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  • Josh Wakeford

Dr Strangelove, Realism and the “Doomsday Gap”


Review of Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). Directed by Stanley Kubrick [Film]. Shepperton: Hawk Films. In 1962, the infamous Cuban Missile Crisis brought the US and USSR closer to nuclear war than at any other point in the Cold War, and arguably closer than they have been since. Two years later, Dr Strangelove satirises the relationship between the two superpowers, mocking the realist approach to international relations with the exaggerated masculinity of its characters. For realism, the world is divided into states existing in a system of anarchy, each concerned with their power relative to one another. As well as being thoroughly entertaining, the film speaks to key realist concepts like deterrence, mutually assured destruction (MAD) and the security dilemma, as well as the Cold War mentality.

The film follows characters in three main settings: aboard a US B-52 bomber piloted by Maj. “King” Kong, tasked with carrying out one of many nuclear strikes on Soviet targets; in the office of Gen. Jack Ripper, the rogue General who unilaterally issued the strike order from Burpelson Air Force Base, and in the War Room of President Merkin Muffley as they attempt to call off the bombers after being alerted to the existence of the USSR’s “Doomsday Machine”. To a realist, the machine acts as the ultimate nuclear deterrent, a series of nuclear devices, triggered automatically in the instance of any nuclear attack on the USSR and impossible to abort. The supposed “doomsday shroud”, a cloud of radioactivity that will cover the Earth, threatens to kill all animal and plant life and make the world uninhabitable for 93 years, the most clear embodiment of mutually assured destruction. The effectiveness of the Soviet deterrent is clear when the focus of the War Room turns to recalling the bombers, even going so far as to provide information about the planes’ flight plans and targets to allow the USSR to shoot them down. Before they become aware of the device, the attitude of General ‘Bucky’ Turgidson is that the US should seize its opportunity to strike and throw everything it has at the Soviet Union, resulting in, as he nonchalantly claims, “no more than 10 to 20 million [Americans] killed”. Fascinatingly, to Turgidson this figure represents “a modest and acceptable” number of civilian casualties, which highlights a concerning disconnect between nuclear strategizing in the War Room and its impact in reality.

'Bucky' Turgidson demonstrating his enthusiasm at the skill of US pilots.

As the eccentric Nazi scientist Dr Strangelove highlights, the machine suffers from a major flaw in that it only acts as a deterrent if the US knows of its existence, a revelation planned for the next week because of Premier Kissov’s love of “surprises”. After the initial revelation of the machine’s’ existence, rather than immediately concerning themselves with the pending disaster, Turgidson replies “Gee, I wish we had one of them doomsday machines!”. Later, the paranoia of a “doomsday gap” turns to fear of a “mineshaft gap”, a perfect illustration of the international relations security dilemma. The security dilemma derives from the zero-sum nature of the realist perspective, which leads to an obsession with a states' position relative to others in the system. The mineshaft gap centres around a belief that the USSR may be able to shelter more of its citizens in mineshafts for the predicted 100 years it will take for it to be safe to return to the surface, and thus have sufficient manpower to threaten the US. As the plot unfolds, Kubrick continues to parody Cold War thinking, with the sheer ridiculousness of the storyline and characters at the same time resonating so clearly with the actions and attitudes of the superpowers that one cannot help but reconsider their perspective on the realist vision of bipolarity. Another major flaw in realist beliefs that nuclear deterrence and MAD would prevent war is quickly recognised, as President Muffley learns that complex failsafe systems to prevent accidental nuclear attack without his authority have been undermined by human unreliability. General Ripper was able to launch the attack unilaterally, attributable to his paranoia of a

‘commie’ plot to contaminate the “precious bodily fluids” of the good American people. Whilst Ripper’s rationale may be an exaggerated piece of fiction, Daniel Ellsberg, a renowned analyst for the RAND corporation (a leading national security and military think-tank) and later a consultant in the Pentagon, draws several similarities between the film and reality, calling Dr Strangelove “a documentary” (Financial Times 2018). His research led him to an Air Force Base in South Korea, where he learned that in practice the decision to launch a nuclear strike could “rest with a single aircraft” (Financial Times 2018). The 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis raised real fears of a nuclear attack being triggered either by accident or miscommunication. This later led to the introduction of a Washington-Moscow hotline linking the leaders of the two superpowers at all times and to be used only in emergencies (US Department of State N.D.). In Dr Strangelove, the phone is used by the President to contact the Russian Premier (who is, of course, drunk) and as the two converse, a clear message is sent about the perceived incompetence of the two leaders. After Group Captain Mandrake is able to decipher a code to contact each of the bomber crews, all are accounted for as having turned back or being shot down, except for one. The B-52 piloted by Major Kong has been damaged, losing all communications, and has diverted from its initial flight plan to a secondary target. Crisis initially appears to be avoided when the bomb doors fail to open, but Kong, donning his Stetson hat mounts the bomb and forces the doors open, riding the bomb like a rodeo bull as it falls to its target, triggering a series of explosions as the credits roll. Despite its low budget and black and white picture, the weight of the subject matter and the timeless yet dark humour more than compensate for the limited production value. Dr Strangelove sends a prevailing message of the absurdity of the Cold War mentality which makes the film a classic with real resonance even today. The film is also a testament to the acting of Peter Sellers, who portrays the plain US President, the eccentric Nazi scientist Dr Strangelove, and the polite Brit, Group Captain Mandrake.


Financial Times (2018). The Doomsday Machine by Daniel Ellsberg — assured destruction. Available at <https://www.ft.com/content/0d21892c-f06f-11e7-bb7d-c3edfe974e9f> (Accessed 08/10/2018). US Department of State (N.D.). Memorandum of Understanding Between The United States of America and The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics Regarding the Establishment of a Direct Communications Link. Available at <https://www.state.gov/t/isn/4785.htm> (Accessed 09/10/2018).

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