Dr. Strangelove Assignment

Dan Lindley, September 8, 2009 ; v.4.2(long). (1)

What I learned since I stopped worrying and studied the movie:

A Teaching Guide to Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove (2)

released 1963/64 in the height of the Cold War

Note: I would very appreciate hearing from anyone, especially how they heard of these notes, how they are using them, and any suggestions for improvements.

Thank you, Dan Lindley, dlindley "at" nd.edu


 John Pike of the Federation of American Scientists once said to me: "Everything there is to know about nuclear strategy can be learned from Dr. Strangelove." Was he right? Almost. Analysis of Dr. Strangelove reveals that "Everything" is only a mild overstatement. This article is a teaching guide to Dr. Strangelove and covers four related issues. First, it uses the film as a springboard to teach about the meaning and subtleties of deterrence, the security dilemma, arms races and spirals, misperceptions, mutually assured destruction (MAD), relative vs. absolute gains concerns, transparency, and civil-military relations. Second, it teaches about Cold War history by putting these concepts into their historical context. Third, it shows how closely Dr. Strangelove parallels actual events and policies. From delegation of command authority to advocacy of pre-emption, Dr. Strangelove makes us laugh at what was and is terrifyingly close to reality. Finally, this guide helps viewers understand some of the jokes and references within the movie, and offers some background on why the movie was made.

 This article starts with analyses of various aspects of nuclear strategy and Cold War history highlighted by Dr. Strangelove. I then offer a time line to more efficiently present other lessons from the movie. I conclude with a description of the genesis of the film. Without further ado, let's get on the hump, we've got some appreciatin' to do.

 Dr. Strangelove is a black and sarcastic comedy about a commander of a U.S. Air Force Base, General Jack D. Ripper, who diverts his B-52 bombers from airborne alert to an attack on the Soviet Union with nuclear weapons. This threatens to set off a doomsday device which endangers all life on the surface of earth.

The doomsday weapon is unrealistic. But, if, on the other hand, you think of it as analogous to mutually assured destruction (the near total destruction of the U.S. and Soviet Union that would have occurred in a real nuclear war), then almost everything that happens in the movie might have actually happened. It is a frightening reality in which the U.S. and the Soviet Union were constantly ready to destroy each other within an hour. Unlikely and improbable, yes. Possible, yes.

 There are two perverse, sad, weird things that this film highlights. The first is the nuclear standoff. The U.S. and Soviet Union could destroy each other. The second is the range of procedures and strategies involved in maintaining this standoff. How did we get into a position where we had bombers constantly in the air, already well on their way to their targets? Why might individual base commanders have had the authority to use nuclear weapons at their own discretion? Why were our forces on hair trigger alert? Why might a doomsday device seem to be a logical step?

 The single, simple answer to these questions is the U.S.' (and Soviet) quest to make nuclear deterrence credible. Think about deterrence and the need for credibility as you read this and watch the film.

Finally, remember that the U.S. and Russians can still easily destroy each other and that several other countries have nuclear weapons. The Cold War is over, but nuclear danger is not. When the film was made, there were 34,000 nuclear weapons on earth. In 2000, there were about 32,000. In 2006, 27,000. The doomsday device is alive and well.

Nuclear Strategy and the Cold War

The Definition of Deterrence

Dr. Strangelove defines deterrence when he says: "Deterrence is the art of producing in the mind of the enemy... the fear to attack" (55:09) (3)

 Note that deterrence is an art, not a science. This is because deterrence requires fear. How and whether one can produce fear depends not just on one's own capabilities and resolve, but also on the adversary's values and emotional state (hence,mind). Influencing others' minds is an art, in part because determining what others value and feel is not a science. Dr. Strangelove might have added that deterrence works when the fear to attack is sufficient to prevent the attack.

The Necessity of Communication for Effective Deterrence

 Deterrence only works if the threats that are supposed to cause fear are communicated to the adversary. No threats made, no fear created. This point is made by Dr. Strangelove when he says: "Yes, but the... whole point of the doomsday machine... is lost... if you keep it a secret! Why didn't you tell the world, eh?" (56:29)

The Logic and Illogic of Nuclear Deterrence

 When Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) is achieved, it becomes illogical to ever use nuclear weapons, no matter the scenario. If you attack, you will get clobbered. And if you are struck first, there little to gain nothing to gain from retaliating. Deterrence will have failed and retaliation risks further strikes and more fallout. (4) Ironically, MAD makes nuclear use so incredible that deterrence may actually suffer unless the credibility of suicide (or further damage) can be restored. The two ways of making retaliation credible are by making retaliation automatic or by introducing illogic and uncertainty.

Automatic means devising something which will ensure retaliation no matter what. A doomsday machine fills the bill. Ruling out "human meddling" is crucial because one must make the incredible threat of suicide credible. Dr. Strangelove explains this logic:

President Merkin Muffley: "But, how is it possible for this thing to be triggered automatically, and at the same time impossible to untrigger?" (54:42)

Strangelove: Mr. President, it is not only possible, it is essential. That is the whole idea of this machine, you know. Deterrence is the art of producing in the mind of the enemy... the fear to attack. And so, because of the automated and irrevocable decision making process which rules out human meddling, the doomsday machine is terrifying. It's simple to understand. And completely credible, and convincing.

Although it may not be fair to condemn the automated response doomsday device due to a single slip up, the film invalidates the wisdom of that machine by highlighting its dangers. Would any state cede control of their weapons to computers and sensors? (5) So, the problem remains: how to make the incredible credible. A fallback strategy is to introduce illogic, uncertainty, and lack of control into nuclear strategy and nuclear command and control. Akin to throwing the steering wheel out the car window when engaged in a game of chicken, allowing base commanders to issue strikes is a good example of making retaliation more likely by giving up centralized control of one's forces.

Deterrence is enhanced when nukes might go off whenever the situation becomes hairy. If the other side doesn't know who controls the weapons and under what circumstances authorization for their use gets "devolved" to lower levels of command, then maybe they won't start something in the first place. This was particularly relevant in central Europe where there were thousands or tens of thousands of tactical nuclear weapons (tactical for us, strategic for the Europeans; most of these weapons were larger than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs). How would the Sovs know who controlled these weapons? Wouldn't the Sovs know that lower level commanders might gain control of nuclear weapons and would be highly motivated to use them if they risked being overrun? How could a full scale nuclear war be stopped if nuclear weapons in Europe started going off (remember that many of our nuclear delivery systems including tactical bombers, cruise missiles, and Pershing missiles could reach well into Russia, even all the way to Moscow)? These uncertainties may have been designed to create enough fear to prevent an attack in the first place.

 This exchange (29:00) detailing Plan R explains devolution of authority:

General "Buck" Turgidson: "Plan R is an emergency war plan in which a lower echelon commander may order nuclear retaliation after a sneak attack if the normal chain of command is disrupted. You approved it, sir. You must remember. Surely you must recall, sir, when Senator Buford made that big hassle about our deterrent lacking credibility. The idea was for plan R to be a sort of retaliatory safeguard."

President Muffley: "A safeguard?"

Turgidson: "I admit the human element seems to have failed us here. But the idea was to discourage the Russkies from any hope that they could knock out Washington, and yourself, sir, as part of a general sneak attack, and escape retaliation because of lack of proper command and control."

 The plan of Plan R is to make deterrence more credible by the threat of losing central control. The film highlights the tradeoffs involved... Loss of control is exacerbated by the intentional inability to communicate with the planes while in the air (via the CRM-114). (6) Individually, devolution and prevention of false communication seem like good ideas. But when put together as part of one plan, they combine to make Ripper's orders nearly impossible to reverse. (7)

Note too the influence of domestic politics (Senator Buford). In the U.S., it is something of a 3rdrail to be seen as 'soft on defense.' This makes it easier (though not always easy) for hawks to corner opponents, win debates, and influence policy.

The Precariousness of Mad During the Late 1950s and Early 1960s

 Seen in the speech which ends when General Turgidson says: "We would therefore prevail, and suffer only modest and acceptable civilian casualties from their remaining force which would be badly damaged and uncoordinated." (36:02) Turgidson continues to define "modest and acceptable:" "Mr. President, I'm not saying we wouldn't get our hair mussed. But I do say... no more than ten to twenty million killed, tops. Uh... depending on the breaks." (36:56)

 If it is possible to imagine fighting a nuclear war with acceptable casualties, then it is possible to imagine victory in a nuclear war. And if victory is possible, then MAD does not exist. It is hard to deter someone who thinks victory is possible. As Dr. Strangelove would say, there is not enough fear to attack. While the definition of acceptable may be in eyes of the beholder, the biggest danger occurs when MAD exists, but advisors and politicians still think victory is possible. False hopes for victory can lead to disaster. As Geoffrey Blainey notes:"most wars were likely to end in the defeat of at least one nation which had expected victory." (8)

 It is not good for generals (or other advisors) to be telling the president that victory is possible when it is not. Turgidson advised striking first in the movie. Even more ominously, so did several military and civilian advisors to President Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Had we engaged in nuclear combat, toe to toe with the Russkies in 1962, we would have gotten more than our hair mussed, at least in my book. This is one reason why it is dangerous to build first-strike weapons (or defenses whose effectiveness is uncertain). They may lead to semi-plausible theories of victory that may be whispered in a president's ear during a crisis.

Advocacy of Pre-emption

 Although many believe that the U.S. would never consider pre-emption, or make it an official strategy, the U.S. has never been willing to make a no first-use pledge. Scott Sagan notes that one of the U.S.' most important early Cold War strategy documents, NSC-68, embraces pre-emption.(9)

 Compare the language of Turgidson with that of Air Force General Curtis LeMay:

Turgidson (34:52): "One, our hopes for recalling the 843rd bomb wing are quickly being reduced to a very low order of probability. Two, in less than fifteen minutes from now the Russkies will be making radar contact with the planes. Three, when the do, they are going to go absolutely ape, and they're gonna strike back with everything they've got. Four, if prior to this time, we have done nothing further to suppress their retaliatory capabilities, we will suffer virtual annihilation. Now, five, if on the other hand, we were to immediately launch an all out and coordinated attack on all their airfields and missile bases we'd stand a damn good chance of catching them with their pants down. Hell, we got a five to one missile superiority as it is. We could easily assign three missiles to every target, and still have a very effective reserve force for any other contingency. Now, six, an unofficial study which we undertook of this eventuality, indicated that we would destroy ninety percent of their nuclear capabilities. We would therefore prevail, and suffer only modest and acceptable civilian casualties from their remaining force which would be badly damaged and uncoordinated."

President Muffley: "General, it is the avowed policy of our country never to strike first with nuclear weapons."

LeMay: "If I see that the Russians are amassing their planes for an attack...I'm going to knock the shit out of them before they take off the ground."

Robert Sprague, co-chair of the Gaither Committee, responded: "But General LeMay, that's not national policy."

LeMay: "I don't care, it's my policy. That's what I'm going to do." (10)

 Not quite the same scenario, and there are times when pre-emption might be wise. But isn't the commander-in-chief supposed to be in on launching a full scale nuclear war?

If we look at crises more generally, both scenarios illustrate their dangers. It makes me very sorry to think of LeMay's contemplated actions and then think how likely it would be for the Soviets to alert and prepare their airborne/strategic forces in a crisis (11)....But you may be very sorry, even sorrier than I am, when you read the section on civil-military relations below and note that the U.S. military put its forces on high alert during the Cuban Missile Crisis -- without the knowledge of the President. What if there were any LeMayskis on the Soviet side? Incentives for first strikes can increase drastically in a crisis, and things get worse when the leadership is not fully in control of its own state's crisis management strategy, tactics, and assets.

The Security Dilemma (and how it drives arms races)

 The security dilemma is that what country A does to improve its security usually diminishes the security of country B. This is because as country A buys weapons, the relative strength of country B is decreased. The security dilemma underlies the spiral model of arms races in which each country builds up its arms responding to or fearing the adversary's buildup. A security dilemma is a zero-sum situation in which any state's gain is another's loss. (12)

When states are deeply suspicious of each other, the zero-sum nature of their competition is even more pernicious. If each state can not trust the other to abide by agreements, then no agreements are possible to try to despiral their arms races or tensions. Suspicions and the security dilemma lead states to become pre-occupied with their relative position against others. When concerns over relative position are high, chances for cooperation are again diminished because cooperation by definition yields positive-sum results. Thus, suspicious states facing severe security dilemmas and preoccupied by relative gains concerns are...just like the U.S. and the Soviets as depicted in Dr. Strangelove when:

Ь          Ambassador De Sadeski explains why the Soviets built the doomsday device: "There are those of us who fought against it, but in the end we could not keep up with the expense involved in the arms race, the space race, and the peace race. And at the same time our people grumbled for more nylons and washing machines. Our doomsday scheme cost us just a small fraction of what we'd been spending on defense in a single year. But the deciding factor was when we learned that your country was working along similar lines, and we were afraid of a doomsday gap" (53:14). (13)


Ь          General Buck Turgidson says: "Gee, I wish we had one of them doomsday machines"(55:25).


Ь          General Buck Turgidson says: "I mean, we must be... increasingly on the alert to prevent them from taking over other mineshaft space, in order to breed more prodigiously than we do, thus, knocking us out in superior numbers when we emerge! Mr. President, we must not allow... a mineshaft gap!" (95:10)

Note: doomsday envy is an extreme but illustrative case. Turgidson wants one, even though having two is redundant and even having one is illogical. But arms races are, in the language of game theory, mutual defection. They are not a realization of common interest.

Relative Gains and Zero-sum Games

Relative gains concerns, and the zero-sum nature of the Cold War, hindered arms control and other forms of cooperation between the U.S. and the Soviets. Turgidson epitomizes relative gains concerns. For example, he sees no value in the transparency provided by Ambassador De Sadeski's presence in the war room and always calculates things in a zero sum or relative gains perspective re the Soviet Union. Any advantage for them is bad for us, and vice versa. Even after 90 years in a mineshaft, after billions of people are killed, it is still us against them...


 Many of Jervis' Hypotheses on Misperception (14) come to life here. Examples include: thinking the enemy is more evil than it really is, not realizing one's own faults, and not understanding how one is perceived by the other side. Ripper's fluoridation commie conspiracy (58:45) scare is probably the prime example of exaggerated evil (among many examples) in the film. Similarly, Turgidson's analysis of inferior Soviet technological capabilities or how the U.S. was perceived by the Soviets illustrates the other examples. He is not aware that we may have been somewhat at fault for spirals.

Cold War Paranoia

 Many of those who watch Dr. Strangelove today may not have reached political awareness during the Cold War. The paranoia exhibited by Turgidson and the whole defense posture seen in the film is not much of an exaggeration. We were really paranoid and we were on a hair trigger nuclear posture with armed airborne planes for a number of years. Senator McCarthy ran un-American witch trial hearings to denounce communist infiltrators in government, Hollywood, and other important and influential industries and sectors. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) pursued, denounced, and ruined the lives of suspected but often unproved traitors. On the other hand, the Soviet Union was in fact often more evil than even its opponents dreamed (killing its own citizens, environmental degradation, a huge biological warfare program, etc).

People often think of the 1950s as a time of pax americana and white picket fences. But it is worth remembering that it was also a time that our schoolchildren hid under their desks as they practiced responding to a nuclear attack.

Mirror Imaging (and hypocrisy)

This is a frequent theme of the movie. Sometimes Kubrick uses mirror imaging to make statements about the Cold War or humanity more generally. This sword of sarcasm is often targeted against the military. Examples abound:

Turgidson: "I said, Premier Kissov is a degenerate atheist commie!" (40:08) (15) [This comes from the man who was just with Miss Foreign Affairs and who shows a keen interest in the end of the monogamous relationship. In his defense, Buck does not sport a wedding ring in the film (but this was even less determinate in the 'good old days' than it is now).]

Or this exchange in which Admiral Randolph offers Ambassador De Sadeski a cigar (39:12):

Admiral: "Try one of these Jamaican cigars, ambassador, they're pretty good."

De Sadeski: "Thank you, no. I do not support the work of imperialist stooges."

Admiral: "Oh, only commie stooges, huh?" (16)

Civil-Military Relations

 Civil-military relations are important because they determine who controls the armed forces and the extent to which the armed forces control the country. In general, Americans are lucky in that they have little to fear from military coups or other rogue military action. However, Dr. Strangelove's depiction of poor civil-military relations is unfortunately similar to what happened during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Dr. Strangelove asks the question: Is the President in control of the U.S.' nuclear weapons? Generals Turgidson and Ripper do not respect the President, the President is not in control of Ripper, and Turgidson borders on insubordinate. Compare Ripper's words to those of an Air Force General describing politicians during the Cuban Missile Crisis (25:55):

Ripper: "Mandrake, do you recall what Clemenceau once said about war?"

Group Captain (British) Lionel Mandrake: "No. I don't think I do sir, no."

Ripper: "He said war was too important to be left to the Generals. When he said that, fifty years ago, he might have been right. But today, war is too important to be left to politicians. They have neither the time, the training, nor the inclination for strategic thought."

 Air Force Lieutenant General David Burchinal (U.S.A.F. Chief of Staff LeMay's deputy for operations), speaks about the Cuban Missile Crisis and the value of strategic superiority:

"It [value of superiority] was totally missed by the Kennedy administration... They did not understand what had been created and handed to them... Fortunately, there was enough panic in Washington when they saw those missiles going in... they gave only the broadest indication of what they wanted in terms of support for the President. So we were able at the military level, from the JCS on down (without involving the politicians) to put SAC on a one-third airborne alert, to disperse part of the force to civilian airfields [and take other alert measures] ... These were things that would be visible to the Soviets... We could have written our own book at the time, but our politicians did not understand what happens when you have such a degree of superiority as we had, or they simply didn't know how to use it. They were busily engaged in saving face for the Soviets and making concessions, giving up the IRBMs, the Thors and Jupiters deployed overseas -- when all we had to do was write our own ticket." [Emphasis added]

A few moments later in this interview, U.S.A.F. General Leon Johnson (Chairman, Net Evaluation Subcommittee, National Security Council) said about the political leadership: "They were very good at putting out brave words, but they didn't do a bloody thing to back them up except what, inadvertently, we did.

To which LeMay confirmed: "That was the mood prevalent with the top civilian leadership; you are quite correct" (17)

 Obviously, Burchinal, LeMay, and Johnson had no respect for the Kennedy administration's "inclination for strategic thought." They imply that they gladly ordered alert actions perhaps earlier and probably over and above those specified by the political leadership.

In fact, President Kennedy and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara did order nuclear forces alerts, these alerts were sweeping and choreographed (DEFCON 3 timed with President Kennedy's televised address to the nation about the crisis on October 22, and DEFCON 2 on October 24), and, after the crisis, the President credited these alerts with giving the U.S. "relative freedom of action" (18) This is quite an odd discrepancy with the generals' account of the President's inaction and lack of strategic thought. Whatever the case, poor civil-military relations are evident.

U.S.-centric and Inconsiderate Behavior, Even Towards Our Special Friends, the British

 Leave it to General Jack D. Ripper, trying to get British Group Captain Lionel Mandrake to help him defend Burpelson AFB (51:10):

Ripper: "Just come over here and help me with this [machine gun] belt."

Mandrake: (prone on couch) I ah, I haven't had very much experience, you know, with those... sort of machines, Jack. I only ever pressed a button in my old Spitfire."

Ripper: "Mandrake, in the name of Her Majesty and the Continental Congress come here and feed me this belt, boy!"

Mandrake: "Jack, I'd love to come. But, what's happened, you see, is the string in my leg's gone."

Ripper: "The what?"

Mandrake: "The string. I never told you, but, you see, I've got a gammy leg. Oh dear. Gone. Shot off."

Ripper: (Karate-chops the receiver, cycling the action.) "Mandrake, come over here. The Red Coats are coming. Come on!"

Maybe not quite the right motivational speech for the British exchange officer!

A Perhaps Marxist View of Who Really Runs Things in the U.S.

 This exchange (75:05) develops after Mandrake discovers the recall code for the B-52s and needs some change to use a pay phone to call the President. The colonel, who wouldn't go into battle with loose change in his pockets, led the army's attack on the air force base.

Mandrake: "Colonel, that Coca-Cola machine, I want you to shoot the lock off it. There may be some change in there."

Colonel Bat Guano: "That's private property."

Mandrake: (exasperated) "Colonel, can you possibly imagine what is going to happen to you, your frame, outlook, way of life and everything, when they learn that you have obstructed a telephone call to the President of the United States? Can you imagine? Shoot it off! Shoot! With the gun! That's what the bullets are for, you twit!" [a great line in itself!]

Guano: "Ok. I'm gonna get your money for you. But if you don't get the President of the Unites States on that phone, you know what's going to happen to you?"

Mandrake: "What?"

Guano: "You're going to have to answer to the Coca-Cola Company."

Notes, Comments, and Film Trivia (19)

 6:26 (DVD time) and several points thereafter: note the Strategic Air Command (S.A.C.; U.S.A.F.) slogan "Peace is Our Profession." Historically accurate motto. Factually accurate if the main mission in 1962/3 was deterrence and if you believe the A.F. believed that deterrence is its main mission. In fact, many believed in pre-emption. The motto thus becomes ironic when one thinks that the A.F. has often been among the most aggressive and offensively oriented of the services. (20) This may help deterrence in some cases, but may also lead to incentives to pre-empt on both sides, arms races, instability, etc. Note also that many of the panels in the background are football plays (lateral, etc).

 9:25 The centerfold's nickname is Miss Foreign Affairs (note the name of the journal). She is also General Turgidson's personal assistant. From air to air refueling through cigars and fluids to the end of the monogamous relationship, references to sex pervade the film. (21)

 12:24 Our first view of James Earl Jones playing Lieutenant Lothar Zogg, bombardier on the Leper Colony. I suspect it was highly improbable for blacks to be found on strategic bombers. Wishful thinking by Kubrick? In 1962, only 1.5% and 1.6% of U.S.A.F. 1st and 2ndlieutenants were black, respectively. My hunch is that even fewer of these blacks served on strategic bombers. (22)

Other Leper Colony notes: Slim Pickens, a.k.a. Major Kong, captain of the plane Leper Colony, was not told the movie was a comedy. To save money, Peter Sellers was originally supposed to play Major Kong, but allegedly had trouble developing the Western/cowboy accent. (23)

 12:50 The tune "When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again" begins, and Kong says:"Well boys, I reckon this is it: nuclear combat, toe to toe with the Russkies." Not just a famous line, but the scene also sets a useful mental tone for job talks, going in to ask the boss for a raise, etc.

 21:21 Kong reviews targeting: "Primary target, the ICBM complex at Laputa. (24) Target reference Yankee Golf Tango Three Six Zero. Thirty megaton nuclear device fused for airburst at ten thousand feet. Twenty megaton nuclear device will be used if first malfunctions. Otherwise proceed to secondary target, missile complex seven miles east of Barshaw."

I do not believe the bombloads on the B-52s in the movie are accurate. Instead of having 2 bombs in 20-30 megaton range, the Leper Colony likely had between 4 (B-52D) and 8 (B-52G&H) bombs in the single megaton range. (25) An earlier loadout from the mega-bomb age was 4 10 megaton bombs. (26) Some bombers added 2 - 4 200 kiloton short-range attack missiles (SRAMs) to the gravity bombs, presumably to aid penetration through defense suppression. It is also unlikely that bombers from any one wing had fail safe points encircling the entire Soviet Union, ranging from the Persian Gulf to the Arctic Ocean (as shown on the threat board). Finally, it is not clear in the film whether the wing is participating in a special operation 'Dropkick' (27:40) or whether they are simply part of routine airborne alert force.

 22:41 The airport depicted on the wall of Ripper's office is Heathrow outside London. (27)

 25:23 This speech on war and politicians and on communist subversion touches on civil-military relations. It also accurately reflects the suspicions of the day. Some did suspect that fluoridation was a commie conspiracy, and the only part of the speech that probably could not be cobbled together from the New York Times is the bodily fluids reference.

 27:16 The folder says "World Targets in Megadeaths." The folder below it is: "War Alert Action Book"

 26:20 Does something like Plan R help deterrence? At what price? Can you have something like Plan R while also making sure that this films scenario does not happen? See discussion above for more on tradeoffs made while making deterrence credible.

 31:42 A nice little spat between the Air Force and the Army about whose forces are more effective. A good example of inter-service rivalry, a symptom of bureaucratic and organizational politics.

 32:39 President Muffley: "There's nothing to figure out General Turgidson. This man is obviously a psychotic."

Turgidson: "Well, I'd like to hold off judgment on a thing like that, sir, until all the facts are in.

Muffley: (anger rising) "General Turgidson, when you instituted the human reliability tests, you assured me there was no possibility of such a thing ever occurring."

Turgidson: "Well I don't think it's quite fair to condemn a whole program because of a single slip up sir."

Fact: there really was a Personnel Reliability Program. (28)

33:53 Turgidson: "Mr. President, we are rapidly approaching a moment of truth both for ourselves as human beings and for the life of our nation. Now, the truth is not always a pleasant thing, but it is necessary now make a choice, to choose between two admittedly regrettable, but nevertheless, distinguishable post-war environments: one where you got twenty million people killed, and the other where you got a hundred and fifty million people killed."

This is almost exactly something Herman Kahn, an early prominent nuclear strategist, would have said. I am currently plowing through his writings to locate the exact (or closest) phrase, but since there are some 17,000 such phrases....For example, Table 3 in On Thermonuclear War: "Tragic but Distinguishable Postwar States." (29) However, it is Dr. Strangelove who is even more closely modeled after Kahn. Dr. Strangelove worked for the Bland Corporation, while Kahn worked for the Rand Corporation... (30)

 38:00 Referring to letting the Russian ambassador into the war room, Turgidson says: "...he'll see everything. He'll see the big board!" President Muffley responds: "That is precisely the idea, General. That is precisely the idea."

This is a successful effort to increase transparency and calm fears and reduce misperceptions. Without De Sadeski's presence in the War Room, the Russians might well have been convinced that the U.S. had launched a sneak attack.

39:04: Following the survival kit contents check, Kong says: "shoot, a fellah could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all that stuff...." The word Vegas was dubbed in for "Dallas" in the original script because the film came out soon after the assassination of President Kennedy. (31)

 39:53 De Sadeski suggests that the U.S. try the telephone number: B86543 to get reach of Premier Kissov (who is drunk and apparently doing something illicit and sexual). Historical note: the early Hotline was a teletype machine, not a telephone. I am skeptical that voice communications could have been achieved so easily, especially with Omsk. (32)

 40:25 Perhaps the most famous line in the movie: Muffley (to Turgidson, and De Sadeski who is on Turgidson's lap): "Gentlemen, you can't fight in here. This is the War Room!"

 40:32 De Sadeski repeats himself almost exactly when accusing Turgidson of planting the camera on him: "This clumsy fool tried (40:32)/attempted (40:45) to plant that ridiculous camera on me." This highlights repetitive Cold War propaganda: 'all their fault, all their fault, all their fault.' The Soviets were better than the Americans at lying repeatedly in the hopes that the lie would eventually become the truth.

 50:15 Ripper: "Do you realize that fluoridation is the most monstrously conceived and dangerous communist plot we have ever had to face?" Oddly enough, many people in the heat of the Cold War did think fluoridation was a commie plot. (33)

 54:04 The mention of Bland corporation makes fun of the Rand corporation, a think tank which conducts high quality, and usually mainstream government-commissioned studies.

 66:27 In the book, the missile which gets them is likely a conventional explosive missile (which follows a misguided decoy missile, which accidentally follows the Leper Colony instead of veering away and decoying the attacking missile). However, the film's anti-aircraft missile may well be a nuclear-tipped anti-aircraft missile. These were not uncommon in those days. We used nukes and missiles (and so did the Soviets) for almost any purpose possible during the early to mid-Cold War years. I think it was a nuclear missile because, based on the radar tracking, it exploded at just less than a mile range (by voice, even further by scope) and the damage to the plane seems mostly from shockwave and possibly electro-magnetic pulse. A conventional missile would not have harmed the Leper Colony at such range, and if it did explode closer, the damage would likely have been from shrapnel.

 70:52: Lieutenant B. Goldberg (Goldie) says: "All the radio gear is out, including the CRM-114. I think the auto-destruct mechanism got hit and blew itself up." A personal favorite.

 81:15+ Note the shadow of the B-52 on the ground. But no! It's a B-17. There is something dreadfully wrong somewhere...    Re this shadow, I received a brilliant comment from  reader on 10/27/2001

Professor Lindley, I'm thoroughly enjoying reading your narrative on this film. However, I'd like to offer an alternate opinion about several scenes in which a B-17 shadow appears on the ground instead of a B-52.


You wrote that something was dreadfully wrong somewhere, but on the contrary I believe that this is just more of Kubrick's subtle humor. The B-17 "Leper Colony" appeared in "Twelve O'Clock High" (1947) as the aircraft to which General Savage's nemesis Col. Gately was assigned as aircraft commander, receiving every "dead beat" crew person from the bomb group as punishment for Gately's supposed "yellow streak a mile wide." What better comedic flashback than to show the B-17 "Leper Colony" shadow on the ground as the B-52 of the same name is flying overhead?"

 91:23+ Why does Dr. Strangelove confuse the President with Hitler? Why does he struggle with his hand? Is it good vs. evil? The old German Nazi struggling to get out? (34) It could also be a vehicle to further critique military traditions, etc. From the script:


"Of course it would be absolutely vital that our top government and military men be included to foster and impart the required principles of leadership and tradition. Slams down left fist. Right arm rises in stiff Nazi salute. Arrrrr!"

            On a historical note, many of the U.S.' early nuclear weapons and rocket scientists were Germans plucked from Germany (where most had been working on Hitler's weapons programs) at the end of WWII. Werner von Braun, a key designer of the German V-2 rocket, is one particularly famous example.

 95:36 While I hate to be critical before the facts are in, it is tremendously unrealistic to program a doomsday machine to go off after only one explosion (for obvious reasons!!).

The Genesis of the Film (35)

 Dr. Strangelove is based on Red Alert by Peter George (who used the pen name Peter Bryant). George was an RAF major in military intelligence. While serving at a U.S. airbase in the U.K, a B-47 roared overhead, shaking a precariously perched coffee cup and sending it crashing to the floor. Someone said 'that's the way World War III will start' and George was off to the races with an idea to write Red Alert. George wrote the book in three weeks.

 The story of how Red Alert inspired the film goes back to 1958 when someone handed Thomas Schelling the book during an airplane flight. As the first detailed scenario of how someone might start a nuclear war, Schelling found the book sufficiently interesting to purchase and give away around four dozen copies. Over lunch with a magazine editor, Schelling discussed writing an article on accidental nuclear war, and mentioned Red Alert. The editor suggested opening up the article with a review of the literature on WWIII. So, Schelling wrote the article and reviewed Red Alert, On the Beach, and Alas Babylon. The magazine rejected the article, but it was soon published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. (36) A friend of Schelling who wrote for the Observer of London got the Bulletin article reprinted in full as the lead story in the features section. Stanley Kubrick read the newspaper story, then the Bulletin article, called up the publishers of Red Alert, and got in touch with George. Kubrick, Schelling, and George then sat down for an afternoon to discuss how to make the movie.

 When the book was written, intercontinental missiles were not a factor in the strategic balance. But by the time they discussed the movie, both ground and submarine launched missiles were gaining in importance compared to bombers. Kubrick, Schelling, and George spent much time trying to see of they could start the war and play out the crisis with missiles. They could not. Only bombers provided enough time to make all the war room scenes possible. In particular, they wanted to create the strategic choice of whether the President would exploit the bomber launch to send in follow-on forces.(37) With missiles, the war would have started much too quickly. One theme of the book was how hard it was to actually start a nuclear war. Schelling noted that this theme got a bit lost in the film.

 According to Schelling, another concern of Kubrick's was to avoid insulting or attacking the U.S. Air Force. (38) Kubrick found himself in a bind on this because he couldn't start the war without a psychopathic officer. This was one reason the characters in the film are at times so exaggerated and unbelievable. In the end, a major reason the film is so comedically effective is the way it alternates between absolute realism (such as in its military standard operating procedures and terminology) and incredible zaniness. (39) According to Terry Southern, George'sRed Alert helped set the stage for deadpan realism in Dr. Strangelove: "Perhaps the best thing about the book was the fact that the national security regulations in England, concerning what could and could not be published, were extremely lax by American standards. George had been able to reveal details concerning the "fail-safe" aspect of nuclear deterrence (for example, the so-called black box and the CRIM (sic) Discriminator) -revelations that, in the spy-crazy U.S.A. of the Cold War era, would have been downright treasonous. Thus the entire complicated technology of nuclear deterrence in Dr. Strangelove was based on a bedrock of authenticity that gave the film what must have been its greatest strength: credibility." (40)

George was concerned that his American friends would hold the film against him. (41) Schelling wrote to reassure him, to say that was not true, that he liked the film and would be welcome as a friend on any future visit to the U.S. Later, Schelling wrote another letter saying he would be bringing his family to London, but George's wife wrote back that George would not be responding...

 Peter George committed suicide in June of 1966, perhaps in part because he suffered "fear and pain about the threat of nuclear war." (42) One theme of this paper is that many of the fears raised by Peter George and in Dr. Strangelove were remarkably close to reality. The film makes fun of it, but the world was (and still is) a very scary place. Hopefully this article has made this clear, especially in its sections on the logic of deterrence and the devolution of authority, civil-military relations, pre-emption, the precariousness of MAD, and in the comparisons of film language to real language. After much scholarship and experience, these dangers are more easily seen in the year 2000. But in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Peter George was a pioneer in helping make us aware of these dangers. We should be grateful.

Appendix 1: Actor Credits (43)

Peter Sellers ...Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake/President Merkin Muffley/Dr. Strangelove (44)

George C. Scott ...General "Buck" Turgidson

Sterling Hayden ...General Jack D. Ripper

Keenan Wynn ...Colonel "Bat" Guano

Slim Pickens ...Major T. J. "King" Kong

Peter Bull ...Ambassador de Sadesky (it is De Sadeski in the book Dr. Strangelove)

James Earl Jones ...Lieutenant Lothar Zogg

Tracy Reed ...Miss Scott

Jack Creley ...Mr. Staines

Frank Berry ...Lieutenant H. R. Dietrich

Robert O'Neil ...Admiral Randolph

Glenn Beck ...Lieutenant W. D. Kivel

Roy Stephens ...Frank

Shane Rimmer ...Captain G. A. "Ace" Owens

Hal Galili ...Burpelson Defense Team Member

Paul Tamarin ...Lieutenant B. Goldberg

Laurence Herder ...Burpelson Defense Team Member

Gordon Tanner ...General Faceman

John McCarthy ...Burpelson Defense Team Member

1. This article would not have been possible without the unwitting help of Feed Me Jack, Screen Door of Opportunity Steve, N. Bellicose, Nuk-n-Edit Mike, Ow'in Vegas, and many other members of the Cult of the Offensive. All mistakes are attributable to human error, but the above cast of characters did fool the human reliability program.

Ed. note: when talking about Dr. Strangelove, the film, the title is italicized. The character Dr. Strangelove is not italicized. The film was nominated for four academy awards in 1965: best Actor (Sellers), Director (Kubrick), Best Writing (Kubrick), and Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium (Peter George, Stanley Kubrick, ,Terry Southern). It is now third on the American Film Institute's list of the top 100 funniest films, and 26th on the AFI list of the top 100 American films.

2. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, screenplay by Stanley Kubrick, Peter George, and Terry Southern. Produced and directed by Stanley Kubrick. Based on the book by Peter Bryant (a.k.a. Peter George), Red Alert (New York, NY: Ace Books, 1958). The British title for Red Alert was Two Hours to Doom. The book based on the screenplay is: Peter George, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (New York, NY: Bantam Books, 1963. Published January, 1964). The film was scheduled for release on December 12, 1963, but was not shown until January 1964 due to President Kennedy's assassination in November 1963.

3. All times given are 'DVD' time: the time indicated on a DVD player as the movie shows (calibrated on a Pioneer DV-333. At 2:45 DVD time, the U.S.A.F. disclaimer starts scrolling up on the screen (use this to convert DVD time to VCR time). All quotes from the movie were taken from or verified using the continuity transcript at http://mach.me.queensu.ca/~bakhtiar/kubrick/(further source information not readily available), and the continuity script athttp://flo.mech.eng.usyd.edu.au/~norris/docs/strangelove.html , (from the webpages of Stuart Norris, Mechanical Engineering, University of Sydney, NSW 2006, Australia). The latter seems to be a cleaner version, and adds pictures. Obvious spelling mistakes have been corrected. An early version of the script is available at:http://www.lontano.org/FMA/arkiv/strangelove_production.html (from: f I L M m A N U S K R I P T a R K I V E N)

4. This is not true if it is possible to fight a controlled nuclear war. Controlled nuclear war would have been improbable under the conditions that prevailed during most of the Cold War. Massive nuclear triads and a full range of tactical and intermediate range weapons made it impossible to effectively knock out the adversary's forces while also calling into question each side's ability to control its own forces during a nuclear war.

5. The murderous ways of machines are highlighted by Kubrick again in 2001: A Space Odysseywhen the HAL 9000 computer attempts to kill the crew of the Jupiter mission. Note too that the very first piece of technology developed by pre-humans was a weapon (the deadly bone, an insight apparently catalyzed by the monolith). When the bone is thrown into the air, the satellite it 'becomes' is an orbiting nuclear weapon. See Jerome Agel, ed., The Making of Kubrick's 2001(New York, NY: Signet Books, 1970. Copyright Agel Books, 1970), caption in the unnumbered photo section.

6. Kubrick likes 114. "The name of the message decoder "CRM-114" is reused in the director'sA Clockwork Orange (1971) where the main character is being given "Serum 114"," fromhttp://www.sciflicks.com/dr_strangelove/facts.html . See also the Internet Movie Database athttp://amazon.imdb.com/ .

7. The dangers of unplanned interactions of subunits or subroutines in complex systems are explored at length in Scott D. Sagan, The Limits of Safety: Organizations, Accidents, and Nuclear Weapons (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993). Look under the term "interactive complexity." For historical notes on delegation of authority, see <<http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB45/>>; and for more on launch on warning see: <<http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB43/>>. Thanks to Tom Deligiannis, Doctoral Candidate, Department of Political Science, University of Toronto for these two sites (11/21/02).

8. Geoffrey Blainey, The Causes of War, 3 ed. (New York, NY: Free Press, 1988), pp. 144-145.

9. Moving Targets: Nuclear Strategy and Nuclear Security (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989), p. 20.

10. Fred Kaplan, The Wizards of Armageddon (New York, NY: Touchstone Books, 1983), p. 134.

11. Sagan argues against the traditional view that the Soviets did not alert their nuclear forces during the Cuban Missile Crisis. He acknowledges that the evidence either way remains scanty, but says that interviews and declassified U.S. documents suggest that Soviet forces were at least on partial, if not higher levels of alert. Sagan, Limits of Safety, pp. 142-145. The Soviets did alert Warsaw Pact Forces. NATO forces, in contrast, were purposely not put on very high alert (DEFCON 3) due to allied pressure, presidential directive, and fears of the SACEUR, Lauris Norstad, about escalation. See the National Security Archive chronology of the Cuban Missile Crisis, for October 22, 1962--2:14P.M. at:http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/nsa/cuba_mis_cri/cmcchron3.html .

12. Robert Jervis, "Offense, Defense, and the Security Dilemma," in Robert J. Art and Robert Jervis, International Politics, 3rd. ed. (New York, 1992), pp. 146-169.

13. President Muffley then comments: "This is preposterous. I've never approved of anything like that."De Sadeski responds: "Our source was the New York Times" (53:41). Many secrets are indeed revealed and much intelligence gathered in the Times, the Washington Post, and the Washington Times.

14. Robert Jervis, "Hypotheses on Misperception," in G. John Ikenberry, ed., American Foreign Policy: Theoretical Essays (Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman, and Co. 1989), pp. 461-482. See author website for a summary of these hypotheses and insights on how they exacerbate the security dilemma.

15. In Bryant/George, Red Alert, Kissov is Kissof, p. 47.

16. As De Sadeski reviews the table full of food, note how many deserts there are. This is because the original ending of the film was to be a pie fight. The best source on this is: http://www.geocities.com/SunsetStrip/Underground/9798/piefight.htm (no other information on this site is readily available).

17. Richard H. Kohn and Joseph P. Harahan, eds., Strategic Air Warfare: An Interview with Generals Curtis E. LeMay, Leon W. Johnson, David A. Burchinal, and Jack J. Catton(Washington, DC: Office of Air Force History, 1988), pp. 113-114, 119. Emphasis added. JCS is Joint Chiefs of Staff of the U.S. military. SAC is Strategic Air Command. IRBMs are Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles, including the Thors and Jupiters.

18. Sagan, The Limits of Safety, pp. 62-67. DEFCON is Defense Condition, and describes the alert levels for U.S. forces. This book describes the DEFCONs in detail on p. 64 and contains additional scary tales on civil-military relations (and a host of other accidents and 'unintentional' policies) during the Cuban Missile Crisis, as does Allison and Zelikow, Essence of Decision.

19. Additional trivia and interpretation may be found at: the Internet Movie Database athttp://amazon.imdb.com/ , as well as at:http://www.youknow.com/chris/essays/film/strangelove.html ;http://www-scf.usc.edu/~dsykes/drstrangelove.html ; http://www.sciflicks.com/dr_strangelove/ ;http://pages.prodigy.com/kubrick/kubds.htm ;http://www.indelibleinc.com/kubrick/films/strangelove/ ;http://wso.williams.edu:8000/~mhacker/strangelove2.html

20. See Carl H. Builder, The Masks of War: American Military Styles in Strategy and Analysis(Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, for the Rand Corporation, 1989), p. 136.

21. To more deeply penetrate the sexual aspects of the film, see Chris Sheridan's 1995 "All's Fair in War and Sex: Dr. Strangelove, Communication and the Primal Male Urges," at

Casual Danger Dialog: Imagine, if you will, the American president speaking over the telephone to the Soviet Premier in an extremely timid, friendly voice:

President Merkin Muffley: Now then, Dmitri, you know how we've always talked about the possibility of something going wrong with the Bomb... The Bomb, Dmitri... The hydrogen bomb! Well now, what happened is, ahm, one of our base commanders, he had a sort of... well, he went a little funny in the head, you know, just a little... funny. And, ah... he went and did a silly thing. Well, I'll tell you what he did: He ordered his planes... to attack your country... Ah, well, let me finish, Dmitri... Let me finish, Dmitri... Well listen, how do you think I feel about it? Can you imagine how I feel about it, Dmitri?... Why do you think I'm calling you? Just to say hello?... Of course I like to speak to you! Of course I like to say hello! Not now, but any time, Dmitri. I'm just calling up to tell you something terrible has happened. It's a friendly call. Of course it's a friendly call... Listen, if it wasn't friendly, you probably wouldn't have even got it.

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