How the United States Overtook Britain in the First Nuclear Arms Race

By Graham Farmelo

Basic. 554 pp. $29.99

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.

“Churchill’s Bomb: How the United States Overtook Britain in the First Nuclear Arms Race” by Graham Farmelo. (Basic)

Prime Minister Winston Churchill had been an early proponent of atomic weapons, an idea articulated by his friend H.G. Wells, the futurist, in his novel “The World Set Free,” written on the eve of World War I. In 1924, Churchill alluded to “a bomb no bigger than an orange” possessing a “secret power . . . to concentrate the force of a thousand tons of cordite and blast a township at a stroke.” In fact, he became the first national leader to approve development of a nuclear weapon.

But beset by wartime pressures, Churchill dropped the ball. In 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt offered to cooperate fully with the Brits on nuclear weapons research, but Churchill was preoccupied with more urgent matters. So the Americans took over. Many British scientists made contributions to the Manhattan Project, but overall they played a minor role. In 1943, Churchill obtained a written commitment from FDR that the United States would fully share its nuclear secrets with Britain, but this never happened.

This is a British history told from the British point of view. Almost every chapter introduces yet another British scientist noted for his brilliance and eccentricity. After a few of these, it becomes clear why the British did not get their nuclear bomb project off the ground until after the war and even then had to rely on technology developed in the United States. A major theme is the inability or reluctance of the independent British scientists to put aside their differences and work together — a failure that conceded leadership to the United States.

The author uses some curious phrases that do not resonate across the pond — one hapless fellow “was on a hiding to nothing,” and another was a “boffin’s boffin.” And although this is an interesting story, Farmelo’s implication that the British could have developed the first nuclear weapon is not credible. That required a massive investment of resources that they simply did not have. Only the wealthier United States could have done it.

— Hank Cox