BOOK REVIEW: ‘Churchill’s Bomb’

CHURCHILL‘S BOMB: HOW THE UNITED STATES OVERTOOK BRITAIN IN THE FIRST NUCLEAR-ARMS RACE, By Graham Farmelo, Basic Books, $29, 554 pages

On occasion, a book crosses my desk with a viewpoint so daft that I find myself checking the dust jacket to reassure myself that it emanated from an ostensibly reliable source, not some crank who lives out under the viaduct. Such was my reaction as I turned through the pages of “Churchill’s Bomb,” whose author, Graham Farmelo, is billed as a senior research fellow at the Science Museum in London and an adjunct professor at a British university.

The core of Mr. Farmelo’s argument is that Winston Churchill erred grievously when he botched a chance for the British to seize supremacy in the development of nuclear energy in the 1940s, thus ceding leadership to the United States. Better had the Brits kept atomic secrets to themselves, he writes, and developed the bomb on their own. Had he heeded the warnings of the relevant British scientists both during and after the development of the bomb, “Churchill may have still been able to avert the frightening nuclear arms race that America precipitated [sic] during the Cold War.”

First things first. Britain indeed was offered first dibs on nuclear power by emigre European scientists in the late 1930s and 1940s. Churchill, Mr. Farmelo writes, had long been fascinated with nuclear energy, both as a source of domestic power and as a weapon of war. His interest was honed in large part by works of a friend, the futuristic (and also prescient) author H.G. Wells.

That nuclear energy possibly had enormous military potential was articulated in a 1940 memo by Otto Frisch and Rudolf Peirls, Europeans who had taken refuge from Nazism in Britain. They wrote, “As a weapon, the superbomb would be practically irresistible. There is no material or structure that could be expected to resist the force of the explosion.” Further, both feared that Hitler’s scientists were well along in developing such a weapon, to Britain’s peril.

To the distress of much of the British scientific community, Churchill chose to put his emphasis on the development of air power, rather than nuclear energy. Here Mr. Farmelo points an accusing finger at Frederick Lindemann, an Oxford professor, a Churchill friend since the early 1920s and a trusted adviser thereafter. As Mr. Farmelo puts it, “Churchill regarded the Prof as the only source of advice on military science worth listening to.” For years, he complains, Churchill and Lindemann “were on one side of a venomous political battle” against an array that included “one of Britain’s finest nuclear scientists,” Henry Tizard. Mr. Farmelo dismisses Lindemann “as loyal as a lapdog” insofar as Churchill was concerned, with a “skill as a writer of jargon-free summaries on difficult topics.” (From the vantage point of chronological distance, the dispute that Mr. Farmelo describes bears the distinct aroma of academic politics, a faculty club argument waged on the national level.)

Once he became prime minister, Churchill faced a decision that can be summarized thusly: Should the British endeavor to develop the nuclear bomb on their own, or pass the responsibility on to the United States? The tight relationship that Churchill was to forge with President Roosevelt was still some months in the offing. There had already been disputes over just now much technology the nations should share.

In the end, the question that Churchill had to decide was whether Britain could build the bomb on its own, given its congeries of other problems. The country was on the financial (and psychological) ropes in 1939-1941, with its army driven off the European Continent, and German bombers striking the island nation almost at will.

Already, London was pleading with Roosevelt for financial aid. In time, American Lend Lease provided some $49.1 billion to allies, $21 billion of it to the British (2012 dollars). The latter sum was equal to one year’s gross national product for the British, and it is almost the exact amount that the United States spent developing the bomb, and providing the aircraft required for its use.

Security was another matter. The industrial components of the Manhattan Project (the code name for the bomb) were in Tennessee and the Pacific Northwest, scores of square miles safe from the reach of any German bombers. The only cost and space estimates cited by Mr. Farmelo were for a gaseous diffusion facility covering 40 acres and costing 5 million pounds ($200 million at 2013 prices), roughly a tenth of the UK’s weekly expenditure on the entire war effort.) Any testing of a bomb would be on some unspecified “remote island.”

Could the British have diverted such a vast sum to work on a bomb that might not even work? Churchill made what in retrospect was a decision that was both pragmatic and correct: He willingly agreed to let the United States take the lead in nuclear power.

The FDR-Churchill agreement on sharing nuclear knowledge did not survive the end of the war. American security officers were shaken by revelations that many Brits working on the Manhattan Project also served Moscow, notably the German Klaus Fuchs. (The United States, of course, had its own security problems, aka the Rosenbergs and others.)

Perhaps even more puzzling is Mr. Farmelo’s contention that had Britain maintained control of the nuclear program, the Cold War confrontation between nuclear powers might not have occurred. He points to the esteemed Danish physicist Niels Bohr as one of the visionaries who foresaw the nuclear rivalry, and who urged sharing of secrets with the Soviet Union, heading off such an arms race. Stalin’s spies were well onto the secret by 1945, and Moscow showed no zest for cooperation.

Bottom line: Mr. Farmelo’s case is unproved. Churchill’s reputation remains intact.

Veteran Washington writer Joseph Goulden is the author of 18 nonfiction books.

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