Churchill, God and the Bomb

Did the idea of nuclear war make Britain’s wartime leader more God-fearing?

Guilty before God? Churchill and President Truman, Washington DC, January 10th, 1952Addressing Parliament on August 16th, 1945, Winston Churchill insisted that the decision to attack Hiroshima on August 6th, 1945 and Nagasaki on August 9th had been a joint one between the US and the UK. Over the next decade his public position was consistent and devoid of moral qualms: in war, he maintained, weapons get used. The A-Bomb was a weapon, the Allies were at war with Japan and, consequently, the A-Bomb was a legitimate military option. ‘The historic fact remains’, he wrote in 1953, ‘that the decision whether or not to use the atomic bomb … was never even an issue.’  

In private, Churchill was more conflicted. For the clue to his true feelings, we need to turn, somewhat unexpectedly, to his relationship with God.

Although brought up in the Anglican tradition, by his early twenties Churchill was expressing views which, if not atheistic, were in conflict with the doctrinal tenets of Christianity. As a subaltern in India in 1897-98, he wrote to his mother of his hopes for a future in which ‘science and reason’ triumphed over religious superstition. If he fell in battle, he advised her to seek out ‘the consolations of philosophy’ and added, apparently conclusively, that ‘I do not accept the Christian or any other form of religious belief’.  

If, in his subsequent public career, Churchill struck people as conventionally devout, this was due to his prominence at St Paul’s or Westminster Abbey on state occasions and to a prodigious memory, which allowed for perfect (and regular) quoting from Anglican hymns and the recitation of lengthy passages of the King James Bible. During the Second World War, his speeches often referenced the Almighty, notably in beseeching God’s deliverance from Axis evil, but his piety was strategic, an oratorical device rather than an expression of deeply held religiosity. 

The same could be said for his postwar speeches. In August 1945, he avowed that it was only by ‘God’s mercy’ that the Allies had beaten Hitler in the race for the A-Bomb. Ten years on, as he bowed out of frontline politics, he spoke in the Commons of his horror of the hydrogen bomb – a weapon 1,000 times more powerful than those used against Japan – and wondered what would happen ‘if God wearied of mankind’. In between these chronological poles there are many other examples of God and the bomb in oratorical juxtaposition.  

However, though Churchill claimed not to believe in an afterlife (‘I expect annihilation at death’ or else ‘black velvet’), he appears to have spent a good deal of time pondering how his responsibility for the atomic bombing would be weighed on the scales if he was wrong. 

In May 1946, he confided to a close associate that he expected to have to ‘account to God as he had to his own conscience for the decision made which involved killing women and children and in such numbers’. A little later, he admitted that ‘the decision to release the Atom Bomb was perhaps the only thing which history would have serious questions to ask about ... I may even be asked by my Maker why I used it but I shall defend myself vigorously and shall say – Why did you release this knowledge to us when mankind was raging in furious battles?’  

In January 1953 Churchill attended a dinner in honour of Truman, who was about to leave office. At one point in the evening he suddenly turned round and said: ‘Mr. President, I hope you have your answer ready for that hour when you and I stand before Saint Peter and he says, “I understand you two are responsible for putting off those atomic bombs. What have you got to say for yourselves?”’ A role-play game ensued in which the other guests - among them the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff and the US Secretary of State – formed a jury composed of historic figures (Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Socrates). ‘The case was tried’, Truman’s daughter Margaret recalled, ‘and the Prime Minister acquitted’ of any atomic wrongdoing.  

For all his jocularity, Churchill’s behaviour hints at a mind not entirely at ease with what occurred in 1945. It was apparent again in May 1954, albeit in a different context. At a moment of widespread international alarm over the release of death clouds and toxic rain from US atomic testing in the Pacific, Churchill, prime minister once more, invited Billy Graham to Downing Street. Graham was fresh from his two-month ‘Greater London Crusade’, attendances at which had topped 1.7 million, thanks in part to public panic over what the preacher called ‘this Hell bomb’. 

Graham was allocated ten minutes with the prime minister but got 45. Appalled at the prospect of nuclear war, Churchill confessed that he was ‘an old man ... without any hope for the world ... unless it is the hope you are talking about, young man ... We must have a return to God’. Graham felt like he had met ‘Mr History’, while Churchill wrote that Graham had made ‘a very good impression’. It is sometimes suggested that the two prayed together, a fanciful notion, perhaps, in view of Churchill’s attitudes to the divine. Then again, if anything could bring Churchill to his knees, it was the bomb.

Kevin Ruane is Professor of Modern History at Canterbury Christ Church University and the author of Churchill and the Bomb in War and Cold War (Bloomsbury, 2016).