Dis­or­ga­ni­za­tion ham­pers war­time bomb study

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Graeme Voyer

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

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