A Book Review
Doomsday Men: The Real Dr. Strangelove and the Dream of the Superweapon, by P.D. Smith (St. Martin’s, 553 pp.)
Reviewed by Paul Halpern
On August 6, 1945, an atomic blast of unprecedented power instantly flattened the center of Hiroshima, set off a colossal firestorm that destroyed the city’s infrastructure, and spewed lethal radioactive material into the environment. Ten of thousands died immediately, and many more tens of thousands subsequently perished through radiation sickness, burns and cancer. With the detonation of a second bomb over Nagasaki, the Second World War ended and the Cold War soon began, ushering in an age of fear and distrust. Reflecting these anxieties, apocalyptic themes pervaded the books and films of the 1950s and 1960s, including Stanley Kubrick’s classic black comedy, Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb.
In Doomsday Men: The Real Dr. Strangelove and the Dream of the Superweapon, British historian of science P.D. Smith masterfully chronicles the literary antecedents and cultural repercussions of the development of nuclear armaments. Smith describes how The World Set Free, a 1913 prophetic novel by H.G. Wells, anticipated the use of atomic weapons dropped aerially over major cities. Wells’s prediction that the horrors of global warfare would be followed by blissful universal peace profoundly affected the psyche of Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard. After discovering the chain reaction, joining with Einstein in composing a letter to Roosevelt urging the development of the bomb as a hedge against Hitler, and working ardently in the Manhattan Project, Szilard became a leading advocate for the international control of nuclear weaponry. As Smith points out, Szilard’s denunciation of the destructive forces he helped unleash mirrored the Wellsian ascension from devastation to utopia.
Just as apocalyptic fiction influenced Szilard, the physicist’s own strongly-expressed apprehensions inspired further ghastly cultural references. In a 1950 radio program, he envisioned superpowers warding off threats by means of a “doomsday machine:” a hydrogen bomb surrounded by a cobalt shell that would blanket the earth with deadly radiation if the bomb ever exploded. The device would be triggered to detonate automatically if the nation that developed it was ever under nuclear attack. Faced with the prospect of Earth becoming uninhabitable, no other country would risk setting off the device. But what if such a conflict occurred anyway? Such is the depressing premise of late 1950s novels such as Nevil Shute’s On the Beach and Peter George’s Red Alert.
In his 1962 treatise On Thermonuclear War, Hermann Kahn of the RAND Corporation dared ponder the unthinkable: life beyond nuclear apocalypse. His detached systematic analysis of various attack strategies and survival scenarios — including grappling with the case of a doomsday machine — shocked many readers and led to much gallows humor.
Kubrick, who had bought the film rights to Red Alert, appeared to blend the aloof perspective of Kahn with the militaristic stance of hard-line anticommunist scientists such as Edward Teller and John von Neumann and the Luftwaffe background of German rocketry pioneer Werner von Braun in creating one of the most memorable characters in cinematic history. Hilariously portrayed by Peter Sellers, the bizarre, sieg-heiling Dr. Strangelove embodied the fear that in defeating the Axis powers, modern warfare acquired a measure of their madness. In exposing the comic aspects of the arms race, the film offered the hope that the superpowers would end the foolishness before it was too late.
Doomsday Men offers a marvelous resource for understanding the issues and personalities underlying Kubrick’s masterpiece and other creative interpretations of the Cold War. From pulp science fiction stories to Godzilla’s theatrical invasions, it is a veritable lexicon of atomic age culture. Consequently, it is a long and meaty book, but fast-paced nonetheless.
There is delightful humor throughout the volume, mainly focused on the idiosyncrasies of Szilard and the some of the other key players. In one passage, Smith describes how General Groves, commander of the Manhattan Project, placed Szilard under round-the-clock surveillance only to discover that the Hungarian had a “fondness for delicacies and frequently makes purchases in delicatessen stores.” Another anecdote involves Szilard and his brother in their youth proposing “to speed up haircuts by applying a slight electric current to barbers’ chairs, so that customers’ hair would stand on end.”
The book closes with a chilling description of the real life Russian “doomsday device:” a top-secret automatic system developed in the 1970s that once set in motion by a Soviet government official would monitor nuclear detonations and launch nuclear weapons in response. Code named “Perimetr,” the system was activated in 1985, but revealed only eight years later. Smith points out the irony of the Russians keeping the mechanism a secret, just as in Kubrick’s film.
With the Cold War fading into history, Doomsday Men offers a valuable reminder of the period’s fears and foibles. It provides an outstanding guide to a pivotal era when humanity first faced the terrifying prospect of annihilation by its own hand.
Paul Halpern is a University of the Sciences physics professor and the author of fifteen popular science books, including The Quantum Labyrinth: How Richard Feynman and John Wheeler Revolutionized Time and Reality.