Call to Arms


By Benjamin Schwarz



In “Churchill’s Bomb,” Graham Farmelo recounts two related but distinct stories: the British role in the development of nuclear weapons from the 1920s through the 1950s and Winston Churchill’s relationship with cutting-­edge military science generally, and the Bomb specifically.

At the outbreak of World War II, Britain’s theoretical nuclear research was the most advanced in the world.  Thanks to Ernest Rutherford and his fellow scientists at Cambridge, the British had achieved breathtaking advances in nuclear physics, including the splitting of the atom and the discovery of the neutron. Working at the University of London, the Hungarian émigré Leo Szilard conceived the idea of the nuclear chain reaction, and he, appreciating its awesome military potential, had assigned the chain reaction patent to the Admiralty in 1936.  A collection of unusually able Whitehall mandarins and scientific advisers and administrators nurtured the work of a handful of brilliant scientists, and Britain became the first government to approve the development of a nuclear weapon, in September 1941.

Farmelo, the author of a biography of the English physicist Paul Dirac, tells this tale fluently, but it has been told before, most authoritatively by Margaret Gowing in her three-volume history of Britain and atomic energy. Farmelo, however, has also chosen to take up an unusual, and ultimately unfruitful, issue: He seeks to explain why Britain failed to maintain and more fully exploit its early nuclear lead, instead ceding the initiative to its wartime ally and rival, the United States. In pursuit of this line of inquiry, Farmelo brings a peripheral figure in Britain’s nuclear program — Churchill — to the center of his story. This results in a somewhat clumsy amalgam of a book that distorts issues even as it illuminates significant flaws in Churchill’s personality, policies and leadership.

Churchill’s role in Britain’s wartime nuclear program was, as Farmelo acknowledges, “fitful.” True, in his prewar journalism Churchill, following the fashion in popular commentary, periodically and fancifully discussed the possibility of atomic weapons — yet his speculations were inspired not by even a rudimentary grasp of nuclear physics but rather by the science fiction of H. G. Wells. To be sure, Prime Minister Churchill “went along with” (as Farmelo accurately puts it) the advice that emerged from a labyrinth of government committees studying the bomb project. But with his attention focused on a host of immediate catastrophes and struggles, he didn’t involve himself in the recondite questions surrounding a long-term scientific endeavor.

Churchill’s contribution to Britain’s nuclear program wasn’t as important as Farmelo claims, but neither did he commit the fateful misstep discerned here. Farmelo builds his case entirely on a short note President Franklin Roose­velt sent to Churchill in October 1941, before America had entered the war. “It appears desirable,” Roosevelt wrote, “that we should soon correspond or converse” about nuclear research “in order that any extended efforts may be coordinated or even jointly conducted.” Farmelo elevates this vague message into what he characterizes as an offer of “close collaboration — quite possibly a partnership on equal terms — in developing the Bomb.”

Churchill—who seems to have known less about Britain’s nuclear program than did Roosevelt—responded belatedly and perfunctorily to a proposal that, given the lead in nuclear research that Britain then enjoyed, was at best lopsided and entirely consistent with Washington’s aims to extract maximum concessions from a desperate Britain for any assistance the US granted. Moreover, given America’s non-belligerency at the time, the arrangement that FDR gestured at would have been hugely difficult to implement: Suppose, for instance, that a joint weapon was in fact created—how could America, which in October 1941 displayed many indications of remaining neutral indefinitely, sanction its use? To Farmelo, however, Roosevelt’s note gave Britain “a golden diplomatic opportunity” to “capitalize” on the leverage that Britain’s temporary ascendency in nuclear research afforded. By failing to “grab the offer with gusto,” Churchill squandered the opening for London to be a full and equal nuclear partner with Washington, rather than the very junior partner that it in fact became. According to Farmelo, Churchill’s “flat-footed response” meant that after Pearl Harbor the United States would pursue the Bomb largely on its own, increasingly freezing out the British. True, Churchill did persuade Roosevelt to accede to an imprecise agreement at the Quebec conference in 1943 that promised Anglo-American nuclear cooperation and a mutual veto on the Bomb’s use, but, Farmelo avers, because Churchill had failed to take up FDR’s 1941 offer, Britain’s weak nuclear hand in 1943 meant that cooperation would be on America’s terms.

Farmelo’s interpretation collapses under the realities of economic and military power. No matter what deal Churchill might have struck in March 1941, when the British had a temporary head start in nuclear research, Britain was destined to be America’s nuclear inferior. The building of the atomic bomb required the largest industrial enterprise in history. This effort, as 922_H_41849-1the best British scientists recognized, was wholly beyond the means and capabilities of a besieged and bankrupt Britain, a country already in March 1941 dependent on American aid in order to remain in the war. In wartime, only the United States, drawing on the wealth and resources of a continent, could accomplish this Herculean task. Moreover, thanks to its vastly greater academic resources and scientific infrastructure, the number and quality of nuclear scientists that America could, and soon did, deploy to work on Bomb project dwarfed that which Britain could muster–which meant that London’s superiority in nuclear research was inevitably temporary.   Szilard, for example, may have made his first impact on nuclear physics in Britain, but by 1938 he had followed opportunity to America; of the 67 nuclear physicists who fled the Nazis and were given refuge in Britain, only three could get permanent jobs, and nearly half re-emigrated to the US. 

Only America could pay the nuclear piper, so only America would call the nuclear tune—it would have no equal, or even nearly equal, partners. After all, despite the assurances Churchill had extracted from Roosevelt in Quebec, the US soon reneged on the deal because it could: Britain’s economic and military dependence on the Americans gave London no recourse. Farmelo presumably laments that dependency, and he presumably believes that if Britain had an equal role in the building of the Bomb, London would have gained political and military influence in the wartime and post-war alliance with Washington. But Britain’s subordinate role in the building of the Bomb merely reflected the imbalance in political and military power with the United States, it didn’t cause that imbalance—and hence a more enthusiastic response by Churchill to Roosevelt note in 1941 would not have meaningfully altered that imbalance.

Farmelo is correct, however, in his harsh assessment of the often counterproductive, and indeed not infrequently reprehensible, influence that Churchill and Frederick Lindemann, his longtime factotum (the Nobel laureate John Cockcroft described Lindemann as Churchill’s “henchman”)  exercised on British military technology policy. Lindemann—a far rightwing, anti-Semetic, anti-Nazi lifelong bachelor—was almost universally disliked for his hauteur (thanks to his German family’s fortune, he was one of the very few chauffeur-driven dons), his petty academic and administrative infighting, his prickliness, his black heartedness, and his envy of superior minds. Although very smart, he stumbled in the very fast field of his chosen profession, and repeatedly demonstrated his failure to grasp the advances in science. Indeed, he was something of a quack: Rutherford judged him a “scientist manqué,” and Oppenheimer said simply: “That guy will never understand a thing.” But thanks to his alliance with Churchill, Lindemann is, lamentably,  the most influential scientist in the history of British politics.

Although Churchill saw to it that he is remembered as a lonely voice warning of the dangers of German rearmament in the 1930s, in fact the British government recognized that menace very soon after Hitler came to power. The crucial questions were: What, precisely, was the danger, and how best to thwart it? Churchill’s contributions to this debate, using arguments and figures he often took from Lindemann, were frequently counterproductive. He misidentified bombers as the chief menace posed by Germany—in fact, the Luftwaffe had neither the machines nor the doctrine to pose an existential bombing threat to Britain. And he exaggerated that danger in such lurid terms that in fact his arguments, paradoxically, supported the appeasement of Germany—after all, given Churchill’s alarmist claims about the overwhelming superiority of German airpower and the apocalypse that it would create in Britain, what choice was there but to avoid war at any cost?

In the mid-and late 1930s Whitehall officials and the scientists they recruited methodically developed the technologies that would win the Battle of Britain—radar and an advanced fighter force, which were marshaled against the true German air menace, the Luftwaffe’s fighter planes–but Churchill and Lindemann kept inserting themselves unhelpfully in their work. Churchill insisted that Lindemann be included in the government’s air defense committees—but once ensconced, Lindemann pushed his and Churchill’s fanciful scheme for aerial mines, denigrated the importance of radar, the one indispensable technology in Britain’s air defense, and, by pushing their unsound ideas, diverted time and resources from radar’s development. In the process, Lindemann, and Churchill drove out from the committees such outstanding scientists as P.M.S. Blackett, who would go on to make crucial contributions to the war effort at the RAF and the Admiralty, including his development of operational research.

Farmelo–confirming the scholarship of Thomas Wilson, Adrian Fort, and others–chronicles how after Churchill became wartime Prime Minister the impact of his teamwork with Lindemann, whom he elevated to chief scientific advisor and to a peerage, grew even more baleful. Lindemann encouraged Churchill’s arrogant dismissal of experts who challenged his pursuit of often useless and invariably expensive “war winning” gadgets. With Lindemann’s intellectual support, Churchill pursued Bomber Command’s wildly expensive and possibly immoral mass bombing of Germany’s civilian population, against the advice of scientists, Blackett among them, who argued that Britain’s bombers and air crews would be far more usefully employed targeting German submarine pens, oil refineries, and the like.

Settling old scores and brooking no opposition by minds at least his equal, Lindemann neutralized the influence of Sir Henry Tizard, the scientific administrator who had nurtured radar and whom the nobel laureate G.P. Thompson rightly said was “the greatest genius at applying science to tactics [Britain] has ever known.” When Maurice Hankey—“the man who kept the secrets” and probably the ablest defense administrator in modern British history—confronted Churchill over Lindemann’s malignant impact, the Prime Minister dismissed him (of his devotion to Lindemann, Churchill said: “Love me, love my dog, and if you don’t love my dog you damn well can’t love me.”)  The evidence gathered by Farmelo supports Tizard’s reluctant verdict, delivered six months before his death. Churchill, Tizard wrote “has had neither a great influence on science and engineering, nor indeed has he displayed any real interest in science…he was always pressing for the wrong developments against the advice of most scientists concerned.”   Tizard nevertheless generously concluded that “I think he is such a great man that it is a pity to exaggerate his doings in every direction.”


Watching a dogfight over Kent, Summer 1940

But the problem for the evolving reputation of Churchill is that scholars have recently reexamined his doings in many directions and found them wanting, or at least not as consistently and admirably right as he had memorialized them in his own multi-volume histories of the two World Wars—books that historians now judge to be a tissue of embellishments, distortions, and exaggerations, but works that continue to define his historical role in the popular imagination (“history will be kind to me, for I intend to write it,” Churchill said). We now know that Churchill assiduously selected and artfully edited documents to put himself in the best light; he manipulated his chronicles to enhance his domestic political position (most notoriously in his self-serving history of appeasement in the 1930s); he asserted paternity over triumphs (Operation Overlord, say) in which his role was at most secondary; and he distanced himself from or glossed over disasters and controversies in which he played a central part, including the Dardanelles fiasco, the ruinous intervention in the Russian Revolution, the abdication crisis, the failed Norway campaign, the near-catastrophic “second Dunkirk” in western France in 1940, the Dieppe raid, the rout on Crete, the fall of Singapore, the Bengali famine, and, most notably for current debates and concerns, the strategic bombing campaign against Germany.

The one unassailable aspect of Churchill’s career has been the series of speeches he made in the darkest days of the war—the period between the German invasion of France in May 1940 until the end of that year. Historians and commentators have long declared that these speeches, recognizable by a few key phrases in them (“blood, toil, tears, and sweat,” “we shall fight on the beaches…”, “their finest hour,” “so much to so few”) were of nothing less than world-historical significance, for they inspired the British to fight on despite disaster and the threat of invasion. Churchill’s words, as John Keegan has asserted, “swayed the outcome of the invasion summer.” But, as the historian Richard Toye points out in The Roar of the Lion, nearly all the evidence supporting the notion that Churchill’s speeches had a decisively inspiriting impact on British morale is derived from retrospective accounts—and people’s memories could easily have been shaped by the myth of 1940, a myth promulgated during the war by British propaganda aimed largely at America, advanced after the war by Churchill and his supporters, and embraced by Britons who were no doubt flattered by the image it projected of themselves.

Toye, whose previous books include a study of the relationship between Churchill and Lloyd George and an examination of Churchill’s attitude toward the British empire, demonstrates the unreliability of such retrospective accounts by examining two widely cited memoirs recalling the impact of hearing Churchill’s voice on the wireless as he delivered his post-Dunkirk speech vowing that Britons “would fight on the beaches…” Clearly, those memories were faulty because in fact Churchill never broadcast that speech; it was only delivered, unrecorded, to the House of Commons (Churchill did remake a phonograph recording of the speech—but only in 1949). Indeed, the image of Churchill inspiring a nation huddled around the creaking wireless is fundamentally wrong—he delivered most of his speeches to that most private of clubs, the House of Commons, and only broadcast to the country five times in 1940. Rather than rely on what people remembered of Churchill’s speeches, Toye has taken an obvious but novel approach: he has examined the voluminous contemporary reports and surveys on popular opinion produced by the Ministry of Information’s Home Intelligence Division and Mass Observation, a social research organization, along with letters and diaries written during the time. “It is hard to imagine,” Toye writes, “how responses to [the speeches] could have been better documented.”

What he has found deeply complicates, and in many cases utterly destroys, the myth of 1940. No evidence exists, for example, of any strong popular response to Churchill’s first speech as Prime Minister, when he offered to the House of Commons—not the British people–“only blood, toil, tears, and sweat.” Of Churchill’s “fight on the beaches” speech (again, and like “Blood, toil…”, never broadcast), Toye concludes that “the US reaction seems to have been distinctly warmer than that in Britain.” Contemporary reaction to what has probably become Churchill’s most famous speech (“their finest hour”)— was, the Home Intelligence Division found, “varied.” Mass Observation recorded blandly that the speech “was generally deemed satisfactory. People think that he did not say much, but that he said everything which could be said.” All reports noted that many people thought that Churchill delivered the speech while drunk.

The public reaction that Toye reveals makes sense when we remember that Churchill was far better known to his listeners than he is to us—and his listeners knew him to be courageous and in ways remarkably far-sighted, but they also knew his longstanding and sometimes dangerous tendency to get carried away by his high-flown rhetoric (a tendency he had recently and amply demonstrated during the abdication crisis and his campaign against Indian self-government: “too much of a showman” was nearly always among the negative sentiments that the contemporary public opinion reports revealed). In 1940 the British largely admired and in many cases were stirred by that rhetoric—but they knew it to be merely words. As the journalist J.L. Hobson noted in his diary, he wished Churchill were “less apt to think that by making a fine speech he is disposing of problems or actually winning the war—though a fine speech helps.”  Thus, Toye finds that the speeches that had the greatest impact at the time were not the orations best known and beloved today, but the rather prosaic speeches in which Churchill announced the British sinking of the Vichy French fleet and Britain’s collaboration with the Soviets in the war against Germany—speeches, that is, that proclaimed positive, and bellicose, action, not somewhat self-consciously moving words about gallant sacrifice or Britain’s “long island story.”

Toye scrupulously avoids drawing overly broad inferences from the evidence he has uncovered. All he is ready to conclude is that Churchill’s speeches were not the crucial factor that persuaded the British to fight on in 1940 against what seemed at the time grim odds. It would be comforting to find the explanation of what inspired the British to continue the fight in the splendid sentiments Churchill expressed in his speeches. But the true reasons are probably more visceral and less commendable.  After all, at different stages of the war, the citizens of Germany, Japan and the Soviet Union fought on defiantly and — in their own terms — courageously, and never gave in to terrors meted out to them on a scale that, thankfully, the British never had to endure. It would seem that a noble cause and uplifting rhetoric may count for very little in the struggle for national survival.

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