July 25, 2005

Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb: Hollywood and the Cold War in 1964

Oscar Wilde once famously said that “Life imitates art more than art imitates life.” It is fortunate indeed that this is not true of the dozens of movies about nuclear warfare produced by Hollywood during the decades of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union.

When President Truman, hoping to force Japan’s rapid capitulation in the Pacific theater, ordered that atomic bombs be dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, he changed, irreversibly and forever, the face of the world we live in. For the next four and a half decades, civilian populations around the globe would live beneath the shadowy specter of possible nuclear holocaust. And throughout the era of the Cold War, America’s movie industry was hard at work cranking out a continuous stream of films concerning every conceivable angle of the global ideological struggle.

Movies reflecting the harsh realities of the atomic age were hardly limited to a single genre, either: serious human dramas, tense suspense-thrillers, hilarious and bitingly-satirical comedies, low-budget science fiction; all of these made use of impending nuclear warfare as a plot device.

The early years of the Cold War were marked by a slowly evolving, though precarious, balance of nuclear power between the USA and the USSR, and by a very distinct period in American culture which was very much reflected by the cinema of the era. It was a time of almost paradoxical innocence, of strong anti-communist sentiment backing strong anti-communist policy, and of adjustment to the relatively new fear that mankind might have finally worked out a sure-fire method of self-annihilation.

In many ways, 1964 was the year that bridged the gap between those early years of the Cold War and everything that would come after. Two movies were released in 1964 which employ the same subject matter in very different ways. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, a dark and satirical comedy, was released early in the year, and was followed several months later by the tense drama, Fail-Safe. Both movies addressed the question of what might transpire if a nuclear war were begun by mistake.

The enormous box-office success of, and critical response to, Dr. Strangelove shows how large a role such questions were playing in the minds of ordinary Americans at the time. Both films also present a fascinating picture of the nuclear systems that were in place at that time. An informed study of these movies reveals a great deal about America and its love-hate relationship with its own nuclear arsenal during the early years of the Cold War.

By 1964, nuclear weapons had long since become an integrated part of our armed forces. Truman had helped to establish the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) through the passage of the Atomic Energy Act of 1946, which placed production, maintenance, and distribution of nuclear weapons in civilian hands. Transfer of these weapons to the military was possible only with presidential authorization.

At that time, the Soviet Union did not yet possess nuclear capabilities, and it was uncertain as to whether Truman would authorize the use of atomic weapons even in the event of another war. Although Truman vastly increased the production of nuclear material in 1949, and authorized the development of the hydrogen bomb shortly after the Soviets detonated their first successful nuclear device, control of the nuclear arsenal was kept out of military hands throughout his presidency.

President Eisenhower wasted little time in reversing Truman’s nuclear policies after he took office in 1953. The AEC was ordered almost immediately to transfer custody of nuclear stockpiles to the military, which then dispersed the weapons to its forces around the world. Additionally, a single sentence from NSC 162/1, a National Security Council document, made the new role of nuclear weapons in military conflicts very clear. It stated very simply that: "In the event of hostilities, the United States will consider nuclear weapons to be as available for use as other munitions."

Furthermore, Eisenhower’s policy of “massive retaliation” (first outlined by his Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, in early 1954) demonstrated his willingness to threaten a nuclear response to Soviet aggression, or as Dulles put it, "to blow [the] hell out of them in a hurry if they start anything." This policy would remain essentially unmodified until the Kennedy administration began to formulate a policy of "flexible response" which left open the possibility of delaying the use of nuclear weapons should any conflict flash suddenly into existence.

Essentially, flexible response finally made nuclear devices a special, rather than regular, part of the American arsenal once again. However, this policy was still not formally implemented by NATO until sometime in 1968. In the meantime, the Kennedy team pushed for a state of "mutual deterrence" or "assured destruction" in the American nuclear arsenal. It would soon become known by the acronym "MAD," for "mutually-assured destruction." As outlined in a speech by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara in 1962:

The point is that a potential aggressor must believe that our assured-destruction capability is in fact actual, and that our will to use it in retaliation to an attack is in fact unwavering. The conclusion, then, is clear: if the United States is to deter a nuclear attack in itself or its allies, it must possess an actual and a credible assured-destruction capability.

The first few years of the 1960s had seen tensions heightened by such events as the raising of the Berlin Wall, the escalation of the Space Race, and the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. In late 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis had brought the world closer to nuclear war than it had ever been before, or ever would be again. And the entire nation had been stunned by the assassination of President Kennedy on November 22, 1963.

Still, we had not yet committed fully to the quagmire of Vietnam, and so preserved a sterling track-record of successful anti-communist interventions in the Third World which included operations of various magnitudes in Iran, Guatemala, and Korea. The effort to promote a policy of détente had also not yet been fully realized. President Kennedy, in an address to the nation during the summer of 1963, had described the aftereffects of nuclear war in horrifying detail:

A war today or tomorrow, if it led to nuclear war, would not be like any war in history. A full-scale nuclear exchange, lasting less than 60 minutes, with the weapons now in existence, could wipe out more than 300 million Americans, Europeans, and Russians, as well as untold numbers elsewhere. And the survivors, as Chairman Khrushchev warned the Communist Chinese, "the survivors would envy the dead." For they would inherit a world so devastated by explosions and poison and fire that today we cannot even conceive of its horrors.

It was in this atmosphere of extreme uncertainty, tension, and danger that two directors began to work independently to bring adaptations of two different works of fiction to the silver screen. Sidney Lumet was beginning work on Fail-Safe, a movie based on a 1962 novel of the same title by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler.

The story involved frantic and fruitless attempts to recall a squadron of B-58 bombers which had been ordered to drop their nuclear payloads on Moscow due to an electrical malfunction in the fault indicator of the Strategic Air Command. The movie is taut with suspense and deadly serious from the opening scene to the unthinkably shocking conclusion.

Meanwhile, Stanley Kubrick, along with screenwriter Terry Southern, had been collaborating with novelist Peter George on a screenplay version of his 1958 novel, Red Alert, aka Two Hours to Doom. The novel very seriously considered the implications of an unexpected failure in the chain of command which might result in a disastrous pre-emptive strike being launched by the US against Russia.

Kubrick, having been "struck by people’s virtually listless acquiescence in the possibility—in fact, in the increasing probability—of nuclear war, by either design or accident," became increasingly aware that the script, which would become Dr. Strangelove, worked far better as black comedy than it did when played straight. And, much to George’s dismay and the public’s delight, this was how it was eventually translated onto film.

A rogue air force base commander, ironically named Jack D. Ripper, orders the bombers under his command to attack their military targets inside Russia, and then seals the base off from the outside world with himself and the secret bomber recall codes inside. The President and his top advisors must decide whether to cooperate with the Soviets in bringing the bombers down, or commit themselves to an all-out nuclear strike against the USSR. The characters are neurotic and quirky, and the situation is largely played for laughs. At the time of its release, the New York Times reviewer called it "beyond any question the most shattering sick joke I've ever come across."

Both movies were distributed by Columbia Pictures, which required the films to be accompanied by disclaimers assuring movie-goers that nothing like this could ever conceivably happen. The government also immediately dismissed both scenarios as impossible upon the movies’ respective releases. However, interestingly enough, the scene Dr. Strangelove where Captain Mandrake cannot reach the Pentagon because he lacks change for the pay phone was shown at a session of Congress. It was said to raise legitimate questions about whether such crucial communications would be possible in the midst of a nuclear crisis.

Banished to the realms of science fiction and fantasy by the United States government or not, Dr. Strangelove and Fail-Safe certainly appealed to audiences’ imaginations, although Fail-Safe was less successful financially. This was possibly due to its having been released in the shadow of Dr. Strangelove and to what many viewers might have regarded as an unacceptable outcome of the story. The film ends with Henry Fonda, as the President of the United States, ordering a nuclear strike on New York City in order to avert total nuclear war with the USSR after the combined efforts of both nations have failed to prevent the annihilation of Moscow.

Dr. Strangelove, in particular, was very relevant for American audiences at the time, in some ways eerily so. It was originally slated for release in late 1963, but the release was postponed for a number of months after Kennedy was assassinated. Additionally, Slim Pickens’ statement in the movie that "A fella could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all that stuff" originally read "Dallas," not "Vegas." It was redubbed before the film’s release, also because of the Kennedy assassination. Further, Kubrick had originally planned to end the film with a custard pie fight in the War Room. President Muffley was to have been hit, with General Turgidson loudly exclaiming that "Our gallant young president has been struck down in his prime!" If it had remained in the script, this too would almost certainly have been cut after Kennedy’s death.

As shown in both movies, American nuclear strategy for several years consisted of a force of nuclear-equipped bombers remaining airborne outside Russian airspace at all times. By late 1959, a full two years ahead of the Soviet Union, the United States arsenal had incorporated its first inter-continental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, and from that time the bomber strategy began to be phased out slowly. However, it is difficult to ascertain how much information about such a relatively new weapon would have been available to the general public, and it is to be expected that the movies’ portrayals would feature nuclear strategies that were a few years out of date.

Other issues raised by the movies would have been pulled directly from contemporary events as well. Less than a year before the release of Dr. Strangelove, the US and the USSR signed an agreement to install a "hot line" between Moscow and Washington D. C., in order to fascilitate communication between the nations' leaders should any mishaps actually occur.

Charges that the fluoridation of water in the United States was part of a communist conspiracy to poison America had circulated since the days of McCarthy hysteria many years earlier. In fact, all of the trappings of paranoia regarding Soviets and communists which are present in Dr. Strangelove were certainly quite present in American culture.

"Red scares" had been occurring with some regularity in the United States since at least the time of the Bolshevik revolution in 1917. General Turgidson’s dismay at the Russian ambassador’s presence inside the War Room ("He'll see the Big Board!") and Colonel Bat Guano’s dark mutterings about communist "preversions" might have brought a chuckle from liberal members of the audience and a grimace from conservatives, but everyone would have recognized the accuracy of the images.

Both movies also show the potential consequences of relying too much on fallible automated systems and machines. Technology was moving ever more swiftly in the direction of automation, producing results which would have been both exciting and chilling at the same time. After all, if humans are fallible, how much more so are the machines they create?

Finally, one cannot discount the relevance of the important roles played by Walter Matthau as Prof. Groeteschele and Peter Sellers as Dr. Strangelove. Both men, portraying slightly deranged and coldly logical intellectuals who pull the strings as advisors at the highest levels of government, based their performances to some degree on existing public figures. Dr. Strangelove himself is generally agreed to be a rough composite of four such men:

-Werner Von Braun, a German pioneer of rocket technology and a Nazi scientist who was brought to the United States after World War II to head the development of American rockets.

-Herman Kahn, a nuclear strategist made famous by his 1960 book On Thermonuclear War. Kahn was also the man who half-jokingly put forward the idea of a "doomsday machine" (a concept that plays an important role in the plot of Dr. Strangelove) which would make America’s response to a nuclear strike fully automated.

-Henry Kissinger, another former citizen of Germany and strategist who would later become the Secretary of State. Kissinger was also the architect of Nixon's efforts at détente.

-Edward Teller, a scientist born in Hungary who made his name as the father of the H-bomb and as a nuclear strategist who advised and opposed presidents. Teller walked with an obvious limp, the only one of the four who had a physical handicap, as Strangelove does. In fact, Teller for one was extremely sensitive regarding any comparison between himself and the Dr. Strangelove of Kubrick's movie. Throughout his long life, interviewers who broached the subject might be asked curtly to leave.

The cold, machine-like thinking of Strangelove combined with his creepy foreign accent and habits, though played for laughs, would have struck a particular chord with American moviegoers who might have felt increasingly less in control of their fate and of the direction their country was taking.

Whether or not life imitates art with any regularity, as Wilde asserted, it is an absolute certainty that art often imitates life. This is especially true of the classics of American cinema. Hollywood and The Movies have been an important part of our culture and heritage almost since they were first introduced. They possess the incredible capability of freezing our lives, our hopes, our fears, and our dreams onto a strip of celluloid, of capturing one fascinating aspect of America at an exact (and, in the case of Dr. Strangelove and Fail-Safe, unique and defining) moment in history and preserving it for future generations to examine and participate in.

The great films of the Cold War, while they may not be the best source of historical fact, are an infallible source of cultural enlightenment, able to transport us temporarily back into that time of uncertainty and promise. America’s greatest movies are an important part of the cultural heritage we bring with us out of the 20th Century, and it is in this light that we should always attempt to view and enjoy them.


Selected Bibliography

Crowther, Bosley. "Kubrick Film Presents Sellers in 3 Roles." The New York Times 30 Jan 1964. http://www.nytimes.com/1964/01/30/movies/013064strangelove.html.

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. Perf. Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, and Sterling Hayden. Columbia Pictures, 1964.

Eisenhower, Dwight. "'Atoms for Peace' Speech." Atomic Archive. 8 Dec 1953.

Fail-Safe. Dir. Sidney Lumet. Perf. Henry Fonda, Walter Matthau, and Dan O’Herlihy. Columbia Pictures, 1964.

Glikman, Andrew Yale. "Herman Kahn's Doomsday Machine." http://trace.ntu.ac.uk/frame2/articles/borg/kahn.html.

Goodchild, Peter. Edward Teller: The Real Dr. Strangelove. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004.

Halperin, Morton H. Nuclear Fallacy: Dispelling the Myth of Nuclear Strategy. Cambridge: Ballinger Publishing Company, 1987.

Kennedy, John F. "Address to the American People on the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty." Atomic Archive. 26 Jul 1963. http://www.atomicarchive.com/Docs/Deterrence/ JFK_LTBTreaty.shtml.

McNamara, Robert. "'Mutual Deterrence' Speech." Atomic Archive. 1962

"Memorandum of Understanding Between The United States of America and The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics Regarding the Establishment of a Direct Communications Link." U.S. Department of State. 20 Jun 1963. http://www.state.gov/t/ac/trt/4785.htm.

Powaski, Ronald E. The Cold War. 1st ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

The Internet Movie Database. "Information on Fail-Safe." 1990-2005. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0058083/.

The Internet Movie Database. "Information on Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb." 1990-2005. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0057012/.

"Timeline of the Nuclear Age." Atomic Archive. AJ Software & Multimedia. 24 Jul.
2005 http://www.atomicarchive.com/Timeline/Timeline.shtml.

Walker, Alexander, Sybil Taylor, and Ulrich Ruchti. Stanley Kubrick, Director: A Visual Analysis. Revised and Expanded ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1999.

Posted by Jared at July 25, 2005 08:00 AM | TrackBack