This massive but lively history of 20th-century superweapons and the media that exploited them contains no identifiable Doctor Strangelove but plenty of interesting characters.
Played by Peter Sellers in the landmark 1964 film, Strangelove was the ex-Nazi scientific advisor to an American president who describes the workings of a Russian superweapon that, after a comic Cold War mix-up, destroys the world. Smith explains that such a “doomsday device” is merely an H-bomb surrounded by 10,000 tons of cobalt. The immense cobalt-60 radioactive fallout from its explosion could destroy all life on the planet. The 1950 announcement that this was technically possible produced an avalanche of media interest, including other movies (most notably On the Beach and Planet of the Apes). After introducing the apocalyptic scenario, Smith backs up to 1900 to begin his account of previous scientific breakthroughs that captured the popular imagination, but he spends fewer than 100 pages on X-rays, radiation, biological warfare and poison gas before returning to physics and the cascade of discoveries that led to nuclear weapons. Richard Rhodes wrote a far superior history in The Making of the Atomic Bomb (1987), but Smith gives equal time to the literary and cinematic response to superweapons. Inevitably, Orson Welles and H.G. Wells feature prominently, but Smith’s impressive research turns up innumerable end-of-the-world thrillers, apocalyptic science fiction and clueless journalism. While the author extols their prescience, readers may notice that something is missing. The prediction of atomic weapons was a minor literary industry in the early 20th century, but in fiction this always led to (a) catastrophic nuclear war or (b) world peace. Readers waiting to discover an author who predicted what actually happened—60 years of nuclear weapons, no nuclear war, no world peace, a great deal of anxiety—will wait in vain.
A competent history of WMDs combined with a captivating account of books and films that predicted their discovery—and then got it all wrong.