[Paleopsych] NYT: Truth stranger than 'Strangelove'

Steve Hovland shovland at mindspring.com
Sat Oct 16 02:49:08 UTC 2004

These days the generals are sane and the civilians are loopy :-)

Steve Hovland

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Subject:	[Paleopsych] NYT: Truth stranger than 'Strangelove'

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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