Dr. Strangelove: Primary or Secondary Source?

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is best remembered for satirizing nuclear tensions between the United States and Soviet Union during the Cold War. The most remarkable thing about Dr. Strangelove is its credibility in portraying tensions following the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. While the film is not based on any explicit historical event, it is still true to the time period. What makes Dr. Strangelove unique among historical films is that it satirizes the very time period it is made in. It is both a primary and secondary source, overlapping in both categories to tell a speculative historical tale backed by military doctrine and nuclear deterrence strategies. Dr. Strangelove pokes fun at the sad, perverse and absurd reality that the United States and the Soviet Union could potentially annihilate one another within the span of thirty minutes.1 The film also provides great insight to a variety of the strangest and most secretive aspects of the Cold War.2 According to Fred Kaplan, top government officials watched Dr. Strangelove and, like much of the American public, were also astonished at the amount of credible information presented in the film.3 Daniel Ellsberg, RAND analyst, advisor for the Defense Department, and the man who later leaked the Pentagon Papers, went to see Dr. Strangelove with a colleague in 1964, where upon leaving the theater he expressed incredulity at the amount of reliable information about nuclear defense strategies.4

Dr. Strangelove director and producer Stanley Kubrick started with nothing but a vague idea for a thriller about a nuclear accident built on the widespread fear for survival during the Cold War.5 Kubrick was suggested to read Peter George’s 1958 novel Red Alert and was so impressed with its premise that Kubrick bought the rights and worked alongside George to write a suitable script.6 The film was originally intended to be a serious drama, however Kubrick later explained in interviews that,

My idea of doing it as a nightmare comedy came in the early weeks of working on the screenplay. I found that in trying to put meat on the bones and to imagine the scenes fully, one had to keep leaving out of it things which were either absurd or paradoxical, in order to keep it from being funny; and these things seemed to be close to the heart of the scenes in question.7

Red Alert (1958) by Peter George is the basis for Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove.
Image from Disinfotainment.8

Together with George and fellow screenwriter Terry Southern, he began to write the screenplay for Dr. Strangelove.9 Kubrick mainly stuck to the book’s premise, however, he made a radical difference with the ending. In Red Alert the bomber is stopped and Earth is saved, but Kubrick decided to stick to his darkly comic vision and followed the definitive premise of deterrence theory to its terrifying conclusion.10

Stanley Kubrick was obsessed with attention to detail, wanting to make Dr. Strangelove as accurate as possible in both content and design. During Michael Ciment’s interview with Ken Adam, the production designer in charge on Dr. Strangelove, Adam explains that Stanley Kubrick was “aiming for absolute realism.”11 Adam elaborates, “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 cooperation of the authorities for the film!”12

According to Paul Boyer, Dr. Strangelove is not a historical movie in a conventional sense, because the events it portrays never actually occurred.13 However, the film is historically accurate in three particular aspects: military strategies discussed, characters portrayed, and the widespread cultural paranoia concerning the bomb and communism.14 Kubrick read over 70 books on thermonuclear war in order understand the subject so he might accurately portray it in his film.15 In the 1950’s deterrence theory was seen as the most effective means of avoiding nuclear war. Fear of retaliation offered the most credible prevention of nuclear attack. According to James Naremore, Kubrick’s film is more accurate than its critics would like you to think. There was in fact 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 along with a “Go Code” that would be used to order those planes to attack.16 There was also an executive approved procedure to transfer war powers in case the president was killed during a nuclear attack, as well as a plan for underground shelters where selected prominent people could survive and propagate.17 The most important discrepancy of note is that neither the White House nor the Pentagon had a “War Room” that resembled the set created by Kubrick and Adam. That part of the film was entirely fictitious. Ironically, when Ronald Reagan was elected president he assumed there was such a place and even asked to see it.18

Design Blog
The War Room from Dr. Strangelove.
Image from Spacesmith.19

Audiences of the time were aware that various characters in Dr. Strangelove are actually based on the important people of the time. For example, President Merkin Muffley physically resembles Adlai Stevenson, the liberal Democrat who became US ambassador to the US after losing the presidential election to Dwight Eisenhower.20 The Nazi scientist, Dr. Strangelove, is a combination of different aspects from Henry Kissinger, physicist Edward Teller, and 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.21 Kissinger, a diplomatic historian and a nuclear strategist, urged the United States to organize a variety of additional nuclear weapons to provide more intense deterrence in case the Soviets threatened to strike.22 Edward Teller, a Hungarian Jew, escaped Europe after Hitler’s rise to power and became a brilliant physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project. It was Teller who 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.23 Wernher von Braun was a young rocket enthusiast who became a key technician in the Nazi rocketry program at Peenemünde on the Baltic Sea.24 Braun later surrendered to the U.S. as opposed to the Russians and signed a contract with the US Army, where he was stationed to improve missile science alongside others who had defected from Hitler’s side.25 The infamous head of the SAC during the 1950’s was the cigar chomping General Curtis LeMay, who was easily recognizable in both the grimly fanatical General Ripper and the energetic General Turgidson.26 In 1957, LeMay 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.”27 When he was reminded that a preemptive first strike was not U.S policy, LeMay retorted, “No, it’s not national policy, but it’s my policy.”28 With someone like LeMay in charge, the audience was no doubt left with the impression that Kubrick’s film could very well have become reality at some point.

By the time Dr. Strangelove was released there was already a multitude of books, essays, and other literary works exploring the medical, psychological, and ethical implications of nuclear weapons. Some examples including Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler’s Fail Safe (1962), Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle (1963) and of course, Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964).33 Even if Dr. Strangelove misinformed the American public about U.S. nuclear command policy for dramatic effect, it still accurately captured the popular uneasiness about science and technology in the 1960s, as well as the growing fears of the arms race escalating out of control to the point of no return.34 As nuclear weapons were collected and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) shortened attack times from hours to minutes, the possibility of total nuclear annihilation drastically increased, making Dr. Strangelove all the more relevant to its audience.35

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  1. Dan Lindley, “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 (2001): 663.[]
  2. Fred Kaplan, “Truth Stranger Than ‘Strangelove’,” The New York Times (New York, N.Y), 2004.[]
  3. Kaplan, “Truth Stranger Than ‘Strangelove’.”[]
  4. Kaplan.[]
  5. Brian Siano, “A Commentary on Dr. Strangelove,” The Kubrick Site, 1995. http://www.visual-memory.co.uk/amk/doc/0017.html?LMCL=A9Dt_B.[]
  6. Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi, “Dr Strangelove,” The Kubrick Site, 2005, http://www.visual-memory.co.uk/amk/doc/0097.html?LMCL=o18NaQ.[]
  7. David Denby, “The Half-Century Anniversary of ‘Dr. Strangelove,’” The New Yorker, May 13, 2014. https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/the-half-century-anniversary-of-dr-strangelove.[]
  8. Charles Eicher, “Pulp Fiction,” Disinfotainment, August 18, 2004, https://ceicher.com/2004/08/.[]
  9. Ghamari-Tabrizi, “Dr Strangelove.”[]
  10. Paul S. Boyer, Fallout: A Historian Reflects an America’s Half-Century Encounter with Nuclear Weapons (Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State University Press, 1998), 97.[]
  11. Ken Adam, “Working with Stanley Kubrick,” Interview. Kubrick, Michael Ciment, New York: Holt Rinehart & Winston, 1983, 205-212.[]
  12. Adam, “Working with Stanley Kubrick,” 205-212.[]
  13. Boyer, Fallout, 96.[]
  14. Boyer, 96-97.[]
  15. Boyer, 97.[]
  16. James Naremore, On Kubrick (London: British Film Institute, 2008), 123.[]
  17. Naremore, On Kubrick, 123.[]
  18. Tom Dewe Mathews, “To the War Room!,” the Guardian, November 14, 2001.[]
  19. Helen Zouvelekis, “Architecture That Stole the Show – Dr. Strangelove,” Spacesmith, July 18, 2017, https://www.spacesmith.com/blog/architecture-that-stole-the-show-dr-strangelove.[]
  20. Naremore, 123.[]
  21. Naremore, 123.[]
  22. Boyer, 98.[]
  23. Boyer, 98-99.[]
  24. Boyer, 99.[]
  25. Boyer, 99.[]
  26. Boyer, 100.[]
  27. Boyer, 100.[]
  28. Boyer, 100.[]
  29. Philippe Halsman, “Adlai Stevenson,” National Portrait Gallery, 1965, https://npg.si.edu/object/npg_NPG.83.113.[]
  30. Terrance Pepper, “Peter Sellers as President Merkin Muffley in ‘Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb,’” National Portrait Gallery, 2014, https://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw300176/Peter-Sellers-as-President-Merkin-Muffley-in-Dr-Strangelove-or-How-I-Learned-to-Stop-Worrying-and-Love-the-Bomb?LinkID=mp16504&role=sit&rNo=8.[]
  31. Richard Rhodes, “The General and World War III,” The New Yorker, June 12, 1995, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1995/06/19/the-general-and-world-war-iii.[]
  32. Movieclips, “Dr. Strangelove (4/8) Movie CLIP – Water and Commies (1964) HD,” YouTube Video, YouTube, March 8, 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J67wKhddWu4.[]
  33. Jeremy Boxen, “Just What the Doctor Ordered,” The Kubrick Site, April 19, 1995, http://www.visual-memory.co.uk/amk/doc/0029.html.[]
  34. Boyer, 100.[]
  35. Boyer, 100.[]