Doomsday Men: The Real Dr Strangelove and the Dream of the Superweapon by PD Smith

August 2007, Penguin, 9780713998153. (Aus, US/Kindle)

At the beginning of the 20th Century, nuclear weapons were the stuff of science-fiction. Writers like HG Wells imagined a future where the incredible power of the atom could be unleashed to great destruction, and thus create no need for warfare. He, and other writers, artists and visionary scientists, imagined a utopia powered by this endless energy. There would be no point starting wars if it were known what havoc the atomic weapons could wreak.

Before WW1 it was considered barbaric to kill civilians in the name of nationalism. But then came new technologies. The terror of chemical weapons in the trenches and the use of planes signalled a new era. At the beginning of the century a new element was also discovered which made headlines around the world – radium. Scientists were also baffled by the Rontgen’s (quite accidental) discovery of the X-Ray – a beam that enabled you to see the very bones in your hand.

The thirst for knowledge and modernity inspired the creative minds of the era. What PD Smith presents is a world where literature itself created a discourse of ideas that inspired the public, and hence, the scientists themselves, onto new discoveries. ‘The atomic bomb owed its existence to this technophile culture, with its saviour scientists and superweapons, as much as it did to the individual genius of its scientists and engineers’, he says.

One protagonist of the book is Leo Szilard, and each of his moments and revelations are explored poignantly by Smith, particularly when he realises (while crossing the street) that a nuclear chain reaction is possible. Szilard was always in moral conflict with other scientists and even himself. He dreamed the utopian dream but realised the gravity of what was possible. He was also the one who posited that a cobalt bomb would have mighty destructive power, on live radio. He knew that humankind was possibly too juvenile as a collective to wield this knowledge and power, and many times he predicted the end.

Szilard is only partly one of the ‘doomsday men’ of the title. Others include fellow scientists and military personnel who worked on the ‘Manhattan Project’ (building the bombs that were eventually trialled on Hiroshima and Nagasaki). Szilard had brought the idea to America presuming they would be attempting to build it before the Nazis. When it was discovered that the Nazis were far from complete on their bomb project, it was decided to annihilate Japanese citizens, as revenge for Pearl Harbor, and to show the American might to the Soviets. No one heeded Szilard’s suggestion that they could display power by exploding the bomb in a demonstrative fashion in an uninhabited area. Of course, after WW2, the race with the Soviets began – atomic bombs to hydrogen bombs, and perhaps to the ultimate weapon – the cobalt bomb.

Besides the array of literature that inspired the scientific imaginary, Smith also explores the proliferation of cold war literature and film. Looking at novels like Nevil Shute’s On the Beach, or even the monster films of the era, enable us to see (or remember) what the climate was like. Smith takes you inside the narratives of great writers and inside the narratives of history. He enmeshes them so that you realise just how science-fiction-like the world has become. You are present and nervous with Leo Szilard when the first nuclear reactor is tested in the University of Chicago football stadium. You witness Marie and Pierre Curie holding up a vial of ‘luminous’ radium. You experience a terrifying eyewitness account of Hiroshima. Smith gets right into the conflicts of these people, allowing you to relate to their situations, and be appalled at the attitude of some of the Strangelovean characters eg. Fritz Haber, Edward Teller and Robert Oppenheimer.

The book is descriptive, well-written and infinitely interesting. It is also incredibly frightening. Smith essentially offers us a warning, because the collective anxiety over the bomb seems to have disappeared. Yes, we have enough on our hands worrying about global warming, but nobody remembers to take a stand. He notes: ‘The nuclear weapons are still there, of course, in their bomb bays and silos. They could yet start falling, this year or next. For now, at least, there are no global wars, but the sciences of mass destruction continue to spread around the world. As is clear from the last century, knowledge knows no borders’. Doomsday Men is a step forward to awareness, is highly readable, and is also a perfect reference text for doomsday-related literature and film.

PD Smith’s informative blog – Kafka’s Mouse

5 thoughts on “Doomsday Men: The Real Dr Strangelove and the Dream of the Superweapon by PD Smith

  1. Thanks Andy, it is truly worth reading. And Mark, this is the first time I’ve been memed. Very excited, I will carry it only, but I would like to leave this review at the top at least for a few days,cheers!

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