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January 23, 2014 11:12 AM   Subscribe

The Truths Behind 'Dr. Strangelove' Eric Schlosser, author of Command and Control (previously), celebrates the 50th anniversary of the release of Dr. Strangelove by looking into the plausibility of the movie's premise.
posted by COBRA! (53 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite

 
Does it mention the warning the Navy slapped on the front of the film saying THIS COULD NEVER EVER HAPPEN WE ASSURE YOU?
posted by The Whelk at 11:20 AM on January 23 [1 favorite]


Everyone is far too sane and reasonable in it.
posted by Artw at 11:27 AM on January 23 [2 favorites]


And a new screening program, the Human Reliability Program, was created to stop people with emotional, psychological, and substance-abuse problems from gaining access to nuclear weapons.

(deep inhale)

HA!
posted by JHarris at 11:39 AM on January 23 [2 favorites]


I was disappointed the article didn't touch on another notable accuracy in the film: Lone Ranger Brand Nuclear Missle Saddles. This brand secretly launched in the late 1960's and was targeted at pilots in command of the US fleet of nuclear bombers. Lone Ranger billed itself as the only nuclear missle saddle capable of providing the user with a patented "form fitting crotch zone" ensuring "comfort on your last and most important day".
posted by vorpal bunny at 11:40 AM on January 23 [2 favorites]


And a new screening program, the Human Reliability Program, was created to stop people with emotional, psychological, and substance-abuse problems from gaining access to nuclear weapons.

(deep inhale)

HA!


Look, who among us hasn't been busted with counterfeit casino chips in Council Bluffs? Or gotten shitfaced and tried to belt out Beatles covers in Moscow?
posted by COBRA! at 11:41 AM on January 23 [8 favorites]


Coded switches to prevent the unauthorized use of nuclear weapons were finally added to the control systems of American missiles and bombers in the early nineteen-seventies. The Air Force was not pleased, and considered the new security measures to be an insult, a lack of confidence in its personnel.

Heh heh, oh, those Air Force personnel! So offended that we don't trust them not to
destroy all life on the planet

posted by JHarris at 11:42 AM on January 23 [5 favorites]


I have only ever known Dr S in the context of other similar cold war stories , most notably the book and film Fail-Safe. One is a thriller, the other a dark comedy, but during my adolescence they represented a scenario that very much seemed plausible.
posted by OHenryPacey at 11:45 AM on January 23 [1 favorite]


Does it mention the warning the Navy slapped on the front of the film saying THIS COULD NEVER EVER HAPPEN WE ASSURE YOU?

The linked article doesn't, but one of the three links at the end includes this line:
At the opening of the film, Kubrick included a disclaimer (“It is the stated position of the U.S. Air Force that their safeguards would prevent the occurrence of such events…”).

I ordered and read Schlosser's book immediately after seeing the prior post, and it is a good read as well as good information to know. And more than a little scary. Since I had read the book most of the article was kind of old news, but when I got to the end about recent events involving high-ranking officers being relieved of command for inappropriate behavior, it was facepalm time. Sometimes I think the military is either clueless or completely unconcerned about how they appear to others. A little less hero-worship might help that attitude.

And the links at the end are worth following; they really flesh out the article.
posted by TedW at 11:59 AM on January 23


> during my adolescence they represented a scenario that very much seemed plausible.

Living with the real, constant threat of an instant worldwide nuclear holocaust, wiping out life and covering the earth with a blanket of radioactive ash while we either all die in the fireball, painfully die from our burns in a few days, painfully die from the radiation poisoning in a few weeks or get eaten by mutants?

The were simpler times, yes. Some say better times...
posted by mikelieman at 12:00 PM on January 23 [6 favorites]


Dr. Strangelove started out as a thriller like Fail-Safe, the book it's based on is serious, but while writing the screenplay found the situations so unintentionally funny that Kubrick and Southern switched it to being a comedy.
posted by octothorpe at 12:01 PM on January 23 [3 favorites]


Trident submarines contain two safes. One holds the keys necessary to launch a missile; the other holds the combination to the safe with the keys; and the combination to the safe holding the combination must be transmitted to the sub by very-low-frequency or extremely-low-frequency radio. In a pinch, if Washington, D.C., has been destroyed and the launch code doesn’t arrive, the sub’s crew can open the safes with a blowtorch.

The fate of the world continues to rest on the proper control of blowtorches.
posted by JHarris at 12:03 PM on January 23 [2 favorites]


Living with the real, constant threat of a worldwide nuclear holocaust,
The were simpler times, yes. Some say better times...


VS now when there are no Nuclear weapons so there can't be a nuclear war?

As for worldwide nuclear holocaust, doesn't Fukushima's ongoing criticality events get to at least place as 'worldwide nuclear' something?
posted by rough ashlar at 12:05 PM on January 23


Look, who among us hasn't been busted with counterfeit casino chips in Council Bluffs? Or gotten shitfaced and tried to belt out Beatles covers in Moscow?

I actually posted my HA before getting that far into the article. I may have to upgrade it to a WAH-HA-HA, except, you know, for the terrible consequences for life on Earth.
posted by JHarris at 12:05 PM on January 23 [1 favorite]


Dr. Strangelove is one of the greatest scientifictional comedies of all times. And it can still come true.
posted by Renoroc at 12:08 PM on January 23


No fighting in the war room!
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 12:08 PM on January 23 [6 favorites]


Seconding the love for Strangelove. It's rare that a movie gets its tone so perfectly right.
posted by JHarris at 12:13 PM on January 23 [6 favorites]


As for worldwide nuclear holocaust, doesn't Fukushima's ongoing criticality events get to at least place as 'worldwide nuclear' something?

Not really, no.
posted by Juffo-Wup at 12:28 PM on January 23 [3 favorites]


Not really, no.

Ahhh yes because of the known and demonstrated safety surrounding fission energy releases.

That's why one should stop worrying and love splitting Atoms.
posted by rough ashlar at 12:34 PM on January 23


“The incidents in ‘Fail-Safe’ are deliberate lies!” General Curtis LeMay, the Air Force chief of staff, said. “Nothing like that could happen.”

In the Oliver Stone documentary (or so-called documentary if you prefer) they said that Robert Kennedy told Gromyko that JFK was afraid of a coup during the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Then a few minutes later Oli shows the assassination but he didn't say anything about the generals doing it.
posted by bukvich at 12:49 PM on January 23


If Strangelove was changed to a comedy at some point during the filming process, that would explain why the combat scenes are so realistic and, well, not funny.
posted by The Card Cheat at 12:55 PM on January 23


As for worldwide nuclear holocaust, doesn't Fukushima's ongoing criticality events get to at least place as 'worldwide nuclear' something?

I dunno, but for the meantime, I'll pass on the tuna sushi, thanks...

The fate of the world continues to rest on the proper control of blowtorches.

We have top men working on it now.

Top... men.
posted by mikelieman at 12:57 PM on January 23 [2 favorites]


I am almost done with this audiobook, and it is totally giving me Nerves about what we dodged -- for like fifty years.
posted by wenestvedt at 12:57 PM on January 23


“The whole point of the Doomsday Machine is lost,” Dr. Strangelove, the President’s science adviser, explains to the Soviet Ambassador, “if you keep it a secret!”
No fighting in the war room!

Please, let's not bicker and argue about 'oo exterminated 'oo. This is supposed to be an 'appy occasion!
 
posted by Herodios at 1:00 PM on January 23 [1 favorite]


As for worldwide nuclear holocaust, doesn't Fukushima's ongoing criticality events get to at least place as 'worldwide nuclear' something?

Since the implicit comparison is to a full nuclear exchange between NATO and the Warsaw Pact, resulting in the detonation of 20 to 30 gigatons of nuclear weapons and quite possibly the extinction of all large mammals on Earth...

No, it makes no sense at all to mention Fukushima in the same breath.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:17 PM on January 23 [12 favorites]


> If Strangelove was changed to a comedy at some point during the filming process, that would explain why the combat scenes are so realistic and, well, not funny.

Kubrick intentionally didn't tell Slim Pickens (the bomber pilot) that the movie was a comedy and not an action thriller. Didn't even give him the full script, IIRC, just the parts containing his scenes.
posted by xbonesgt at 1:21 PM on January 23


LOL, such nuke. I'm glad we got rid of them all and are totally safe now.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 1:52 PM on January 23 [1 favorite]


As for worldwide nuclear holocaust, doesn't Fukushima's ongoing criticality events get to at least place as 'worldwide nuclear' something?

The way smoking a cigarette compares to stage 4 lung cancer, yes.

Here is a time lapse of 20th century nuclear bomb detonations. Over 1000 tests by the United States alone. Many of those were above ground tests, and each of the above ground tests was comparable to Fukushima in terms of radioactive materials released.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 1:52 PM on January 23


Kubrick intentionally didn't tell Slim Pickens that the movie was a comedy

I keep seeing this factoid repeated, but I never see it sourced.

Maybe he wasn't shown the whole script, but in his last scene, he rides a nuclear bomb, a whoopin' and a whompin' every livin' thing within a inch of its life. . . what in the wide world of sports is that's doin' in a serious war movie?

Then there's this from Turner Classic Movies:
As reported in a biography by author John Baxter. . . Kubrick took full advantage of Pickens' unique personality, instructing him to play Kong "as straight as you can." . . . Pickens basically played himself.
And this, from Stanley Kubrick: A Biography, by John Baxter:
Kubrick refused to show Pickens any footage already shot: "Play it as straight as you can and it'll be fine."(p. 189)
It's a long road from here to "Slim Pickens didn't know it was a comedy".
 
posted by Herodios at 1:53 PM on January 23 [4 favorites]


My absolute favorite thing about this movie is that nearly all the characters accomplish what they set out to do, even though they conflict.
posted by hellojed at 1:53 PM on January 23 [7 favorites]


As for worldwide nuclear holocaust, doesn't Fukushima's ongoing criticality events get to at least place as 'worldwide nuclear' something?

Ahhh yes because of the known and demonstrated safety surrounding fission energy releases.

That's why one should stop worrying and love splitting Atoms.


Quoting from Wikipedia in re Fukushima: "There were no casualties officially reported to be caused by radiation exposure" and (after a lengthy discussion of various calculations of possible future casualties) it concludes:

These numbers are very low compared to the estimated 20,000 casualties caused by the tsunami itself, and it has been estimated that if Japan had never adopted nuclear power, accidents and pollution from coal or gas plants would have caused more lost years of life

The combined sum of all casualties of all nuclear power catastrophes in the last fifty years is eclipsed every single month by automobiles in the US alone and nearly all of that is due to Chernobyl -- take that out, and it's less than the death toll on the highways in a single day!

In my opinion, I would say that the safety surrounding fission energy releases is pretty well demonstrated.
posted by artichoke_enthusiast at 1:54 PM on January 23 [5 favorites]


re Fukushima: "There were no casualties officially reported to be caused by radiation exposure"

Contrast: the 1956 film The Conqueror was filmed downwind of the Nevada test site. 91 of 220 members of the cast and crew were diagnosed with cancer and 46 of them died.

One of the dead was John Wayne, who was starring in blackface in the role of Genghis Khan. Picture the following line in John Wayne's accent: "She is woman, Jamuga...much woman. Should her perfidy be less than that of other women?"
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 2:11 PM on January 23 [2 favorites]


the 1956 film The Conqueror

A movie pretty much accursed on all fronts.
 
posted by Herodios at 2:14 PM on January 23 [2 favorites]


Absolutely, hellojed! One of my young, impressionable takeways was that Major Kong and his crew were stone cold badasses. Don't forget that he wasn't astride that bomb as a reckless cowboy: He was fixing the battle-damaged release mechanism. Sacrificing your life for the mission is some Medal of Honor-level heroism right there. Distinguished Flying Cross at the very least.
posted by whuppy at 2:18 PM on January 23 [2 favorites]


Well, he did promise everyone decorations and promotions...
posted by COBRA! at 2:20 PM on January 23 [1 favorite]


Requoted from JHarris: "And a new screening program, the Human Reliability Program, was created to stop people with emotional, psychological, and substance-abuse problems from gaining access to nuclear weapons. "

That's a blatant grab for military power, excluding the entire government like that!
posted by IAmBroom at 3:07 PM on January 23


Herodios: Maybe he wasn't shown the whole script, but in his last scene, he rides a nuclear bomb, a whoopin' and a whompin' every livin' thing within a inch of its life

Okay, you score a point for bringing Blazing Saddles into this.
posted by JHarris at 3:15 PM on January 23


I'm sure it's been linked before, but this documentary about the making of Dr. Strangelove is great. One of the bits of trivia in there is that the military questioned Kubrick about the layout of the planes, wanted to know who had spilled military secrets. Kubrick had just invented it, based on what people knew about similar aircraft.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 3:15 PM on January 23 [2 favorites]


The slim pickings story is often mixed up with George C. Scott because Scott thought it would be disrespectful to play a senior offical as a bungling toddler obsessed with planes but Kubrick convinced him to play it that way "as a joke" for a few takes and then used those for the final cut.

Fun fact, Mel Brooks got the singer of the title song of Blazing Saddles, an old name in country cowboy themes, by expressly not telling him what the movie was about.
posted by The Whelk at 3:18 PM on January 23 [2 favorites]


( oh and yeah, and Kubricks team successfully reverse engineering the interior of the plane from a Few murky photographs.)
posted by The Whelk at 3:20 PM on January 23


Hmm, p'raps the mollusc is right, people are confusing the Slim Pickens / Dr. Strangelove story and the Frankie Laine / Blazing Saddles story. . . .

"Frankie sang his heart out... and we didn't have the heart to tell him it was a spoof -- we just said, 'Oh, great!'. He never heard the whip cracks; we put those in later. We got so lucky with his serious interpretation of the song." -- Mel Brooks

Frankie Laine sings:
  High Noon (Do No Forsake Me Oh My Darlin') 1952
  Rawhide 1958
  Blazing Saddles 1974
 
posted by Herodios at 4:50 PM on January 23 [1 favorite]


“The incidents in ‘Fail-Safe’ are deliberate lies!” General Curtis LeMay, the Air Force chief of staff, said. “Nothing like that could happen.”

Because if there's one guy you can trust not to go psycho with nuclear weapons, it's the guy advocating the use of preemptive strikes.

Although the Air Force now denies this claim, according to more than one source I contacted, the code necessary to launch a missile was set to be the same at every Minuteman site: 00000000.

That's amazing! I've got the same combination on my luggage!
posted by Smedleyman at 5:21 PM on January 23 [5 favorites]


the code necessary to launch a missile was set to be the same at every Minuteman site: 00000000.

That's amazing! I've got the same combination on my luggage!


Waitaminnit! Didn't you make that joke on the other side of the record?
 
posted by Herodios at 5:32 PM on January 23 [3 favorites]


The fate of the world continues to rest on the proper control of blowtorches.

We call the torch on our work truck "the master key."
posted by The Hamms Bear at 7:06 PM on January 23 [2 favorites]


Picture the following line in John Wayne's accent: 'She is woman, Jamuga...much woman. Should her perfidy be less than that of other women?'

To my sorrow I don't need to imagine it. "I feel this Tartar woman is for me, and my blood says, take her.'"
posted by kirkaracha at 9:34 PM on January 23


rough ashlar: "As for worldwide nuclear holocaust, doesn't Fukushima's ongoing criticality events get to at least place as 'worldwide nuclear' something?"

There is a lot of bullshit flying around the kinds of websites you share with us, but while there is a lot to be concerned about regarding the current state of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, worldwide nuclear anything is not a part of that.
posted by Blasdelb at 2:43 AM on January 24 [2 favorites]


good thing to know the nukes today are safe and secure.

Air Force: General in nuclear missile command fired
Nuclear Missile Officers Reportedly Implicated In Drug Probe
Air Force nuke officers caught up in big cheating scandal
Nuclear Corps, Sidelined in Terror Fight, Produces a Culture of Cheating
Top military officials were quick to voice outrage over revelations last week that 34 officers responsible for launching the nation’s nuclear missiles cheated on monthly proficiency tests, but few expressed surprise.

Nuclear Triad Continues to Creak - Air Force takes the nuclear button away from 34 launch-control officers over cheating charges

Hagel orders reviews of nation’s nuclear force

f'n Air Force.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 7:58 AM on January 24 [1 favorite]


Schlosser's book, noted in the post, is well worth your time.
posted by uberchet at 3:01 PM on January 24


As octothorpe pointed out, Kubrick started out trying to adapt a serious thriller, the 1958 suspense novel Red Alert, originally published in the UK under the more sensational title Two Hours to Doom by a former RAF navigator under the pseudonym Peter Bryant. Kubrick's decision to turn the project into a satirical black comedy meant he could not only dispense with having to cooperate with the USAF—the way the Curtis LeMay-approved 1955 Strategic Air Command had—but also balance verisimilitude with artistic license. The resulting film could be easily edited down into a straight-faced war movie.

As Kubrick's potential audience for his satire of the next world war included many veterans from the earlier ones, he understood it required a convincing foundation to land its more outrageous gags. His director of photography, who had served in the RAF as a cameraman in Lancaster bombers over Germany during WWII, shot the outside scenes of the raid on Burpleson Air Force Base like cinéma vérité combat photography (Kubrick used a hand-held Arriflex). His set designer was another WWII RAF veteran and created a more than passable facsimile of the B-52 bomber's cockpit off a single unclassified image on a book cover for reference, though the real thing turns out to be more complicated. Of course, once Kubrick had all the lesser military details down right, he could make up the cavernous War Room with "the Big Board", basically a Bond villain's badly lit HQ, without dropping his audience's suspended disbelief. The Pentagon's newly rebuilt Joint War Room that in fact existed during the Cuban Missile Crisis was a more prosaic conference room with an oval table, green carpeting, some secure telephones, and a projection screen on one wall, while Kennedy had later a ordered the construction of a "Situation Room" that was likewise smaller and had only a few monitors.

Then again, there's a persistent rumor that the newly elected Ronald Reagan requested to be shown the White House's "War Room" that he had seen in the movie.
posted by Doktor Zed at 4:01 PM on January 24 [2 favorites]


good thing to know the nukes today are safe and secure.

They won't be safe until terrorist mastermind Sister Megan Rice is throw in prison for the next 30 years.
posted by homunculus at 5:29 PM on January 24 [1 favorite]


"Because if there's one guy you can trust not to go psycho with nuclear weapons, it's the guy advocating the use of preemptive strikes."

And not just that. What's kind of amazing about the defensiveness about PAL is that, as you say, Curtis LeMay himself, the head (and father) of Strategic Air Command, was adamant about a preemptive nuclear strike against the USSR and came pretty close to Jack D. Ripper levels of insubordination.

During the Cuban Missile Crisis, unbeknownst to Kennedy, LeMay had a SAC bomber overfly Cuban territory (at high altitude, over the landmass) in an attempt to provoke the Soviet Union and thus instigate the nuclear exchange he thought was necessary.

While watching the clip from the Sandia-produced documentary Always / Never, right during the voiceover where the narrator explains the rationale for PAL, the footage is of Kennedy and LeMay reviewing a facility. I couldn't help but think that there was a deliberate subtext in this, an allusion to the now-known but not-often-spoken-of fact that Curtis LeMay himself was the single biggest proof that the PALs and related civilian C&C controls were necessary.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 9:42 PM on January 24 [2 favorites]


LeMay had a SAC bomber overfly Cuban territory (at high altitude, over the landmass) in an attempt to provoke the Soviet Union and thus instigate the nuclear exchange he thought was necessary

I've always wondered about that. There was such a vast difference in worldview between the bodies of thought those two (et.al) represented.
LeMay of the better dead than red school.
Kennedy, although certainly no dove, for the more restrained small wars approach (hell, he could be said to be the grandfather of modern special ops) and diplomacy (and "diplomacy").

If one takes the Oliver Stone type conspiracies seriously (tangent here - there was certainly a conspiracy to kill Kennedy - the question regarding Oswald and whether elements of the government were involved aside) you have to ask what was so important as to kill one's own leader? Or, any conspiracy aside, just given the vitriol with which Kennedy, who again, would have been a pretty hardcore hawk as far as the U.S.S.R. goes (contrast Kennedy with Reagan) on the basis that he was soft on communism.
And, ultimately, what was so bad about "communism" (in the aggregate) that it was worth *immediately* destroying the world for? (As opposed to the war by proxy, slow choke the U.S. ultimately did; or any number of other potential strategies that didn't involve launching nukes - "today!")

In hindsight I suppose it makes about as much sense as the inquisition or siege warfare using pestilential missiles (dead cattle, diseased human corpses, etc). Combination of ignorance, misunderstanding detail and lack of conception of reality.

But the willfulness of it is stymieing. They'd read the reports on what a nuclear exchange would do.

In the modern era, I don't know that it's all that much better that we have machine controlled safeguards and the diplomatic methods - the NPT, et.al - are swell, but there's no real physical security or mechanism to compel.

MAD worked as an enforcement mechanism, but A. it wasn't absolute; as per this post, you could always have some nut(s) and B. it worked only as long as armies were the method of advancing territorial and economic gains - it certainly doesn't count on anonymity or a lower and lower technological bar (at this point in history many individuals have more computing power available to them than the entire space program circa 1969)

The best idea I've ever heard (that is, apart from getting rid of nuclear weapons entirely) is that nukes only be used on one's own territory, as a defense against invasion, or else risk global retaliation.
But there's probably gonna be someone who thinks taking out a chunk of their own real estate is worth spilling fallout on the guy next door.
posted by Smedleyman at 8:19 AM on January 28 [1 favorite]


I finally got around to reading Command and Control and finished it earlier this afternoon. It is an amazing book, a rare combination of careful, scholarly research and an utterly compelling narrative. If the topic seems even somewhat interesting to you, I highly recommend it.
posted by jcreigh at 5:01 PM on February 17


Elderly nun sentenced to nearly three years for Tennessee nuclear break-in
posted by homunculus at 8:56 PM on February 18


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