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'Winston's Gestapo': Churchill, the Royal Society and scientific secrecy before the Bomb

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In the summer of 1945, a number of leading British scientists were invited to attend the 220th anniversary celebrations of the Soviet Academy of Sciences in Moscow. The Royal Society quickly assumed responsibility for the organisation of the junket, turning it into a semi-diplomatic mission intended both to build scientific links with Britain’s still-valued wartime ally and to strengthen its own position in relation to the British government as it began to frame a project for postwar institutional renewal. On the eve of the delegation’s departure, the travel visas of eight of the scientists were suddenly cancelled for contrived reasons. The order came directly from Churchill who, in the last days of his caretaker government, misled Parliament about the reason for the scientists’ treatment. Excavating this episode, the paper will reveal what lay behind the ban and explore its ramifications: for government, from high-level inter-allied politics to MI6 and the DSIR ; for the Royal Society, whose Officers were embarrassingly compromised; and for the scientists themselves, for whom ‘Winston’s Gestapo’ was a paradoxical and potent focus for debate about secrecy, freedom, and the values and governance of science as it shifted from war to an uneasy peace.

This talk is part of the Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science series.

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