Doomsday Men: The Real Dr Strangelove and the Dream of the Superweapon
By P.D. Smith
Allen Lane £20, 552 pages
FT bookshop price: £16
The idea that all life on earth might be extinguished very soon, and that human technology will be the cause, is deeply ingrained in our culture. Indeed, historians of the future, assuming there is a future, may be intrigued by how easily we have switched from nuclear anxieties to the environmental kind: do we enjoy thinking that we’re destroying the planet?
Being so accustomed to the idea of manmade apocalypse, it’s easy to forget what a novelty it is. It really only entered the collective consciousness at the same time that it became technologically feasible, in the 1950s. To be precise, the idea entered US homes on February 26 1950, when, on an American radio talkshow, the Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard raised the possibility of a cobalt bomb which would envelop the world in a cloud of radioactive dust, poisoning every living thing. This is the weapon that is detonated at the end of Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 film Dr Strangelove.
In Doomsday Men, P.D. Smith sets out to show how Szilard, and the rest of us, arrived at this seeming end-point - a prehistory of the atomic age. Three narrative strands intertwine through the first half of the book. One is the history of physics in the late 19th and early 20th centuries - the Curies’ discovery of radium, Einstein’s theory of relativity, and the realisation of the immense energy locked up in matter. Alongside this runs a history of military technology, the successive “superweapons” which, it was asserted, would bring an end to war: first by aerial bombardment, then poison gas, then germ warfare. The actual effect was the opposite - instead of making war less feasible, these weapons simply extended its reach, placing civilian populations in the front line.
Ahead of both these histories runs a history of apocalypse in literature. Every advance in science and warfare in the first half of the 20th century had been anticipated by novelists and poets - H.G. Wells in particular created a wealth of prophetic apocalypses: an irradiated landscape in Tono-Bungay, tank battles and germ warfare in the short stories “The Land Ironclads” and “The Stolen Bacillus”, and the atomic bomb in his 1914 novel The World Set Free. Smith catalogues numerous novels and short stories in which a scientist, mad or otherwise, armed with some new superweapon, tries to make the world embrace peace on pain of annihilation.
Smith’s argument is that stories such as these prepared the way for the atom bomb, and he charts the connections between speculative fiction and subsequent hard fact persuasively. Szilard read The World Set Free in 1932, the year before he came up with the idea that a nuclear chain reaction could be used to power a bomb, and said that Wells should be credited as “father of the atom bomb”.
There are two big differences between the fiction and the reality: the first is that in the stories weapons were rarely used - a mere demonstration of their power was enough to bring mankind to its senses; the other is that the fictional scientist is a powerful, autonomous figure. In the real world, scientists working on the Manhattan Project were cogs in a vast machine.
Doomsday Men is occasionally padded or repetitious, and Smith is less good on the post-Hiroshima world. But he puts the nuclear age into a new context, engagingly and even excitingly.