“Now we could say if you insist on doing this or that, well we can just blot out Moscow, then Stalingrad, then Kiev, then Kuibyshev, Karhov … Sebastopol etc, etc. And now where are the Russians!!!” an excited Winston Churchill is reported as having said on July 23, 1945 in Potsdam after being informed of the successful atomic bomb tests in New Mexico.
As recounted in Churchill and the Bomb in War and Cold War by Kevin Ruane (Canterbury Christ Church University), the belligerent and aggressive posture of July 1945 was, however, just one aspect of Churchill’s attitude towards nuclear weapons. In his excellent study Ruane describes three “incarnations” of Churchill and nuclear weapons during the period 1941 to 1955: the atomic bomb-maker, the atomic diplomatist, and the nuclear peace-maker. Over these 14 years Churchill, “altered his outlook on weapons of mass destruction to a remarkable degree.”
Ruane argues that as the destructive power of the Hydrogen Bomb became apparent, Churchill shifted from the atomic diplomatist who wished to retain an Anglo-American atomic monopoly and force a reversal of the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe to a nuclear peace-maker. In his second premiership Churchill was “terrified” by the hydrogen bomb and, despite the opposition of some of his cabinet colleagues and the Americans, unsuccessfully pursued a summit meeting with the Soviet leadership to ease international tensions. His fear of the H-bomb overrode his anti-communism. This last incarnation of the nuclear Churchill, Ruane writes, embraced and “arguably” even conceived “the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction.”
A further interesting theme that Ruane traces in his study is that throughout the three incarnations of the nuclear Churchill, the statesman, with little success, sought to fully extend his cherished Anglo-American “special relationship” to the nuclear sphere. Churchill continued to attach great importance to the Quebec and Hyde Park agreements on atomic cooperation long after they had been superseded by events (such as the death of President Franklin Roosevelt and the McMahon Act of 1946).
As Ruane notes in his book’s introduction the gap in the literature about Churchill and nuclear weapons has been tackled by both his own effort as well as by Graham Farmelo’s equally well-done Churchill’s Bomb: How the United States Overtook Britain in the First Nuclear Arms Race that was published in 2013. Ruane’s study benefits from its tighter focus on Churchill as opposed to Farmelo’s work that on occasion moves away from the statesman to cover the larger story of Britain and nuclear weapons.
Churchill and the Bomb in War and Cold War is a well-researched, detailed, and comprehensive study of Churchill and nuclear weapons.