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Churchill and the development of the Atomic Bomb

In 1924, Winston Churchill wrote a newspaper article that speculated on the development of explosive weapons. He posed the question, ‘Might not a bomb not bigger than an orange be found to possess a secret power?’ These weapons would be realised just decades later.

British scientists were already aware of the potential to utilise atomic energy for military purposes by the beginning of the Second World War. However they struggled to convince the government of this. After Churchill became Prime Minister in 1940, Lord Cherwell warned him of the dangers of letting the Germans develop weapons from this technology ahead of the UK, and Churchill ensured this research was given the highest priority. The codename given to this project was Tube Alloys.

From 1942, the Manhattan Project was also researching this area, and Tube Alloys soon became subsumed within this project. Concerned that British contributions would not be recognised, Churchill came to an agreement with President Roosevelt in 1943 (the Quebec Agreement) which clearly outlined the terms of this coordinated development and intelligence.

However, this shared interest would not last. Roosevelt died suddenly in April 1945, and Churchill lost the general election just months later. By 1946 the US Congress passed the McMahon Act which stipulated that the US would no longer share atomic intelligence with any other country. This was a disappointment to the British government, and Churchill was critical for the Attlee administration for letting it happen. Although Britain initiated its own atomic weapons programme in 1947, it is likely that the McMahon Act meant that it took much longer to create than might otherwise have been the case.

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See Kevin Ruane, Churchill and the Bomb in War and Cold War, for more on this subject

Read Kevin Ruane’s in-depth guide, ‘Churchill and Nuclear Weapons

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