Winston Churchill’s role in the history of nuclear energy is both limited and significant. Britain’s subsidiary, but occasionally pivotal, role in the Manhattan Project’s successful atomic bomb quest occurred while he was leader. Never comfortable with technicalities, he delegated most of that work, but in the later years of WWII, he did pursue (quite unsuccessfully) England’s post-war nuclear aims in various geopolitical summit meetings. Then he got booted out of power in mid-1945, so he was absent from the scene in one of my key periods. However, he returned as Prime Minister in late 1951 and this next phase of British history, until he retired in April 1955, is also of the utmost interest to me. He presided over several impactful decisions and I’ve puzzled over his personal involvement in those, within a context of powerful politicians, powerful public servants, and powerful Atomic Energy Authority leaders. The archival record is dense but also quite opaque.
I didn’t read much specifically about Churchill, mythical and fascinating as he was. Graham Farmelo’s exuberant and acute history, Churchill’s Bomb: A Hidden History of Science, War and Politics, was most welcome. No doubt I had read a number of accounts of Churchill’s life in my youth, but I didn’t consciously draw on any of this during my current project. His role in my narrative is that of a lesser bit player; he was far more interested in nuclear weapons than nuclear electricity.
In evaluating real-life historical characters, we’re all prisoners of our reading and watching. In the recent Netflix series, The Crown, he is portrayed by John Lithgow as hunched and doddery but passionate and intellectually piercing, and I remember thinking he undoubtedly delegated the details of the decisions I’m focused upon. After all, he was aged 80 when he retired.
A blogger (I can’t recall who or I’d acknowledge him/her) drew my attention to William Manchester’s recent three-volume Churchill biography, The Last Lion, and I was briefly attracted to the idea of reading that trilogy fast. But there is never enough time for background reading. So when the new movie Churchill, its script written by a historian I admire, Alex von Tunzelmann, came to our local cinema, I decided to check it out with one aim in mind, that of glimpsing the man himself (he’s aged 65 at the time of D-Day, the film’s pivotal point).
I can report that the film, whilst not riveting as entertainment, was decidedly useful in a minor chord. Brian Cox captivates as the main man and especially appears to relish the key D-Day speech. I couldn’t judge historical accuracy nor the depicted stormy relationship with wife Clementine, but as a portrait of Churchill, it allowed me to speculate on how he might approach the issues I have been pursuing. A movie is no substitute for proper historical records but Churchill did, I reckon, help me a little.