Why Make the Rubble Bounce?

Winston Churchill? James Reston? Edward M. Kennedy? Clark M. Clifford? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The massive arsenals of the nuclear nations have been poised like the Sword of Damocles to fall upon the head of mankind for decades. Statesman Winston Churchill reportedly was critical of excessive weaponry and said:

If you go on with this nuclear arms race, all you are going to do is make the rubble bounce.

I haven’t been able to find a citation. Is this quotation accurate?

Quote Investigator: The earliest pertinent citation located by QI appeared in Winston Churchill’s volume about the Second World War titled “Their Finest Hour” published in 1949. London suffered from extensive bombardment, and Churchill suggested that eventually the war planners behind the devastation would recognize the ineffectiveness of further attacks upon the city. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Indeed, at this time we saw no end but the demolition of the whole metropolis. Still, as I pointed out to the House of Commons at the time, the law of diminishing returns operates in the case of the demolition of large cities. Soon many of the bombs would only fall upon houses already ruined and only make the rubble jump. Over large areas there would be nothing more to burn or destroy, and yet human beings might make their homes here and there, and carry on their work with infinite resource and fortitude.

Churchill was discussing conventional weaponry used against London and not nuclear bombs. Also, he used the phase “only make the rubble jump” without the word “bounce”.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The words above were widely disseminated when “The New York Times” published a serialization of the book by Churchill. The passage appeared in the 20th installment in February 1949. 2

Churchill died at age 90 in 1965. In 1968 the influential editor and commentator James Reston of “The New York Times” published a widely-reprinted column about political advisor Henry Kissinger. Reston mentioned an equilibrium strategy for nuclear weapons, and he ascribed to Churchill a remark containing the vivid phrase about rubble: 3

Dr. Kissinger has always seemed to agree on the need for a powerful balance of power but, like Winston Churchill, has felt that there is “no need to make the rubble bounce.” In fact, the theory behind the “stable deterrent system” was that it would eventually make it possible to limit the size of the deterrent force on both sides and thereby lead in time to a limitation of the nuclear race.

Reston linked Churchill to a remark of this type several times although the precise phrasing varied. Reston may have been harkening back to Churchill’s 1949 comment. QI has been unable to find a statement directly from Churchill about bouncing rubble applied to nuclear weapons. Yet, the 1985 citation further below provides indirect evidence.

In January 1969 Reston published another column about nuclear weapons that included a quotation ascribed to Churchill. The phrasing differed a bit from the 1968 version: 4

The U.S. nuclear arsenal is already “superior,” though the Soviets are catching up, but American superiority merely means that we would have the power to destroy the Soviet Union two or three times over while they could only wipe us out once. As Churchill said: “Why make the rubble bounce?”

In March 1969 the “Los Angeles Times” printed an opinion piece titled “Overkill Merely Makes the Rubble Bounce” which included an expression credited to Churchill: 5

After you have seen one megaton you have seen them all as far as personal survival goes. As Churchill put it, what good is overkill; why make the rubble bounce? The U.S. and U.S.S.R. now have the capacity for mutual self-destruction.

In 1972 Reston used his column to continue to popularize the quotation he attributed to Churchill: 6

Both have been spending vast sums of money on strategic weapons and each now has enough to wipe out the other, even after a first nuclear strike, so as Churchill once asked: “Why make the rubble bounce?”

In 1976 Reston asserted that the context of quotation he ascribed to Churchill was nuclear warfare: 7

Winston Churchill, as usual, had the right phrase for the problem. Once both sides had enough nuclear weapons to destroy the human race, he thought this was about enough. Why add more, he asked, “Why make the rubble bounce?”

In 1982 Senator Edward M. Kennedy forcefully spoke about bouncing rubble: 8

“The question is not whether we can destroy the Soviet Union,” said Kennedy. “We can. The question is how high we can make the rubble bounce in the Soviet Union. We can make it bounce from Moscow to Vladivostok.”

In 1985 a columnist in the “The Washington Post” reported testimony from Clark M. Clifford who was an advisor to four U.S. Presidents. Clark attributed a quotation to Churchill although it was not clear whether he heard the words himself: 9

Stripping all else aside, the summit is about one thing: the arms race in the nuclear age. On this, Clifford’s comments are arresting.

“Whenever I begin to think and talk about this,” he said, “I think about a haunting comment that Winston Churchill made. One time, years ago, he asked how many nuclear weapons the Soviet Union had and how many weapons the United States had. He was told maybe five or six hundred apiece. He said, ‘What are they doing about it?’ He was told they’re building more every day.

“Churchill said: ‘All they’re going to do is make the rubble bounce.'”

In conclusion, Winston Churchill did write about the bombing of London in the 1940s and referred to the pointlessness of campaigns that “make the rubble jump”. James Reston and Clark M. Clifford asserted that Churchill used a similar expression to suggest the futility of massive stockpiles of nuclear weapons. However, QI has not yet found direct evidence for this claim in a book, speech, or interview by Churchill. Perhaps future researchers will discover more.

Image Notes: Picture of firefighters and damaged buildings in London circa 1941 from the New York Times Paris Bureau Collection. Picture of mushroom cloud from nuclear weapon test Bravo on Bikini Atoll circa 1954. Photo portrait of Winston Churchill circa 1941. Images have been cropped and resized.

(Great thanks to David Weinberger whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1949, The Second World War: Their Finest Hour by Winston Churchill, Quote Page 372, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1949 February 26, New York Times, By Winston Churchill: The Second World War, Installment 20: “London Can Take It”, Volume II: Their Finest Hour, Book II: Alone, Quote Page 17, Column 3, New York. (ProQuest)
  3. 1968 December 4, New York Times, Kissinger: New Man in the White House Basement by James Reston, Quote Page 46, Column 5, New York. (ProQuest)
  4. 1969 January 31, New York Times, The Word War: A ‘Sufficiency’ of Arms by James Reston, Quote Page 38, Column 4 and 5, New York. (ProQuest)
  5. 1969 March 26, Los Angeles Times, Overkill Merely Makes the Rubble Bounce by T. R. B., Part 2, Quote Page 9, Column 6, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)
  6. 1972 May 19, New York Times, The Ray of Light by James Reston, Quote Page 37, Column 1, New York. (ProQuest)
  7. 1976 March 31, New York Times, ‘Why Make The Rubble Bounce?’ by James Reston, Quote Page 36, Column 1, New York. (ProQuest)
  8. 1982 May 2, Boston Globe, Barnstable backs N-halt after hearing Kennedy (Associated Press), Quote Page 31, Column 1, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest)
  9. 1985 November 17, The Washington Post, The Alternative to Bouncing Rubble by Haynes Johnson, Quote Page A3, Column 4 and 5, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest)