Churchill's Bomb - How the United States Overtook Britain in the First Nuclear Arms Race

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Perhaps no scientific development has shaped the course of modern history as much as the harnessing of nuclear energy. Yet the twentieth century might have turned out differently had greater influence over this technology been exercised by Great B...
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Perhaps no scientific development has shaped the course of modern history as much as the harnessing of nuclear energy. Yet the twentieth century might have turned out differently had greater influence over this technology been exercised by Great Britain, whose scientists were at the forefront of research into nuclear weapons at the beginning of World War II.

As award-winning biographer and science writer Graham Farmelo describes in Churchill’s Bomb, the British set out to investigate the possibility of building nuclear weapons before their American colleagues. But when scientists in Britain first discovered a way to build an atomic bomb, Prime Minister Winston Churchill did not make the most of his country’s lead and was slow to realize the Bomb’s strategic implications. This was odd—he prided himself on recognizing the military potential of new science and, in the 1920s and 1930s, had repeatedly pointed out that nuclear weapons would likely be developed soon. In developing the Bomb, however, he marginalized some of his country’s most brilliant scientists, choosing to rely mainly on the counsel of his friend Frederick Lindemann, an Oxford physicist with often wayward judgment. Churchill also failed to capitalize on Franklin Roosevelt’s generous offer to work jointly on the Bomb, and ultimately ceded Britain’s initiative to the Americans, whose successful development and deployment of the Bomb placed the United States in a position of supreme power at the dawn of the nuclear age. After the war, President Truman and his administration refused to acknowledge a secret cooperation agreement forged by Churchill and Roosevelt and froze Britain out of nuclear development, leaving Britain to make its own way. Dismayed, Churchill worked to restore the relationship. Churchill came to be terrified by the possibility of thermonuclear war, and emerged as a pioneer of détente in the early stages of the Cold War.

Contrasting Churchill’s often inattentive leadership with Franklin Roosevelt’s decisiveness, Churchill’s Bomb reveals the secret history of the weapon that transformed modern geopolitics.


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    Editorial Reviews


    Financial Times
    “[A] story as gripping as it is elegantly argued and precise.”

    Foreign Affairs
    “In this terrific book, Farmelo tells the story of the United Kingdom’s nuclear program, which began with pioneering work in Cambridge before World War II and ultimately merged with the United States’ Manhattan Project. The book is built around a compelling portrait of Churchill that demonstrates the variability of his judgment.... Farmelo demonstrates that although principles and evidence often shape the relationship between science and policy, personality and politics play just as large a role.”

    Wall Street Journal
    “This book...shows a keen sense of the human comedy. Who were these people, and why did they behave the way they did?”

    The Daily Beast
    “This is a complex and engrossing history with obvious geopolitical import, but what’s most interesting is the human drama involving Churchill, FDR, and the constellation of scientific egos circling around them. Farmelo also wonderfully draws out Churchill’s surprising futurism, bound up with a strain of fatalism.”

    "Graham Farmelo's very fine book ... illuminates the nexus between science, politics, war, and even literature better than anything I have read for some time. The issues it raises are both eternal and especially pressing now. It is not yet Book of the Year time but this has to be a contender."

    The Guardian
    “[A] dazzling book.... Farmelo, prize-winning biographer of the physicist Paul Dirac, recounts this important story with skill and erudition.”

    The Times (UK)
    Churchill’s Bomb tells an even more dramatic story [than Farmelo told in The Strangest Man], and tells it brilliantly.... There are many books about the creation of nuclear weapons and even more about Churchill, but Farmelo’s is the first that explains the latter’s role in the former.... Farmelo ingeniously interweaves the narratives of the nuclear scientists, many of them Jewish refugees from Germany, with that of Churchill in war and peace. As the Americans enter the picture the story becomes fiendishly complicated, but the author never loses the thread.”

    The London Review of Books
    “Compelling.... The value of Farmelo’s book is in its meticulous attention to the contingencies, accidents, uncertainties, inconsistencies and idiosyncratic personalities in the story of how Britain didn’t get the Bomb during the war and how it did get it afterwards. It could all have turned out differently – but it didn’t.”

    The Sunday Times
    “An excellent book.... Farmelo is a splendid word-portraitist, and his book charts the odysseys, geographical as well as scientific, of the men who played a key role in developing the bomb.... Authoritative and superbly readable.”

    “Farmelo’s writing is lyrical – and is chock-full of personality.”

    The New York Times Book Review
    “[Farmelo] tells this tale fluently.... Churchill’s Bomb illuminates significant flaws in Churchill’s personality, policies and leadership.”

    “Graham Farmelo presents us with a story and an analysis which are so fresh and compelling that we might feel we have come to both subjects [Churchill and the nuclear bomb] for the first time.... [S]crupulously researched and superbly written.... Farmelo’s style keeps us in suspense, and his book really is a page-turner. It is also a compendium of mini-biographies of all the significant players in this gargantuan story, each deftly and compassionately told, with touches of apt simile, wit and poignancy.... Churchill’s Bomb is a powerful and moving contribution to literature about the 20th century and to biographical and historical writing.”

    The Economist
    [Churchill’s Bomb] scores some powerful points."

    New York Review of Books
    “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.... Graham Farmelo’s main subject is the personal rivalry surrounding the British nuclear weapons project, in which Winston Churchill played a leading part.”

    Washington Post
    “On the eve of World War II, British scientists were well ahead of the United States in the basic research to make a nuclear weapon possible. How the United States wrested that leadership away from Great Britain is the topic of Graham Farmelo’s account of a little-known aspect of the war.... [T]his is an interesting story.”

    Times Higher Education
    “Splendid and original.... Churchill’s Bomb is at once a tribute to Churchill’s foresight in seeing clearly in the inter-war period both the potential and the dangers of a form of energy that few believed would ever be harnessed, and a criticism of him for having allowed leadership in nuclear technology for industrial and military purposes to pass to the US.... In interweaving the political and the scientific, Farmelo succeeds in making the latter beautifully clear even to readers with scant background in the subject. His book also shows that the quarrels between scientists can be just as fierce as those between politicians.”

    The Observer (UK)
    “[An] absorbing account of 20th century atomic politics.... Farmelo’s account of Churchill’s atomic dreams perfectly captures the essence of the man and of the science of the day.”

    Observer, UK, Best Science Book of the Year
    “Farmelo provides us with a vision of a great leader, Churchill, who hesitated fatally when Britain was given, by the US, the offer of an equal share in the development of the A-bomb.... Offers intriguing insights into the pursuit of science then and now.”

    Telegraph, UK
    “Few writers can make the mechanics of H-bomb production interesting: Farmelo can. Churchill’s Bomb, equally as good as his award-winning biography of the physicist Paul Dirac (The Strangest Man), sheds light on a little-known aspect of Churchill’s life and does so with flair and narrative verve.”

    New Scientist
    “There is nothing like the fear of annihilation to focus the best minds on taking us to the next level of technical achievement. Certainly this was Winston Churchill’s option. As biographer Graham Farmelo shows in Churchill’s Bomb, Churchill managed to redeem his faltering performance as a minister in the first world war by elevating the ‘atomic bomb’ from a neologism created by H. G. Wells to an existential risk in one deft essay.”

    Failure Magazine
    “In Churchill’s Bomb, science historian Graham Farmelo reconstructs this intense, delicate, and near-Faustian story with wit, detail, and richness.... [A] fine read for those who want a well written and researched single volume on atomic affairs from a British point of view.”

    The Independent
    “[A] very fine book.... Farmelo’s book illuminates the nexus between science, politics, war, and even literature better than anything I have read for some time. The issues it raises are both eternal and especially pressing now. It is not yet Book of the Year time but this has to be a contender.”

    Gregg Easterbrook, Tuesday Morning Quarterback,
    “This important volume details the little-known story of how Churchill agreed to trust England’s fission research to FDR, even knowing The Bomb would make the United States king of the postwar world.”

    Literary Review, UK
    “Graham Farmelo’s critique of Churchill is the central theme of a book that unfolds the whole story of the Anglo-American origins of the atom bomb. Superbly written, with a [Frederick] Lindemann-like flair for the translation of scientific data into layman’s terms, it is a narrative driven by personalities rather than institutions and studded with memorable cameos of the scientists, politicians and bureaucrats involved.”

    Winnipeg Free Press
    “[A] nuanced and engaging study of nuclear politics.... [A]n impressive effort, depicting British nuclear policy through a focus on Churchill and his scientists.”

    Physics World
    “Intriguing....Churchill’s Bomb is a story of abject failure by the man widely considered to be the greatest Briton ever to have lived.... [I]ts brilliance lies in the way the story is told, for it is a tale not just of physics or politics but also, more importantly, of people.”

    “The author, a physicist, ranges across Winston Churchill’s long career.... Farmelo is especially good on the Second World War years, revealing much about the Anglo-American relationship that has been guarded or unclear.... Colourful.”

    America in WWII
    “Although Farmelo devotes a respectable number of words to explaining concepts related to nuclear science, his background material is well-written, and there’s just enough to set the scene. He builds the framework of his argument around the intriguing and complex relationships of the players – and how could he go wrong when the central player is Winston Churchill?”

    Publishers Weekly
    “Science historian Farmelo ends each chapter with a cliffhanger that will keep readers paging through this thoroughly researched, detailed history of Britain’s involvement with nuclear energy in the WWII er...

    About the Author

    Graham Farmelo is a Bye-Fellow at Churchill College, University of Cambridge, and an adjunct professor of physics at Northeastern University. Winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the Costa Book Award for The Strangest Man, he lives in London.

    Most Helpful Customer Reviews

    17 of 20 people found the following review helpfulBy M. Frost on October 9, 2013
    Format: Hardcover
    Anyone wanting "professional" reviews of this book should read the ones published by The Economist magazine (October 5th, 2013 issue) and The Wall Street Journal (October 5th-6th weekend edition). Both are quite informative.

    This is the important story about how Britain, which led the world in nuclear-weapons-related research and theory from about 1938-1942, trusted the US to work together to develop the bomb only to be unable achieve the actual bomb itself either during or immediately after WW II, as the USA legally shut off such contacts in 1946. This stab-in-the-back by her ally was a truly sad moment in US foreign relations.

    I think the work suffers a bit from over emphasizing the role of Frederick Lindemann, physics don and Churchill's scientific advisor. Britain's nuclear weapons program was the result of a plethora of decisions by a wide variety of people, both scientific and military. And it further suffers from not fully understanding or appreciating Stalin's intensive spy program that stole our nuclear secrets and their huge reverse-enigneering program that allowed the USSR to begin full-scale production of their B-29 bomber copy (the Tu-4) in 1947!

    Anyone interesting in Britain's development of nuclear weapons should also read Clark & Wheeler's great work, The British Origins of Nuclear Strategy 1945-1955 (Clarendon Press, 1987) and Robert Paterson's Britain's Strategic Nuclear Deterrent (Cass Books, 1997). A decent book (though from America's left-wing) is Michael Gordin's Red Cloud at Dawn: Truman, Stalin and the End of the Atomic Monopoly (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2009), which ties together the WW II era nuclear-related activity of the US, USSR, Nazi Germany, Canada, and UK. As Gordin points out, a huge irony is that the various security mistakes and breaches allowed by the USA and UK helped the USSR develop the bomb years before the UK, as the US shunted Britain off in 1946.

    Oddly, the title of the book is somewhat misleading. It was Clement Atlee's moderately pro-Soviet Labour government (1945-1951) that authorized Britain's independent development of atomic weapons. The Cabinent approved this in January 1947. The Cabinent also approved the development of Britain's nuclear delivery systems, the amazing V-bombers. Ultimately Britain would build and field (starting in the mid-1950s) nearly 300 Valiant, Victor, and Vulcan bombers, which were her strategic nuclear deterent until about 1969 withh the acquisition and deploment of the US's Polaris SLBMs. It was Churchill's government that authorized the development of the UK's hydrogen bomb.

    Like Gordin's book, this is securely "left-wing" historical politics. A bit too utopian in regard to the motives and desires of the USSR. A bit too willing to blame the US and UK for various post-WW II nuclear issues vis-a-vis the Soviets (and later China).
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    9 of 11 people found the following review helpfulBy Charles Schwager on October 24, 2013
    Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
    As an American I am fascinated by Churchill's loss of the Premiership after WWII. This book, though not focussing on that, gives a plausible explanation for something that Americans have long been pondering. For here Churchill is shown with all his flaws, especially in his reliance on The Prof, and his administrative shortcomings, as they relate to the development of the Atomic bomb. Who knew that Churchill and H G Wells were friends and that Wells' books helped Churchill to understand and appreciate science and what it could bring to politics?

    The prose is lucid and many interesting asides make for easy reading and moments of "I didn't know that!" I thoroughly enjoyed the book both as hidden history and as a narrative about one of the great historical figures.

    Full disclosure: I am a friend of the author.


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