Churchill’s Bomb

How the United States Overtook Britain in the First Nuclear Arms Race, Graham Farmelo, Basic Books.

For a brief swell of time during the Second World War, British scientists surmised that an atomic bomb was more feasible than most of their contemporaries in the U.S. and Germany believed, and pressed their point on the government. From this apex of understanding, Winston Churchill’s ministry faced the challenge of working with the U.S. to turn this radical idea into reality without being lost in the muscle of the emerging superpower. In “Churchill’s Bomb,” science historian Graham Farmelo reconstructs this intense, delicate, and near-Faustian story with wit, detail, and richness. The story isn’t new, but it’s well told.

Farmelo has constructed a narrative that focuses on two related topics: Britain’s role in the development of the atomic bomb, and the critical role of Winston Churchill, a statesman with a keen interest in science. The book details how Britain’s role changed from leader to follower as the U.S. oversaw and orchestrated development with the aid of British, Canadian, and other scientists—and the difficult road Britain faced in creating its own bomb in 1952.

The most engaging chapters concern the development of Churchill’s early interest in scientific matters. As a young writer and politician, Churchill was friends with H.G. Wells, who wrote engaging thought-pieces on science and technology, and developed a close and personal relationship with physicist Frederick Alexander Lindemann, infamous for his role as “science tzar” to the Prime Minister during the war. Farmelo does a lovely job retelling Churchill’s story, and how his “atomic” insights shifted from bold to general to fatigued by the time he became Britain’s first “atomic” Prime Minister in 1952. Along the way, we get the story of how the discovery of fission unwrapped itself in the early twentieth century, meeting all the amazing men and women who contributed to unlocking its secrets: Ernest Rutherford, Rudolf Peierls, Niels Bohr, Leo Szilard, Albert Einstein, Edward Teller, Lise Meitner, Otto Hahn, as well as Leslie Groves and Robert Oppenheimer, among others. But Farmelo’s chief “argument” (deduced from the subtitle of the book), is that Britain competed with the U.S. to become an atomic power.

There’s substance to it, of course. Many in London did not want to share information or collaborate with the U.S. for fear of being second fiddle. This wound stung in part because many scientists in Britain were directly responsible for calculating that an atomic bomb was feasible: that is, one could actually be made in wartime that would not be abhorrently expensive or otherwise impractical. Though to call this an arms race is a stretch. If so, it was a short one that Britain lost to necessary collaboration. Harder to conceive was how she might have been able to do it on her own during the war: conclusions that were in Churchill’s mind when he sought cooperation from Washington.

The book’s primary weakness is using Churchill as the spine of the story. Farmelo gives Churchill something of a pass for his rather awful ideas and suggestions before the war (including thinking, along with Lindemann, that radar was a bad idea . . . a bad idea that staved off defeat during the Battle of Britain). And Churchill was defeated in the post war elections, so the lion’s share of Britain’s atomic weapons development was done under the auspices of Clement Attlee’s Labour government. That epic story gets rather brief mention.

It’s also ironic that Farmelo sympathizes with Britain’s loss of preeminence to the Americans, while at the same time paying minor attention to Canada’s relations with London. Both countries joined the U.S. as part of the Quebec Agreement of 1943 that led to tripartite collaboration on the atomic bomb, and both were locked out of U.S. atomic weapons research and secrets in 1946. Yet Canada’s atomic materials, scientists, and nuclear reactor development (not to mention exchanges of scientific data), are merely noted, and the major historical works on these subjects are not used. A sad omission.

That said, “Churchill’s Bomb” is a fine read for those who want a well written and researched single volume on atomic affairs from a British point of view.