Doomsday Men by P.D.Smith 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.
The book focusses primarily on one scientist, 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 landed 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, Szilard worked hard to persuade the United States not to enter a nuclear arms race with Russia. Although he 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.
￼The book focusses a lot on Szilard because it started out as a biography of Szilard, but it works nevertheless, mostly because he was an exceptional and interesting man. Much of the rest of the book is filled with fascinating anecdotes about the other atomic weapons scientists and their relationship with the United States, the U.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. I didn’t understand why this was necessary. Some of the books and films were well worth mentioning, particularly how some of them uncannily predicted, or in some cases possibly helped bring about, major events.
It is in the book’s last few chapters that we see the connection between the book and Kubrick’s film Dr Strangelove: or how I stopped worrying and learnt to love the Bomb. The connection is memorable. The ability and willingness of major figures in the U.S. military and many of 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. According to the well-known story, Kubrick originally was going to make a serious drama but after researching the subject, and talking to key figures, he found what went on so crazy that he could only make a black comedy.
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 be complicit in the deliberate or accidental dropping of a bomb on a civilian population. That’s why I support CND. The threat of atomic war is almost unmentioned now, compared to the media and civilian panic in the 50’s, but it’s still very much present.
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!”