vol 9, issue 3

Dr Strangelove at 50 - how the fiction faced fact

10 March 2014
By Piers Bizony
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The fictional War Room as depicted in Dr Strangelove

On taking office as President, Ronald Reagan asked to see the ‘War Room’ as depicted in ‘Dr Strangelove’

A nuclear explosion, Mururoa Atoll, 1970

A nuclear explosion conducted at Mururoa Atoll in French Polynesia in 1970

A scene from Dr Strangelove - President Muffley and Buck Turgidson

Peter Sellers played multiple roles in ‘Dr Strangelove’, including beleaguered President Muffley

A Titan missile in its silo

A Titan missile in its silo, now part of a museum display near Tucson, Arizona

General Curtis LeMay

General Curtis LeMay led the US Strategic Air Command throughout the 1950s and early 1960s

Appalled by the Cuban Crisis mess, Stanley Kubrick satirised the dangers facing mankind by means of his prophetic 1964 comedy-drama 'Dr Strangelove'.

This year is the 100th anniversary of the First World War's outbreak. At the same time, we mark the 50th anniversary of 'Dr Strangelove', Stanley Kubrick's famous 1964 Cold War comedy of men and machines in terminal chaos. This is an appropriate moment to remind ourselves that cleverly engineered weapons, once unleashed, cannot easily be put back in their crates. Today we look nervously towards Syria and the possibility of escalating violence in the Middle East and beyond. Could nuclear devices come into play?

The Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 was arguably the most serious moment of the nuclear weapons era. When CIA spy planes revealed that Russia had deployed short-range missiles on America's doorstep, President John F Kennedy and his Soviet counterpart, Premier Nikita Khruschev, were forced into the most dangerous game of brinksmanship in history. Hawks on both sides expressed a terrifying desire to unleash armageddon, but Kennedy and Khruschev kept their excitable generals under control and cut a secret deal to defuse tensions.

Appalled by the Cuban mess, filmmaker Kubrick wanted to make a drama showing what was at stake. He found a realistic story in 'Red Alert', a pessimistic novel by ex-RAF pilot Peter George, who knew only too well how easy it might be for zealous commanders to unleash havoc without proper permission. Kubrick's brother-in-law Jan Harlan explains why the narrative had to be reshaped as a comedy. "Stanley was fascinated by the arms race, but depicting the end of the world as entertainment was a tough call. Why would anyone want to see that? It was the absurdity of nuclear confrontation that gave him the spark for a new idea, the blackest of black comedies, using humour to underline the seriousness of the game."

Kubrick recruited American satirist Terry Southern to inject the gags that made 'Dr'Strangelove' so memorable. Research now suggests that even the most absurd of Strangelove's scenarios were based on truth. Paul Lashmar, lecturer in journalism at Brunel University, London, is among a new generation of investigative journalists uncovering the realism of the movie. "I don't know how Kubrick got his information, but the depth of his research was astonishing."

Real-life prototypes

Kubrick's insane generals had real-life counterparts. US Air Force general Curtis LeMay led the American bombing campaign that defeated Japan at the end of the Second World War, and commanded vast fleets of B-52 nuclear armed bombers until 1963. His solution to the threat of a proxy Cold War in south-east Asia was that the North Vietnamese communists "should be bombed back into the Stone Age". He also organised provocative spy plane flights over the Soviet Union in the late 1950s, hoping to provoke a response. Lashmar says: "He told one pilot that if the spy flights were done right, they could get World War Three started."

The White House knew almost nothing about the extent of these flights. LeMay's biographer, Michael Sherry, says: "He wouldn't have minded if such overflights had provoked an escalating series of incidents that would allow the US to stage a 'preventative' nuclear attack." A typical LeMay stance was that "if we get the Russian bear in a trap, let's take his leg off'right up to the testicles. On second thoughts, let's take his testicles, too." LeMay'clashed with President Kennedy during the Cuban crisis. "You're in a pretty bad fix," he challenged insolently. Kennedy outfaced him. "You're in there with me. Personally." We can be grateful that Kennedy's will prevailed over his manic military advisors.

It was LeMay's second in command, general Tommy Powers, who was perhaps the most unhinged character among some pretty stiff competition. Lashmar says: "Even his colleagues doubted his sanity at times." In the midst of the Cuba crisis, Powers challenged a Senate committee, "Why are we so concerned with restraint? The whole idea is to kill the bastards. At the end of the war, if there are two Americans and one Russian left alive, we win!"

A generation of nuclear strategists was trained to "think the unthinkable". In 1981, Eugene Rostow was appointed by Ronald Reagan as director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. When senators discussed with him his suitability for this role, he said that nuclear war wouldn't necessarily be the end of humanity. Japan "not only survived but flourished after the nuclear attack" of 1945, he said. If'it'came to a massive war between Russia and America, "some estimates predict that there would be 10 million casualties on one side and 100 million on another. But that is not the whole of the population."

A famous line in 'Dr Strangelove' echoes that sentiment, when general Buck Turgidson urges a first strike despite the inevitability of American casualties. "Mr'President, I'm not saying we wouldn't get our hair mussed. But I do say no more than 10, 20 million killed, tops... Ah, depending on the breaks."

And it was always "the breaks" that no one could be sure of while planning possible Cold War confrontations. Khrushchev and Kennedy both knew that matters could get out of control at a moment's notice. In the midst of the Cuban crisis, when an American spy plane strayed into Soviet air space despite the official grounding of all such flights, Kennedy remarked, "there's always some son of a bitch somewhere who doesn't get the word". Strangelove's plot hinges on just such a possibility: a nuclear bomber that cannot be recalled because its encrypted radio systems are damaged soon after receiving the 'strike' command codes from an insane Air Force general.

From crisis to crisis

The Cuban crisis is familiar to anyone with a grasp of 20th-century history. However, a more terrifying crisis occurred in November 1983. What made it so serious was the fact that hardly anyone understood what was happening. During Operation Able Archer 83, some 19,000 US soldiers were airlifted into Europe under radio silence. The exercise 'script' envisioned Soviet incursions into Finland and Norway, followed by a Nato defence of its allies and an escalation of conventional combat into chemical, and eventually, nuclear war. Russia wasn't so sure that this was a simulation; all its forces were placed on alert.

Caspar Weinberger, the US Secretary of Defense at the time, admitted in an unpublished interview that "the line between a realistic exercise and what could be preparations for an attack is sometimes quite blurred". He wasn't kidding. According to papers held at the US National Security Archive in Washington, there was "a genuine belief on the part of Soviet leaders that the US was planning a nuclear first strike".

In fact, armageddon had nearly been triggered two months earlier. In 1983, there were 4.7 billion people on the planet. It seems that just one of them - Stanislav Petrov, a 44-year-old lieutenant colonel - may singlehandedly have saved us all. How? By refusing to believe his machinery.

On the night of 26 September 1983, Petrov was alone at 'Serpukhov-15', an early warning station 100km south of Moscow. Data from monitoring satellites indicated that five US Minuteman missiles were hurtling towards Russia. If Petrov had responded as he'd been trained, he would have alerted senior command and triggered a massive retaliatory launch of Soviet weapons. Instead, blatantly disobeying protocols, he sat on his hands, because he couldn't bring himself to believe that the US would fire so few missiles.

Sure enough, after further agonising minutes had passed, the signals faded and no more alerts were raised. Petrov eventually reported the unwelcome news to his superiors. Geosynchronous Oko ('Eye') warning satellites had picked up stray reflections from clouds, and ground computers had compounded the dangerous sensor errors. As so often in Soviet culture, the messenger was punished for the message. Petrov was reprimanded for failing to record events accurately in his log book.

The Doomsday Machine

America is not immune from such chaos. Eric Schlosser is author of 'Command and Control', a major analysis of nuclear weapons procedures. Among many dangerous lapses, he identified weapons officers fast asleep in silos with the doors wide open. On 19 September 1980 a Titan ICBM exploded inside its Arkansas silo. Luckily, the warhead didn't go off. Other warheads have been inadvertently dropped or just plain lost. In January 1966, a B-52 carrying four hydrogen bombs collided with a cargo plane and crashed near Palomares, Spain. Three bombs hit the ground hard, and two of them released plutonium dust. Over 1,400 tonnes of contaminated soil had to be removed from the crash site. The fourth weapon had to be recovered from the seabed, over 600m down.

One of the most appalling scenarios in 'Dr Strangelove' was the Doomsday Machine, a retaliatory device that would trigger a world-shattering explosion without human intervention. Evidence is emerging that a faint echo of such a device was constructed by the Soviets. Officially designated 'Perimetr', it was also called 'Mertvaya Ruka', or 'Dead Hand'. In the 1970s and early 1980s, ageing and infirm Soviet leaders such as Leonid Brezhnev and his successor, Yuri Andropov, feared that an American attack might occur too swiftly for them to respond. Dead Hand allowed missiles to be launched by junior officers in the field if communications failed between them and the old guard in the Kremlin.

Currently, the risk of nuclear war between nation states isn't keeping us awake at night, but a less predictable threat from militant groups does scare security agencies. The Council on Foreign Relations in Washington DC insists that "widespread corruption in Russia and other former Soviet countries have fed concerns about loose nukes". While no certain evidence has emerged that entire warheads have gone missing, "security at Russia's nuclear storage sites remains worrisome", and "there is ample evidence of a significant black market in nuclear materials". Sleep well, everyone.

Further information

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Weaponry: Who's Got Bombs?

At the height of the Cold War in the mid-1980s, there were some 70,000 nuclear weapons distributed among four nations: Russia, America, Britain and France. Today, there are still at least 10,000 viable warheads.

Security: What's the password?

In 2004, Bruce G Blair, president of the Center for Defence Information at the Brookings Institution in Washington DC, interviewed former US secretary of defence Robert McNamara, who asserted, confidently, that he and John F Kennedy imposed secret missile launch codes in the early 1960s. Blair, who served as a missile silo officer in the 1970s, knew something than McNamara didn't. "The unlock code remained constant throughout the Cold War. It was OOOOOOOO." Fortunately, additional safeguards were in place, including the requirement for two men to turn separate keys before a launch.

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