[Paleopsych] NYT: Truth stranger than 'Strangelove'
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Fri Oct 15 21:09:42 UTC 2004
Truth stranger than 'Strangelove'
by Fred Kaplan NYT
Wednesday, October 13, 2004
Dr. Strangelove," Stanley Kubrick's 1964 film about nuclear-war plans
run amok, is widely heralded as one of the greatest satires in
American political or movie history. For its 40th anniversary,
Columbia TriStar is releasing a two-disc special-edition DVD next
One essential point should emerge from all the hoopla: "Strangelove"
is far more than a satire. In its own loopy way, the movie is a
remarkably fact-based and specific guide to some of the oddest, most
secretive chapters of the cold war.
As countless histories relate, Kubrick set out to make a serious film
based on a grim novel, "Red Alert," by Peter George, a Royal Air Force
officer. But the more research he did (reading more than 50 books,
talking with a dozen experts), the more lunatic he found the whole
subject, so he made a dark comedy instead. The result was wildly
iconoclastic: Released at the height of the cold war, not long after
the Cuban missile crisis, before the escalation in Vietnam, "Dr.
Strangelove" dared to suggest that our top generals might be bonkers
and that our well-designed system for preserving the peace was in fact
a doomsday machine.
What few people knew, at the time and since, was just how accurate
this film was. Its premise, plotline, some of the dialogue, even its
wildest characters eerily resembled the policies, debates and military
leaders of the day. The audience had almost no way of detecting these
similarities: Nearly everything about the bomb was shrouded in secrecy
back then. There was no Freedom of Information Act and little
investigative reporting on the subject. It was easy to laugh off "Dr.
Strangelove" as a comic book.
But the film's weird accuracy is evident in its very first scene, in
which a deranged base commander, preposterously named General Jack D.
Ripper (played by Sterling Hayden), orders his wing of B-52 bombers -
which are on routine airborne alert, circling a "fail-safe point" just
outside the Soviet border - to attack their targets inside the
U.S.S.R. with multimegaton bombs.
Once the pilots receive the order, they can't be diverted unless they
receive a coded recall message. And only General Ripper has the code.
The remarkable thing is, the fail-safe system that General Ripper
exploits was the real, top-secret fail-safe system at the time.
According to declassified Strategic Air Command histories, 12 B-52s -
fully loaded with nuclear bombs - were kept on constant airborne
alert. If they received a Go code, they went to war. This alert
system, known as Chrome Dome, began in 1961. It ended in 1968, after a
B-52 crashed in Greenland, spreading small amounts of radioactive
But until then, could some loony general have sent bombers to attack
Russia without a presidential order? Yes.
In a scene in the "war room" (a room that didn't really exist, by the
way), U.S. Air Force General Buck Turgidson (played by George C.
Scott) explains to an incredulous President Merkin Muffley (one of
three roles played by Peter Sellers) that policies - approved by the
president - allowed war powers to be transferred, in case the
president was killed in a surprise nuclear attack on Washington.
Historical documents indicate that such procedures did exist, and
that, though tightened later, they were startlingly loose at the time.
But were there generals who might really have taken such power in
their own hands? It was no secret - it would have been obvious to many
viewers in 1964 - that General Ripper looked a lot like Curtis LeMay,
the cigar-chomping, gruff-talking general who headed the Strategic Air
Command through the 1950s and who served as the Pentagon's Air Force
Chief of Staff in the early '60s.
In 1957 Robert Sprague, the director of a top-secret panel, warned
LeMay that the entire fleet of B-52 bombers was vulnerable to attack.
LeMay was unfazed. "If I see that the Russians are amassing their
planes for an attack," he said, "I'm going to knock the [expletive]
out of them before they take off the ground."
"But General LeMay," Sprague replied, "that's not national policy."
"I don't care," LeMay said. "It's my policy. That's what I'm going to
Kubrick probably was unaware of this exchange. (Sprague told me about
it in 1981, when I interviewed him for a book on nuclear history.) But
LeMay's distrust of civilian authorities, including presidents, was
well known among insiders, several of whom Kubrick interviewed.
The most popular guessing game about the movie is whether there was a
real-life counterpart to the character of Dr. Strangelove (another
Sellers part), the wheelchaired ex-Nazi who directs the Pentagon's
weapons research and proposes sheltering political leaders in
well-stocked mineshafts, where they can survive the coming nuclear war
and breed with beautiful women. Over the years, some have speculated
that Strangelove was inspired by Edward Teller, Henry Kissinger or
Werner Von Braun.
But the real model was almost certainly Herman Kahn, an eccentric,
voluble nuclear strategist at the RAND Corporation, a prominent Air
Force think tank. In 1960, Kahn published a 652-page tome called "On
Thermonuclear War," which sold 30,000 copies in hardcover.
According to a special-feature documentary on the new DVD, Kubrick
read "On Thermonuclear War" several times. But what the documentary
doesn't note is that the final scenes of "Dr. Strangelove" come
straight out of its pages.
Toward the end of the film, officials uncover General Ripper's code
and call back the B-52s, but they notice that one bomber keeps flying
toward its target. A B-52 is about to attack the Russians with a few
H-bombs; General Turgidson recommends that we should "catch 'em with
their pants down," and launch an all-out, disarming first-strike.
Such a strike would destroy 90 percent of the U.S.S.R.'s nuclear
arsenal. "Mr. President," he exclaims, "I'm not saying we wouldn't get
our hair mussed, but I do say no more than 10-20 million killed,
If we don't go all-out, the general warns, the Soviets will fire back
with all their nuclear weapons. The choice, he screams, is "between
two admittedly regrettable but nevertheless distinguishable postwar
environments - one where you get 20 million people killed and the
other where you get 150 million people killed!"
Kahn made precisely this point in his book, even producing a chart
labeled, "Tragic but Distinguishable Postwar States." When Strangelove
talks of sheltering people in mineshafts, President Muffley asks him,
"Wouldn't this nucleus of survivors be so grief-stricken and anguished
that they'd, well, envy the dead?"
Strangelove exclaims that, to the contrary, many would feel "a spirit
of bold curiosity for the adventure ahead." Kahn's book contains a
long chapter on mineshafts. Its title: "Will the Survivors Envy the
Dead?" One sentence reads: "We can imagine a renewed vigor among the
population with a zealous, almost religious dedication to
In 1981, two years before he died, I asked Kahn what he thought of
"Dr. Strangelove." Thinking I meant the character, he replied, with a
straight face, "Strangelove wouldn't have lasted three weeks in the
Pentagon. He was too creative." Those in the know watched "Dr.
Strangelove" amused, like everyone else, but also stunned.
Daniel Ellsberg, who later leaked the Pentagon Papers, was a RAND
analyst and a consultant at the Defense Department when he and a
mid-level official took off work one afternoon in 1964 to see the
film. Ellsberg recalled that as they left the theater, he turned to
his colleague and said, "That was a documentary!"
Fred Kaplan is a columnist for Slate and the author of "The Wizards of
Armageddon," a history of the nuclear strategists.
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