How To Start World War III Without Even Trying

The humor, or I suppose terror of Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove comes from the fact that it's all too true. The confused web of Cold War nuclear politics and nuclear planning meant that humanity had repeatedly put itself far too close to the point of complete ...

How To Start World War III Without Even Trying

In 1964, Stanley Kubrick was torn. On a rough pile of yellow paper, Kubrick had been going over a range of titles for his seventh feature film; Dr. Doomsday or: How to Start World War III Without Even Trying, Dr. Strangelove's Secret Uses of Uranus, Wonderful Bomb, and Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. However, it’s this last title, I suppose, that stuck to him the most.

Dr. Strangelove was born out of the paranoia of the Cold War. Kubrick became infatuated by the subtle and paradoxical “balance of terror” that had emerged between competing nuclear powers. An arms race had emerged from the ashes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and while the Japanese powers had surrendered, the bomb had left with it a path of destruction that would remain long after the dust had settled. A new reality began to emerge, as atom bombs turned to hydrogen bombs, it became increasingly obvious that even the smallest push of a button could disturb the delicate balance of power that had been cultivated. It’s this new reality, one of cold-war tensions and nuclear armament, that Kubrick seems so concerned with satirising. 

The film begins with General Jack D. Ripper, a trigger-heavy anxious veteran and commander of Burpelson Air Force Base, orders RAF exchange officer Lionel Mandrake, to issue ‘Wing Attack Plan R’, a plan which enables a senior officer to launch a retaliatory nuclear attack on the Soviets if the President and other superiors have been killed in a first strike on the United States. As a result, all American bombers are ordered to strike back and bomb key Soviet targets, starting humanity's first full out nuclear war.

Section I or: How to Start World War III Without Even Trying

Amidst the drama and chaos, it becomes increasingly obvious to Mandrake, that General Ripper, who seems to be fixated with a conspiratorial plan by the Soviets to fluoridate American water supplies (to contaminate the “precious bodily fluids” of the American population), that General Ripper has fallen into a deep bout of lunacy. Yet, as a result of Plan R, all 12 U.S bombers have been configured to only accept radio communications that are preceded by a specific three-letter code, one which is known only to General Ripper (who kills himself by the middle of the film).

Up in the skies and isolated from the rest of society, the bomber pilots, commanded by Major TJ Kong (who appears to possess the ability to look both sober and drunk at the same time), prepare for “nuclear combat, toe-to-toe with the Ruskies.” Minutes ago, these pilots were face-deep in the pages of their Playboy magazines, and yet now they prepare for the start of a nuclear war. It’s here that Kubrick blends the fantastical with the dreadfully real.

Two years prior to the release of Dr. Strangelove, the Cuban Missile Crisis had already shown the world how easily a nuclear war could be started. Anything from something as harmless as a depth charge to the mumblings of a mad-man could be seen as the beginning of a nuclear attack. Even the complex balance of power seems fragile when compared to the spontaneity of humans. As the title suggests, the nuclear armament has made it shockingly easy to start the next potential World War.

In the film's final images, Major Kong mounts the bomb as it begins its descent to the ground. As he shuttles towards the earth, Kong frantically waves his cowboy hat in the air, plummeting to the ground with the enthusiasm of a 12-year old child. His cowboy hat, a stereotypical symbol of the true red-blooded American, calls to mind perhaps America’s most poignant obsession — violence. Why is that Truman deployed the atom bomb twice when there were reports that Japan would surrender anyway? Why did it have to ever be deployed at all? All of it harkens back to the era of Roosevelt (who Truman greatly admired) and of cowboy diplomacy.

Section II or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. 

In the War Room, a large concrete space whose design is reminiscent of German expressionism, President Merkin Muffle decides what the next best course of action would be. The bomb seems almost pre-destined to hit its target in Russia, and it now falls on Muffle to ensure that this doesn’t end in full on calamity. The interactions between General Buck Turgidson, a red-blooded general whose loyalty leans more towards General Ripper than his own president, and Soviet Ambassador Alexei de Sadeski are nothing short of perfect. These two men are enamored with the caricatures their country has created to vilify the other. Turgidson, a true anti-intellectual, refers to Sadeksi as a “degenerate atheistic Commie,” while Sadeski refuses a cigar, not wanting to support Imperialist ideology. Meanwhile, Muffle calls Soviet Premier Dimitri Kizsov, who answers in a confused and drunken state, a perfect metaphor for Soviet-American relations, especially following Turgidson and Sadeski's interactions.

It's here Kubrick that plays with the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), in which both nuclear powers are deterred from initiating nuclear conflict due to its destructive consequences. However, when Sadeski informs Muffle of the existence of a Doomsday Machine, a bomb, the concept of which was first proposed by military strategist and former physicist Herman Kahn, powered by "cobalt-thorium-G," which will be detonated the moment any nuclear bomb is detonated in the country, and effectively destroy the world. The bomb was just recently deployed and was set to be made public the next week, as a deterrent to nuclear violence. The doomsday machine, once switched on, cannot be turned off–unlike the bombs of yore, this is designed to operate without any human intervention. Yet, in all its certainty, it fails to account for the possibility of human error. What good would a doomsday machine do to deter someone as trigger-happy as General Ripper? It's Pandora's box.

Dr. Strangelove, the former Nazi scientist (with a penchant for calling the President 'Mein Fuhrer'), suggests that they build a nuclear shelter and repopulate, with a 10:1 ratio of women to men, and General Turgidson agrees. Cold War era policy meant that the US was far more concerned with perpetuating paranoia and encouraging the construction of bunkers than with preventing nuclear war. Bunkers of this size also alleviate the need for MAD; if they had been quicker when building them, they would have survived a first-strike and would still have had time to carry out a second-strike.

Section III or: Wonderful Bomb         

Following the release of Dr. Strangelove, the US Air Force produced a documentary film, SAC Command Post, which enforced its tight-control over nuclear weapons, and that a trigger-happy General like General Ripper could never incite a nuclear war without the President’s explicit approval. Years later however, due to the declassification of certain documents, it appears that otherwise was true.

The humor, or I suppose terror of Dr. Strangelove comes from the fact that it's all too true. The confused web of Cold War nuclear politics and nuclear planning meant that humanity had repeatedly put itself far too close to the point of destruction. We may not possess any doomsday machine but the combined arsenal of either the US or Russia sure do get the job done. Most of these bombs, hopefully, will never be detonated, and so I ask: why is it that we spend billions of dollars on these apocalypse machines in the first place?

Muhammad Siddiqui is an IB Diploma Program student in Lahore. He holds a strong interest in the arts and humanities.