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Los Alamos: Britain and the Bomb

Why did the British, who originally devised the concept of an atomic bomb, opt out of the project?

The British were the government that were first informed of the possibility of nuclear weapons, and were involved in World War II a lot earlier than the U.S. The British also suffered a very really threat from the Nazi ruling of mainland Europe, while the Americans were simply retaliating against an act of war against them (They seem to have made a habit of this), and suffered no real continental threat from the Japanese. Why then, did the U.S.A complete all the necassary practical steps towards building the bomb, whereas the British are shown to have little or no involvement? The British were very much involved in the earlier stages, but the circumstances surrounding this involvement will be discussed in this section.

Some of the last British Scientists to come to the U.S.A during the war were Akiers, Peirel and Halban, in January 1942. They were astonished at the Americans progress on the Manhattan Project, and Akiers stated on several occasions that the Americans clearly had far superior resources and construction schemes than those of the British. It was only once the British were sent to look at the U.S.'s progress that they realised the importance of the element plutonium as a source of nuclear power. Plutonium is a rarer element, being heavier, and was not considered abundant enough to have any real usage until this stage. At this stage, 5 separate areas were being researched as possible ways to gather the required amounts of plutonium and uranium. The United States was more than happy to put funds towards all the projects, not wanting to "bet on the slow horse", as James B. Conant had phrased it. The British however were not as willing to fund the projects, as they were reluctant to poor millions of pounds (Britain's economy had suffered terribly as a result of the war) into 5 different projects when there was no guarantee that any of them would work. Churchill travelled to Washington to discuss the matter with Roosevelt in June 1942, strongly pushing that he wanted to share all research findings and information, as well as discussing where the official research facility would be built. However, the negotiations did not conclude with the signing of an official agreement, and did little to help Churchill when the situation became awkward at a later date.

The Americans were not perturbed by the English reluctance to fund the project, and agreed on a $54 million budget to produce the necessary plutonium and uranium. They decided that all research must be backed up by production plants: This is where General Groves arrived on the scene. Groves was in charge of all army construction for the project, but more importantly meant that this was now officially an army project, and rightly so, as they were building the first ever weapons of mass destruction. However, the U.S. Army's involvement all but destroyed the confidence the British had in the project. Now that the U.S. were contributing the bulk of construction materials, funds and research facilities to the project, workers became increasingly less inclined towards a merger- It appeared as if Britain now had to value to offer to the project.

Internal Conflict was also a problem at this stage- Scientists who had previously been able to exchange information and research results across international borders now had a very nationalistic army in control of what was originally the scientists' work. General Groves was another factor in the destruction of trans-Atlantic relations. He was a security maniac, which in someways was crucial to the project, but was outrageously suspicious of the British scientific teams that he had to work with.

The project progressed throughout the year of 1942 into 1943, and Oak Ridge was constructed- the first of three "secret cities" (more information about the construction of these cities can be found in the next section of this assignment, Secret Cities). A major breakthrough occured in December 1942, when the first ever self-sustaining nuclear reaction was achieved. This was the first practical application of nuclear power, and meant that the whole exercise was no longer purely theoretical. The experiment also proved that plutonium, another fissionable element, could be made from uranium. Fermi had masterminded the project with the help of Arthur Compton. Fermi had been experimenting with 'piles' and 'boilers' for several months, and chose to test his theory in a disused squash court in Chicago. Once the reaction was proved to work however, Groves wanted the production of plutonium to be relocated to a full scale industrial site. Having followed the research closely, he was wary of the power locked inside the uranium and decided that "it would be desirable to locate the production plant elsewhere than at the Tennessee site..." Frankly, he did not want the entire Oak Ridge complex destroyed if the experiment got out of hand.

The British by this stage had started to suspect that the Americans were keeping them in the dark. Churchill expressed his concern to Roosevelt, but the situation did not improve. Churchill's concern caused the Americans to suspect that the British were not as interested in building a bomb as they were in the benefits of nuclear power when the war was over. Churchill had to send a representative to the U.S.A. to negotiate. The representative was John Anderson, who spent weeks talking to Dr. Bush about the agreement that was to be reached. Finally, the Quebec Agreement - as it was known - was finally reached. The Agreement stated that the weapons created would not be used against each other, or against a third party without both countries' consent. It also stated that there was to be total cooperation between the scientists of both countries, and all information was to be shared.

Churchill signed the agreement in August 1943, and while it seemed to solve the dispute between the countries, it effectively ended all British work on the Atomic Bomb. The earlier British research was not mentioned once in the agreement and it was now purely a U.S. project. Several disputes were still not resolved- British Scientist Akers was still suspected of commercial motives. An official account of the episode was published, and it recorded that by moving all the research and production to U.S. soil, the project would move faster and the bomb would be built in a shorter amount of time. Whether this is true or not, the fact remains that the U.S. believed it had superior resources and scientists and did everything possible to cause the British to have as much trouble as possible trying to keep up with the project.

Yass, Marion, Hiroshima, (Wayland Publishing, East Sussex 1971) p. 33
Yass, Hiroshima, p. 34
Leslie R. Groves, Now it Can be Told (1963)