The Mouse that Roared, a comic, satirical, even silly novel by Leonard Wibberley, was published in 1955, a decade after the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan to end World War II.
As one character notes, however, the end of the war didn’t bring peace. Indeed, Cold War tensions were high and getting higher, and everyone around the world was living under the pall of nuclear threat.
So, this seemingly frivolous book with its outlandish premise — that the Grand Duchy of Fenwick, the smallest nation in the world, hoping to reap a miniature Marshall Plan, attacks the U.S. in a war it plans to lose, but unaccountably wins — is an oddly unsettling read for a citizen of 2018.
That’s because the plot centers on the Q-bomb, the only one in the world, developed by an American scientist and grabbed by the duchy’s invasion force when, as luck would have it, the couple dozen soldiers landed in Manhattan during a major air raid practice when virtually everyone was dutifully underground.
One of the few exceptions is Dr. Alfred Kokintz who is taken as a prisoner of war along with his bomb. When the force and the bomb get back to Fenwick in the French mountains, the duchy is the most powerful spot on the planet.
This bomb, you see, isn’t just another run-of-the-mill bomb, but one that, if exploded, would make the H-bomb seem like a sneeze, and the A-bomb, well, like nothing at all. This Q-bomb, if exploded, would devastate two million square miles, essentially all of Europe, killing everyone instantly. What’s worse — what could be worse? — it would release a gas into the atmosphere that would turn all the soil on Earth sterile and kill all the rest of humanity, only more slowly.
Played for laughs
This is played for laughs, as is a fad in America of eating large amounts of bologna to counteract radiation from a future run-of-the-mill Soviet bomb and, when that’s debunked, a second fad of drinking oneself into a permanent drunk, again as an anti-radiation measure.
Those foolish fads poke fun at the American penchant for cure-alls. But the bomb isn’t so laughable.
In a sense, the Q-bomb stands as a metaphor for all Nuclear Age fears. In 1955, there was no one bomb that could destroy such a large area of land and people. But there were arsenals of nuclear weapons that could have done something like that.
Today, sixty-three years later, there’s still no one bomb, but, even more, there are nukes on top of nukes on top of nukes. Yes, there have been disarmament treaties over the years, but the super-powers still have the ability to end life on Earth, period.
And there is a growing number of other countries that have bombs as well.
What’s disquieting about this is that The Mouse that Roared shows how people of the mid-1950s were acutely aware of the nuclear threat under which they were living.
By contrast, easily 90 percent or more of the people alive today have been living under this threat for all their lives. Yet, we’re not so acutely aware of the possibility. We go about our business never thinking about it.
But the possibility of nuclear annihilation remains.
Reading this book in 1955 would have had the quality of whistling in the dark while walking past the cemetery.
Reading it today — well, are we scared any more of the dark?
Lost in the light of our cellphones, do we pretend that it just isn’t there?
Patrick T. Reardon