not only in regard to its development, but also with due regard to time. This is very much of the essence?”

Meanwhile, Churchill was allowing himself to be guided by the solid but unimaginative Anderson and by the clever but supercilious Lindemann, who both underestimated American ability and resolve.

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