Winston Churchill: atomic warrior, nuclear peacemaker

At the dawn of the Cold War, Winston Churchill – prime minister of Britain between 1940–45 and 1951–55 – was one of the west's leading champions of the atomic bomb. But, as Britain found itself in the crosshairs of a Soviet attack, his attitude changed – and that, writes Kevin Ruane, set him at odds with the United States...

Sky covered by smoke from the first H-Bomb explosion at Eniwetok Atoll in the Pacific, 1 April 1954. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the November 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine

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In 2013, a short royal family home-movie came to light. Dating from early October 1952, it shows Queen Elizabeth II, eight months into her reign, enjoying a family fishing expedition at Balmoral. Also prominent is the unmistakable figure of Winston Churchill, returned as prime minister a year earlier and now, a month shy of his 78th birthday, the Queen’s honoured guest.

Churchill sits at the water’s edge, chatting amiably to a young Prince Charles. He is relaxed but he is not off-duty. His thoughts, we now know, regularly drifted from autumnal Scotland to a barren, windswept outpost of the Commonwealth called the Montebello Islands. There, 80 miles off the coast of north-west Australia, Britain’s first atomic bomb was about to be tested.

For Churchill, a great deal rested on the success of Operation Hurricane, as the test was codenamed, not least Britain’s admission to the exclusive A-bomb ‘club’ alongside the US and the Soviet Union. “Pop or flop?” Churchill asked his scientific advisors in the build-up to the test. “Pop!” came the reassuring reply.

On 3 October 1952, the Hurricane device exploded with a violence greater than either of the A-bombs used against Japan in 1945.

We have no record of what Churchill said to the Queen later that day. How did a former cavalry officer of the late Victorian era explain that now, at the dawn of the second Elizabethan Age, he had in his hands not a sword but a weapon containing the pulsing energy that fuels the stars? Did he dwell on the fate of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Two bombs, two flashes, and 100,000 dead in an instant. If he also thought to himself “At last!”, that would be understandable. Churchill had waited a long time for this moment.

Nuclear ambitions

In August 1941, with Britain in the throes of a global war, Churchill gave the go-ahead for a top-secret effort to build a super-weapon – an atomic bomb. A passion for new military technology, a love of science fiction (HG Wells was a favourite) and, above all, the dread thought of an A-bomb in Hitler’s hands should Nazi scientists win the battle of the laboratories, ensured his backing for Tube Alloys, as the project was christened.

Following the US’s entry into the war, Tube Alloys became subsumed into the much larger Manhattan Project, the American bomb programme. However, in a series of agreements with President Franklin D Roosevelt, Churchill defended Britain’s rights as an atomic partner of the US and established the principle of mutual consent by those two partners before the use of any weapon.

By mid-1945 an A-bomb was combat-ready, and Harry Truman, who had became president following Roosevelt’s death in the spring, duly sought Churchill’s consent to employ the bomb against Japan.

The war in Europe was over but the war in Asia was expected to grind on for another 18 months. Mindful of the great loss of Allied life that was bound to result from an invasion of Japan, Churchill gave his consent willingly. In August 1945, in the wake of the obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan surrendered unconditionally. To Churchill, it was clearly cause and effect.

If Churchill’s role in the Second World War’s atomic end-game is seldom acknowledged, the ‘nuclear Churchill’ of the Cold War is arguably even less well known. Yet, in the decade after 1945, the A-bomb – “the perfected means of human destruction”, as Churchill described it – and “its monstrous child, the hydrogen bomb”, played a critical part in shaping his Cold War outlook.

Soon after losing office in July 1945, Churchill began sounding the alarm over the next great threat to freedom in Europe. With the Red Army occupying eastern Europe, and with Soviet dictator Josef Stalin refusing to honour previous pledges to permit democratic elections in the area, Churchill called on the US – most famously in his March 1946 ‘Iron Curtain’ speech – to take the lead in organising the free world’s resistance to Soviet communism.

When, in 1947, Truman answered the call, the Cold War really began to bite. But Churchill also entertained ‘hot war’ thoughts. He was keen for the US to exploit its atomic monopoly by issuing an ultimatum to Stalin to accept peace in Europe on western terms – or face the nuclear consequences. As Churchill put it to the US ambassador in 1948, the time had come to tell the Soviets that if they did not ‘retire’ from East Germany and eastern Europe, “we will raze their cities”.

Churchill knew that his views would be poorly received by a British public still hopeful that differences with the USSR could be resolved peaceably, and he mostly pressed the merits of atomic diplomacy in private. This has led some historians to conclude that Churchill was blustering or bluffing. But the vehemence with which he spoke of a nuclear showdown suggests a seriousness born of his loathing of Stalinist totalitarianism.

The US opted for the patient, long-term containment of the USSR in preference to atomic menaces. In February 1950, Churchill’s own outlook appeared to change when he called publicly for a Cold War ‘summit’ – the first time the term had been used to describe a meeting of the great powers.

What prompted this shift? Six months earlier, the USSR successfully tested an atomic device. In a flash, the American nuclear monopoly disappeared. A disturbed Truman administration responded by advancing plans to develop a hydrogen bomb – a thermonuclear weapon with a destructive potential many hundreds of times greater than the A-bombs used against Japan. This was the troubled backdrop against which Churchill issued his call for a summit.

At the time, Labour accused him of insincerity and of preying on popular nuclear nervousness merely to win votes – and unsuccessfully so, since Churchill lost the February 1950 general election. The Labour charge does seem to have merit. Over the following 18 months, Churchill repeatedly argued that the Americans should use their atomic superiority (if no longer monopoly) to try to shape a European peace on western terms. The summit Churchill envisioned would not involve negotiations in the true sense of the word: there would be no give and take, only atomic-infused dictation.

Britain in the bull’s-eye

In October 1951, when Churchill finally returned as prime minister, nuclear issues were becoming pressing. Under Labour, the US had been granted bases for its atomic-capable B-29 bombers in East Anglia. This, Churchill recognised, put the UK in the bull’s-eye of Soviet nuclear retaliation if the Cold War ever escalated into World War Three.

At the same time, Churchill applauded the efforts of his predecessor, Clement Attlee, in pursuing a British A-bomb. The prospect of a postwar Anglo-American nuclear partnership had been thwarted when the US congress passed the 1946 McMahon Act prohibiting collaboration with other countries. This meant that the Attlee government was forced to build a bomb from its own limited resources. In October 1952, the success of the Labour-inspired Operation Hurricane left the Tory Churchill as the first prime minister in British history to have at his disposal a nuclear weapon.

This triumph was soon overshadowed by the news that the US had tested an enormous (10.4-megaton) device in the Pacific. In comparison, the British bomb was puny – a mere 25 kilotons. However, because the US authorities refused to confirm that their test involved a hydrogen bomb, it was the USSR that was able to claim in August 1953 that it had become the world’s first thermonuclear power. The Soviet H-bomb jolted Churchill. “We were now as far from the age of the atomic bomb as the atomic bomb itself from the bow and arrow,” he reflected.

By 1954, the spectre of the H-bomb had wrought a profound – and this time genuine – change in Churchill’s Cold War outlook. That February, President Dwight D Eisenhower confirmed that the US possessed deliverable hydrogen bombs. Then, the following month, when the US tested a monstrous 15-megaton H-bomb in the Pacific, Churchill learned a new word: fallout.

Codenamed Bravo, the US test generated clouds of radioactive debris that drifted many miles from ground zero, showering a Japanese tuna trawler with toxic ash. Around the world, panic spread that the H-bomb was out of control. An ill-judged statement by the chairman of the US Atomic Energy Commission, claiming that a single H-bomb could destroy New York City, pushed anxiety levels higher still.

Churchill was more disturbed than most. According to a top-secret report from his nuclear experts, 10 hydrogen bombs dropped on 10 major UK cities would kill one-third of the country’s population instantly, and expose a further third to the fatal effects of fallout. No wonder he confessed to being “more worried by the hydrogen bomb than by all the rest of my worries put together”.

The apocalyptic implications of the “horror bomb”, as the British press dubbed it, went on to reinvigorate Churchill’s quest for a summit. It also invested that quest with real sincerity. Never again did he speak of dictating to Moscow. Instead, with Stalin dead and his successors in the Kremlin talking of peaceful co-existence, Churchill dedicated the final year of his premiership to bringing about east–west reconciliation.

But while he was working for peace, Churchill took no risks with national security. He viewed the H-bomb as the ultimate deterrent and, in July 1954, he persuaded his cabinet that Britain must have its own weapon. Three years later, the UK would graduate as the world’s third thermonuclear power.

The threat of America

For most historians, Churchill’s H-bomb decision reflected his preoccupation with national prestige – the bomb was a status symbol – and, more especially, his determination to keep his country safe from danger.

But what kind of danger? Ironically, by 1954 Churchill was almost as worried by the nuclear policies of the US, Britain’s ally, as he was by the threat from the Soviet enemy.

In February, Eisenhower wrote Churchill an emotionally charged letter about the need to “throw back the Russian threat” and “sharpen up [one’s] sword for the struggle that cannot possibly be escaped”. To Churchill, the US seemed to be contemplating what he called a “forestalling” war on the USSR before the latter could develop intercontinental bombers or rockets – and this made him deeply uneasy.

In 1954, the US was beyond the range of Soviet bombers. Not so the UK – it would be devastated by any H-bomb assault. “Even if some of us temporarily survive in some deep cellar under mounds of flaming and contaminated rubble,” Churchill reflected, “there will be nothing left to do but to take a pill to end it all.”

The Soviets, he suspected, being far behind the US in nuclear mega-tonnage, would behave cautiously. And if the UK were to stand a chance of restraining the US, he felt, it needed to be respected as an ally. “Influence,” Churchill maintained, “depended on possession of force,” especially thermonuclear force.

Genocidal H-bomb

To Churchill’s regret, a summit never materialised before he retired as prime minister in April 1955. By then, however, he had concluded that nuclear arms, especially the genocidal H-bomb, were a potentially stabilising element in world affairs, and this took some of the edge off his disappointment.

The “annihilating character of these agencies may bring an utterly unforeseeable security to mankind”, he predicted. If the nuclear arsenals of the superpowers could be balanced, then by a “sublime irony… safety will be the sturdy child of terror, and survival the twin brother of annihilation”.

A good decade before the phrase Mutually Assured Destruction entered the Cold War vocabulary, Churchill was displaying distinct signs of MAD-ness.

Churchill’s approach to nuclear weapons evolved over 15 years of war and then Cold War. In the process, he proved to be a shape-shifter. Does it diminish Churchill the thermonuclear peacemaker of the 1950s that he had once been a would-be atomic warrior? Hardly. It confirms instead his remarkable capacity to adapt and learn, and shows that even in old age he was capable of visionary thinking on the great life-and-death issue of the postwar age.

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Kevin Ruane is professor of modern history at Canterbury Christ Church University and author of Churchill and the Bomb in War and Cold War (Bloomsbury, 2016).