Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love 1964: The Historical Context of Kubrick’s Strangelove

Dr Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love 1964

The Historical Context of Kubrick’s Strangelove

(Spring 2007 // Freshman Undergrad: 2,607 words)

You’ve probably heard of Dr. Strangelove.  If you haven’t heard of Dr. Strangelove, you either weren’t listening, or you have been barricaded in a nuclear fallout shelter since before the film’s release in February of 1964.  If the former is the case, then now is as good a time as any to start listening (if the latter is the case, then welcome back).  But at any rate, it’s possible that any observant member of pop culture has heard of Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb because the film was revolutionary in its time, bringing to light the worst nightmares of Cold War-era American civilians and, better still, getting away with it in a time when such jocular attitudes toward the USSR and the nuclear threat were not accepted within the American social system.

It is 1962.  Here, following the Bay of Pigs fiasco with Cuba and the raising of the Berlin Wall, there is the Cuban Missile Crisis, a 13-day odyssey during which nuclear war seemed not only possible, but probable.  The public has been afraid of it for a long time, although, thanks to such news articles with titles like “If Bombs Do Fall” and “How You Can Survive Fallout:  97 out of 100 Can Be Saved”[i], it has been led to believe such war is survivable with the help of fallout shelters, anti-radiation medicines, and more.  Terms such as “megadeath” have entered the national vocabulary, representing the statistical number of deaths that would have to be faced in the event of a nuclear attack on place X or place Y (one megadeath = one million deaths). November 22nd, 1963:  The assassination of the President largely credited with saving the country from that dangerous point, John F. Kennedy.  By 1964, Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater are engaged in an all-out political campaign against each other.  Goldwater is accused of being a “nuclear cowboy” when Johnson’s campaign runs a TV ad against him, depicting a little girl picking daisies whose sunny and joyous day is ruined by a nuclear missile countdown.  (This ad only hits TV once before it is pulled, but once was enough.)  McCarthyism is a thing of the past, but not so far gone that the Hollywood blacklist is rendered ineffectual.

This is the United States when Dr. Strangelove is released.

Produced in England (and therefore away from the sensitive eyes of Hollywood), Dr. Strangelove begins with two men:  distinguished filmmaker Stanley Kubrick and former-RAF-officer-turned-writer Peter George.  Kubrick, who preferred to direct his projects with a “genuinely personal approach,”[ii] chose only to make the films that interested him the most.  He selected the topic of nuclear war in the early 1960s, affected with a “great desire to do something about the nuclear nightmare” because it seemed to him to be “the only social problem where there’s absolutely no chance for people to learn anything from the experience.”[iii] So of course, as any person would do, he consulted a NASA scientist for book recommendations, and thus was presented with George’s novel Red Alert (alternatively titled Two Hours to Doom), a fictional work of thrilling suspense on accidental nuclear war.  This turned out to be exactly the thing that Kubrick was looking for, and he began work on the screenplay at once (not without having read somewhere between 50 and 80 more books [reports vary] on thermonuclear war, including but not limited to nuclear strategist Herman Khan’s hypothetical scientific treatment of the threat aptly named On Thermonuclear War).

The story of Dr. Strangelove goes like this:

At a time of international tension, the United States government, as part of its deterrence strategy “Operation Dropkick,” has sent up numerous heavily-armed B-52 bombers to fly the skies above Russia, ready to drop their nuclear weapons on their targets within two hours of receiving the command to do so.  The story begins when General Jack D. Ripper, patriotic fanatic and purveyor of Communist conspiracy theories, sends out the order for the planes to hit their targets, warning those on his base of an imminent Communist attack.  RAF Group Captain Mandrake soon discovers that there is no “Commie” attack afoot and is barricaded in General Ripper’s office, unable to issue the recall code.  At about the same time, President Merkin Muffley, in the “War Room,” realizes that somebody has gone over his head and ordered these planes into action.  (In response to his queries about whether or not the President is the only one allowed to authorize the use of nuclear weapons, General Buck Turgidson can only offer the observation that “it’s beginning to look like General Ripper exceeded his authority.”)  To add to the sensation of pending doom is the discovery of a Russian “Doomsday Device,” (up until then, a veiled “surprise”), a hidden stockpile of nuclear weapons designed, upon attack (or attempt to disarm) to detonate, thus wiping out all human existence on the Earth’s surface as we know it.  And so the rest of the movie remains a series of desperate attempts and their subsequent failures to call off the airplanes.  Just when it looks like they’ve got the code thanks to Mandrake’s ingenuity, they discover that one of their planes cannot receive the signal and so the population of the War Room is left with the choice “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,” the former being an all-out attack on the Russians’ nuclear arsenal, and the latter being passivity.  The President, refusing to go down in history as “the greatest mass murderer since Adolph Hitler,” decides on optimism and the hope that the crew of the lost B-52 will not make it to its destination.  But, in the crew’s patriotism, complete with “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” fanfare, it continues and drops its weapons on the target anyway.  The film concludes with the inevitable detonation of bomb after bomb, suggesting that “doomsday” has come, and the mysterious Nazi-turned-American scientist Dr. Strangelove’s suggestion that it would be possible to “preserve a nucleus of human specimens,” with the “best” Americans moving to the deepest mineshafts and working with the ultimate goal of repopulating the Earth while the fallout subsides.

Initially Kubrick had intended to treat the subject matter with sobriety, until it occurred to him that there was “no better way to express the whole thermonuclear dilemma; it was so crazy and it was so insane that the best way to do it would be as a satire.”[iv] So, Kubrick abandoned his melodramatic and thrilling treatment of Red Alert and instead decided to focus on the ridiculous aspect of it, hoping that provoking audiences to laugh at such absurd situations would be guidance enough for those audiences to question why, exactly, something so serious could be so funny.

Kubrick did indeed hit nerves with the laughs.  A friend of a friend, recalling its theatrical release, described the laughter of Dr. Strangelove as “a very nervous laugh.”  And indeed, this is probably the best way to describe it.  Dr. Strangelove was about what was, essentially, one of the worst fears of the common American citizen in 1964.  Realistically, nuclear proliferation and the threat of nuclear war was no laughing matter.  It was simple enough to envision as reality.  The weapons existed, the tension existed – all that anybody needed to do to start an all-out nuclear war which could wipe out humanity and drive the gullible into their fallout shelters was make one false move.  The notion of “Mutually Assured Destruction” seemed to, well, assure it – it literally could all come down to one wrong move, and the system of pre-empting and retaliating would collapse into bomb-dropping all around with nobody left on the planet whatsoever when all was said and done.  Theoretically, nuclear war could all come down to, as per Dr. Strangelove’s suggestion, a mistake: one loony in the system who one day, driven crazy in his anti-Commie rage, decides to subvert the rules and call out the big guns.  (Ironically, General Ripper was portrayed by Sterling Hayden, an actor who confessed himself a brief member of the Communist party to the House Un-American Activities Committee – responsible for the Hollywood blacklist – in the ‘50s.)

More information on the topic has come to the surface since than was readily available in 1964, and perhaps no 1964 audience could have ever envisioned Dr. Strangelove as being so intrinsically possible.  It boils down to a number of recently-uncovered facts that make Dr. Strangelove so startlingly accurate:

  1. There was an “Operation Dropkick,” except it was referred to as the “Chrome Dome” alert system.  12 fully-loaded B-52 airplanes were on constant alert, ready to respond to the Go code with an attack at any moment.
  2. There was a President-approved provision that allowed powers of war to be transferred in case of a surprise nuclear attack, and the provision was unfortunately fairly loose.
  3. There were people in power with attitudes akin to General Ripper, ready to circumvent the rules in the event that it seemed the right time.  Many viewers in 1964 would’ve caught that General Jack Ripper physically resembled Strategic Air Command General Curtis LeMay, who was later credited with telling someone that if he saw Russians “amassing their planes for an attack,” he was going to “knock the [expletive] out of them before they take off the ground.”  When his colleague protested that it wasn’t national policy, he responded, “I don’t care – it’s my policy.”[v]
  4. Dr. Strangelove, too, seemed to exist, as a composite of Henry Kissinger, the German-born man of international policy; the abovementioned Herman Kahn, nuclear strategist; and Edward Teller, weapons development physicist and advocate of the h-bomb.  A number of his lines are ripped straight from the words of all three men, and so it is not unlikely that, in the event of such nuclear emergency, a man like Dr. Strangelove would be brought in for the final say.

An audience in 1964 generally wouldn’t have had access to all such information, but even without knowing the precise details of Dr. Strangelove’s accuracy, audiences would have been able to ascertain the main point:  that the policy of deterrence was fallible; that any number of people were poised to mess everything up very badly for everybody at any moment; that there were plenty of people who were quite capable of making that last fatal mistake.  One needn’t have known the then-classified specifics to understand that Dr. Strangelove was hitting the nail on the head when it came to confronting the irrational nature of nuclear strategy in the Cold War.  As their former President Kennedy had once said in a speech, “The world is living under a nuclear Sword of Damocles which can be cut by accident, miscalculation, or madness,” and Kubrick set out to demonstrate the scenario in which it was “cut by madness.”[vi]

When Dr. Strangelove was released, it was predictably reamed by many viewers and critics alike, who claimed that if such a film could be released, treating such a serious subject with “vulgarity,”[vii] then “nothing is sacred.”[viii] People panicked, claiming that Dr. Strangelove would harm America when shown abroad, portraying its leaders as weak, overzealous, trigger-happy and so capable of error.  Some dismissed it for its supposed lack of realism and ignorance of the “facts,” claiming that the “mad air force general starting the war ignores improved fail-safe procedures making this impossible.”[ix] It was pushed aside as utilizing satirical and comedic techniques that “[could] be accomplished by undergraduates,”[x] and as being “merely good satire.”[xi] (It would be unfair, however, to say that Dr. Strangelove was completely insensitive to the environment around it.  Meant to be first screened for critics on the same day as President Kennedy’s assassination, its release was pushed back to allow for some politically-sensitive sentiments to subside.  A legendary unseen alternate ending in which the members of the War Room nervously regress to a childish pie fight was cut partially for artistic reasons, and partially because, after President Muffley gets pied in the face, General Turgidson shouts, “Gentlemen!  Our beloved President has been cut down in his prime!” a post-JFK-assassination remark considered too tasteless even for the satire of Dr. Strangelove.)

At the same time that self-labeled patriots panned the film and critics seemed generally ambiguous (usually appreciating the performances but agreeing that the subject was too serious to be approached so comically), the film’s advocates were adamant, hailing it as “the most effective piece of social comment on the screen in years,”[xii] or “one of the most exciting films ever made.”[xiii] Perhaps it is simpler to embrace the paradox of its reception by measuring it empirically instead of critically: Dr. Strangelove ranked only 14th in the 1964 box-office[xiv], and yet was nominated for four major Oscars in 1965 (including Best Picture and Best Director).

But Dr. Strangelove can tell us a lot about its social and political surroundings because it is uniquely situated in time.  A year earlier and the public outcry it would have received following the Cuban Missile Crisis would’ve kept it off the screens.  A year later and the issue would no longer be hot.  Dr. Strangelove reveals a polarity in the social acceptance of war at the time:  called provocative and brilliant by many and unpatriotic and tasteless by just as many others, it can help to display the sometimes-flippant attitudes that the public had about nuclear war.  Those fans of Strangelove seemed to grasp that its purpose was to introduce the notion that, according to Kubrick, “any insight which could be provided, any sense of reality which could be given to [nuclear war] so that it didn’t seem just an abstraction was really quite useful.”[xv] “The disturbing thing about ‘Strangelove,’” said one critic, “is that it is occasionally funny and always serious.”[xvi] Dr. Strangelove helped bring to light the inherent problem with the general idea that nuclear war may not be that bad:  it would be that bad.  Mutually Assured Destruction was exactly what it sounded like:  assured destruction.  There would be no need for fallout shelters, for survival kits, and for “hot tea and a solution of baking powder,” as Life magazine advised, as a cure for radiation sickness, because, as the song “We’ll Meet Again” playing over a montage of mushroom clouds at the movie’s conclusion ironically suggests, nobody would ever be meeting anybody ever again.

But like the facts about Dr. Strangelove’s eerie realism that have since emerged, so has a general acceptance of its comedic fictional take on the serious realities of nuclear war.  Perhaps this is because Dr. Strangelove marked the end of the nuclear era, and, while the Cold War continued for almost 30 years past the release of Dr. Strangelove, the fears of nuclear holocaust generally began to subside and give way to new fears after 1964; people had “learned to stop worrying and love the bomb.”  Perhaps it is because some view the “nightmare” comedy of Strangelove to have been the only way to leave a mark on the audience; indeed, 1965’s Fail Safe, a dramatic take on the situation so close in content to Dr. Strangelove that Kubrick was engaged in a plagiarism lawsuit with its creators, is hardly remembered at all.  Whatever the case, asking questions about Dr. Strangelove and its reception opens a window to this moment in time and allows us to look inside.

[i] Life, “How You Can Survive Fallout:  97 out of 100 Can Be Saved.”  September 15, 1961: 95-108.
[ii] Southern, Terry.  “Check-Up with Dr. Strangelove.”  Filmmaker:  The Magazine of Independent Film 13, no. 1 (2004): 64-84.
[iii] Kubrick, Stanley.  “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Cinema.”  Films and Filming 9 (1963): 12-13.
[iv] No Fighting in the War Room or: Dr. Strangelove and the Nuclear Threat.  DVD.  Directed by John Scheinfeld.  2004; Columbia/Tri-Star Home Video 2004.
[v] Kaplan, Fred.  “Truth Stranger than ‘Strangelove.”  The New York Times, October 10, 2004: 2.21.
[vi] Kubrick, 13.
[vii] Duncan, Ray.  “Beloved Bomb Causes Crisis.”  Independent Star-News, May 10, 1964: 60.
[viii]Childs, Marquis.  “Provocative Movies.”  The Independent, March 23, 1964: 10.
[ix] Childs, 10.
[x] Duncan, 60.
[xi] Thompson, Ernest.  “One for the Show.”  Ada Evening News, June 7, 1954: 18.
[xii] Thomas, Bob.  “Sledgehammer Touch to a Nuclear Satire.”  Winnipeg Free Press, January 14, 1964: 8.
[xiii] Childs, 10.
[xiv] Variety, “Box-Office Grosses.”  January 6, 1964: 237.
[xv] Kubrick, 13.
[xvi] Duncan


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