Winston Churchill’s Mother and the Atomic Bomb

No, they have little (maybe nothing) to do with each other.   But the two books I read last week were Andrew Rotter’s “Hiroshima: the World’s Bomb” and Anne Sebba’s “American Jennie”.  Each was a very interesting read.

Rotter, a professor at Colgate, published his book in 2008.  It was a good complement to another book I read earlier this year, “And What of Tomorrow” by George O. Robinson, published in 1956.  Robinson had been a publicist at Oak Ridge, and his book told the story of the mammoth and amazingly successful American program to develop the bomb – three years of enormous effort at Oak Ridge, Hanford, Los Alamos and elsewhere.  He spoke a little of the background of the scientific work which led to splitting the atom – but it was that…..background.

Rotter’s book has a different focus.  He concentrates, first on the world wide scientific effort, conducted in Germany and England and Russia and Denmark and everywhere but here, until the Nazis convinced the European scientists to head to the New World (or at least to Britain) and transferred the center of atomic research to the United States.  His thesis is that science knows no bounds, and the development of atomic energy and the atomic bomb was a world-wide collaborative effort, until politics destroyed the collaboration.  Yes, research did continue in the Soviet Union, but it was hampered by the inability of the Soviet scientists to work with their international partners, and succeeded to the extent it did in part because of espionage that created a different type of sharing pattern.  And yes, the same was true in Germany, but they lost most of their scientific talent.  And Japan was never able to really kick start its research program, although it too had some talented scientists.

The American government was a Johnny-come-lately to this effort, putting federal money to work only after they became concerned that Germany might be developing a super weapon.  And, yes, when the government became involved, it really became involved, in a manner we cannot imagine today.  But this is not the focus of Rotter’s book, although he refers to it as an essential element of his story.

He goes to the decision to drop the bomb on Japan – the whys, the ethical questions, the politics.  And he talks about Hiroshima, the physical results of the bomb, and its aftermaths.

Do we learn a lesson from the book?  Not sure about that.  We should, but it is clear from this book that a decision to drop an atomic bomb can be made by “rational” people, with the strong support of virtually everyone around them.  And that remorse is limited.  And that even the victim society recovers.

Not a great lesson.

Moving on to Jennie Jerome, a/k/a Lady Randolph Churchill.  The daughter of an American millionaire (the type of gains and loses fortunes with regularity), who with her mother and two sisters spent most of their time living in Paris, where he mother’s main goal was to arrange successful marriages for her children (whether or not she did is a matter of judgment).  Her middle daughter Jennie (more of a clone of her mother than she would probably admit) fell in love with young Randolph Churchill, a young outspoken member of a very established English family (his father was the Duke of Marlborough and lived in Blenheim Palace) with political ambitions, and an inability to hold his tongue.  Their marriage was, more or less, happy it seems, until Churchill’s politics and then his health failed him, as well as his ability to stay home with his wife. and his understandable tendency to drive her batty.  Churchill died in his early 40s, leaving Jennie with two children, Winston and Jack, children whom mother and father, up until that time, pretty much ignored.

Jennie recognized Winston as the more talented son and supported his political ambitions (as she did Randolph’s), and his literary and military ambitions (all of which she, and he, believed supported his political goals).  She became a regular stage mom.  And, after ignoring Winston during his childhood and adolescent years, she became in effect his partner, helping him get appointments and publication opportunities and so much else.  They became almost abnormally close.

At the same time, she was a party girl (as party girls were in the late 19th and early 20th centuries – balls and dances and hunting parties and weekends at country estates), meeting one eligible (or not eligible, it didn’t really matter) representative of European nobility.  Rumors are that Jennie Churchill had affairs without end.  According to Sebba, Churchill biographer Roy Jenkins claims that she had 200 lovers.  Sebba doubts this number, or anything near it.  And she thinks that the rumors of Jennie’s love life were by and large just rumors.  Not that Jennie was not sought after by many and not that she did not have close relationships, physical or otherwise, with a number of them.  But precise evidence seems to be lacking.

Jennie did marry twice after the death of Randolph Churchill.  Neither were good marriages, and both seem to have been large driven by physical attraction.  Strangely, each of her second and third husbands were more than twenty years her junior.  One was Winston’s age; the other three years younger.

The last marriage only lasted three years, broken up by Jennie Churchill’s death at age 67.  And she should not have died.  She had fallen and broken a foot and for some reason it didn’t heal correctly and gangrene settled in and her leg had to be amputated above the knee, and this was not successful either, as an artery burst in her leg above the amputation, and she couldn’t be saved.  A sad and weird end.

Both books quite interesting.



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