Dr. Strangelove as a Primary Source

The greatest trait that Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb exhibits is its credibility.[1] Dr. Strangelove pokes fun at the unthinkable, but scarily possible reality that the United States and the Soviet Union could have potentially annihilated one another in mere minutes with nuclear arms.[2] However, Dr. Strangelove is much more than a political satire because it can also be seen as an informant to a variety of the strangest and most secretive aspects of the Cold War.[3] Top government officials watched Dr. Strangelove and although entertained, like much of the American public, they were also astonished. Daniel Ellsberg, RAND analyst and advisor for the Defense Department, went to see Dr. Strangelove with a colleague in 1964 and upon leaving the theater he turned to his friend and exclaimed, “That was a documentary!”[4]

Stanley Kubrick was obsessed with making Dr. Strangelove as accurate as possible, both in content and in design. During Michael Ciment’s interview with Ken Adam, production designer on Dr. Strangelove, Adam explains that Stanley Kubrick was “aiming for absolute realism.”[5] He continues, “We used a large part of Shepperton Studios for the attack on the base. Sterling Hayden’s office was designed realistically, as was the interior of the bomber, except for the two atomic bombs — it was the period of the Cuban crisis and we didn’t have the co-operation of the authorities for the film!”[6]

Dr. Strangelove is historically accurate in three particular aspects: military strategies discussed, characters portrayed and the widespread cultural paranoia concerning the bomb and Communism. Stanley Kubrick wanted to ensure that he knew everything about the subject by reading over 70 books on thermonuclear war.[7] During the 1950’s, U.S policy makers developed deterrence theory as the most effective means of avoiding nuclear war. They concluded that fear of retaliation offered the most credible prevention of nuclear attack. As seen in the movie, there was a “fail-safe” plan used by the SAC base who adopted “Peace is our Profession” as its motto and who kept at least a dozen B-52s always on airborne alert.[8] There was a “Go Code” by which the planes could be ordered to attack, there was an executive approved procedure to transfer war powers in case the president was killed during a nuclear attack, and there was a plan for underground shelters where selected prominent people could survive and propagate. An important discrepancy in Dr. Strangelove is that neither the White House nor the Pentagon had a “War Room” that resembled the set created by Kubrick and production designer Ken Adams. Ironically, when Ronald Reagan was elected President he assumed there was such a place and asked to see it.

Audiences of the time were certainly aware that various characters in Dr. Strangelove are actually based on the important people of the time. President Merkin Muffley, for example, physically resembles Adlai Stevenson, the liberal Democrat who became US ambassador to the US after losing a Presidential election to Dwight Eisenhower.[9] In creating the Nazi scientist, Dr. Strangelove, Kubrick combined aspects of Henry Kissinger, physicist Edward Teller, and the former Nazi rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, each of whom played a key role in U.S Cold War nuclear policy making and scientific technology.[10] Kissinger, a diplomatic historian and a nuclear strategist, urged the US to organize a variety of additional nuclear weapons to provide more intense deterrence in case the Soviets threatened to strike. Edward Teller, a Hungarian Jew, escaped Europe after Hitler’s rise to power and became a brilliant physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project. Teller supervised the development and testing of the first hydrogen bomb in 1952 and used his influence to push for expansion of America’s nuclear arsenal.[11] Wernher von Braun was a young rocket enthusiast who became a key technician in the Nazi rocketry program at Peenemunde on the Baltic Sea. In 1945 he surrendered to the US as opposed to the Russians and in 1945 signed a contract with the US Army.[12]The infamous head of the SAC during the 1950’s, the cigar chomping LeMay, provided an easily recognizable archetype for both the grimly fanatical General Ripper and the energetic General Turgidson. LeMay never met a bombing plan he did not approve of. In 1957, he told two members of the Gaither Commission, which has been formed to assess US military policy, that if a Soviet attack ever seemed probable, he planned to “knock the shit out of them before they got off the ground.”[13] Reminded that a preemptive first strike was not U.S policy, LeMay retorted, “No, it’s not national policy, but it’s my policy.”[14] From the earliest stages of its development, secrecy veiled the nuclear bomb.[15]

There was a wide spread paranoid fear among conservative Americans that socialists were attempting to transform the American population into zombies by putting fluoride in their drinking water.[16] Books, essays, and other literary works explored the medical, psychological, and ethical implications of nuclear weapons, including Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler’s Fail Safe (1962), Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle (1963) and of course, Dr. Strangelove (1964).[17] Even if Dr. Strangelove misinformed the American public on U.S nuclear command policy for dramatic effect, it accurately captured deepening popular uneasiness about science and technology as well as the growing fears of an arms race escalating out of control to the point of no return.[18] As nuclear weapons were collected and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) shortened attack times from hours to minutes, the possibility of world annihilation drastically increased and Dr. Strangelove was born out of this collection of nuclear arms.[19]


[1] Southern, Terry. Notes from The War Room. “Grand Street”, issue #49 http://www.visual-memory.co.uk/amk/doc/0081.html
[2] Lindley, Dan. “What I Learned since I Stopped Worrying and Studied the Movie: A Teaching Guide to Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Dr. Strangelove.”’ PS: Political Science and Politics 34, No. 3 (Sep., 2001), http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.umw.edu:2048/stable/1353558
[3] Kaplan, Fred. “Truth Stranger Than ‘Strangelove’.” The New York Times. 10 October, 2004.http://www.nytimes.com/2004/10/10/movies/10kapl.html?pagewanted=1&_r=2& oref=slogin

[4] Ibid

[5] Adam, Ken, John Alcott, James B. Harris, Julian Senior. “Working with Stanley Kubrick.” Interview. Kubrick, Michael Ciment, New York: Holt Rinehart & Winston, 1983.

[6] Ibid

[7] Boyer, Paul. Fallout: A Historian Reflects on America’s Half- Century Encounter with Nuclear Weapons. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1998.
[8] Naremore, James. On Kubrick. London: British Film Institute, 2007.

[9] Ibid

[10] Boyer, 99.

[11]Boyer, 98.

[12]Boyer, 99.

[13]Boyer, 100.

[14]Ibid.

[15] Boxen, Jeremy. “Just What the Doctor Ordered: Cold War Purging, Political Dissent, and the Right Hand of Dr. Strangelove.” Thesis, Queen’s University, Canada, April19th, 1995. The Kubrick Site.

http://www.visual-memory.co.uk/amk/doc/0029.html

[16] Ibid

[17] Ibid

[18] Boyer, 100.

[19] Ibid



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