It can’t be coincidence that when I saw Dr. Strangelove in early 1964, when I was still a callow youth, it instantly became my all-time favorite film—and then I went on to edit an antinuclear magazine for many years, march in protests from New York to Japan, and write two books (Hiroshima in America and Atomic Cover-up) and hundreds of articles on the nuclear threat.
Of course, the genius of Stanley Kubrick’s film was that I’ve also been laughing my ass off every time I watch it again or just consult brief clips in the half-century since its official release, which we’ll mark next week.
No wonder I’ve been celebrating Strangelove over at my Pressing Issues blog, posting its wildly original trailer (which was buried for decades) and a recent behind-the-making-of documentary. But today a serious commentary has arrived elsewhere.
Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation and more recently the scary epic on nuclear dangers, Command and Control, has a lengthy blog piece just posted at The New Yorker on how nearly everything in that fanciful and satiric Kubrick film was…you know, true. People forget: “Although ‘Strangelove’ was clearly a farce, with the comedian Peter Sellers playing three roles, it was criticized for being implausible. An expert at the Institute for Strategic Studies called the events in the film ‘impossible on a dozen counts.’ A former Deputy Secretary of Defense dismissed the idea that someone could authorize the use of a nuclear weapon without the President’s approval: ‘Nothing, in fact, could be further from the truth.”
And yet, as it turns out…
Half a century after Kubrick’s mad general, Jack D. Ripper, launched a nuclear strike on the Soviets to defend the purity of “our precious bodily fluids” from Communist subversion, we now know that American officers did indeed have the ability to start a Third World War on their own. And despite the introduction of rigorous safeguards in the years since then, the risk of an accidental or unauthorized nuclear detonation hasn’t been completely eliminated.
The Soviets even developed a kind of “Doomsday Machine” and, as in the film, did not tell us about it. Looking back:
Despite public assurances that everything was fully under control, in the winter of 1964, while “Dr. Strangelove” was playing in theatres and being condemned as Soviet propaganda, there was nothing to prevent an American bomber crew or missile launch crew from using their weapons against the Soviets. Kubrick had researched the subject for years, consulted experts, and worked closely with a former R.A.F. pilot, Peter George, on the screenplay of the film. George’s novel about the risk of accidental nuclear war, “Red Alert,” was the source for most of “Strangelove” ’s plot. Unbeknownst to both Kubrick and George, a top official at the Department of Defense had already sent a copy of “Red Alert” to every member of the Pentagon’s Scientific Advisory Committee for Ballistic Missiles. At the Pentagon, the book was taken seriously as a cautionary tale about what might go wrong. Even Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara privately worried that an accident, a mistake, or a rogue American officer could start a nuclear war.
In retrospect, Kubrick’s black comedy provided a far more accurate description of the dangers inherent in nuclear command-and-control systems than the ones that the American people got from the White House, the Pentagon, and the mainstream media.
And today? Well, Schlosser’s recent book details the many current nuclear dangers. But in his post today he merely highlights one:
The security measures now used to control America’s nuclear weapons are a vast improvement over those of 1964. But, like all human endeavors, they are inherently flawed. The Department of Defense’s Personnel Reliability Program is supposed to keep people with serious emotional or psychological issues away from nuclear weapons—and yet two of the nation’s top nuclear commanders were recently removed from their posts. Neither appears to be the sort of calm, stable person you want with a finger on the button. In fact, their misbehavior seems straight out of “Strangelove.”
Greg Mitchell’s Atomic Cover-up explores the decades-long suppression of footage shot in Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the US military—and why that matters today.