Winston Churchill, the H-Bomb and Nuclear Disarmament

Geoffrey Best considers Winston Churchill’s growing alarm about the possibility of nuclear war, and his efforts to ensure that its horrors never happened.

Winston Churchill must be the only recipient of a Nobel Prize who was less than wholly thrilled by it. He was awarded the Prize for Literature in the autumn of 1953. Honours and awards had recently showered upon him but this one was special: ‘£12,000 free of tax. Not so bad’, he chortled. But, either then or later, he wished it had been the Nobel Prize for Peace. Only just recovering from a stroke, aware that everyone in his Cabinet was longing for him to retire, he was clinging on to office because he felt a mission to stop the Cold War becoming a hot one. A man of war for much of his life, he wanted to end it as a man of peace.

He had not been peaceable in the later 1940s. The war that had begun so nobly had ended, for him, badly. The theme of his Second World War’s closing volume was ‘Triumph and Tragedy’. The advent of the Cold War had not surprised him – indeed, his Fulton speech in March 1946 helped to precipitate it – and he had rejoiced that (to adapt Belloc’s well-known verse about an earlier scientific advance) ‘We had got/The Atom Bomb and They had not’. ‘We’ of course was the United States, whose possession of the epoch-making new weapon at first gave ‘the West’ much diplomatic leverage. But ‘they’ were not long in catching up. The Soviet Union’s first atomic test was in August 1949. Churchill was not the only Briton to ponder the fact that if the American bombers stationed in England since 1948 were to bomb Russia, it would be upon England, not America, that Russian bombs would fall in reprisal.

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