Joel Shurkin

  • Clouds of Deceit: The Deadly Legacy of Britain’s Bomb Tests by Joan Smith
    Faber, 174 pp, £8.95, November 1985, ISBN 0 571 13628 1
  • Fields of Thunder: Testing Britain’s Bomb by Denys Blakeway and Sue Lloyd-Roberts
    Allen and Unwin, 242 pp, £10.95, November 1985, ISBN 0 04 341029 4

Institutional guilt seems to last at least as long as institutional pride. A generation after the United States and the United Kingdom tested their first nuclear and thermonuclear bombs, long after the retirement of the politicians and bureaucrats responsible, the current governments of the two nations still refuse to admit that they endangered and perhaps shortened the lives of some of their citizens. Both governments deny that they were sloppy in the testing of their weapons or that they used their military personnel as laboratory animals. Both governments vehemently refuse to admit that they probably irradiated some innocent bystanders. The United States Government self-righteously fights any liability tooth and claw in the courts. The British Government hides behind an Act of Parliament which was never intended to assist in avoiding culpability.

On 3 October 1952, the British Government, anxious to retain its role as a world power as its empire crumbled, pushed ahead with the testing of its first nuclear bomb at Monte Bello, off Trimouilee Island in Australia. Six years and 21 tests later, the tests were halted by international agreement. Some twenty thousand British military personnel and two thousand civilians (the exact number is lost in a morass of government paperwork) were sent to participate in the tests. Fifteen thousand Australian servicemen and an unknown number of New Zealanders were also involved, and Australian citizens were unknowingly put at risk. A number of people, mainly Aborigines, may have died as a direct result of the fall-out from the blasts. Margaret Thatcher has insisted that no one was used as a guinea pig by the Ministry of Defence: the evidence that she is not telling the truth is overwhelming.

Two books, probably the first of a line, chronicle the testing and the subsequent cover-up. Clouds of Deceit was written by a former Sunday Times reporter, Joan Smith; Fields of Thunder – a much better book – by Sue Lloyd-Roberts and the BBC’s Denys Blakeway. Both books were inspired by the Australian Royal Commission on the conduct of the tests, whose report was published last month. In recent years Australians have been exploring the cost in blood and pride of their relationship with the mother country, and the setting-up of the Commission can be seen, at least in part, as a result of Australia’s new awareness of its history as a colony. The Australian Government behaved like toadies in the matter of the atomic tests; and the worst offender was the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Menzies, described by one Australian senator as ‘the little lickspittle empire loyalist who regarded Australia as a colonial vassal of the British Crown’.

‘The British Government’s public statements of confidence that all was well with the nuclear tests in Australia and at Christmas Island have appeared increasingly misplaced as revelation after revelation of incompetence and mismanagement has been made,’ Blake-way and Lloyd-Roberts write. ‘The confidence comes from a tradition of bureaucratic indifference and scientific arrogance whereby only those with inside knowledge of the facts are supposed able to make judgments, which are not open to explanation or questioning.’ As all three writers point out, Britain had lusted for its own atomic bomb since two refugee scientists, Otto Frisch and Rudolf Peierls at the University of Birmingham, suggested that fission could make a bomb. Technologically, the British were ahead of the Americans at the war’s start, and American scientists were so impressed that they urged President Roosevelt to propose a co-operative project. The British haughtily declined. Though they themselves were riddled with Soviet spies, they didn’t trust the Americans. When the time came for the Americans actually to build a bomb, the British were generally excluded, because the Americans, whose Soviet spies were busy giving away their secrets, did not trust the British. By the end of the war, however, the Americans had the bomb and the British did not.

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