Keep your enemies close and your friends even closer. This quote from the Godfather seems to contradict perceived wisdom that would dictate you place some distance between an aggressor and yourself. The problem is to know who is your enemy and to question if your friend is really your friend. A new Labour Member of Parliament described the opposition benches as the enemy, but was advised by a wise and experienced Labour MP, “no son the enemy are on this side behind you”. The current civil-war in the Labour Party proves the point. I also have personal experience as an ex-member of the Labour Party when branch meetings were fractious and vicious, with the comrades only too pleased to knife each other in the back. At the same time, as the chief negotiator for my local government union branch, the best industrial relations that we enjoyed was when the Conservative Party won control of the local authority. Just goes to show, beware of presumption.
When it comes to nations and states the situation can be confusing when countries change sides to serve their national interests, and this swing can be like a pendulum. The US and UK have had a stormy relationship ever since the American War of Independence and with the British burning down the White House in the short-lived war of 1812 during the Napoleonic Wars. During the American Civil War the relationship was ambiguous, but since the Great War of 1914-1918 the US and UK have been allies and friends? Except, that during the inter-war years the US adopted a policy of ‘second to none’ and the Washington Naval Treaty ensured parity with the diminution of British naval power. The US had contingency plans for a war against Britain and an aim for the dismantling of the British Empire. The alliance between Japan and Britain, based on naval co-operation, was smashed by the US. Japan an ally in WW1 became an enemy in WW2. During WW2 the US and UK, together with Canada, co-operated in the Manhattan Project for nuclear development of weapons of war. This resulted in the two nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki seventy years ago.
The UK was ahead of the US in this respect thanks mainly to the previous work of exiled Germans in Sweden and France. Two atomic scientists, Otto Frisch and Rudolph Peierls, exiled to the UK and working at the University of Birmingham proposed a radioactive super-bomb to the government. This was taken up with British scientists working alone on the project under the code name ‘Tube Alloys’. Canada had essential natural resources and was working on heavy-water production. It was also a secure location for the project to be developed. It was to the advantage of the US for the well advanced Tube Alloys project to be subsumed into their Manhattan Project under the Quebec Agreement of 1943. To get to that point was difficult and clouded by mistrust.
There is no doubt that before WW2 the centre for excellence in physics was in Germany. Given their reputation for ruthless efficiency and determination, it was only a matter of time for them to be the first to develop nuclear weapons. Indeed, given Adolf Hitler and NAZI ambitions to be the master-race and dominate the world you would have thought the highest priority would be given towards this research. In any race with the allied powers they had a head start and the momentum to leave the Allies trailing in their wake. The fact that this did not happen was down to Hitler and anti-Semitism. Shortly after Hitler took power in 1933 the NAZI’s enacted laws to politicize the German education system with 1,145 (14%) of university teachers driven from post. Half of the 26 German nuclear physicists emigrated. At the University of Göttingen 45 (19%) of the staff were dismissed and eight students, assistants and colleagues left Europe, with most eventually working on the Manhattan Project. In the same year Max Planck, the father of quantum theory, met with Adolf Hitler pointing out that forcing Jewish scientists to emigrate would be damaging and only benefit foreign countries. Hitler’s response was a rant against Jews. The NAZI regime came around to the same conclusion as Planck in 1942, but by then it was too late. Research was further disrupted in 1939 when physicists and technical staff were called-up for military training. For some unknown reason, by 1942 it had been decided that the nuclear weapons project would not be decisive in ending the war and the research became fragmented. The Germans were ahead in rocket research and development. The Allies fear that these two areas of research were connected and a real danger had no foundation in reality.
Nuclear fission was discovered in Germany in December 1938 by Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann and published in a German science journal in January 1939. In between Hahn communicated this information to his friend Lise Meitner, she had fled Germany to the Netherlands and then to Sweden. Meitner and her nephew Otto Frisch confirmed Hahn’s findings, with Frisch terming it nuclear fission. This was followed up by a group of scientists (of many nationalities) at the College de France, who became known as the Paris Group. They theorised the creation of a very powerful explosive – an atomic bomb – but other scientists thought it to be impractical due to the size required. Early in 1940 the Paris Group identified the need for heavy-water and requested the French Minister of Armaments to acquire as much as possible. The only source was at the Norsk Hydro. The French discovered that Germany had already offered to purchase the entire stock of Norwegian heavy water and must also be researching an atomic bomb. When the French revealed the military use of heavy water to the Norwegian government they handed over the entire stock to a French Secret Service agent, who secretly transported it to France just before Germany invaded Norway in April 1940. Germany invaded France in May. The Paris Group moved to Cambridge University in June bringing 188 litres of heavy water that was stored in Windsor Castle. The Allies were one step ahead of the NAZI regime, but it was a close call.
German scientist Rudolf Peierls was working at the University of Birmingham when Hitler came to power and decided to stay. In June 1939 he calculated the critical mass of a block of pure uranium in tons as being too large to make into a practical bomb. However by February 1940, working with his German friend Otto Frisch, exiled in England, they concluded that the critical mass was in pounds and small enough to be carried by a bomber. Their report in March 1940 resulted in the creation of the MAUD (Military Application of Uranium Detonation) Committee, which led to the Tube Alloys Project.
The Tizard Mission was sent to North America in September 1940 to exchange technology research relating to the radar, jets engines and nuclear fields. They explored the potential to relocate British military research facilities in North America safe from German bombers and a German invasion of Great Britain. With regard to nuclear research they reported that work by the Paris Group at Cambridge University, by Enrico Fermi at Columbia University and by George Laurence in Canada was irrelevant to the war effort. However, by December 1940 the MAUD Committee realised that the atomic bomb was not just feasible, it was inevitable. There was no reaction from the Americans to the reports of the MAUD Committee. Mark Oliphant, a member of the Committee, was sent to the US in August 1941 to find out why. He found that the reports had been locked in a safe instead of being circulated. Once circulated the Americans changed their minds about the feasibility of an atomic bomb and they then suggested a cooperative effort with the UK. Their representatives visited the UK in November 1941 to confer, but their offer of collaboration was not taken up.
The Americans ramped up their efforts, but were reluctant to share information with their British counterparts. Separate research continued on both sides of the Atlantic. When UK scientists visited the US early in 1942 they were given full access to all the information available, only to find that the US was overtaking them and wanted to restrict the sharing of classified information in order to prevent the UK from being able to build a postwar atomic weapon. This lack of cooperation slowed down the US efforts. The UK and Canada were still collaborating on heavy-water production and other aspects of the research programme. The work of the Paris Group at Cambridge University suddenly acquired military significance, with the UK wanting to relocate them to Chicago to work with their US counterparts. Only one of the six senior Cambridge scientists was British, so the US refused and they were sent to Montreal instead. The US also objected to the French atomic patents claimed by the Paris Group and Imperial Chemical Industries. In 1943 the UK stopped sending scientists to the US, with the boycott slowing work in the US. By March it was decided that some of the UK scientists were important enough that the Los Alamos National Laboratory needed them, despite the risks of revealing weapon design secrets. However by June 1943, work in Montreal had come to a complete standstill. The Canadian Government proposed cancelling the project.
The Quebec Agreement of August 1943 unblocked the logjam and by April 1944 it was agreed that Canada would build a heavy-water reactor. Scientists who were not British subjects would leave the project. It had taken Winston Churchill to threaten that the UK would build its own plant and reactor in Britain, even at great cost, to force negotiation of the Quebec Agreement. A full exchange of information took place and the Tube Alloys Project was subsumed into the Manhattan Project until after the war. The priority was to bring the Tube Alloys [atomic bomb] to fruition at the earliest moment. It was agreed never to use ‘this agency’ against each other; not to use it against third parties without each other’s consent; and not to communicate any information to third parties except by mutual consent.
Despite new US President Harry Truman agreeing with UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill that British observers would witness the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima, this was blocked by US officers. Only after strong protests were UK observers allowed to witness the Nagasaki bombing. The US War Department issued a report in August 1945 giving the public some details and the story of the atomic bomb. It made few references to the British contribution. The UK Government hurriedly prepared a White Paper to set the record straight, with this being issued shortly after Clement Attlee replaced Churchill as PM.
With the end of WW2 the UK believed the US would share nuclear technology, which they considered to be a joint discovery. Attlee sent a message to Truman referring to themselves as ” heads of the governments which have control of this great force” as he argued for access to the information that he believed the UK deserved. He was to be disappointed when in 1946 the US passed the McMahon Act – intended to ensure sole US control of nuclear weapons – with the result that the UK was denied access. The UK commenced its own research programme and in 1952 the first British atomic nuclear device was detonated. This was followed by a thermonuclear hydrogen bomb in 1957. In 1958, realising that the UK was not to be deterred, the US resumed joint nuclear cooperation after the negotiation of the Mutual Defence Agreement.
If the US concern about secrecy and the spread of nuclear weapons was their real concern they were to be disappointed when the USSR detonated its first atomic weapon in 1948, to be followed by a hydrogen bomb in 1953. The USSR had acquired the details of the Manhattan Project from spies and agents in all three partner countries. In addition, when they occupied Germany they had been ruthless in scooping up German physicists and their research, and ‘persuading’ them to work for the USSR. The US, UK and France had been as equally ruthless in serving their own interests. There was no way that the spread of knowledge could be contained.
The partnership between the UK and US on military matters has been weighted in favour of the US and still is. The US benefited from the pioneering work on radar and the jet-engine carried out by the UK prior to WW2. After the war they took advantage of superior UK aircraft designs, like the Canberra bomber and Harrier jump-jet fighter. But instead of buying them from the British manufacturers, they insisted that construction was carried out in the US by their own aero companies. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is another current example of the US being restrictive. British Aerospace is the only first-level partner in the project, but this has not stopped the US from restricting access to essential soft-ware to be used in the planes to be supplied to the UK. It is also reported that the planes supplied to the US Forces are superior in all respects to those planes supplied to other countries.
With friends like these who needs enemies. Which brings us to Russia. The participation of the UK and US in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation has been a cornerstone for peace in the Northern Hemisphere since WW2. That is unless you were on the opposite side of the Iron Curtain. Russia has always been Russia whether Czarist, Imperialist or Communist. A threat during Victorian times and the Crimean War; an ally during WW1; but invaded by the western-allies during the Russian Revolution; an ally again during WW2; again a threat and enemy post-war; friendly again with the collapse of the Berlin Wall and Communism; dismissed and humiliated with the outbreak of peace; and now demonised since the incursions in to Georgia and Ukraine. Opposed to US intervention in Syria but ignored; only now taken seriously when they flex their military muscle; and now seen as the solution to the defeat of ISIL. No matter how much the western media and political establishments denigrate Putin’s Russia, public opinion seems to be firmly pro-Russian for a number of reasons. Surprisingly this seems to apply just as much with the American public. No body seems to be buying the spin and propaganda.