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

Overview


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 ...

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

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Overview


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

Publishers Weekly
01/06/2014
Science historian Farmelo (The Strangest Man) 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 era and beyond. Farmelo presents the key personalities—Churchill, "at heart a politician and a man of letters, not an academic and certainly not a scientist;" Lindemann, an admired experimentalist and theoretician who was Churchill's science adviser for decades; an array of scientists, from Bohr to Oppenheimer; and several U.S. presidents—F.D.R., Truman, and Eisenhower—and follows them from pre-war developments through the war to the Manhattan Project and to the Cold War. Readers will gain a new perspective on nuclear weapons and energy in which the usual players—Einstein, Szilard, and the other scientists—are secondary to the British prime minister, his advisor, and scientists who took refuge in England during the war. Farmelo's prose moves quickly with much action; he evokes a sense of place and time with details of daily life, such as Lindemann's truffled egg whites and F.D.R.'s daily routine. Highly recommended for those with an interest in weaponry, the WWII era, and British history. (Oct.)
From the Publisher

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.”

Independent
"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.”

Maclean's
“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.”

Scotsman
“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, ESPN.com
“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.”

Nature
“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 era and beyond.... Farmelo’s prose moves quickly with much action; he evokes a sense of place and time with details of daily life.... Highly recommended for those with an interest in weaponry, the WWII era, and British history.”

Kirkus
“[A] nicely detailed and balanced record of the British ambivalence toward building an atom bomb in favor of the American effort.... A tremendously useful soup-to-nuts study of how Britain and the U.S. embraced a frightening atomic age.”

Library Journal
“Farmelo presents a well-written and deeply researched account of Britain’s engagement in atomic research.... Farmelo’s study provides an excellent assessment of Churchill’s role in the British effort and complements Richard Rhodes’s classic The Making of the Atomic Bomb. A fine addition to the existing literature on the subject.”

Roger Highfield, Science Museum executive, Daily Telegraph columnist, and bestselling science writer
“A riveting, powerful, and timely reminder that high politics is anything but rational. Graham Farmelo vividly reveals how Winston Churchill learned about atomic physics in the 1920s, warned about the imminence of nuclear weapons in the 30s, and yet, paradoxically, squandered Britain's lead in the field during the Second World War.”

Andrew Brown, author of Keeper of the Nuclear Conscience
"Churchill’s curiosity about science is perhaps the least studied aspect of his character. Graham Farmelo remedies that deficit in masterful style, beginning with Churchill’s admiration for H G Wells and ending with a poignant portrait of the elderly statesman brooding over the prospect of nuclear Armageddon."

Sir Michael Berry, University of Bristol
“What a brilliant and compelling book! Graham Farmelo sensitively and eloquently deconstructs the twists and turns of Winston Churchill’s involvement with nuclear weapons over nearly half a century, setting this unfamiliar tale in the context of the turbulent times. At its heart are the ambiguities of the World War II relationship between a scientifically innovative but economically weakened Britain and the inexhaustibly energetic USA with unlimited resources.”

James W. Muller, University of Alaska, Anchorage
“An excellent book. Graham Farmelo draws on many sources to show how Churchill, his scientific adviser Frederick Lindemann, and a host of other scientists and politicians developed the atomic bomb. Churchill’s Bomb brings these characters back to life with anecdotes, quotations, and personal sketches. But Farmelo’s book does more than unfold the hopes, doubts, and fears engendered by the bomb: it illuminates the relationship between big science and modern democracy.”

Mary Jo Nye, Professor of History Emerita, Oregon State University, and author of Michael Polanyi and His Generation
“This is a fascinating book. Graham Farmelo offers a fresh and thoroughly researched history of the development of atomic weapons in his insightful and engaging account of Winston Churchill’s failure to forge a partnership of equal exchange between Great Britain and the United States in the development of the bomb. Farmelo offers vivid vignettes of political and scientific personalities, with special attention to the widely disliked Oxford physicist Frederick Lindemann, who became Churchill’s science and technology guru in the 1920s.”

Library Journal
09/01/2013
Winston Churchill was fascinated by the prospect of nuclear weapons as far back as World War I, when he read H.G. Wells's The World Set Free. As prime minister during World War II, he supported British scientists in the development of the bomb. Farmelo (senior research fellow, Science Museum, London; physics, Northeastern Univ.; The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Mystic of the Atom) presents a well-written and deeply researched account of Britain's engagement in atomic research. Although British scientists were at the forefront of this research, the development of a workable bomb was dauntingly expensive, so Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt worked out an arrangement by which the two allies would cooperate on the project. By 1943, however, the Americans were able to devote greater financial resources to the Manhattan Project and the British were excluded from much of the final work. The United States established complete control over use of the bomb during the war and maintained this control in the early postwar years. VERDICT Farmelo's study provides an excellent assessment of Churchill's role in the British effort and complements Richard Rhodes's classic The Making of the Atomic Bomb. A fine addition to the existing literature on the subject.—Ed Goedeken, Iowa State Univ. Lib., Ames
Kirkus Reviews
A scholarly filling-in of the chronological record shows how Churchill dropped the ball on nuclear weapons leadership in World War II. Farmelo (The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Mystic of the Atom, 2009) constructs a nicely detailed and balanced record of the British ambivalence toward building an atom bomb in favor of the American effort, since Churchill's infatuation with H.G. Wells and early acquaintance with scientist Frederick Lindemann in 1921. The author tracks the working friendship between Churchill and Lindemann, the Oxford professor who directed the Clarendon Laboratory (as counterpoint to Cambridge's Cavendish Laboratory, run by Ernest Rutherford, "the Christopher Columbus of the atomic nucleus") and largely helped cultivate Churchill's education in quantum theory, however faulty. While the 1930s-era Cambridge physics department had been instrumental in discovering the neutron and in artificially splitting atomic nuclei, Lindemann also helped entice many refugee scientists from Nazi Germany--e.g., Hungarian Leó Szilárd, who developed the harnessing of nuclear energy, among others. As adviser to Churchill, Lindemann helped guide Churchill's theories of creating a weapon of mass destruction to counter what he saw early on as a terrifying Nazi menace. Although many refugee scientists were developing feasible theories about the making of an actual bomb, Churchill got distracted with waging the Battle of Britain, and Lindemann's ideas were often questioned by his scientific colleagues. Meanwhile, other refugees, such as Neils Bohr and Enrico Fermi, discoverers of nuclear fission, had migrated to American universities and were working hard on a weapon. Merging the two efforts would prove prickly and problematic, as delineated step by step by the author. A tremendously useful soup-to-nuts study of how Britain and the U.S. embraced a frightening atomic age.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780465021956
  • Publisher: Basic Books
  • Publication date: 10/8/2013
  • Pages: 576
  • Sales rank: 123,364
  • Product dimensions: 6.60 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.80 (d)

Meet 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.
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