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Thursday, January 23, 2014

The Purity of the Essence of 'Dr. Strangelove'

Continuing my 50th anniversary tribute to Dr. Strangelove (see long-unseen original trailer and a behind-the-scenes-doc): Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation and more recently the scary epic on nuclear dangers, Command and Control, has blog piece just posted at The New Yorker on how nearly everything in that fanciful film was...true.   People forget: "Although 'Strangelove' was clearly a farce, with the comedian Peter Sellers playing three roles, it was criticized for being implausible. An expert at the Institute for Strategic Studies called the events in the film 'impossible on a dozen counts.' A former Deputy Secretary of Defense dismissed the idea that someone could authorize the use of a nuclear weapon without the President’s approval: 'Nothing, in fact, could be further from the truth.”

And yet we now know:
Half a century after Kubrick’s mad general, Jack D. Ripper, launched a nuclear strike on the Soviets to defend the purity of “our precious bodily fluids” from Communist subversion, we now know that American officers did indeed have the ability to start a Third World War on their own. And despite the introduction of rigorous safeguards in the years since then, the risk of an accidental or unauthorized nuclear detonation hasn’t been completely eliminated.
And the Soviets even developed a kind of "Doomsday Machine" and, as in the film, did not tell us about it.  Looking back:
Despite public assurances that everything was fully under control, in the winter of 1964, while “Dr. Strangelove” was playing in theatres and being condemned as Soviet propaganda, there was nothing to prevent an American bomber crew or missile launch crew from using their weapons against the Soviets. Kubrick had researched the subject for years, consulted experts, and worked closely with a former R.A.F. pilot, Peter George, on the screenplay of the film. George’s novel about the risk of accidental nuclear war, “Red Alert,” was the source for most of “Strangelove” ’s plot. Unbeknownst to both Kubrick and George, a top official at the Department of Defense had already sent a copy of “Red Alert” to every member of the Pentagon’s Scientific Advisory Committee for Ballistic Missiles. At the Pentagon, the book was taken seriously as a cautionary tale about what might go wrong. Even Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara privately worried that an accident, a mistake, or a rogue American officer could start a nuclear war.
In retrospect, Kubrick’s black comedy provided a far more accurate description of the dangers inherent in nuclear command-and-control systems than the ones that the American people got from the White House, the Pentagon, and the mainstream media.

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