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Neil Cameron
Neil Cameron is a Montreal writer and historian. He served as a member of Quebec's National Assembly from 1989 to 1994.

Atomic Bombs: The Real and the Might-Have-Beens

The history of the Second World War continues to be written and rewritten, with continuing present relevance. New perspectives from the present aside, the war studies have highlighted two larger themes in all history. The first is that important ‘now it can be told’ revelations in documentary sources have kept on appearing. The second and often related one is the emergence of fresh ‘counterfactual’, ‘what if?’ speculations about how the war evolved and ended. The best of all examples have come in re-examining the conception, design, and development of atomic bombs in the major powers from 1939 to 1945.

Niall Ferguson once edited a whole anthology of historians writing counterfactual essays about great historical events, but his enthusiasm is not universally shared. Richard Evans, another famous British historian and a leading authority on Nazi Germany, regards these ventures contemptuously, as no more than a mildly amusing game. However, all great wars, with their big winning and losing gambles, have always produced ‘for want of a horse’ speculations. Tales of the Bomb, both real and imagined, combining elements of geopolitics, European scientific genius, American engineering ingenuity and scale, espionage, and war both hot and cold, have inevitably been irresistible. Above all, the possibility of Hitler’s Germany coming first with the Bomb (a fear driving on the Manhattan Project scientists themselves) has been mulled from 1945 to the present. Two notable examples are Heisenberg’s War (1997), by Thomas Powers, on the top German nuclear physicist, and The Winter Fortress (2016), by Neil Bascomb, about the successful British and Norwegian sabotage of the indispensable German heavy water plant in Norway.

But an equally fascinating ‘what if?’ has been the conceivable possibility that Churchill’s Britain, which unlike Nazi Germany, was actually well ahead of the U. S. in atomic research in the first two years of the war, had been the first to make a workable bomb, or at a minimum, to have collaborated with the Americans on a much larger scale than happened in reality,, perhaps speeding the arrival of those made in New Mexico.

I learned much of this story for over four decades, beginning in 1970 with three years of research in England on the British scientific elite in World War II. As well as consulting documents and secondary sources, I interviewed top wartime scientists still alive. I read and re-read an excellent official history by a British government historian, Margaret Gowing, Britain and Atomic Energy, 1939-1945 (1965), which she later followed with two more thick volumes on postwar British nuclear weapons and power plants. The wartime work is still a main source for many later books; even its sidelong look at the Manhattan Project is better than many books entirely devoted to it. However, in the last couple of years two authors drawing on some new documentary sources and perspectives have published valuable works that complement Gowing: Graham Farmelo’s Churchill’s Bomb (2013); and Susan Williams, Spies in the Congo (2016). Both are fine books, but Williams is the more remarkable. Her research on recently-released files of the Office of O.S.S., the predecessor of the C.I.A.. on their secret agents in the Congo contains a crucial revelation that not only undermines the quasi-speculative Farmelo, but all previous similar studies of the various nuclear projects in World War II.

I had an inkling of this revelation forty years ago, when I interviewed Sir George Thomson, Chairman of the ‘MAUD Committee’, the secret group of scientists reporting to the War Cabinet on A-bomb possibilities. Thomson, a Nobel Prizeman in nuclear physics, was eighty when I talked to him in Cambridge, but in full possession of his intellectual faculties. He did not pretend great wartime importance, flatly declaring that ‘he hadn’t mattered a great deal’. But he staked a claim with a wry smile: “I led the first project anywhere to develop an atomic bomb.” He added “My original budget was five hundred pounds.” I thought immediately of the over $2 billion the Americans had spent on the wartime Manhattan Project and the Cold War billions that followed. He made a third remark I should have pondered more: that the purpose of the whole five hundred had been to purchase uranium ore from the giant Belgian Union Miniere.

Farmelo’s book argues that Churchill ‘squandered’ a couple of large wartime opportunities in atomic development, either of successfully developing a British A-bomb or of taking up, rather than spurning Roosevelt’s 1941 proffered full Anglo-American collaboration on a joint project. He casts much blame on Churchill’s frequently wrongheaded science adviser, Frederick Lindemann, Lord Cherwell. There are some holes in this case. Churchill was far more constrained than Roosevelt in choosing overall war priorities, and also thought that atomic research more likely to lead to a new peacetime energy source, with Americans as competitors. Cherwell was indeed frequently wrongheaded, on several other important wartime science issues. But Farmelo seems to have been too impressed by the ultra-negative portrait of ‘the Prof’ popularized by C. P. Snow in his 1961 Science and Government lectures. Churchill, after all, put the British project, ‘Tube Alloys’/ under the War Cabinet workhorse Sir John Anderson, who had actually studied uranium chemistry in his university years.

Above all, there was simply the question of overall resources available to the British. Perhaps they could have contrived a cheaper project; the Americans could afford to bankroll three different paths to U-235 and plutonium extraction as they felt their way, with the British choosing only one, but a satisfactory one. But ‘resources’ also have a more literal sense. Today, Canada is one of the world’s main suppliers of uranium, as is the U.S. itself. Many past A-bomb histories have almost casually assumed that these ‘must have been’ main suppliers for the Manhattan Project. But they were not adequate seventy years ago, as was also true of the Czech deposits available to Nazi Germany; in both cases, the ore concentration was only a few percent.

This is why the Williams book is startling. She is not unusual in citing the famous letter, drafted by two European e’migre’ scientists, but signed by Einstein and written to Franklin Roosevelt in August of 1939, warning about the possible bomb. But only she stresses its conclusion, that the best source of uranium was the Congo. She shows that the O.S.S. agents did a brilliant job of preventing Germany. Even after occupying Belgium, from getting access to Congo ore, and, masquerading as diamond smugglers, shipping large supplies of disguised uranium ore from the Congo Shinkolobwe mine to the U. S. That are had a concentration of 60%, twenty times or more what was then available from other sources. That gave the Americans an overwhelming advantage over the Germans and the British. As an additional irony, she makes evident that the American bomb did not just depend on hardworking but comfortably accommodated scientists in New Mexico, but on the highly dangerous and unpleasant labour of black Africans. T. H. Huxley once said that scientific achievement required that a beautiful hypothesis would be slain by an ugly fact. Williams reminds us that can happen in real and counterfactual history as well.


Neil Cameron is a Montreal writer and historian.