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The First Nuclear Arms Race: Churchill's Bomb, Part 1

Graham Farmelo is the award-winning author of the Dirac biography The Strangest Man. His latest book is Churchill’s Bomb: How the United States Overtook Britain in the First Nuclear Arms Race

Podcast Transcription

Steve Mirsky: This broadcast is brought to you by www.audible.com, home of more than 100,000 titles including great science works.  For Scientific American podcast listeners Audible recommends A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson and The 4 Percent Universe: Dark Matter, Dark Energy, and the Race to Discover the Rest of Reality by Richard Panek.  Audible is giving away a free audio book just for checking them out.  You can sign up for a one-month trial membership and the freebie at www.audible.com/sciam.  That's www.audible.com/sciam.

Welcome to the sound of your Scientific American Podcast Science Talk posted on April 24th, 2014.  I'm Steve Mirsky.  March 1914 saw the publication of the H. G. Wells book The World Set Free in which Wells mused about nuclear war and coined the term atomic bomb.  World War I started a few months later and World War II brought that bomb into existence.  Graham Farmelo's latest book is called Churchill's Bomb: How the United States Overtook Britain in the First Nuclear Arms Race.

Did you know that Churchill and H. G. Wells were buddies?  Well listen to Farmelo explain.  He's usually based in London but we caught up at Scientific American the last time he was in New York.

First Graham Farmelo it's so great that you could come back and visit us again.  The Strangest Man was the last book and we talked about that at length.  And that was terrific and we had a great conversation.  And now Churchill's Bomb: How the United States Overtook Britain in the First Nuclear Arms Race.  Now I grew up hearing about the race between the U.S. and Germany for the atomic bomb and this book tells a story that I doubt a whole lot of people know about the British efforts to get there first and what happened there.  So tell us.

Graham Farmelo:      Well it's certainly true that when the Manhattan Project, which people know is the project where the United States built the first nuclear weapons that was originally set to build a weapon because the great fear was that Hitler and his friends over in Germany would get the bomb first.  I've spoken to several people who worked on the Manhattan Project who said that's what motivated them.  They were absolutely terrified that this crazy, crazy man would get the bomb first.

It's worth saying just straight off that James Conant, the president of Harvard in the 1940s – I heard a story which intrigued me which isn't in the book actually.  And that is that when they heard that Hitler was crazy enough to declare war on the United States soon after Pearl Harbor that people said, "Well you now it's just a matter of time now."  And apparently Conant commented then, "But we don't know whether they've got the bomb.

Steve Mirsky:    Mm-hmm.

Graham Farmelo:      It's very easily forgotten how that possibility was taken very seriously.  I mean Hitler had this huge industrial machine.

Steve Mirsky:    German physicists were world renown.

Graham Farmelo:      Absolutely.  I mean pretty much you can say there's no one smarter than Heisenberg.  I mean this isn't Heisenberg in Breaking Bad[laughter]

Steve Mirsky:    [laughter]

Graham Farmelo:      This is the real Heisenberg.  But no it's a serious point.  They had Heisenberg and they had others.  Nuclear fission was discovered in Hitler's capital on the eve of the war.  This was one of the great jokes that fate paid on humankind in the 20th Century.  Right on the eve of the Second World War all right, nuclear fission was discovered in Berlin.  And as we're saying there is a real fear that with luck and a following wind that Hitler – his scientists might have developed the bomb.

Steve Mirsky:    Yeah.

Graham Farmelo:      And as you say the Manhattan Project is popularly depicted as the response to that.  If you look back at it – you look back on the history of the project you can see that while important what was being done in 1940 and thereabouts in the United States the first really clear visualization that the bomb could happen was actually made in March 1940 just before Churchill became Prime Minister of Great Britain. 

And there two scientists categorized by Britain there as enemy aliens, working in a modest premises at the University of Birmingham – not Oxford or Cambridge – University of Birmingham; they sitting around a table much like the one Steve we're sitting around now tumbled that you could actually make a nuclear bomb relatively speaking quite simply by taking two pieces of a particular isotope of uranium, ______ [sounds like thoring] them together to form what was called a critical mass and forming something that could explode.

That as a critical insight made roughly speaking second week of March 1940.

Steve Mirsky:             By –?

Graham Farmelo:      By Otto Frisch and Rudolf Peierls.

Steve Mirsky:    Mm-hmm.

Graham Farmelo:      All right?

Steve Mirsky:    Ironically names Peierls because atomic "piles" is –

Graham Farmelo:      Yes indeed, indeed, indeed.  Now the story of what they did with that –

Steve Mirsky:    Insight.

Graham Farmelo:      insight is I think an intriguing one.  Put simply they took it to their boss, Mark Oliphant and he said, "We've got to take this to the governor," which he did.  And speaking as a Brit with all due modesty it was actually handled brilliantly right?  The scientists, with the wisdom of hindsight behaved extremely well.  They knew this was a matter not just of physics and science but of national import.  So they took it to the government all right?  And to cut a long story short various committees were set up involving industrialists, first class nuclear physicists.  And by the time we get to 1941 when Churchill was Prime Minister it was pretty clear from the deliberations of those scientists that a bomb could be made.

Steve Mirsky:    And let me just remind people that in 1940 the U.S. isn't in the war but Britain and Germany are already at war.  They’ve been at war since December of 1939.

Graham Farmelo:      Absolutely right.  And this was serious.  I mean this was all out war.  Britain and its Empire – We must remember that Britain wasn't completely alone.  It had a huge Empire working with it.  But this was toe to toe combat with a fanatic – Adolf Hitler – with a tremendously well-equipped, well-disciplined army.  And pretty much Britain and its Empire – They were fighting for its life so to speak.  And in the United States there was President Roosevelt and a lot of people that didn't want the United States to get involved in what they saw was as kind of an imperialist struggle over in Europe.

Now it must be kept in perspective.  This was seen as extremely hypothetical at that time.  People had foreseen in plays and books and magazine articles on both sides of the Atlantic the possibility of nuclear weapons.  It was first new to the idea of atomic bombs way back in 1914 by H. G. Wells, a good friend of Churchill's.  That's why Churchill probably would've first read about it.  That's where the words came into our language.

But it was very speculative in war time.  That said even the people who scoffed at the idea that this could be relevant to the war were pretty concerned that Hitler might get his hands on that weapon and his first class scientists could build it.  So it was balancing those things.

Steve Mirsky:    Presumably Wells would've understood from Einstein's work that a small amount of mass could theoretically be converted into a huge amount of energy.  But he wouldn't have had any mechanism for that.

Graham Farmelo:      That's right.  That's right.  Wells was truly brilliant, not as a great novelist or as great scientist, but he had a brilliant ability to take a small thread of a scientific idea and pull it and then dramatize it.  And that's what he did in The World Set Free, where he read about the possibility of huge amounts of energy – we now call it nuclear energy – being made available and maybe making an explosive weapon out of it.  And with his astonishing imagination he just pulled that thread and came up with a scenario where that would be _______.

And Churchill almost certainly read about that because he read H. G. Wells's novels twice.  He was a complete devotee of Wells.

Steve Mirsky:    And they became –

Graham Farmelo:      They were friends.

Steve Mirsky:    buddies who would hang out and discuss ideas together.

Graham Farmelo:      That's absolutely right.  They differed greatly on politics but Churchill had a huge regard for H. G. Wells's farsightedness in this.  So you're right.  Let's just go back again.  We had this possibility.  We're in the thick of war so to speak.  And then for me the big thing is that FDR offered Churchill what for all intents and purposes was an equal harness collaboration in October 1941.  All right?  This was in my view very generous – a very generous offer. 

Britain at that time was way ahead of the game actually.  It was what their top class scientists had worked out.  The bomb was viable.  They got the basic idea and they developed it.  But there were even people there – good people – who thought that Britain could it alone to build it.  Later that was proved to be frankly nonsense.  It needed a tremendous investment that frankly would've been impossible in war time in Britain.

Churchill was uncharacteristically slow in responded.  We know from the way he behaved that he did, despite his great reverence for FDR; he resented the fact that America was not more forthcoming in its support of the British war effort.  He knew that in some ways Britain was ahead of America in military technology.  So he was quite cherry about this.  And he held off for pretty well two months for replying for that incredibly generous offer.

Not much later Pearl Harbor and the United States is in the war and quite understandably the United States put the foot on the accelerator and starts the Manhattan Project.  And then Churchill and his colleagues are playing catchup right?

Steve Mirsky:    Mm-hmm.

Graham Farmelo:      There was a time where there was a good collaboration but I think it fair to characterize the American attitude became, "We're paying for it.  We're paying for this stuff here.  We've got the scientists.  It's going to cost zillions of dollars.  This is our project."  And by the end of 1942 the British scientists were pretty well frozen out.  Churchill in my judgment took his eye off the ball on this one.  It was only in about April 1943 that the Churchill common perception so to speak comes into play when he sees that he's being taken for a ride by the American diplomats.

In other words they just say, "Oh fine.  Come along sooner or later."  And he was not getting direct answers to his, "Why can't we work with you closely as you originally said?" 

Steve Mirsky:    Mm-hmm.

Graham Farmelo:      In April 1943 he really is the commanding CEO so to speak.  He's commissioning reports.  He's asking what's going on.  And in August 1943 he finally negotiated a deal with FDR in Quebec that brought Britain into the Manhattan Project so to speak – a modest number (about two dozen scientists) working on the Manhattan Project.  But in my view he could've gotten a much, much better deal if he's responded earlier.

Steve Mirsky:He was getting science advice from a physicist he trusted who history has shown to perhaps be not the best judge of what was going on at the time.

Graham Farmelo:      That's quite right.  The scientist you're referring to is Frederick Lindemann, later Lord Cherwell.  Let's call him Lindemann.  The first thing to say is that you're absolutely right.  Lindemann was hugely influential on Churchill.  And let's be really fair to Churchill here but the great thing about Churchill was he needed – he knew he needed scientific advice.  Now that's not true of all politicians I think it fair to say right?

Steve Mirsky:    I think that's really – When you look at the U.S. House of Representatives it's pretty obvious some of them don't think they need scientific advice.

Graham Farmelo:      I'm a mere foreigner.  I can't comment.  [laughter]

Steve Mirsky:    [laughter]  

Graham Farmelo:      But no to be fair we must say that – Let me just segue just a second and say that to me the most remarkable thing in writing this book is that Churchill did not find science easy.  He found mathematics incredibly difficult.  But he knew he needed to know something about it.  And when he was a _____ ____ in India he was sitting there in the torrid Indian afternoons reading about science, reading about Darwin, reading general science books right?  He knew he needed to know about this stuff.

In the early 1920s he was befriended by Lindemann who took over from H. G. Wells as his main influence.  And as a result of that Churchill wrote some astonishingly farsighted articles that looked forward to the possibility of harnessing nuclear weapons.

Steve Mirsky:    Why don't we take a little detour for a second?  Because there's a fascinating article that Churchill wrote.  Talk about that for just two seconds.

Graham Farmelo:      Yeah no this is hardly a detour.  It's exactly what we're talking about.  This was the article 50 years hence.  Now this was drafted by Lindemann.

Steve Mirsky:    Uh-huh.

Graham Farmelo:      Churchill sprinkled pixie dust on it, gave a Churchillian sheen to this thing and what this article did; it looked ahead to what science and technology may do particularly to warfare in 50 years.

Steve Mirsky:    And it was written in –?

Graham Farmelo:      1931.

Steve Mirsky:    1931 okay.

Graham Farmelo:      '31 right?  And it was a big success.  And it was a big success on both sides of the Atlantic.  Churchill regarded this as a serious piece of journalism.  And he actually said that.  It's not just me making it up here.  He said that right?  And in this he's talking about lab cultivated meat.  So we're talking about – what is it – the $250,000.00 hamburger.

Steve Mirsky:    Right.  [laughter]

Graham Farmelo:      Now many people are saying, "Look Churchill foresaw this."  I don't think that's stretching it too far.  He foresaw drones, what we now call drones – you know these machines going across the desert and across land you know taking weapons remotely into other territories.  But the thing that is particularly important for this story is that he realized that nuclear energy was in principle tappable.  What you need is a match to "light the bonfire" as he put it. 

And he was absolutely right.  He was well-briefed by Lindemann.  He knew that if we could find a way of tapping nuclear energy what lie ahead.  Well it could be huge quantities of clean energy and it also could be nuclear weapons.  And he wrote about this several times.  This is the point.  Not just there but he wrote about it in newspaper articles read by millions of people.  His final one was just – I think it was eight weeks before the discovery of nuclear fission, which is astounding that he knew better than any other international politician that this was in the offing so to speak.

And yet as we've said he was really quite slow for someone so well-informed to be on the ball, which that to me is the most surprising thing about this.  But going back to our story he was very happy that he got those British scientists onto the Manhattan Project in 1943, but then again took his eye off the ball.  And he was left with people like James Chadwick, the discoverer of the neutron which was the particle that did enable that nuclear energy to be tapped.

He was leading the British contingent with a house right next to where the Oppenheimer – on the hill – but we now call it Los Alamos.

Steve Mirsky:    So what did Lindemann –?  What was Lindemann's view that dissuaded Churchill from engaging more fully earlier?

Graham Farmelo:      Lindemann found it very tough to concede in those early 1940s that Britain couldn't do it.  Remember not that many decades before Britain was the world's leading power.  It was running the show.  And the balance of power had by then of course changed to the United States.  And it was tough to him to accept that this was a product so huge that Britain could not handle it on its own.  And in my judgment that Britain could've gotten a much better deal if they'd settled earlier and gotten closer to the running of the project.

But they didn't.  But they did get back into the games somehow with a modest role on the Manhattan Project.  Lindemann – His judgment was always poor on – No I shouldn't say always.  It was normally poor on this.  He was a very good scientist in his youth.  There's no doubt about that.  But like many scientists, when it gets into a position of power and lots of administration his judgment on nuclear matters, which was brand new physics in those days, was not good.

Even a few months before the first nuclear bomb was detonated he doubted whether it would work.  Where the physicists at the time were really extremely confident he just somehow couldn't believe that nature could allow this to be built.  He wasn't alone in that but I'm saying his judgment wasn't that brilliant in this field.  So although Churchill picked a scientist, in my judgment it was a grave error of his to rely so heavily on Lindemann for his scientific input.

Steve Mirsky:    In return for allowing the two dozen British researchers into the Manhattan Project what was Britain going to get from that deal?

Graham Farmelo:      Well James Chadwick, discoverer of the neutron; he always thought that Britain had played this right.  He actually thought, to be fair, that America was generous to allow this because they were paying.  They were picking up the tab.  The idea was that Britain would learn from this gigantic project – colossal project – how to build weapons that they thought will, and indeed exploit a nuclear energy for power after the war.  That was the thinking.

Jumping ahead slightly after the war the agreement that Churchill had struck with FDR – Remember FDR died shortly before the end of the Second World War.

Steve Mirsky:    Mm-hmm.

Graham Farmelo:      Churchill was thrown out of office shortly before the end of the war.  That agreement came to nothing.  And America went it alone and Britain was left to build its own weapon which was deeply, deeply hurtful to the British scientists who had briefed their American colleagues on that topic.

Steve Mirsky:    Now this arrangement between FDR and Churchill was completely extra-legal wasn't it?

Graham Farmelo:      [laughter] That's an interesting – Now I don't – I'm not a lawyer but it was certainly very secret.  Hardly anyone knew about it.

Steve Mirsky:    Yeah I mean the one that really didn't come to fruition – the one where the U.S. said, "We'll go halfsies on this and we'll share all the information."  Usually something like that would have to pass some congressional scrutiny.  And as you say once Churchill is out of office and FDR is dead there's nobody there to honor – I mean that agreement didn't go through full bore anyway – B-O-R-E not B-H-O-R or B-O-H-R.  I always forget how Bohr spelled his name.

Anyway it's just really interesting that these two guys – prime minister and president – but basically two guys without a legal structure behind this idea of, "Let's work together on this mega-weapon and we'll just share all the information," just decided to discuss it that way.

Graham Farmelo:      That's the ____ of it Steve.  You're right.  They treated – Both of them treated nuclear weapons as a personal fiefdom right?

Steve Mirsky:Yeah.

Graham Farmelo:      Congress knew nothing about this expenditure.  Parliament knew nothing about the expenditure.  Well now, hold on, we mustn't be completely naive here.  You are not going to be completely open about something as delicate as that.  But I think it perfectly fair to say that they were exceptionally secretive.  Very few people in Churchill's circle and – I mean Harry Truman –

Steve Mirsky:    Right.

Graham Farmelo:      He came to the presidency having virtually no idea that the bomb was being made.

Steve Mirsky:    Yeah.

Graham Farmelo:And of course a few weeks later he was having to decide whether to use it or not.  And actually part of that deal was that Churchill had to counter-sign that.  They had a say in each other's policy which I suspect Congress would not have accepted.  But you're absolutely right.  It was highly questionable and it fell apart.  And I don't think that that agreement was a particularly brilliant piece of work.  But to be fair to Churchill it did get Britain back in and have at least a toe hold into that project.

It's really important to stress one other way in which the Churchill and FDR might conceivably have done things better, although we must always bear in mind the difficulty of handling a topic like this in the fog of war so to speak.  And that is that the great – Arguably the greatest nuclear living scientist living at that time – Niels Bohr was flown out of occupied Denmark.  This was in 1943. 

Steve Mirsky:    The famous story of his head being so large allegedly that they were afraid they wouldn't be able to get the oxygen mask on his face.

Graham Farmelo:      He spent most of the journey unconscious for that reason.  They didn't have head gear big enough.  So he arrived in Britain knowing nothing about this project.  And can imagine he was completely gobsmacked.  He had said before that it was unthinkable that you could actually separate that much of this very rare isotope to build this bomb.  And here it was a country – almost entirely the United States – setting up one of its top five industries from scratch to build this weapon.

Steve Mirsky:    And most of that work – Most of that industrial effort is going into separating out the U 235 from the U 238.

Graham Farmelo:      Even now frankly, having written a book about this, it boggles my mind the size of that project.  I mean effectively you had three countries working at it: Canada, the United States, and Britain; of course America by far the biggest player.  No question about that.  But it was a gigantic project.  And Bohr who is – Paul Dirac the subject of my previous book; he said Bohr was the cleverest man – probably the cleverest man he ever met, which is some going.

Steve Mirsky:    Right.  He met a lot of clever guys.

Graham Farmelo:      He met a lot of clever guys.  Bohr had an unusual take on this.  And it did shake up London initially 'cause that's where he was working in the offices of the guys running this project, but subsequently in the Manhattan Project which he visited because he visited Oppenheimer and colleagues at what we now call Los Alamos.  And he saw this as a hopeful project.  He said if you have this gigantic bomb this could crudely speaking – If the big countries have this, this could deter people from making war.

Steve Mirsky:    Mm-hmm.

Graham Farmelo:      And what he advocated very strongly was that Britain and America – mainly America – should bring Stalin – Joe Stalin – an ally fighting Hitler into this secret (broadly speaking) to avoid the obvious outcome of mistrust.  Because remember they were allies.  And Joe Stalin, according to Churchill and FDR, knew nothing about this project.  That's what they believed – wrongly as it turned out because of his spies.  But officially Stalin knew nothing about this. 

Bohr argued for a greater openness in this.  Churchill saw him in May 1944 and Churchill treated him disgracefully frankly.  He was with Lindemann.  They met in Downing Street.  And to quote Churchill Bohr and Lindemann were treated like schoolboys.  It was shortly before D-Day.  Churchill was very preoccupied.  That's true to say.  But he wanted nothing whatever to do with this intruder – this Danish intruder – who to be fair was not an articulate speaker.

He wasn't Churchill's kind of guy.  He was a mumbler.  He was incoherent.  But nonetheless he had valuable things to say.  And to be fair to Lindemann and to be fair to the other people they repeatedly briefed Churchill on this.  But they're right, this guy is not – He's not the Shakespeare of language.  But he has interesting, powerful things to say.  Churchill wanted nothing to do with it.  Later Bohr had an audience with FDR.  And FDR in his characteristic way was hail fellow well-___, wonderful idea and then completely ignored him.

As it turned out we know that when the terrible Cold War that followed the Second World War there was this appalling arms race that was incredibly expensive for all the participants.  And I have to say my view is that if Churchill and FDR had been more thoughtful about Bohr and taken a bit more notice then the worst of that arms race could've been avoided.  You could never be sure.  Stalin was a deeply suspicious person.  You could never be absolutely certain.

But I don't think it's to the credit of either Churchill or FDR that they paid so little attention when their scientists were saying, "This guy has actually got something useful to say."

Steve Mirsky:    We'll be back with more.  By the way remember the Audible special offer you heard about at the beginning of this episode.  You can take advantage of it to get the full unabridged 14-hour and 20-minute recording of Churchill's Bomb by Graham Farmelo.  Just go to www.audible.com/sciam.  Graham and Farmelo and I will be right back in part two

[End of Audio]


Graham Farmelo is the award-winning author of the Dirac biography The Strangest Man. His latest book is Churchill’s Bomb: How the United States Overtook Britain in the First Nuclear Arms Race.

Also check out The Manhattan Project and the Met
 

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