Disorganization hampers wartime bomb study
WHAT if German dictator Adolf Hitler had acquired a nuclear bomb? This nightmarish scenario drove British and American scientists in the Second World War to develop a nuclear weapon. British nuclear policy as formulated by wartime prime minister Winston Churchill is the focus of this frustrating study by Graham Farmelo, a British writer and physics professor. Farmelo’s account is interesting, but it could have been much better if he had paid more attention to organization. The writer of a work of history should, in a preface, foreword or introductory chapter, set out what his or her book is about and what novel insight or interpretation he is going to develop. An outline of the writer’s argument should then follow. Unfortunately, Farmelo provides none of these signposts to guide the reader, to explain what his purpose is. The result is a succession of facts, rather than a structured and coherent argument that develops an interpretation or thesis. But this structural flaw should not detract from Farmelo’s considerable achievement. His research is impressive, as is the chronological scope of this work, which begins with Churchill’s musings about a nuclear future in his journalism of the 1920s and early 1930s, and continues through the end of his parliamentary career in 1964. That parliamentary career, Farmelo points out, “had begun before the Wright brothers’ pioneering flight and had ended in an age when supersonic aircraft could deliver nuclear weapons.” Much of this book details the politics of nuclear weapons research between Britain and the United States. Farmelo believes that Churchill missed a “golden diplomatic opportunity” when he failed to embrace American president Franklin Roosevelt’s offer of nuclear collaboration in 1941. If there is a theme to this book, it is that British and American willingness to collaborate on nuclear matters was a function of their relative positions in the race for the bomb. In other words, when Britain believed that it was ahead in nuclear research, it was disinclined to collaborate with the U.S. But when American research surged ahead, the Americans lost interest in collaboration. Ultimately Churchill and Roosevelt did effect an agreement in 1943 that allowed for the two countries to work together, albeit with Britain as a junior partner. Throughout his formulation of nuclear policy, Churchill was guided by his main science adviser, Frederick Lindemann, a professor of physics at Oxford University. Lindemann was a controversial figure in the scientific community; many of his peers did not share the high regard for him held by Churchill. Nevertheless, Lindemann became “one of the most politically influential scientists ever to serve in government.” A stylistic point: Farmelo has a penchant for obscure words: “septicaemic,” “spavined,” “opaline,” “sclerotic,” “frangible” and “rictus.” But if you have a dictionary at hand, Farmelo shows how Churchill grappled with the implications of nuclear weapons throughout his career as a politician and writer. The result is a nuanced and engaging study of nuclear politics. This chronological narrative lacks structure and clearly delineated purpose. But it is still an impressive effort, depicting British nuclear policy through a focus on Churchill and his scientists.
Graeme Voyer is a Winnipeg writer.
Churchill’s Bomb How the United States Overtook
Britain in the First Nuclear
Arms Race By Graham Farmelo Basic Books, 544 pages, $34.50