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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.