Australia’s bid for the bomb

It’s rare for a book relating to the history of Australian science to draw the attention of the national media. But Australia’s Bid for the Atomic Bomb made the front page with its claims that the origins of major institutions such as the Snowy Scheme and the ANU could be found in the government’s frustrated longing for nuclear weaponry. Wayne Reynolds’ ‘controversial’ book, it was reported, made use of ‘recently declassified documents’ to ‘debunk’ conventional assessments of Australian government policy in areas such as defence, foreign policy, education and science. Exciting stuff… I just wish I liked the book more.

Reynolds weaves an intricate tale of a small nation with big ambitions. Imagining that the bomb would strengthen Australia both militarily and industrially, governments of both persuasions set out upon a doomed quest for atomic enlightenment. Hopes of a major role in an atomic-powered revival of the British empire were thwarted by Britain’s desire to renew its partnership with the United States. Disappointed, exploited and ultimately betrayed, Australian policymakers were nonetheless reluctant to give up on their dream. Reynolds tracks Australia’s hopes through a detailed web of negotiations, reports, and policy manoeuvres. The influence of the bomb, he argues, was felt across a wide range of government activities, from increased support for higher education to military involvement in Vietnam. Australia’s bid for the atomic bomb did much to shape its postwar priorities.

Detailed archival research in Australia, South Africa, Canada, the USA, and the UK, has armed Reynolds with an impressive array of sources, which he uses to demonstrate Australia’s active and continuing interest in joining the atomic club. The ultimate failure of this quest, he suggests, has encouraged historians to overlook its significance. By starting with the bomb, and looking again at many postwar initiatives, this book offers an interesting perspective on the motivations of successive Australian governments, and the machinations of super-power politics. Anyone interested in topics such as Australian defence and foreign policy, Cold War spy scares, and the organisation of science for defence, might profitably peruse its pages.

But Reynolds wants to do more than merely draw attention to a previously ignored strand of Australia’s postwar history. The bomb’s influence was decisive, he argues. ‘Behind the great reconstruction schemes of the Curtin-Chifley Labor government, and later the conservative Menzies government’, the book begins, ‘lay the nuclear deterrent weapons program’: ‘Many of the great national projects, such as the Snowy Mountains Scheme, the Woomera Rocket Range and the Australian National University, were in large measure based on the assumption that Australia would one day be a nuclear weapons state’ (p. 1). While book’s focus on the bomb provides most of its strength, originality and narrative drive, Reynold’s expansive claims demonstrate that there are dangers in relying on such a narrow framework.

The ‘origins’ of the Snowy Scheme, Reynolds argues, lay not in the desire for electricity or irrigation. Such features merely ‘describe what the scheme became’ (p. 54). Instead he stresses its role in defence planning, and as a possible location for nuclear power plants. No doubt such possibilities were canvassed, but how do you balance them against the range of alternative influences? Reynolds doesn’t try. His history apparently begins in 1945, and so the Snowy’s expression of long-standing nation building ideals is ignored, as is the growing desire to promote industrialisation, and the fondly-held dream of bringing life to Australia’s arid lands. All these are peripheral, the bomb is central.

Moreover, despite a brief nod towards ‘the problem of the states’, Reynolds ignores the constitutional hurdles that faced the Commonwealth in pushing ahead with the Snowy scheme. Water and power were under the control of the states, so emphasising the defence aspects of the project offered a means of bolstering Commonwealth authority. Reynolds does little to help us understand the balance between the rhetoric and the reality.

The ANU is similarly cast as a product of the government’s bomb-consciousness. Reynold’s highlights the involvement of Mark Oliphant and Ernest Titterton in the development of the bomb, and provides evidence of Oliphant’s continuing interest in the military significance of nuclear physics. But Oliphant was a complex and contradictory character, and missing from Reynold’s account are Oliphant’s moral anguish over the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, his frequent statements in favour of nuclear disarmament, his involvement in the Pugwash Movement, and his decision to have nothing more to do with the development of the bomb. The influence of the bomb it seems, it to reduce everything to black and white.

Underlying such assessments, however, is a more fundamental problem. The book fails to address the relationship between the destructive power of the bomb and the promise of cheap and abundant energy, foreseen in the industrial application of atomic energy. Reynolds assumes that interest was primarily focused on the bomb, as ‘power reactors were seen to be a distant possibility at the end of the war’. It all rather depends on your definition of ‘distant’. Certainly there is much to indicate, in both published and unpublished sources, that Australian governments were excited by the prospects for industrial development offered by the atomic age. The payoffs might not have been immediate, but they were assumed to be inevitable. Australia’s desire for atomic information, and all the machinations that ensued, cannot simply be explained as a ‘bid for the bomb’.

Of course, government interest may have swayed between the peaceful and the military applications of the atom, and it would be interesting to chart such changes across the postwar period. But this book only gives us the bomb’s side of the story. Emphasis would also have differed across government agencies, and it seems significant that Reynold’s research has focused on defence and foreign policy records. Greater use of CSIRO and AAEC material might have balanced the picture.

Apparently, the original manuscript of the book ran to nearly a quarter of a million words, so perhaps much contextual material has been lost in the trimming. It’s also fair to recognise that works which dare to offer ‘new perspectives’ can often overstate their case in the struggle to be heard amidst the babble of academic orthodoxy. If Reynolds had simply moderated his claims, it would be a better, though less provocative, book. I must admit, too, that I would have found the book considerably less annoying if Reynolds wasn’t so keen to portray himself as the raider of the lost archives.

When I saw press reports describing the book’s use of ‘recently declassified’ files, I assumed the publisher’s publicity machine had been at work. But Reynolds apparent struggle to wrest the truth from secretive government bureaucracies provides a continuing theme throughout the book. Records are hardly worth a mention unless they are ‘declassified’. The procedures of access clearance and the thirty-year rule are made to seem mysterious and arbitrary, while missing files and supposed silences are merely grist to the mill of this determined secrets hunter. One bizarre example relates to David Rivett’s attempts to negotiate the placement of Australian scientists at the Chalk River nuclear facility in Canada. ‘Rivett’s biographer is silent about the attempts to send CSIR scientists to work at Chalk River’, Reynolds notes, ‘but Canadian records reveal that he entered into an involved correspondence with his counterparts in Ottawa at the beginning of 1946’. Are we meant to assume that there is something significant, sinister even, in this supposed ‘silence’. Rohan Rivett’s biography of his father is far from being a detailed account of his scientific career, why would we even expect this particular episode to be included? And why ‘Canadian records’? I’m pretty sure Reynolds could have saved himself an international airfare if he had looked in CSIRO archives.

Why does any of this matter? Maybe it doesn’t. Perhaps other readers will enjoy the added sense of drama. But it bothers me because much of the cultural power of the atomic bomb resides in this thing ‘the secret’. If we merely play to its mysterious allure, we risk reinforcing the barriers it has helped erect around knowledge and authority. The greatest failing of this book, I believe, is that instead of trying to unravel the power and fascination of the bomb, it has fallen victim to it. Just as Hiroshima brought fancies of a future dominated by the atom, so Reynolds finds the bomb behind every door, hiding at the back of every cupboard. Just as the atomic secret divided the postwar world, so Reynolds deploys his mastery of ‘secret’ files to carry his argument and deny alternatives.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Tim Sherratt Written by:

I'm a historian and hacker who researches the possibilities and politics of digital cultural collections.

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