On this day in 1952, the United States detonated the first hydrogen bomb, at Eniwetok Atoll in the Marsall Islands. Possibly not coincidentally, the October 2005 issue of History Today features an absorbing article by Geoffrey Best entitled "Winston Churchill, the H-Bomb and nuclear disarmament". I have a quibble though …
Best quotes a 1953 speech by Churchill in the House of Commons, describing it as 'startlingly original' (p. 39):
These fearful scientific discoveries cast their shadow on every thoughtful mind, but nevertheless I believe that we are justified in feeling that there has been a diminution of tension and that the probabilities of another world war have diminished, or at least become more remote … Indeed, I have sometimes the odd thought that the annihilating character of these agencies may bring an utterly unforeseeable security to mankind.
In other words, Churchill was an early proponent of MAD (mutually assured destruction). But there is nothing new under the Sun: compare Churchill's words with (for example) those of airpower pundit J.M. Spaight in 1938,1 that the bigger that air forces became, the better, for then
the nations may fear to unleash the monsters they have bred. That would be the greatest, the most welcome contribution that air power could make to the next war – that the next war never in fact comes.
It's exactly the same idea, that war was now so terrible that another one would destroy civilisation, and so paradoxically arming to the teeth actually makes the world safer, because no world leader could be that stupid. Of course, this didn't turn out to be the case in the 1930s, partly because bombing wasn't nearly as devastating as had been feared, but also because it wasn't actually tried. No country in 1939 had a bomber force large enough to deter other countries from going to war with it.
Anyway, to get back to Best's article, I don't think the quoted speech was particularly original of Churchill; he must have been exposed to similar arguments before 1939. But I'm sure that it's because the article was written for a popular audience, that it wasn't hedged about with enough caveats to suit a pedant like me – after all, Best was writing books before I was born! And he has a new one out too, Churchill and War, which looks to be required reading.
- J.M. Spaight, Air Power in the Next War (1938), 175; quoted in Malcolm Smith, British Air Strategy Between the Wars (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984), 49.
This work, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 License. Terms and conditions beyond the scope of this license may be available at airminded.org.