Dr. Strangelove

by Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi

This article is taken from Sharon's new book on Herman Kahn. Herman Kahn was the only nuclear strategist in America who might have made a living as a standup comedian. Indeed, galumphing around stages across the country, joking his way through one grotesque thermonuclear scenario after another, he came frighteningly close. In telling the story of Herman Kahn, whose 1960 book On Thermonuclear War catapulted him into celebrity, Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi captures an era that is still very much with us--a time whose innocence, gruesome nuclear humor, and outrageous but deadly serious visions of annihilation have their echoes in the "known unknowns and unknown unknowns" that guide policymakers in our own embattled world. For more information about the book, go to www.sharonghamari.com.

This article is the copyright of Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi and is reprinted by permission of the author.

While Herman Kahn was hailed as the quintessential civilian defense intellectual in a variety of contexts, both comic and otherwise, by the middle 1960s he became associated with a fictional former Nazi scientist, the character Dr. Strangelove in Stanley Kubrick's film of the same name, who was loosely based on the real Werner Von Braun, (whom the United States rehabilitated in order to exploit his ingenuity in missile design.) (Other observers guessed that Kubrick's model was Henry Kissinger.)The film was released in early 1964, -- three years after the publication of On Thermonuclear War, and therefore plausibly beyond the range of our concerns, nevertheless since its screenplay lifts pages of dialogue from On Thermonuclear War, we cannot overlook the period's most felicitous nuclear grotesque.

Thomas Schelling happens to have been the mediator between Peter George's original novel, Red Alert,and Kubrick's screenplay.Schelling had been asked to write a magazine article about accidental war, which began with a review of three novels about nuclear war.This was published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, and picked up verbatim by the Observer in London, which featured it as the lead article in the second section of a Sunday edition. Kubrick happened to have been in London at the time. In the article, Schelling claimed that George had done a better job of analyzing how a war might start than any professional analysts.Kubrick was impressed with the article, tracked down George, and immediately asked him to go with him to the United States and help him write the screenplay for Dr. Strangelove.

Kubrick and George visited Schelling in Cambridge to consult with him. They had had a problem with the crisis scenario.When Red Alert was published in 1958, the American nuclear force was carried by bomber aircraft.By the time Kubrick wished to make his movie, the bomber force had been augmented with Minuteman ICBMs and Polaris submarine-launched missiles. In Red Alert, a rogue General launches a wing of SAC bombers against Russian targets under radio silence under the provisions of a retaliatory plan which authorized a base commander to launch his forces in the event that Washington and SAC headquarters had been eliminated in an enemy strike.(1) The General's plan was to coerce the American President to accept preventive war. In fact, in the novel, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff urges the President to follow through the initial attack.

Accepting we cannot recall the bombers of the 843rd wing, there is an absolute military necessity to follow up their attack as hard and as fast as we can. Any other course of action will inevitably mean that we lose cities, and take casualties…. Mr. President, the Joint Chiefs unanimously recommend that a full scale attack on Soviet Russia be launched immediately.(2)

George's original scenario for unintended war was already obsolete. By 1962 it was difficult to believe that a rogue general could order a missile launch. Schelling recalled, “There was no way that you could launch them and then call the President and tell him the strike is on the way, you'd better launch the whole outfit. The question was how could a Brigadier General somewhere get the war started? ëHe, Kubrick, and George spent most of the afternoon devising one scenario after another.“We wanted to show that getting a war started was going to be very very hard, but not impossible.By the time we broke up, we decided that there wasn't a very plausible way to get this unintended war started.” (3) Schelling added, that it was only after his meeting with Kubrick and George that they decided to make Dr Strangelove a comedy “in order to make it happen.”

The Strangelove scenario borrowed from the original plot of Red Alert.In the film, a mad general makes use of an emergency war plan that authorizes a base commander to launch his bomber force in the event that communications with his superiors were disrupted due to enemy attack. The General telephones SAC and announces, “Yes gentlemen, they are on their way in and no one can bring them back. For the sake of our country and our way of life I suggest you get the rest of SAC in after them, otherwise we will be totally destroyed by Red retaliation.So let's get going, there's no other choice.” (4)

During the course of film-making, Kubrick conferred with Kahn several times. They were of the same mind when it came to the value of grotesque humor as a means to loosen public inhibitions against speaking about nuclear war.Recall Kahn's remarks, “One does not do research in a cathedral.Awe is fine for those who come to worship or admire, but for those who come to analyze, to tamper, to change, to criticize, a factual and dispassionate, and sometimes even colorful [i.e. humorous] approach is to be preferred.” (5) And “One wishes to relieve the grimness of the subject matter. People in a state of horror are not good analysts or detached and objective listeners.” (6) In reply to the scandal of nuclear humor, Kubrick commented similarly, “Why should the bomb be approached with reverence?Reverence can be a paralyzing state of mind.”(7) One can only wonder whether Kahn's tabletalk about deterrence and war-fighting demonstrated the possibility of approaching nuclear war prankishly.We know they enjoyed their meetings immensely.It's hard to believe that in the course of his tutorial Kahn did not regale his dinner companion with some of his best briefing jokes.Perhaps Kahn's glee indirectly inspired Kubrick's antic translation of Red Alert into a screenplay. Kubrick told a Newsweek reporter that “each time he tried to create a scene, it came up funny.”(8)

On January 29, 1964, the film, Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, debuted in New York. After the unauthorized launch of a bomber squadron to Soviet targets, the American President telephones the Soviet Premier to inform him of the accident. He successfully retrieves all but one of the bombers, and in the final scenes, SAC gives its Soviet counterparts detailed operational information including general patterns of evasive tactics the pilot of the sole remaining bomber was likely to employ in a last-ditch effort to shoot it down before it released its payload.The Soviet Premier sadly informs the President that should a single bomb detonate over Soviet territory, its Doomsday Machine would automatically and irrevocably retaliate against so many targets in the West as to end life on the planet.The last moments of the film are agonizingly suspenseful, as the bomber evades area air defenses.The final scene shows the plane's captain, a cheerful Texan, astride a bomb as though it were a bronco as it falls into the sky, waving his Ten-Gallon hat in hand, whooping and hollering.The credits roll as the screen fills with a mushroom cloud to the accompaniment of a liltingly melancholy song, “We'll Meet Again Some Sunny Day.”

While the ground had been prepared by the gradual acceptance of sick humor over the past six years, people hotly disagreed on the merits of a satire in which senior political and military officials were boobs or lunatics. People were genuinely shaken by Kubrick's unforgiving ending, and disturbed by the mockery of its accompanying song. A sample of the range of critical responses will mark off for us the high point of sick humor.From which summit in the next chapter we'll retreat by several years in order to locate Kahn's briefing performance within the transitional years between the McCarthyite monologue and the full flowering of the vulgar fashion for humor that was “bitter, perverse, sadistic and sick,… black in its pessimism, its refusal to compromise and its mortal sting.”(9)

One of those who admired the film but were discomfited by its finale was the reviewer for the New York Times.Bosley Crowther began by placing Dr. Strangelove squarely within the currents of recent popular entertainment.“Stanley Kubrick's new film… is beyond any question the most shattering sick joke I've ever come across.And I say that with full recollection of some of the grim ones I've heard from Mort Sahl, some of the cartoons I've seen by Charles Addams and some of the stuff I've read in Mad Magazine.”(10) While he applauded Kubrick's burlesque of strategic folly, it nonetheless offended him.“I am troubled by the feeling, which runs all through the film, of discredit and even contempt for our whole defense establishment, up to and even including the hypothetical Commander in Chief.”If every authority was a nincompoop or worse, then what could be the ultimate message of Dr Strangelove ?“I want to know what this picture proves.”The denouement was heartbreakingly abysmal.“Somehow, to me,” Crowther mused, “it isn't funny. It is malefic and sick.” (11)

The intensity that chilled Crowther pleased the film critic for the New Republic as the very essence of satire.“It is so truthful a film, so unsparing, so hopeless in the last pit-bottom depths of that word, that the very blackness has a kind of shine.”(12) The terms with which Stanley Kauffmann applauded the film makes one wonder whether Dr. Strangelove stimulated a display of aggressive invulnerability in which reviewers covertly boasted that while the film was strong stuff, they were the equal to the demand to tolerate it sportingly. (Philip Hartung said it point-blank, “If you can stomach all this nuclear horror as subject matter for a satirical comedy, you may have a good time at ‘Strangelove.'”(13))Thus Kauffmann's verdict, “Dr. Strangelove is first and foremost absolutely unflinching: relentlessly perceptive of human beings to the point of inhumanity. [Kubrick's techniques] all galvanize the picture into macabre yet witty reality.”(14) He offered (his version of) its enigmatic meaning for perplexed viewers.“This film says, ‘Ban the bomb and they'll find another way.The real Doomsday Machine is men.'”(15) It is surely a sign of the times that the men and women who implicitly congratulated themselves on their sophistication could praise Kubrick's film for its desolation.

Another example of self-regarding vamping under the sign of sicknik hauteur was Life magazine's review. Loudon Wainwright opened his piece by confiding, “I found myself at the edge of tears as I watched a series of nuclear explosions fill the screen and heard a sweet female voice singing ‘We'll meet again, don't know where, won't know when, but I know we'll meet again some sunny day.' ” He was disquieted by the abrupt shift in tone. Up until the end, he had laughed uproariously throughout the film.He wondered, “Was I sad that the movie's world was ending? Was I having an attack of hysterics brought on by the film's repeated and stunning outrages? Or had I suddenly arrived after prolonged laughter at a glimpse of some awful truth?”(16) Like Kauffmann, Wainwright felt moved to spell out the kernel of the film, “This truth had something to do with the sheer ridiculousness of humanity's posture in its terribly complex, life-and-death affair with the bomb.”Yet not everyone could discern this.He noted the bitterness with which some critics had rebuked Kubrick for defeatism. “Repelled by a comedy which draws its boffs from top-echelon folly and outright doom, they miss the point of the satire.” Prigs who objected to the exaggerations or factual errors in the film could not hope to understand contemporary sensibilities.Wainwright closed his piece with the taunt, “Their outrage underlines …[the] truth that the half-life of Not Getting the Point is forever.”

Other reviewers were as mindful of its scabrous qualities as Wainwright, but focused their attentions on Kubrick's audacity rather than the dividing line between the sicknik ability to enjoy the film, and the yokels who could not control their nerves half so well.Dwight Macdonald, for example, was astonished that Kubrick and Columbia Pictures could “get away with it.”: “Every sacred idée reçue of the cold war…is methodically raked over with a barrage of satire.It is even more amazing that Columbia Pictures Corp., a perfectly respectable American business enterprise, is distributing this … travesty of the American Way of Life (and, of course Death).”(17) The Nation's reviewer decided that Kubrick had crossed the line in posing his anti-nuclear message so bleakly. “Overall, it holds a cold blade of scorn against the spectator's throat. … He [Kubrick] and [screenplay collaborator] Terry Southern take a pleasure in flaying their contemporaries that may be more effective as sadistic humor than as adult education.”(18)

Other reviewers described their experience of the film as a bracing but pleasant tonic. Newsweek's critic described a robustly entertaining Dr. Strangelove.With breezy admiration, he explained its gist, “human society …[cannot] afford such dangerous toys as hydrogen bombs,” cozily tucking it into place as a pill anyone could swallow, popular, edifying. “That Stanley Kubrick has had the nerve to say so, and that he has said it in a comedy, which makes it all the sharper, all the clearer, and that much better a film, is truly fine…. It is also side-splittingly funny.”(19) He turned to Kubrick to confirm the dominant note of Dr. Strangelove's grotesque style, who said, “The greatest message of the film is in the laughs. You know, it's true. The most realistic things are the funniest.”

Buttonholing the point, Newsweek added, “In a weird way, he is perfectly right.”

Time's critic also assumed an attitude of complacent urbanity. He assured readers that nuclear humor was indeed palatable. “Kubrick … views inadvertent nuclear war as the greatest danger of an anxious era, but he says so with such dash, boldness and Swiftian spirit that the message never quells the madness. His film defiantly thumbs its nose at the fate all men fear.”(20) The review opened with the moment when the American President informs the Soviet Premier of an unauthorized bomber attack.“Well now, what happened is that one of our base commanders did a silly thing. He, uh, went a little funny in the head. You know, funny. He ordered our planes to attack your country. …Let me finish, Dimitri.”This was surely written as domestic farce.The reviewer rightly noticed, “In the manner of a man whose wife has backed the ranch wagon into a neighbor's prize hydrangea, [this scene] … thus sets the tone [of the film.]” Kubrick's insouciance and deftness counterpoised the grimness of the subject matter.The critic repeatedly strained to make plain to his readers, “the message never quells the madness,” with the accent on pleasure:“The film is an outrageously brilliant satire – the most original American comedy in years and at the same time a supersonic thriller that should have audiences chomping their fingernails right down to the funny bone.”

There was one unique reviewer who refrained from passionate like or dislike, Moira Walsh of the Catholic weekly, America. “I am sorry to report that I do not have any very strong feelings, pro or con, on this, the most heatedly discussed film of recent memory.”(21) She chided critics for slighting Kubrick's privilege of irreverent dissent, as well as not recognizing the rarity of films such as Dr. Strangelove in the banal cornucopia of entertainment which “encourages complacency, heedlessness, self-absorption and inaction.”(22) Perhaps it was too late anyway.An audience nourished on blather could scarcely grasp Dr Strangelove's point.Walsh predicted that “the vast bulk of American movie-goers is not even going to understand Kubrick's message, let alone be swayed by it.” Chances are that audiences would “filter out unconsciously the serious and disturbing overtones and attach as little significance to the comedy as they attach to a Jerry Lewis movie.”

Like few other public actors of the period, Kahn's briefings dissolved the distinction between speech suited to popular entertainment and public policy. Certainly this must have occurred to some members of his audience as it did to Stephanie Gervis of The Village Voice . “Listening to him, it was difficult to understand why Kahn has been wasting his time on realpolitikal [sic] research… when he would make such a great stand-up comic.Who else can make people laugh about mass annihilation?”(23)

To argue that On Thermonuclear War and Dr. Strangelove carried equivalent cultural weight in their own domains strikes me as an overstatement, however an affinity between the two cannot be denied.In her review of Dr. Strangelove, Midge Decter, a close reader and admirer of Kahn, hit upon their likeness. “Where Dr. Strangelove is at its best, it most resembles Kahn in the way it rubs the hypothetical up against the real.”(24) She went so far as to suggest that the plot of Dr. Strangelove could have fit quite nicely into the assortment of scenarios featured in On Thermonuclear War.“The movie could very easily have been written by Herman Kahn himself; he outlines just such plots in his books and even calls them ‘scenarios.'” She pointed out that just as Kubrick and his collaborators re-wrote Red Alert into a travesty of the dangers of the policy of massive retaliation, do did Kahn.“For those who know how to read him – so does Kahn, who never fails to imagine all the possibilities for chaos in the positions he offers.”Of course, in this she is perfectly correct.As she put it, Kahn“is perhaps the most thoroughgoing negative utopian of our time.”


(1) Schelling recounted the origin of the Red Alert scenario. George had been an RAF officer. “He was on an air base which was full of US B-47s. They were in the officer's club. Someone had a cup of coffee which was very close to the edge of the table. The B-47 took off and roared over head, and the whole building vibrated and the coffee cup fell on the floor, and somebody said, “You know, that's the way World War III's going to start.”Peter George went out and called his publisher and said, “If you'll give me an advance, I'll take three weeks leave and write you a book about how World War III got started.” The publisher said, You're on, so he took 3 weeks off, and wrote the book.” Telephone interview with Thomas Schelling, September 5, 2000.

(2) Peter Bryant, Red Alert, Ace Books, New York, 1958, page 74. For details of the opening scenario of the war, see pages 36-40, and page 50. (George used the pseudonymn of Peter Byant.)

(3) Interview with Schelling, September 5, 2000.

(4) Peter George, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop worrying and Love the Bomb, based on the screenplay by Stanley Kubrick, Peter George, and Terry Southern, Bantam Books, 1963, pages 37-38.

(5) Kahn, Thinking About the Unthinkable, op. cit., page 27.

(6) Ibid., page 283.

(7) Loudon Wainwright, “The Strange Case of Strangelove,” Life, Vol. 56, no. 11, March 13, 1964, page 15.

(8) “Direct Hit,” Newsweek, Vol. 63, no. 5, February 3, 1964, page 79.

(9) Conrad Knickerbocker, “Humor with a Mortal Sting,” New York Times Book Review, September 27, 1964, Section 7, page 3.

(10) Bosley Crowther, “ ‘Dr. Strangelove,' a Shattering Sick Joke,” New York Times, January 30, 1964, 1964, page 24.

(11) George was disturbed by the expressions of public outrage to Dr. Strangelove.He wrote Schelling a letter soon after the film's release asking whether or not he had been troubled by the screenplay, and begging his pardon. Schelling recalled, “I wrote him a nice letter back saying ‘No I thought it had turned it out beautifully. That they had resolved the issue the right way by making it a comedy. I said I didn't find it the least bit offensive.”Soon afterwards, Schelling received a note from George's wife informing him that he had committed suicide.

(12) Stanley Kauffmann, “Dean Swift in the 20th Century,” The New Republic, Vol. 150, no. 5, February 1, 1964, page 24.

(13) Philip T. Hartung, “What Five-Sided Building?,” The Commonweal, Vol. 79, no. 21, February 21, 1964, page 632.

(14) Kauffmann, op. cit., page 27.

(15) Ibid., page 24.

(16) Wainwright, op. cit., page 15.

(17) Dwight Macdonald, “Films,” Esquire, Vol. 61, no 2, February 1964, page 26. Here is MacDonald's description of the mixed style of Dr. Strangelove's grotesquerie: “Of the great nightmare [Kubrick] he has made a lafforama that leaves one with a painful grin on the face and a brassy taste in the mouth.” Ibid.

(18) Robert Hatch, “Films,” The Nation, Vol. 198, no. 6, February 3, 1964, page 28.

(19) “Direct Hit,” Newsweek, op. cit.

(20) “Detonating Comedy,” Time, Vol. 83, no. 5, January 31, 1964, page 69.

(21) Moira Walsh, “Films,” America, Vol. 110, no. 13, March 28, 1964, page 462.

(22) Ibid., page 464.

(23) Stephanie Gervis, “Kahn vs. Etzioni: How Much Stability Is There In The Balance Of Terror?” The Village Voice, January 17, 1963, page 8

(24) Midge Decter, “The Strangely Polite ‘Dr Strangelove',” Commentary, May 1964, page 76.