Doomsday Men and Dr Strangelove

Here's a quick book review of a book I've just finished called 'Doomsday Men' by P.D.Smith. The book is all about the history of atomic research, from Madame Curie onwards, and how it became used to build the ultimate military weapon, the hydrogen bomb and its fictional but apocalyptic dark sibling, the radioactive 'cobalt bomb'.

I enjoyed the book. It was pretty clear from early on (in fact, P.D.Smith admitted as much himself) that the author had been writing a biography of Leo Szilard, an admirable and brilliant Hungarian physicist who had to leave his home in Budapest when Nazism and anti-Semitism emerged in central Europe. He ditched up in London and finally emigrated to the United States. Unlike other brilliant Hungarian physicists who ended up playing a major role in the development of atomic power and the atomic bomb (such as Von Neumann and Edward Teller), Szilard was a compassionate and ethical man. As a young scientist in Europe, he worked hard to persuade other scientists in Europe not to publish their work so as to prevent the Nazis gaining vital information about atomic theory. When he was in the United States, especially in the latter half of his life, he worked hard to persuade the United States not to enter a nuclear arms race with Russia. Although Szilard was supportive of the atomic bomb project to prevent the Nazis from conquering Europe, he was appalled at how it was developed and used once it became clear that the Nazis had failed to develop the technology themselves.

Because of the book's origins as a biography of Szilard, it does talk about him a lot, but this is fine; he was an exceptional and interesting man. Much of the rest of the book is filled with fascinating anecdotes about the atomic weapons scientists and their relationship with the U.S., it's military, Albert Einstein and each other. The only parts of the book I found tedious were the sections where the author seemed dedicated to mention every single popular book or film about a particular element of the nuclear story. Quite why this was necessary was beyond me. Some of the books and films were well worth mentioning, particularly how they uncannily predicted, or in some cases possibly helped bring about, major events, but definitely not all of them.

The connection between the book and Kubrick's film 'Dr Strangelove: or how I stopped worrying and learnt to love the Bomb' only really happens in the last couple of chapters, but it is memorable. The ability and willingness of major figures in the military and among the scientists to wilfully massacre half a million civilians with atomic bombs is both astonishing and deeply unsettling. Kubrick based his black comedy film on the very serious and well-researched book 'Red Alert' by Peter Bryant. I can see why Kubrick made his film a black comedy. The incredibly blinkered, over-confident and plain callous attitude of so many senior figures in the world of atomic weapons is so unnerving that making the film a comedy is, in some ways, the only way to handle the subject.


I've thought about atomic weapons a lot over the years and I came to a personal conclusion; I would rather be blown up than feel even partly responsible for the deliberate or accidental dropping of a bomb on a civilian population. That's why I support CND. Compared to the media and civilian panic in the 50's, the threat of atomic war is almost unmentioned now, but it's still very much present. The current events in the Ukraine and the jingoist posturing of the United States against Russia, along with Russia's recent 'buzzing' of UK and NATO airspace, makes 'Dr Strangelove' just as pertinent now as it did when it was released. Hey ho.

By the way, Dr Strangelove is still a great movie. I watched it last night and it hasn't aged at all; it's a gem. I definitely recommend it.

"Gentlemen, you can't fight in here! This is the War Room!"