Churchill: Love & the Bomb

Imperial War Museum
Winston Churchill (second from right) and his scientific adviser Frederick Lindemann (far left) watching a demonstration of antiaircraft gunnery, June 1941

This book is the story of a love triangle. The three characters are Winston Churchill the statesman, H.G. Wells the writer, and Frederick Lindemann the scientist. Churchill was in love with war and weapons, ever since he was a small boy playing with a historic collection of toy soldiers. Wells wrote books about war and weapons, real and imaginary. Lindemann invented weapons and enjoyed trying them out. War and weapons brought the three of them together. But Churchill could only listen to one guru at a time. The chief source of Churchill’s ideas about the application of science to war was Wells in World War I and Lindemann in World War II. Lindemann and Wells, being rivals in love, had nothing but contempt for each other.

Churchill was deeply involved in the prehistory of the atomic bomb for forty years before the bomb existed. More than any other politician, and more than any of the leading scientists of that time, he took seriously the possibility of nuclear weapons. He was born with a romantic attachment to soldiering, enjoyed applying high technology to military problems, and found kindling for his imagination in the science-fiction stories of H.G. Wells.

His personal friendship with Wells began in 1901, when he read Wells’s nonfiction work Anticipations and responded with an eight-page fan letter. The friendship lasted until Wells’s death in 1946. Churchill reacted enthusiastically to Wells’s book The War in the Air, which appeared in 1908 with vivid descriptions of the military uses of the newly invented airplane. In January 1914 Wells published The World Set Free, a story that gave starring roles to two new inventions, “land ironclads,” later known as tanks, and “atomic bombs,” later known as nuclear weapons. Churchill pushed the development and use of tanks in World War I. He understood that they would give soldiers a chance to break out of the horrors of the trenches, making warfare quick and mobile. His tanks came too late to get the boys out of the trenches in that war, but they arrived in time to have a decisive effect in World War II. He gave full credit to Wells for the idea.

Churchill’s thinking about nuclear weapons was summarized in a piece, “Fifty Years Hence,” published in Strand Magazine in 1931. “There is no question among scientists,” he wrote,

that this gigantic source of energy exists. What is lacking is the match to set the bonfire alight…. The busy hands of the scientists are already fumbling with the keys of all the chambers hitherto forbidden to mankind…. Without an equal growth of mercy, pity, peace and love, science herself may destroy all that makes human life majestic and tolerable.

The match to light the nuclear fire was the fission of uranium, discovered in 1938 by Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann in Berlin.

Lindemann worked at the Royal Aircraft Factory at Farnborough during World War I and became famous for solving the problem of tailspin. Many pilots were losing their lives because their aircraft would stall during combat maneuvers, fall into a tailspin, and helplessly spin into the ground. Lindemann worked out the theory of tailspin and found a remedy. He calculated that the pilot could give a counterintuitive push to the rudder, which would convert the spin into a straight dive and allow the pilot to regain control. He then borrowed an airplane, put it into a tailspin, applied the push that he had calculated, pulled out of the straight dive, and flew the plane safely home. This combination of scientific wizardry and courage won him the lifelong admiration of Churchill.

Lindemann met Churchill for the first time in 1921 and explained recent scientific discoveries in simple language. Churchill found him to be a kindred spirit, an old-fashioned patriot who saw no shame in using science to win wars. In 1924, Churchill wrote an essay about the future of warfare with the title “Shall We All Commit Suicide?,” describing apocalyptic visions of anthrax weapons and “a bomb no bigger than an orange…[with] a secret power to concentrate the force of a thousand tons of cordite and blast a township at a stroke.” Before writing the piece, he turned for advice to Lindemann and not to Wells.

Still Wells remained faithful to his old love. In 1908 he had written a piece for the Daily News, “Why Socialists Should Vote for Mr. Churchill.” In 1940 he wrote a piece for Colliers magazine, “Churchill, Man of Destiny.” His verdict on Churchill in 1940: “He has pulled himself together. He is pulling us all together. It is like awakening from a nightmare to think of what might have happened to my country without him.” When the chips were down, Wells was an old-fashioned patriot too.

Wells was a spinner of fanciful tales while Lindemann was a real scientist. Paradoxically, the information that Wells gave to Churchill was mostly right, while the information that Lindemann gave was mostly wrong. Wells had been right about airplanes and tanks before World War I. Lindemann was wrong about radar in 1935, when it was first proposed for defending Britain against attack from the air. He gave low priority to radar, which turned out to be the decisive technology of World War II and was crucial to the defense of Britain in 1940. One of the offshoots of radar was the proximity fuse, which enabled an antiaircraft shell, guided by radar, to destroy an aircraft without hitting it directly. The proximity fuse multiplied the kill rate of antiaircraft artillery by a factor of ten. In 1944, when the V-1 drone airplanes were attacking London, a massive line of antiaircraft guns with proximity fuses was deployed along the coast and succeeded in shooting down 70 percent of the V-1s before they reached England. If the Germans had had proximity fuses for their antiaircraft guns, they could probably have stopped our large-scale bombing of Germany.

Lindemann gave the highest priority to aerial mines. Aerial mines were his pride and joy. The idea was to destroy airplanes with mines floating in the air, just as ships were destroyed by mines floating in the water. The big difference between air and sea is that the air has three dimensions while the surface of the sea has two dimensions. An aerial mine has to kill airplanes over a wide range of heights. The mine with the explosive charge must hang at the bottom of a long steel wire with a parachute at the top. If an airplane flies into the wire, the wire will bite into the skin of the wing until it reaches solid metal. Pulled upward by the drag of the parachute, the wire will slide up through the wing until the explosive charge reaches the airplane and detonates. Lindemann continued to play with this toy all through the years of World War II. It absorbed a large amount of money and attention that might have been put to better use.

It was obvious to almost everyone except Lindemann that aerial mines could not be an effective defense. The wire had to be thousands of feet long and correspondingly heavy. Even with a big parachute, it would not stay in the air for more than a few minutes. To defend an important target, a fleet of airplanes would be required to continue sowing mines over the area as long as the attack continued. If many targets were to be defended, the defense would quickly run out of mines. And it was easy to invent countermeasures. A system of small clippers along the leading edge of an airplane wing could cut the wires and make aerial mines harmless.

When I was working for the British Bomber Command toward the end of World War II, we would from time to time receive inquiries from some high level of government, asking whether damage to returning bombers gave any evidence that the Germans were using aerial mines. Our answer was always negative. My boss told me confidentially that the inquiries were coming from Lindemann.

Lindemann was enthusiastic about technical toys such as aerial mines, but he remained unenthusiastic about nuclear weapons. One week after the beginning of World War II, he moved from Oxford to London to become full-time scientific adviser to Churchill, who was then First Lord of the Admiralty. Lindemann was well aware of the discovery of fission and the possibility of nuclear weapons, but he waited for two years before advising Churchill to begin a project to develop a British bomb. Toward the end of the war, Lindemann visited the American bomb laboratory at Los Alamos and remarked privately to his friend Reginald Jones, “What fools the Americans will look after spending so much money.” Jones had been Lindemann’s student before the war, and worked closely with him as head of scientific intelligence. Jones said that until the bomb exploded at Alamogordo, Lindemann never really believed that the thing would work.

The title, Churchill’s Bomb, is misleading. The title was probably chosen by the publisher to attract readers rather than to describe the book. Graham Farmelo’s main subject is the personal rivalry surrounding the British nuclear weapons project, in which Winston Churchill played a leading part. But the book is not a history of the bomb. It does not answer some of the obvious questions that a reader might ask. What were the technical obstacles to be overcome? What did the scientists actually do while the politicians argued about it? How was the bomb built? How was it supposed to be delivered? What effect has it had? Is the bomb still relevant in the world of today, sixty years after it was built? Why is it called Churchill’s bomb rather than Attlee’s bomb? After all, it was Clement Attlee and not Winston Churchill who gave the order to build it.

The subtitle, “How the United States Overtook Britain in the First Nuclear Arms Race,” is also misleading. There was never an arms race between the United States and Britain. There was an arms race between Britain and Germany, beginning in 1939 and ending in 1942. During that time the United States was still neutral and not seriously engaged in the race. Britain won the race when Werner Heisenberg and Albert Speer secretly agreed to abandon the German nuclear bomb project. Then, in 1942, with the United States at war, Britain and the US still believed that they were in a race with Germany, since they did not know that the Germans had given up. The choice for Britain was whether to join forces with the US or to try to build a bomb independently.

Churchill made the decision to merge British efforts with the American project. A merger meant sharing secrets, and the sharing of secrets was always a delicate problem. A year went by before sharing became effective and British scientists were working at Los Alamos. During that year, the American project took a great leap forward and the British project stalled. Enrico Fermi with his American colleagues built the first nuclear reactor in Chicago and explored the new world of nuclear power. British scientists spent the year waiting for the American authorities to allow them to participate. It was true that the United States overtook Britain, but Churchill was not racing. Churchill had already decided that he wanted a partnership with America and not a race.

Granger Collection
H.G. Wells, photographed by Edward Steichen in 1933 during the filming of Wells’s novel The Shape of Things to Come

The nuclear partnership began in 1943 and came to a sudden end with the passing of the McMahon Act by the United States Congress in 1946. That year, the United States had bombs and the industrial equipment to make more bombs, and Britain was shut out. Britain had to decide whether to give up or go ahead with building an independent British bomb. Attlee had taken Churchill’s place as prime minister in 1945. Attlee made the decision to go ahead with the British bomb. It was successfully tested in 1952, when Churchill was back in power. In that same year the Americans tested the first hydrogen bomb with a yield of ten megatons. Churchill quietly gave the order for a British hydrogen bomb, which was built and successfully tested in 1957. By that time Churchill had ended his second term as prime minister, but he achieved his goal of restoring the nuclear partnership and the sharing of secrets with America.

Churchill, Lindemann, and Wells did not fundamentally disagree about nuclear strategy. They agreed that nuclear weapons were desirable as instruments of power, immensely dangerous, and historically decisive. Churchill and Lindemann saw the bomb as necessary to preserve the status of Britain as a great power. Wells saw it as necessary to establish the authority of a future world government.

Only one voice spoke out in well- reasoned opposition to these views. The opposing voice belonged to Patrick Blackett, a physicist who had served as a naval officer in World War I, survived the Battle of Jutland in 1916, and led the team of scientists helping the Royal Navy to defeat German U-boats in World War II. He won a Nobel Prize in 1948 for discoveries in particle physics. Both as a scientist and as an expert in war-fighting, Blackett had far better credentials than Lindemann. But Blackett was a socialist and was active in left-wing politics. Lindemann hated him, and Churchill distrusted him. They made sure that Blackett was kept out of all high-level discussions of nuclear policy so long as Churchill was prime minister.

As soon as Clement Attlee became prime minister in 1945, he appointed Blackett to his Advisory Committee on Atomic Energy. The next year was the decisive turning point in the history of nuclear weapons. Several governments made serious proposals to put the newly created United Nations organization in charge of the nascent nuclear industries all over the world, with power to prevent any nation from building nuclear bombs. This was the last chance to avoid a large-scale nuclear arms race. Robert Oppenheimer in the United States and Niels Bohr in Denmark were the leaders of a world-wide campaign of scientists for international control of nuclear energy. The United Nations Atomic Energy Commission was created to exercise whatever form of international control the member nations could agree to establish. Everything depended on finding an international legal frame that the United States and the Soviet Union could both accept.

The United States proposal for international control was known as the Baruch Plan because it was written by Bernard Baruch, a conservative banker and a friend of Churchill. The essential point that made it unacceptable to the Soviet Union was the enforcement clause, which gave the United Nations Security Council power to enforce the agreement by majority vote. In all other actions of the Security Council, each permanent member of the council had the right to veto majority decisions. In the Baruch Plan the right to veto was abolished for decisions concerning nuclear weapons. In any dispute involving the Soviet Union, the Soviet Union was likely to be in the minority and the United States in the majority, so the Baruch Plan was giving a permanent nuclear hegemony to the United States. Oppenheimer fought hard inside the American government for a plan that would recognize the Soviet need for equal treatment. Blackett fought hard inside the British government. Oppenheimer failed to convince Truman and Blackett failed to convince Attlee. American hegemony was what both Truman and Attlee wanted and hoped to make permanent.

Stalin knew that the American hegemony would not last long. He said, “The atomic bomb is a good weapon for threatening people with weak nerves.” Stalin did not have weak nerves. He knew that his country had produced more tanks than Germany in wartime and could produce more atomic bombs than the United States in peacetime. In 1946 the Soviet Union proposed a simple prohibition of nuclear weapons, overseen by the United Nations but without any enforcement clause. After a year of argument about details, the negotiations ended and the nuclear arms race began. The American hegemony ended with the first Soviet bomb test in 1949.

Blackett disagreed strongly with Att- lee, not only about the Baruch Plan but also about the decision to build a British bomb. Blackett believed that the military value of the bomb was illusory while the danger of possessing it was real. He argued that the bomb would be useless in any future wars that Britain might reasonably fight. Any war that was worth fighting could be won with nonnuclear weapons. And if there were ever a nuclear war involving the Soviet Union, the possession of nuclear weapons would make it sure that London and other British cities would be obliterated.

After Blackett failed to find support for these views inside the government, he made them public in a book that was published in Britain with the title Military and Political Consequences of Atomic Energy and in America with the title Fear, War, and the Bomb. The book appeared in 1948 and became a best seller with translations published in eleven languages. Graham Farmelo says rightly that the book had no influence on government policies or on majority opinions at the time. He says wrongly that the book is “so dense that much of it is barely readable.” In fact it is highly readable and widely read. It stands after sixty-five years as a classic statement of the case against the nuclear follies of our age. Since he wrote it, some of Blackett’s predictions have been proved wrong and some of his arguments have become irrelevant, but the central theme of his book is still true. He is saying that the military utility of the bomb is small, that its political importance is exaggerated, and that only its danger as an instrument of mass murder is real.

Blackett said in 1948 that the Soviet proposal for abolishing nuclear weapons without enforcement should have been accepted. If his advice had been followed, we would have been in a situation like the one in 1972 when the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union signed a treaty abolishing biological weapons. Before the treaty was signed, the large stockpiles of American and British biological weapons had been destroyed. After the treaty was signed, the Soviet Union cheated on a very large scale and continued to maintain a large clandestine stockpile. Today the biological weapons treaty is still in force and we still have reasons to suspect that Russia may be cheating. The question now is whether we are better off with the treaty or without it. Is it better to have a world with biological weapons illegal and well hidden in clandestine facilities, or a world with large stockpiles of biological weapons openly deployed and vulnerable to theft?

Opinions may be divided on the value of the treaty, but there is at least a reasonable argument to be made for keeping it in force. The same argument was made by Blackett for accepting the 1946 Soviet proposal for prohibiting nuclear weapons. If we had accepted the Soviet proposal, we would be living in a world with nuclear weapons legally prohibited but secretly manufactured and hidden away in various places around the world. Would that world be less dangerous than the world of huge stockpiles openly deployed in which we have lived for the last sixty years? Blackett answered yes to that question. It is time now for the world to ask the question again and decide whether Blackett was right.

Looking back with seventy years of hindsight, we can see clearly that Churchill was deluded. Central to his vision of the world was the power and glory of the British Empire. He fought his wars for the preservation of the Empire. The young people who fought for Britain in World War II were not fighting for the Empire. They knew that the Empire was crumbling and most of them were happy to see it swept away. That was why they voted in 1945 to sweep Churchill away. They knew that Churchill was living in the past, out of touch with the real world. I have a vivid memory of the British general election of 1950, when Attlee was running for reelection after five years of slow recovery from the war. Attlee came to Birmingham, where I was then living, to give a campaign speech to a large crowd. He spoke at length about the social programs that the Labour Party had carried out during his tenure, the big improvements in public housing and public education, and the National Health Service. The crowd listened to this without much enthusiasm. Then at the end of his speech, Attlee said, “We gave freedom to India,” and the crowd responded with loud and long cheering. Giving freedom to India was the one thing that Churchill would never have done. Attlee won the election.

When Churchill returned for his second term as prime minister, he recognized that the Empire was fading, and based his nuclear policy on another illusion, the special relationship between Britain and America. During World War II he had enjoyed a special relationship with Franklin Roosevelt, with frequent telephone calls and many personal meetings. His friendship with Roosevelt was a crucial part of his war strategy. It allowed him to think of himself as one of the Big Three, deciding the fate of the world in conferences with Roosevelt and Stalin. After returning to office in 1951, he tried to reestablish his special relationship with Presidents Truman and Eisenhower. Truman and Eisenhower found his personal advances annoying and gently pushed him off. After the British hydrogen bomb was demonstrated in 1957, sharing of nuclear secrets was successfully reestablished, but Churchill’s belief that this would perpetuate Britain’s status as a Great Power remained an illusion.

The big question that Farmelo does not try to answer is whether it makes sense for Britain to have nuclear weapons. Two famous scientists answered this question with a resounding no. One was Patrick Blackett. The other was Joseph Rotblat, a Polish nuclear physicist who went with the British contingent to Los Alamos. Rotblat was the only scientist who left the bomb project in 1944 as soon as he heard that the Germans were not working on a bomb. He served for most of a long life as leader of the Pugwash movement, an international alliance of scientists concerned about war and weapons. For his efforts as a peace-maker he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995.

Just as Rotblat is unique as a Los Alamos scientist who walked out of the brotherhood of bomb-makers for reasons of conscience, the Republic of South Africa is unique as a country possessing nuclear weapons and unilaterally destroying them. The South Africans have set a splendid example for other countries possessing nuclear weapons to follow. Nobody gives South Africans diminished respect because they walked out of the nuclear club. The United Kingdom is now in an excellent position to gain respect and save money by following the South African example.


Rudder & Stick May 22, 2014