Britain and the atomic bomb

About the author
Brian Cathcart is senior lecturer in journalism at Kingston University and a former deputy editor of the Independent on Sunday.

On the day Nagasaki was destroyed, 9 August 1945, the United States government published a book written by Henry De Wolf Smyth entitled Atomic Energy for Military Purposes, giving its account of the origins of this extraordinary phenomenon. The book would become an international bestseller, but when the first copy reached London later that month it caused outrage in government circles, for it gave the clear impression that the atomic bomb was an exclusively American achievement.

A senior scientific civil servant at the British ministry of supply, Michael Perrin, was immediately ordered to write a complementary work telling it from the British point of view, and so urgent was the need felt to be that he was given only 24 hours to write it.

Brian Cathcart is the author of The Fly in the Cathedral: How a Group of Cambridge Scientists Won the International Race to Split the Atom (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2005)

Also by Brian Cathcart in openDemocracy:

Polio: a war not yet won

Perrin’s brief history described how the first blueprint for the weapon was written in Britain and how the first feasibility studies were carried out at British universities by British scientists. He told how all the data and discoveries were given freely and promptly to the Americans, even before they entered the war, and how in 1941 Winston Churchill established a British A-bomb programme. Then, as the vastly bigger US Manhattan Project got under way after Pearl Harbor, Perrin explained how most of Britain’s top bomb scientists transferred to the United States.

What he did not say, though he might have, was that once in America these scientists made vital contributions to bomb design and were involved right up to the final stages – it was a professor from Imperial College, London who calculated the optimum height for the detonation of the bombs over Japan. Nor, for diplomatic reasons, did Perrin mention that Churchill had initialled a memo, which was transmitted to the Americans, giving Britain’s authorisation for the weapons to be used.

Britain and the Atomic Bomb, as Perrin’s hurried summary was entitled, was a valiant flag-flying effort and it had some impact on postwar opinion in Britain, but in the wider world it was comprehensively outgunned. Today, besides a few earnest historians, few people anywhere think of the A-bomb as anything other than an American creation.

On one level British people might feel relieved. Who wants to be associated with inventing such a thing? In scientific and technological terms, no doubt, it was a remarkable feat, but even those most closely involved were deeply conscious that this was the first weapon of mass destruction, and it was always meant to kill civilians.

But modern Britain should acknowledge its historic role, not as a matter of pride, but of responsibility. At a time when nuclear proliferation appears to be accelerating across the globe, when more and more countries seem to be acquiring or seeking the bomb, it is only right to be honest about who started this doomsday race.

The logic of proliferation

Britain, too, was one of the first proliferators. Frozen out by the Americans in 1946, the Labour government of Clement Attlee swiftly decided to make its own bomb and the task was duly completed in 1952. The Soviet Union had got there independently in 1949.

All of which has a powerful poignancy in 2005, when the international non-proliferation regime is being allowed to crumble, and when the British government is about to breach a voluntary moratorium by embarking on the development of new nuclear weapons for the first time in two decades.

No announcement has been made, but £1 billion was recently set aside to upgrade facilities at the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston, west of London, where nuclear bombs and warheads have been designed and made since 1952. This is generally understood as the first step towards replacement of the existing, submarine-launched Trident II D5 deterrent.

Britain is doing this at a very bad moment – a time when it is also demanding (rightly) that Iran and North Korea abandon their nuclear-weapons programmes, when relations between India and Pakistan have acquired a frightening global importance and when the prospect of owning a nuclear arsenal must be more attractive than ever to governments of all kinds, all around the world.

And make no mistake: those governments can usually do it. One of the most powerful lessons of the British experience is that a country with only 1940s technology that is economically prostrate and desperately short of both materials and expertise can produce a bomb all on its own. It can do it more or less in secret, too. That was the story of the first British bomb, and the miracle is that dozens of other countries have not matched this achievement since.

Why did Britain do it? There were two main reasons. The first was fear of Stalin; as Attlee pointed out later, Nato didn’t exist at the time the decision was made and the country was vulnerable to Soviet attack. The second reason was perfectly articulated in 1951 by William Penney, the scientist who led the British project, when he said: “The discriminative test for a first-class power is whether it has made an atomic bomb.” For a country to sit at the top table, in other words, to have clout and be taken seriously in world affairs, it needed a nuclear weapon in its back pocket.

Neither of these reasons holds water today as a justification for developing new British nuclear weapons. The Soviet Union does not exist, and as Michael Portillo, a former defence minister, writes in the (London) Sunday Times, that strips away much of the rationale for a British bomb.

As for the other reason, the “top table” argument, it has long been taboo because of course it is a fatal logic, a logic of proliferation that ultimately licenses not only Iran and North Korea to have nuclear weapons, but also Brazil, Ukraine, Indonesia, Nigeria, Turkey and Argentina – any state that is physically capable – to arm themselves with these special weapons if they choose.

The scientists who created the first bombs are often portrayed as foolish Pandoras who opened a box of terrible destruction, but perhaps they were much wiser than that, maybe wiser than their successors.

That first blueprint for a bomb, written in Birmingham in 1940, was the work of two Jewish refugees from Hitler, Otto Frisch and Rudolf Peierls, who even at that early stage understood a good deal. The “super-bomb” they described to the British government would destroy a city centre and kill people for miles downwind, they said; it was effectively irresistible, so the only protection was to be somewhere else; and it would inevitably kill large numbers of civilians. (This last, they observed optimistically, “may make it unsuitable as a weapon for use by this country”.)

What they knew too was that nuclear bombs had no finesse; each is no more than a very big, nasty bang, conveniently delivered. Peierls often pointed out in later life that Tokyo and Dresden were levelled without the use of nuclear weapons; what was most different about Hiroshima was that the levelling was done in an instant, by a single plane.

The warheads made at Aldermaston that tip the British Trident missiles have no more art to them than the Fat Man and Little Boy of 1945; indeed they have less, for they are capable of making a far, far bigger bang. But does Britain now have an enemy whose capital city might be a sensible target for such treatment? Or is such an enemy on the horizon? No.

There might be one in the future, for sure, but then the governments of Algeria, South Korea or Greece might equally say they could face such a threat in the future. If it is right that Britain should have contingency bombs, what’s to stop them?

Also in openDemocracy on the sixtieth anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, and on nuclear-weapons proliferation:

Paul Rogers, “By any means necessary: the United States and Japan”

Patricia Lewis, “The NPT review conference: no bargains in the UN basement”

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Put it another way: if you were sitting in Pakistan in the 1980s and you knew that relations with India were very bad, that the two countries had already fought several wars, and that India now had nuclear weapons, would you have wanted your government to acquire those weapons too? You probably would (and the Pakistani government did).

The same rule for all

That is the thing about proliferation. Once it has started – and the British were there at the beginning – all the logic works in its favour.

Over the next couple of years the British public will be urged to support the renewal of the deterrent on the grounds that it will provide them and their children with security for years to come. But if British children are entitled to that sort of security, why would it be wrong for Chilean children to have it? Or Egyptian children? Or Malaysian children? Do they not have the same rights?

There is no argument acceptable in the post-imperial world which can justify a British nuclear deterrent without also justifying the same thing for dozens of other countries. And remember, this is not about capability: there is nothing secret and very little that is technologically difficult about making basic nuclear bombs. Beyond all doubt, dozens of counties could do it if they chose.

Britain’s next move, then, should not be to encourage proliferation by making new bombs and thus providing other governments with grounds to follow suit. Instead it can seize a splendid opportunity to throw the logic into reverse. Shouldering a responsibility that is now sixty years old, it should renounce these useless things, and say to Iran, North Korea and the rest of the world: “If we are prepared to accept a non-nuclear security status, then why shouldn’t you?”