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The Bomb and the Special Relationship

Finest Hour 137, Winter 2007-08

Page 37

The Bomb and the Special Relationship

By Warren F. Kimball

Professor Kimball is editor of the three-volume Roosevelt-Churchill Correspondence and author of several books on the Churchill-Roosevelt relationship. His paper is from the June 2007 symposium, whose theme was “The Legacy of Two Statesmen.”

In 1941, amidst the gloom created by uncertainty on the Russian front, the stalemate in North Africa, and the deteriorating Pacific situation, there was no reason to imagine that what seemed a small footnote in the 1941 Churchill-Roosevelt correspondence would develop into potential for geo-political leverage beyond their wildest dreams.

It began with a “Most Secret” paper by two German scientists who had fled to England to escape Hitler. That paper—labeled MAUD after a nurse who had cared for atomic scientist Niels Bohr’s family—was quickly studied by British government scientists. The result was the MAUD report which concluded that a nuclear fission bomb made from uranium was practical, would “likely lead to decisive results in the war, and could be built by the end of 1943.”!

The British passed the MAUD report to FDR’s science advisors, who were galvanized by it. Finally awakened to the possibility that the Germans were also working on a nuclear device, the President proposed on 11 October 1941, in a letter addressed “Dear Winston,” that they “correspond or converse concerning the subject which is under study by your MAUD committee ” In December 1941, before Pearl Harbor, Churchill agreed.

The subject “under study” was the atomic bomb. Time, strategic bombing, and sabotage ultimately ensured that the Germans would not succeed in developing the weapon before their defeat. Anglo-American scientific success came too late for the atom bomb to be used against Germany, but two were dropped on Japan, which Churchill thought hastened peace. But before that weapon could make its dark appearance over Nagasaki and Hiroshima, a war had to be fought.2

With the United States finally in the war, Churchill came for his third meeting with Roosevelt, their second the U.S.A., in June 1942. Those talks, appropriately codenamed ARGONAUT since Churchill chose to cross the Adantic by flying-boat (seaplane) —quicker than by warship but still a dangerous twenty-six hour trip—began on 19 June at the President’s home in Hyde Park, New York, overlooking the Hudson River. Roosevelt’s cousin, Daisy Suckley, described tea for FDR, Churchill, and others at Top Cottage:

At 4, we drove over to the cottage. George [staff] soon came with supplies for tea. He brought out a card table & put iced tea, sandwiches & some cookies on it. On another table he had scotch & soda Conversation was a little slow. Everyone sits around waiting for the P. & Mr. C. to speak—it must be quite a strain on them both— The P. said I could take some pictures.. ..The P.M. turned right around in his chair & smiled for me!

These two men faced a horrible problem: of deciding where the United Nations should attack – the different heads of the army and navies disagree about it….3

Tea talk aside, their discussions focused on Anglo-American cooperation over “Tube Alloys”, as the atomic bomb project was now known. Churchill expressed concern about significant German progress on atomic research at a time when British research was disrupted by German bombings. The Manhattan Project began two months later. They concurred on unrestricted sharing of information, but that agreement was not reduced to writing. As the British ruefully learned, it allowed the Americans in charge of the project to be, or pretend to be, ignorant of the sharing policy.4

Neither Churchill nor Roosevelt could plug into their strategic or political equations what happened at the University of Chicago six months later on 2 December 1942: scientists induced a chain reaction. The atomic bomb had become a practical possibility.

Not so Anglo-American sharing. From the outset British officials complained that the Americans were keeping them in the dark. Through Hopkins, Churchill raised the matter at the 1943 Casablanca and Washington conferences. In February 1943 he wrote:

Do you remember our conversation about that very secret matter we called “tube alloys” which you told me would be put right as soon as the president got home? I should be grateful for some news about this, as at present the American War Department is asking us to keep them informed of our “experiments” while refusing altogether any information about theirs.

Five months and no changes later, Churchill would repeat the same complaint to the President.5

When Roosevelt and Churchill met in Washington for the TRIDENT conference (12-25 May 1943), the two leaders continued an increasingly vigorous debate that had begun at Casablanca, when Churchill protested American failure to share information about the Manhattan Project. Ready to put pressure on FDR, the Prime Minister arrived in Washington with studies on the feasibility of an independent British atomic bomb project. That came in response to a number of Roosevelt’s advisers who opposed revealing atomic secrets to the British, despite early promises and the initial benefits of British cooperation. Hopkins told Halifax that U.S. government officials who would return to jobs in big business after the war were eager to maintain control over the commercial uses of atomic energy. Vannevar Bush, as director of the Office of Scientific Research & Development (OSRD), told Hopkins that “the adopted policy” was to provide information to those in the USA and Great Britain “who need it and can use it now in the furtherance of the war effort ” Information would not be provided to those “who wish it either because of general interest or because of its application to non-war or postwar matters. To do so would decrease security without advancing the war effort.”1′

Confronted directly by WSC, Roosevelt agreed, with obvious reluctance, to live up to earlier promises to give Britain access to the results of atomic research. Yet, by the time of their next meeting, at Quebec in August, that commitment had not been fulfilled.

On 12-14 August 1943, even before the two met in Quebec City, they got together at the Roosevelt family home in Hyde Park. Once again, Daisy Suckley described the scene:

Mr. C ate 1 & V2 [hot dogs] and had a special little ice pail for his Scotch. He is a strange looking man. Fat & round, his clothes bunched up on him. Practically no hair on his head, he wore a huge 10-gallon hat….[Later they went to the swimming pool.] Mrs. R came & made a dive and a splash or two. The P.M. decided to go in too. In a pair of shorts, he looked exactly like a kewpie. He made a good dive in, soon came out, wrapped a large wool blanket around himself & sat down to talk to F.D.R7

Amidst hot dogs at Mrs. Roosevelt’s cottage and swimming expeditions, Churchill and Roosevelt agreed, for the third time, that the United States would share its atomic research with Great Britain—and no one else.

This Quebec/Hyde Park agreement of 19 August required “mutual consent” to use an atomic bomb or to pass on “any information about tube alloys to third parties,” while Britain and the United States would have “full and effective collaboration.” (Whether or not Stalin knew of the agreement is uncertain—the U.S. Congress did not learn of it until 1947. Roosevelt did not know that Stalin had actually found out about the British atomic bomb research program—the MAUD project— back in September 1941, but no later than September 1943, the President knew that Soviet espionage had penetrated the Manhattan project.)8

In the words of British historian-diplomat Robin Edmonds, “…There was much fog on all sides. But the essence of the transatlantic difference…was that, whereas the Americans perceived the British as seeking to cash in cheaply on an immense American enterprise, the British perceived the Americans as seeking to establish military and industrial monopoly in the atomic field.”

But the atom bomb was more than economics. Churchill’s personal science advisor, Lord Cherwell, had told the Americans that Britain viewed the bomb primarily as a means of restraining the Soviet Union after the war. When Vannevar Bush told Roosevelt of CherwelPs remarks, Bush interpreted FDR’s anodyne comments and nods to mean that the President was “amazed,” and that he found Cherwell’s attitude “astounding.”9 Perhaps. But Eleanor Roosevelt always warned that FDR left visitors thinking he had agreed with them—and that was often a mistake.

The 1943 Quebec/Hyde Park agreement ended the quarreling over Anglo-American collaboration for the remainder of the war. (It included the Canadians in a pro forma way, since they had uranium.) But some Americans continued to drag their feet and, moreover, other issues cropped up. Perhaps most revealing of all is Churchill’s minute to Lord Cherwell of 27 May 1944 about the Quebec/Hyde Park agreement:

I am absolutely sure we cannot get any better terms by ourselves than are set forth in my secret agreement with the President. It may be that in after years this may be judged to have been too confiding on our part. Only those who know the circumstances and moods prevailing beneath the presidential level will be able to understand why I have made this agreement. There is nothing more to do now but to carry on with it, and give the utmost possible aid. Our association with the United States must be permanent, and I have no fear that they will maltreat us or cheat us.10

Just before Churchill and Roosevelt met again in Quebec that autumn, they got together beginning on 18 September 1944 for two days again at the President’s home in Hyde Park. In that comfortable, casual surrounding, the two again agreed to maintain the Anglo-American monopoly over the “Tube Alloys” project. The meeting followed an appeal from Niels Bohr, the Danish physicist and atomic scientist, who had pleaded with both the President and the P.M. to disclose the atomic secret to the world lest it poison postwar relationships. Although Bohr’s proposal fell afoul of now discredited suspicions that he had leaked information to the Soviet Union, there were advisers in both the British and American governments (Henry Stimson and Lord Cherwell for example) who found merit in some sort of internationalization of the bomb. But FDR and Churchill were having none of it.

Yet why keep the atomic bomb project secret from the USSR? Roosevelt knew at least by September 1943 that Soviet espionage had penetrated the Manhattan Project. He knew the Russians knew about the bomb, but did not bring up die subject. Why not? (Perhaps comedians Abbott and Costello—or was it die Marx Brothers?— asked an equally important question: did he know tiiat they knew tliat he knew that they knew?)

Churchill in his war memoir claimed to be “certain” that Stalin did not have “special knowledge” about the “vast process of research” for the bomb. Those carefully chosen words—”special knowledge” suggest that Stalin had some knowledge—may well have been chosen at the prompting of British intelligence services which, as David Reynolds has pointed out, did “sanitize” the war memoir to protect the ULTRA secret.11

Possibly Roosevelt wished to maintain the image of secrecy, lest Stalin demand access. Perhaps the President was reluctant to brag about something that had not yet been tested, and about which unsophisticated advisers remained skeptical. After all, in a world where the USA was jockeying with the USSR for position, false bravado could weaken his bargaining strength.

Another part of the answer may be that Roosevelt, like most non-scientists, did not comprehend the revolutionary potential of nuclear weapons. His key scientific adviser on atomic energy, James B. Conant, believed FDR had “only fleeting interest in the atom, and that the program never got very far past the threshold of his consciousness.” He “really had no idea of the enormous importance of our [atomic] secrets.” A number of military “experts” tended to see the bomb as nothing more than just a bigger bang, and it appears that Churchill and Stalin were similarly ignorant. Churchill told Niels Bohr to stop worrying: “After all this new bomb is just going to be bigger than our present bombs and it involves no difference in the principles of war.”12

As for Stalin, though he took a personal interest in Soviet atomic bomb research, his scientists assured him that development of such a weapon would take ten to twenty years.13 And there is a vast difference between knowledge of a research project, and a working weapon! Whatever the varying weight of the contributing factors, Churchill and Roosevelt agreed to an aide-memoire that flatly rejected any “international agreement regarding… control and use” of “Tube Alloys.”

The ethical-moral issues attached to using the atomic bomb never received the “mature consideration” called for in that aide-memoire. Churchill and Roosevelt agreed to use the bomb on Japan, but only after “mature consideration,” a phrase that suggests they had some perception that it was not just a “bigger bang.” Certainly both demonstrated the ability to think beyond the simplistic notion that weapons had no ethical or moral questions attached. But there was no reason to do so until the weapon was tested, and FDR never crossed bridges until he came to them. There is some evidence that he mused about dropping a “demonstration” bomb to convince the enemy to surrender, but at no time before Roosevelt’s death did top-level American leaders seek to avoid the use of the A-bomb. Churchill did not discuss the decision with his cabinet or chiefs of staff, writing in his war memoirs that “there was never a moment’s discussion as to whether the atomic bomb should be used or not.” After Roosevelt’s death, Churchill casually initialed a minute telling British officials to go along with what the Americans decided.14

The easy answer is that the President was waiting for the right moment—when he could confront the Soviet Union with the new super weapon and gain effective political leverage. Was Roosevelt the first practitioner of atomic diplomacy? Do we have here FDR—Cold Warrior? But how do we reconcile that with his consistent and persistent policy of trusting the Soviets in the hope of convincing them that the United States could likewise be relied upon? The likely answer is that the atomic bomb might work, and might not—but Franklin Roosevelt was firmly rooted in the practical present. Roosevelt knew that Stalin had intelligence on the atom bomb, so there was no secret. To tell the Soviets, and then refuse to share the information, would not quiet any of Stalin’s suspicions and could lead to an open argument. Why make a decision until the decision had to be made? And there were so many other decisions to be made about the postwar world.

Churchill remained enigmatic. Rarely did he express any compunctions about their having used the bomb. In his second ministry he expressed deep concern and fear about the hydrogen bomb, saying “that mankind was as far from the atomic age as the atom bomb was from the bow and arrow,” fears that then-president Dwight Eisenhower firmly dismissed. His expressed horror about the effects of H-bomb radiation lends credence to the argument that, in 1945, he also saw the atomic bomb as just a “bigger bang.”15

On 15 February 1945, after the Yalta conference, Churchill and Roosevelt (and Harry Hopkins) met briefly aboard the USS Quincy in the harbor at Alexandria, Egypt. FDR had just concluded a meeting with Ibn Saud and other middle eastern potentates. Churchill had come back from a quick visit to Greece to wave the flag lest Middle East leaders think Britain was abdicating its role in that part of the world. According to Churchill’s own record, he read the Americans a proposal for Britain to develop its own atom bomb after the war, and FDR “made no objection of any kind,” though he did comment that thoughts about using atomic energy “for commercial purposes had receded.” The President also pointed to September 1945 for “the first important trials” of the weapon. It was their last discussion about the bomb.16

The special relationship, after reaching its apogee during the Second World War, seemed to have disintegrated in the immediate postwar years. While the American refusal to share atomic research and the McMahon act (an attempt to make the American atomic monopoly perpetual) contributed to that decline, they were more a symptom than a cause. As Robin Edmonds observed, the common denominator in American records for the 1945-50 period “is the absence of any recognition of the concept of a shared Anglo-American world leadership.”17

Britain’s parlous economic situation following the war and its military withdrawal from Greece (stimulating the Truman Doctrine) generated American dis-interest bordering on fond contempt for any notion of shared world leadership—though that would soon change under the pressures of the Cold War and of Britain’s own successful atomic bomb program. Whether for better or for worse is another story.

The impossible dream of an Anglo-American and then an American atomic monopoly, was, perhaps, Churchill’s and Roosevelt’s most ambiguous, even hubristic geopolitical legacy. In 1946, the Americans proposed the so-called Baruch Plan for international control of atomic energy through a United Nations commission—one historian called it “emasculated internationalism” as it allowed the United States to remain the only nation capable of making an atomic bomb. Moreover, the proposals eliminated the Security Council veto on atomic matters which would allow the United States to control the very process of atomic energy research in other countries. The Soviet Union opposed the Baruch Plan, Churchill argued against it in his Fulton speech, and the Attlee government was unenthusiastic. “Let’s forget the Baroosh and get on with the Fissle” (Britain’s own atomic energy project) was Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin’s alleged quip.18 The message was clear. Great power “equality” and status now seemed to depend on developing an atomic bomb.

When the Soviet Union refused to accept the inspection requirements of the Baruch Plan (which actually passed in the United Nations, but quickly became dormant), the U.S. Congress and President Truman, either ignorant or dismissive of the Roosevelt- Churchill agreements jointly to share the atomic secret, passed the McMahon Act, which ended their wartime cooperation. The Anglo-American “special relationship” wobbled on its axis, though shared Cold War fears kept it alive. More significant, an extensive U.S. nuclear development and testing program quickly followed. The nuclear arms race was on.

So here we are in 2007, scrambling in vain to hold on to the atomic secret even as membership in the nuclear “club” (one of those “soft” words that seem to legitimize nuclear weapons) continues to grow. The Soviet Union joined in 1949. The British and French soon followed. China, India, Pakistan and Israel have all come on board. North Korea agreed to close down its bomb producing facilities, but only after it developed the ability to make one. Iran, which is knocking on the door, is likely to do the same. We are told there are still nuclear devices (bombs?) scattered around in the former Soviet empire. We are losing count of how many members of the club there are now, but what is certain is that tiying to keep that genie in a bottle is just a variation on the ostrich’s head-in-the-sand reaction to things it doesn’t want to see.


The reader may ask (as did your editor), “Right, what should they have done so that the world would remember them better in this matter?”

Perhaps the reality that the Bomb would be an unusable weapon after Hiroshima and Nagasaki was not apparent before both Churchill and Roosevelt were gone from their leadership positions. After all, both seemed at times to view the Bomb as a “bigger bang,” not a technological revolution. Yet Churchill, with his understanding of the historical past, knew well that past “super-weapons,” like the dread-nought or the V-2 rocket, had not brought the possessor geopolitical security. Neither of them feared a Soviet military attack in the immediate aftermath of the war in Europe. Both knew full well that Stalin would make a major effort to develop a Soviet A-bomb; logic and their intelligence reports (however inadequate those were) made that clear.

So they were playing for the short term. But why? There was no short-term threat. Hubris seems the only answer. Niels Bohr was not the only one who expressed fears that an attempt to create and hold an atomic monopoly was doomed to failure, and that nationalism would create a new and potentially more dangerous arms race. Bohr suggested internationalization of atomic secrets; others apparently thought in terms of sharing. But Churchill and Roosevelt slammed the door shut on such thoughts, and did so in great secrecy.

The ineffectiveness of nuclear leverage in geopolitics appeared even before the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan. At the Potsdam conference late in July 1945, the newly-minted American president, Harry Truman, told Stalin of the atomic bomb (though apparently without using those specific words). Stalin, who already knew about the weapon, seemed to brush it off, showing “no special interest.” It was a calculated response. In the words of Henry Kissinger: “By the end of the conference, it was clear that the atom bomb had not made the Soviets more cooperative”19

So then, what was the danger in pursuing schemes for the internationalization and control of nuclear power and weapons? Had that become a reality, we might not face the very real threat on non-state actors (terrorists and such) possessing nuclear weapons.

It was neither Mr. Churchill’s nor Mr. Roosevelt’s finest hour.


1. Robin Edmonds, The Big Three (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1991), 396.

2. Churchill in 1924 had written: “Might not a bomb no bigger than an orange be found to possess a secret power to destroy a whole block of buildings—nay, to concentrate the force of a thousand tons of cordite and blast a township at a stroke?” Churchill, “Shall We All Commit Suicide?,” Pall Mall, 1924, reprinted in Thoughts and Adventures, 1932 et seq. Fifteen years later, in 1939, Albert Einstein, supported by other European scientists, wrote Roosevelt to suggest that atomic bombs were scientifically feasible, ending his letter with a warning that Nazi Germany had stopped the sale of uranium from the Czech mines it had taken over. FDR took it under advisement, but little came of it. In the aftermath of the atomic bombing of Japan, Einstein called that advice a mistake, noting that “there was some justification—the danger that the Germans would make them.” Martin J. Sherwin, A World Destroyed: The Atomic Bomb and the Grand Alliance (New York: Knopf, 1975), 27. Whether or not the atom bombs dropped on Japan shortened that war, and the motives for dropping them are, of course, the subjects of ongoing, endless debates. For extensive references, see American Foreign Relations since 1600: A Guide to the Literature, Robert Beisner, ed. (2 vols; Santa Barbara, Calilf: ABC Clio, 2003), I, 1068-78.

3. Daisy Suckley, Closest Companion, Geoffrey Ward, ed. (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1995), 21 June 1942, 163.

4. Warren F. Kimball, Forged in War: Roosevelt, Churchill and the Second World War (New York: Wm. Morrow, 1997), 146-47; Winston S. Churchill, The Second World War [SWW] (6 vols.; Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1948-53), IV, 377.

5. Churchill to Hopkins, 16 February 1943 and 27 February 1943, Papers of Harry L. Hopkins, A-Bomb folder (Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, Hyde Park, New York). Churchill to Roosevelt, 9 July 1943, Churchill & Roosevelt: The Complete Correspondence, 1939-1945 (3 vols.; Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1984) II, C-354.

6. Robert Sherwood, Roosevelt and Hopkins (rev. ed.; New York: Grosser & Dunlap, 1950), 704.

7. Suckley, Closest Companion, 14 August 1943, 228-30.

8. Kimball, Forged in War, 220-21.

9. Edmonds, The Big Three, 399-400; U.S. Dept. of State, Foreign Relations of the United States [FRUS] (Washington: USGPO, 1862-), Quebec, 1943, 631-32.

10. Edmonds, The Big Three, 401.

11. Churchill, SWW, VI, 670. David Reynolds, In Command of History: Churchill Fighting and Writing the Second World War (London: Allen Lane/Penguin, 2004), 163.

12. Recollection of British wartime science adviser R.V. Jones in “Churchill and Science,” Robert Blake and Wm. Roger Louis, eds., Churchill (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1993), 438. Some wartime scientists, often influenced by the belief that there were biological thresholds for radiation damage (i.e., “tolerance” levels), downplayed the dangers of radiation fallout, even labeling it a “minor problem.” See Barton C. Hacker, The Dragons Tail: Radiation Safety in the Manhattan Project, 1942-46 (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1987) Introduction, chaps. 3-4, and pp. 76-77, 89, 108. See also Michael Gordin, Five Days in August (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 2007). Such cavalier dismissal of fallout dangers continued in the early postwar years. One horrible example was subjecting military personnel to live testing of the effects of fallout. See Hacker, Elements of Controversy: The Atomic Energy Commission and Radiation Safety in Nuclear Weapons Testing, 1947-1974 (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1994), starting with pp. 1-9.

13. See David Holloway, Stalin and the Bomb (New Haven and London: Yale Univ. Press, 1994).

14. Churchill, SWW, VI, 639.

15. Reynolds, In Command of History, 492.

16. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill vol. VII, Road to Victory, 1941-1945 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1986), 1223; Edmonds, The Big Three, 419.

17. Robin Edmonds, Setting the Mould (New York and London: Norton, 1986), 112.

18. Ibid., 83. Bevin’s remark apparently alluded to “fissile,” defined as materials that are fissionable by neutrons with zero kinetic energy. Fissile materials are necessary in some cases to sustain a chain reaction.

19. Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy (New York: Simon & Schuster/Touchstone, 1995), 437. Truman’s memoirs are quoted on p. 435.

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