"Shall we all commit suicide?" Press cutting of article by WSC published in Nash's Pall Mall Magazine, September 1924
The advancement of weapons of mass destruction was a spectre that haunted the 20th century. 80 years ago in January 1939, Enrico Fermi conducted the first US nuclear fission experiment which was a crucial step in the development of nuclear weapons. This was conducted as part of the Manhattan Project, initiated due to anxiety over the perceived advancements in nuclear technology in Germany. Not long after this, the true significance of this experiment would be fully realised in the deployment of nuclear weapons in the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.
In the article featured below, it is clear that for Churchill the means and motivations behind human conflict are key as a lens through which to view history. The article focuses on the tenor of warfare in the 20th century, and how education, governance, journalism and science have fed into the all-encompassing nature of modern warfare. Writing in the beginning of the interwar period, Churchill states, “It is in these circumstances that we have entered upon that period of Exhaustion which has been described as Peace”. The article moves from concentrating on the balance of resources and power at the end of the First World War, to considering how the next great wars will be fought. It is here that the article’s focus feels prophetic. Churchill writes, “Might not a bomb no bigger than an orange be found to possess a secret power to destroy a whole block of buildings – nay to concentrate the force of a thousand tonnes of cordite and blast a township at a stroke?”.
By the time of the August 1945 US nuclear attack on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the European war had already concluded with Germany’s surrender in May. In July, the Allies had called for Japan’s unconditional surrender with an ultimatum which threatened “prompt and utter destruction”. The ultimatum was rejected, and the threat came to pass in the form of two nuclear bombs, dubbed Little Boy and Fat Man. They killed between 129,000–226,000 people, most of whom were civilians. Approximately half of the deaths in both cities happened on the first day, with the remainder dying from radiation sickness and other related conditions in the days following. This appalling outcome, only imagined in Churchill’s predictions of what the “march of Science” would bring, would go on to change modern warfare forever. Churchill’s view that the advancement of mankind is achieved through warfare is an assessment which is particularly true for nuclear technology. The outcomes of the development of nuclear weapons also had significant benefits for humanity, including cancer curing radiation techniques, nuclear energy and the ability to explore the edges of the solar system.