02/05/2014 10:17 am ET Updated Apr 07, 2014

Was Churchill a Nuclear Visionary?

H.G. Wells coined the term 'atomic bombs' in his novel The World Set Free a hundred years ago. The book is not among his best, but it is notable for introducing the concept of nuclear war to millions of readers, including the first leader to approve the development of such weapons, Winston Churchill.

When Churchill first read about 'atomic bombs', he was well known in Parliament for pressing the military to make the most of new science and technology (in World War I, he did more than anyone to equip the British Army with a new type of vehicle, the tank, whose invention he credited to Wells). In the '20s and '30s, before anyone knew how to make atomic bombs, Churchill wrote several widely-read articles that looked forward to the harnessing of the huge amounts of energy stored in atomic nuclei. Churchill was better prepared than any other national leader to deal with the Bomb when it arrived in the 1940s. This raises the question: did he make the most of his nuclear foresight?

Churchill first wrote explicitly about harnessing atomic energy -- more accurately termed 'nuclear energy' -- in his futuristic article 'Fifty Years Hence', published in the closing months of 1931 in North American and the UK. 'There is no question among scientists that this gigantic source of energy exists', he wrote. 'What is lacking is the match to set the bonfire alight, or it may be the detonator to cause the dynamite to explode.'

Three months later, that sub-nuclear match-the neutron-was discovered by the British physicist James Chadwick in a brilliant experiment at the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge. Churchill knew about this and other important work done at the Laboratory. Soon afterwards, he even chaired a talk about them given by his friend and science advisor, Frederick Lindemann, a professor of physics at Oxford University with an exceptional talent for explaining complicated scientific ideas.

Lindemann had drafted the essay "Fifty Years Hence" and also helped Churchill to write a series of articles in Britain's most popular newspaper, The News of the World, about the future impact of science. No one was surprised that he wrote on this theme -- he repeatedly pressed the government to listen Lindemann's advice on how to improve Britain's aerial defences. In the final article in the series, published in October 1938, Churchill trumpeted the possibility that nuclear energy may soon be harnessed. If scientists could achieve that, he wrote, 'man's control over Nature would take a step forward greater than any since ... he discovered how to make fire.'

Eight weeks later in Berlin, two scientists discovered the process of nuclear fission, in which a heavy nucleus is split in half by a neutron and releases a large amount of energy. In Hitler's capital, science had taken a giant stride towards the nuclear age, on the eve of what was likely to be terrible war.

Yet still no one knew how to make a nuclear weapon. All this changed one day in March 1940 in Birmingham, UK, where the refugee scientists Otto Frisch and Rudolf Peierls hit on a way to make an atomic bomb. Churchill became Prime Minister two months later, and a few government committees were soon working urgently to assess whether such a weapon was viable. He gave the go-ahead to the British programme in August 1941, when his nuclear scientists were ahead of their American colleagues in this field. It was, however, not realistic for the UK to attempt to make such a weapon during the war.

A valuable opportunity for the British to make the most of its nuclear lead was given to Churchill two months later by the American president. Roosevelt proposed that the two countries' atomic projects 'may be coordinated or even jointly conducted.' Churchill did not reply until seven weeks later, when it was too late. It was not until April 1943 that Churchill understood the urgent need to negotiate a role for British scientists in the Americans' gargantuan Manhattan Project and begin to plan for the long term. A few months later in Quebec, he and Roosevelt formalized this role in an agreement so secret that even their deputies knew nothing about it.

Churchill's vision of the post-war nuclear world was surprisingly blinkered. In as the great Danish physicist Niels Bohr found when they met in May 1944. Bohr was desperate to draw Churchill's attention to possible strategic problems after the war, including an arms race with the Soviets, but Churchill was not interested.

It would be hard to make a case that Churchill was any kind of nuclear visionary during his first stint as Prime Minister -- the attention he paid to the wartime project was only fitful. It was a different story, however, when he returned to the Premiership in October 1951. He believed at first that Britain should cut back on its nuclear research and piggy-back on the American programme. Lindemann persuaded him to change his mind, and Churchill became the first British leader to have both the Bomb and a nuclear energy industry, which began within a few years of the date predicted by H.G. Wells in 'The World Set Free'.

It was only at the end of this second premiership that Churchill the politician became a thoughtful nuclear strategist. In February 1954, when reading comments by the American nuclear expert Sterling Cole, Churchill suddenly appreciated the huge destructive power of the hydrogen bomb (though he had written about this weapon two decades before). Terrified that there would be a nuclear cataclysm unless there was an 'easement' in the tensions of the Cold War, he launched his final diplomatic initiative, to bring the US and the Soviet Union to the conference table. Although he failed in this noble if quixotic venture, it established him as a pioneer of détente.

So was Churchill an nuclear visionary? I believe the answer is a qualified Yes -- in this field, he was more effective as journalist than as a politician.

Graham Farmelo is author of 'Churchill's Bomb' (Basic Books). He is a By-Fellow at Churchill College, University of Cambridge, and an adjunct professor of physics at Northeastern University, Boston. Read more at