Is the US Flirting With Nuclear War?
A proxy war pitting the United States against a paranoid adversary with a massive nuclear arsenal at his command: What could possibly go wrong?
By Andrew J. Bacevich
Peace activists wearing masks of Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and US President Joe Biden pose with mock nuclear missiles in front of the US embassy in Berlin on January 29, 2021, in an action to call for more progress in nuclear disarmament. (John MacDougall / AFP via Getty Images)
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Bosley Crowther, chief film critic for The New York Times, didn’t quite know what to make of Dr. Strangelove at the time of its release in January 1964. Stanley Kubrick’s dark anti-war satire was “beyond any question the most shattering sick joke I’ve ever come across,” he wrote. But if the film had its hilarious moments, Crowther found its overall effect distinctly unnerving. What exactly was Kubrick’s point? “When virtually everybody turns up stupid or insane—or, what is worse, psychopathic—I want to know what this picture proves.”
We may find it odd for an influential critic to expect a movie to “prove” anything. Kubrick’s aim was manifestly not to prove, but to subvert and discomfit
Top Stories00:0With feature-length hyperbole—not a wisp of subtlety allowed—Dr. Strangelove made the case that a deep strain of madness had infected the entire US national security apparatus. From the “War Room” that was the Pentagon’s holiest of holies all the way to the cockpit of a B-52 hurtling toward its assigned Russian target with a massive nuclear bomb in its belly, whack jobs were in charge.
A mere two years after the Cuban missile crisis, few Americans viewed the prospect of nuclear Armageddon as a joking matter. Yet here was Dr. Strangelove treating this deadly serious topic as suitable for raucous (and slightly raunchy) comedy. That’s what bothered Crowther, who admitted to being “troubled by the feeling, which runs through the film, of discredit and even contempt for our whole defense establishment, up to and even including the hypothetical Commander-in-Chief.”
If the nation owed its very survival to that defense establishment—a widely accepted supposition during the Cold War—Kubrick’s contemptuous attitude was nothing short of blasphemous.
We may imagine other inhabitants of the circle in which Crowther lived and worked sharing his unease. Collectively, they comprised a world of believers—not a faith community in a religious sense but an elite establishment. Members of that establishment accepted as gospel an identifiable set of political, cultural, and moral propositions that defined mid-20th-century American life.
Chief among them was a conviction that communism—monolithic, aggressive, and armed to the teeth—posed an existential threat to what was then known as the Free World. In the face of that, it had become incumbent upon the United States to arm itself to the teeth. The preeminent symbol of US readiness to thwart that Red threat was a massive nuclear strike force held on hair-trigger alert to obliterate the entire Soviet empire. (A typical 1961 report from the Joint Chiefs of Staff suggested that a full-scale US nuclear attack on the Soviet Union would kill half its population, or 108 million people. An analysis the Joint Chiefs provided to the Kennedy White House that same year put the dead for Russia and China together at upwards of 600 million.)
Instant readiness to wage World War III thereby held the key to averting World War III. Politicians, generals, and PhD-wielding “defense intellectuals” all affirmed the impeccable logic of such an arrangement. As the menacing motto of the Strategic Air Command, which controlled America’s nuclear bombers and missiles, put it: “Peace Is Our Profession.”
Kubrick was not alone in expressing concern that such a saber-rattling pursuit of peace might yield an altogether different outcome. Could policies supposedly designed to prevent a nuclear holocaust actually produce it?
Arbiters of American culture like Crowther might have bridled at such a thought but proved unable to prevent it from gaining purchase. For authors of pulp fiction thrillers and Hollywood studio executives, the anxieties induced by the possibility of nuclear war were pure catnip. In 1964 alone, in addition to Dr. Strangelove, major movie releases included Fail Safe (Moscow and New York City are vaporized) and Seven Days in May (a military plot to overthrow a dovish US president is barely averted). The near-miss of the Cuban missile crisis endowed such fictional plots with an eerie element of verisimilitude. So, too, did the USSR’s atmospheric detonation of a 50-megaton nuclear weapon in October 1961. That “Tsar Bomba” was over 1,500 times more powerful than both of the obliterating atomic bombs dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 to end World War II.
As long as the Cold War continued, popular worries about a single spasm of violence extinguishing humankind persisted, with national leaders obliged to offer at least gestures of sympathetic concern. Thus was born the project that came to be known as “nuclear disarmament,” which dated from President John F. Kennedy’s justifiably famous June 1963 speech at American University. Here was his inaugural “pay any price, bear any burden” speech of 1961 turned inside out and upside down. As if anticipating the cultural mood of our own day, the commander-in-chief vowed to “help make the world safe for diversity.” What followed was JFK at his most eloquent: