January 11, 1999 12:00 PM

PBS (Mon., Jan. 11, 9 p.m.)

Though it’s a work of history, not satire, this well-done documentary on The American Experience will remind some viewers of the classic 1964 movie Dr. Strangelove. Edward Teller, the 90-year-old “father” of the hydrogen bomb, still sounds as enthusiastic about the weapon as Peter Sellers’s Strangelove was for his “doomsday machine.” A cartoon of the late Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay riding one of his Strategic Air Command bombers as if it were a bucking bronco recalls the indelible screen image of a yahooing Slim Pickens astride a nuke.

But Race for the Superbomb, which covers the period from 1945 to 1960, is dead-serious business. On a scientific level, it shows the research progressing ineluctably from nuclear fission (the basis for the atomic bomb that leveled Hiroshima) to nuclear fusion (the basis for the far more powerful H-bomb). On a political level, it tells how the fate of the earth became dependent on the theory that nuclear preparedness equals nuclear deterrence. You may snicker at the absurdity of ’50s propaganda seeking to assure the public that nuclear war was survivable, but the documentary ends with the sobering reminder that the United States and Russia still keep thousands of nuclear warheads on constant alert—not locked safely away in the vault of history.

Bottom Line: High-impact study of the “hell bomb”

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