Robert Hanks reviews Doomsday Men: The Real Dr. Strangelove and the Dream of the Superweapon by P. D. Smith, in the Financial Times:
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.