"I was 97 days old when a one-footed Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, Edward Teller, the real Dr. Strangelove, more commonly known as "the father of the H-bomb," introduced Planet Earth to this brand-new way to exterminate the human race." —from Bobby in Naziland
In 1975, I briefly worked in the Pentagon as a speechwriter for the secretary of the air force. Gerald Ford was president; the Vietnam War had just ended—the first war the United States had lost since 1812—and though there was a so-called moment of "détente" between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, the Cold War and the arms race were ongoing.
Justifying the need for more money to build more nuclear weapons was the central theme of many of the speeches I wrote. The secretary, John McLucas, would put forth two arguments: You need the right-size weapon for the job at hand. You can't stomp ants with elephants. And, more importantly: Nuclear weapons are not for killing people. They're to deter killing. The more nuclear weapons there are, the more deterrence there is.
This is known as "Mutual Assured Destruction" or MAD, and it's a strategy that's been in effect since the Russians developed their own nuclear weapon, in 1949. In its insane way MAD has (thus far) prevented a nuclear war.
The failure of MAD is the plot device at the heart of Dr. Strangelove: a lunatic general orders a nuclear strike. I first saw the film when I was 11 and have seen it about 25 times since then. It left a deep impression, whetting my taste for black humor and instilling in me a fascination with the power of the hydrogen bomb. So I was amazed to find myself, all those years ago, toiling in the Pentagon—the ultimate Strangelovian setting.
I mentioned the Pentagon only in passing in the afterword of Bobby in Naziland. But what I witnessed there was very much on my mind as I examined the threat of nuclear annihilation that hung over my childhood.
While doing research for a chapter called "Speak, Memory," I learned that the first hydrogen bomb was detonated November 1, 1952, when I was 97 days old. I then wondered if it was possible for an adult to retain not an actual memory, but something memory-like from his infancy if an event occurred that "tore asunder the very fabric of reality," as did the hydrogen bomb. I described that memory-like sensation as "a tiny quivering in the recesses" of the brain.
That train of thought resulted in the sentence excerpted at the beginning of this post. It may also partially explain my attraction to dark topics and my tendency to find humor even in a one-footed Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany who developed a brand-new way to exterminate the human race.
Cracks me up every time.