Just What the Doctor Ordered

Cold War Purging, Political Dissent,
and the Right Hand of Dr. Strangelove

by Jeremy Boxen

"The truth is bad enough -- but nowhere near as bad as you probably think. The truth will do away with a lot of silly ideas, a lot of completely wrong notions, which millions of people now believe about the atomic bomb. These ideas could easily cause great panic. And right now the possibility of panic is one of the best weapons any enemy could use against us." (Gerstell, How to Survive an Atomic Bomb, p.1)

"Why should the bomb be approached with reverence? Reverence can be a paralyzing state of mind. For me the comic sense is the most eminently human reaction to the mysteries and the paradoxes of life. I just hope some of them are illuminated by the exaggerations and the style of the film. And I don't see why an artist has to do any more than produce an artistic experience that reflects his thinking." (Stanley Kubrick quoted in Wainright, p.15)

In the third decade of the Cold War, less than two years after the United States population had been scared half-way to death by te Cub invaded the nation's movie theatres and showed the country the end of the world. Touted by critics then and now as the film of the decade, Dr. Strangelove savagely mocked the President, the entire military defense establishment, and the rhetoric of the Cold War. To a nation that was living through the stress of the nuclear arms race and had faced the real prospect of nuclear war, the satiric treatment of the nation's leaders was an orgasmic release from deep fears and tensions. Its detractors argued that the film was juvenile, offensive, and inaccurate. Viewed, however, in its context of the Cold War and nuclear proliferation, Dr. Strangelove represents to the United States a purging of Cold War rhetoric and anxiety and the beginning of the wave of political and cultural dissent that would climax in the late 1960s.

Dr. Strangelove opened in January 1964, denouncing the nuclear arms race and its players only a few months after American President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev signed a treaty banning the atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons (Time 2 Aug. 1963: 9). More importantly, these same two leaders had been on the verge of taking their countries to war only two years before in a showdown over Cuba, so the American people were well aware of how it felt to be on the edge of nuclear disaster. In October 1962 President Kennedy threatened Soviet Premier Khrushchev with war if Soviet missile bases on Cuba were not dismantled and shipments of arms bound for the island were not aborted. The country waited for one tense week for the nuclear bombing to begin -- but it never happened. Khrushchev blinked and prevented the end of civilization (Hoberman 18-20). Dr. Strangelove did not. Rather, Dr. Strangelove created a nightmarish scenario of atomic annihilation in which the mad Strategic Air Force (SAC) general Jack D. Ripper seals off his base and orders his bombers to attack their Russian targets. He acts under the provisions of "Plan R," a contingency plan that authorizes lower-level military officers to launch a nuclear strike in the event that the President is unable to do so himself. The men who must deal with this rogue general and his threat to civilization are satirically portrayed: the head of Joint-Chiefs-of-Staff, General Buck Turgidson, is a gum-chewing, childishly aggressive lover of military might; Dr. Strangelove, the brains of the American weapons program, is an ex-Nazi scientist whose right hand alternates between trying to choke its owner and snapping out in a fascist salute. Higher up in power, the President seems sadly overwhelmed by events and comes across as an effeminate ineffectualist while his Soviet counterpart, Premier Kissov, is a drunken womanizer. In the end none of them can prevent a lone American bomber from penetrating Russian defences and dropping its load to trigger the Soviet Doomsday Device, which releases enough radiation over the world to make it uninhabitable for ninety-nine years.

The film is a humorous yet scathing and timely indictment of the military and the Cold War nuclear arms race. It broke attendance records across the United States, causing a jubilant-sounding Columbia Pictures to shout in bold-face capitals on the front page of Variety, "FLASH! STANLEY KUBRICK'S DR. STRANGELOVE BREAKS EVERY OPENING-WEEK RECORD IN HISTORY OF VICTORIA THEATRE (NEW YORK), BARONET THEATRE (NEW YORK), COLUMBIA THEATRE (LONDON)" and placing it on Variety's January 1965 list of "All-Time Top Grossers" (5 Feb. 1964: 1; 6 Jan. 1965: 39). This box-office success suggests that the film's satirical dissent appealed to a society that was beginning to question its blind faith in government policies and actions.

From the end of World War II until the 1960s, national sentiment vigorously supported both the government's animosity toward Soviet Russia and its accompanying military nuclear development program. Joyce Nelson argues in The Perfect Machine that the American government followed a strategy of censorship and compartmentalization of knowledge to manipulate the media and the public in the late 1940s and 1950s into accepting this policy of anti-communism and nuclear arms stockpiling, which was used to maintain the war economy that the U. S. had enjoyed during World War II (38). From the earliest stages of its development, secrecy veiled the nuclear bomb. Nelson explains that the U. S. Manhattan Project was hidden from the public, and its goal of producing a nuclear weapon was hidden even from most of the project's thousands of employees. When the bomb was dropped on Japan, information about its effects on human beings was censored by the U. S. government, which concentrated its publicity campaign on the bomb as a "technological spectacle" (32-33) Television emerged at the same time as the bomb and, Nelson argues, helped to direct attention away from fears about nuclear radiation to the threat of communism by transmitting the communist witch-hunts of the House Committee of Un-American Activities. Moreover, companies such as General Electric, Westinghouse, and Du Pont had defence contracts with the government while they also provided major sponsorship for television. They "were just a few of the corporations likely to gain from a political climate that was simultaneouly hunting down the major enemy in communism and building up 'the sunny side of the atom'" (37). Television, Nelson explains, broadcast live nuclear test explosions to dispel fears about radiation and display the awesome power which the U.S. had at its command (34-35). Thus, government control of knowledge and television's portrayals of communism and the bomb aroused support for the funding of the military's nuclear program.

The Government also had help from Hollywood in promoting the bomb. While Government-sponsored publications like How to Survive a Nuclear Bomb tried to create a public that was passively receptive to the bomb with reassurances such as, "Scientists say it would take almost a million atomic bombs all exploded in a very short time to 'doom' the earth. So don't worry about that. Just keep facts in mind, and forget the fairy stories. Follow the safety rules. Avoid panic. And you'll come through all right" (118) -- Hollywood was producing pro-military films. According to Lawrence Suid, "during the 1950s, with the exception of a few science fiction movies, Hollywood had portrayed the bomb as the instrument that had brought peace to the world and had helped maintain it duing the height of the Cold War" (223). Before the 1960s, films, almost without exception, portrayed a positive image of the American military. Hollywood had little reason not to do so. Both World Wars and Korea showcased the effectiveness of the armed forces, while such pillars of the Hollwyood studio system as "Frank Capra, John Huston, George Stevens, John Ford and Darryl Zanuck" had formed friendships within the military during their service in the Second World War. Furthermore, by making pictures of which the armed forces approved, productions could save money by using military equipment, and writers who knew little of the details of the military could submit scripts to the armed forces for procedural and technical advice (Suid, 222-224). Hollywood thus ended up as a sort of public relations department for the military.

Kubrick was not limited by any of these considerations. By 1964 the studio system had given way to independent producers, resulting in the disintegration of Hollywood's personal bonds to the military (Suid 224). A trend of anti-militarism, which would split the nation by the latter part of the decade, was also building in strength (Albert 15). Columbia, the film's distributor, thus felt confident enough to provide the project's reported $2 million budget (Sight and Sound 33: 62-63). In addition, Kubrick had done his own research on nuclear warfare by consuming some seventy books on the subject, thus the military's refusal even to look at his script was not a stumbling block. As for equipment, apart from some jeeps, the only large piece of military machinery in the film is the B-52 bomber that flies its way over the icy desert of Siberia. The interior of the plane, based on a photograph of a B-52 cockpit in a magazine, was built in a studio, while the image of the plane in flight was achieved with special effects (Newsweek 79). All these factors let Kubrick have the freedom to voice his opinion on the madness of nuclear proliferation.

Dr. Strangelove was not alone in its denunciation of the military. The early 1960s were conducive to "antiestablishment, antimilitary movies" (Suid 224 ) A special double-length issue of Life magazine from 1963 showcased two upcoming anti-military films: The Victors (1964), which satirized the previously untouchable image of the U. S. military in World War II, and Dr. Strangelove. Both films were portrayed in a favorable light: "Morally, both films are right on the line in making their bid for peace ... Dr. Strangelove through fearful mockery of it" (Prideaux 128). Moreover, the editor's note at the front of the magazine suggests that the nation was growing weary of patriotic fare: "The enthronement of the director has focused responsibility on an individual artistic conscience, where it should have been all along ...movies, as an art, have matured beyond the point where they need to be considered instruments of national policy" (Hunt 5). The climate for Dr. Strangelove seemed favourable.

There was, of course, resistance to the film from conservative elements. Kubrick's vision ruffled a lot of patriotic feathers, as is evident from two letters written to the New York Times at the time of the film's release. "Dr. Strangelove is straight propaganda, and dangerous propaganda at that," wrote Jeanne McQuade. "It is an anti-American tract unmatched in invective by even our declared enemies." Michael Getler added that the film "indulges in the most insidious and highly dangerous form of public opinion tampering concerning a vital sector of our national life, a sector which needs public funds, public understanding and public support to do its job." Some of the actual reviews expressed sentiments similar to these two letters. Bosley Crowther, writing for the New York Times, voiced his own frustration with the film in two separate reviews. In the first he protested, "When virtually everybody turns up stupid or insane -- or, what is worse, psychopathic -- I want to know what this picture proves" (31 Jan. 1964, 16:1 ). In the second review he added that the film was "a bit too contemptuous of our defense establishment for my comfort and taste" (in Suid 231-22). Other attacks on the film accused it of inaccurately portraying those in charge of the bomb as complete fools and of misrepresenting accidental nuclear war safe guard procedures. "A professional foreign policy expert" wrote that "had [Kubrick] so cared he could have easily ascertained the publicly available facts under the command and control of our nuclear forces" (Wainright 15; qtd in Wainright 15). The satire of Dr. Strangelove appeared to have been taken quite seriously by patriots and military experts.

Despite its factual inaccuracies, many reviewers of the film praised its believability. The review in Newsweek described the scenario of the film as one "which Kubrick makes perfectly plausible," and Brendan Gill in The New Yorker described it as a film that contains "horrors that, though outrageous, ring absolutely true" (75). Tom Milne, writing for Sight and Sound, remarked that the criticisms of its implausibility echo those of The Manchurian Candidate (37), a film whose fear of a presidential assasination conspiracy was justified by the murder of President Kennedy in December, 1963 (37). Just to show that reality was sometimes as ridiculous as the world of Dr. Strangelove, the end of the film bears a striking resemblance to thoughts that were actually voiced. As the world is erupting in nuclear radiation General Turgidson insists that it is the President's duty to retreat into a mine shaft cum bomb shelter -- he warns that the Soviet leaders undoubtedly have their own shelters ready, and will wait in these shelters until the time is suitable to resume their quest for domination of the world. Finishing off his remarks, Turgidson warns that they must not allow the development of a "mine-shaft gap." As exaggerated as this scene seems, Ralph E. Lapp, in his 1962 book Kill and Overkill states that "there can be no doubt that a large-scale shelter program would intensify the arms race, leading to Russian shelter-building and the pyramiding of more and bigger weapons by both sides. Shelters would then become part of a vicious circle in strategic thinking" (121). While some details within the film were inaccurate then, the certain events within the film could be perceived as realistic.

More than anything, the plausibility of the film rested on its ability to tap into the deep fears and anxieties that emerged in a society that shared its existence with the hydrogen bomb. In 1953, at the beginning of his presidency, Eisenhower spoke to the American Society of Newspaper Editors and remarked that even if the nightmare of a nuclear holocaust never came to pass, the Cold War would provide, in the very least, "a life of perpetual fear and tension; a burden of arms draining the wealth and the labor of all peoples; a wasting of strength that defies the American system" (Aliano 80). The toll that the nuclear culture took on the nation shows in letters to Time in an issue that hit the newstands immediately after the Cuban Missile Crisis. "I shall save your cover story of Aug. 23," wrote Barry B. Clark. "It will be useful for scaring my grand-children -- if I ever live to have any grandchildren" ( 6 Sept. 1962: 6). Dr. Strangelove seemed plausible because its exaggerations were based on rhetoric and also events, such as the missile crisis, that already had an air of horrific exaggeration about them.

The film's first satiric thrust is directed at the anti-Communist rhetoric that created the need for massive defense funding. Time's villainous description of the Soviets, contained in an issue that was published shortly after the historic signing of the test-ban treaty, neatly summarized the distrust that they inspired:

The fact that Nikita Khrushchev is speaking more softly does not mean that he has abandoned his aim to seek the expansion of Communist power, a goal so deeply rooted and institutionalized that Soviet leaders will feel almost a historical duty to exploit gaps in the capacity, unity and will of the West. (2 Aug. 1963: 9)

Letters to Time show that this attitude was ingrained in the nation's psyche. One such letter compared the treaty to the Kellog-Briand Pact with Japan in the 1920s that "did not deter the Japanese from building a fleet," while another compared Khrushchev's disarmament rhetoric to Hitler's "'Peace Speech,' a masterpiece of deceptive propaganda" (16 Aug. 1963: 5; 9 Aug. 1963: 6). Kubrick treats such sentiments as paranoid and childish. Mad General Ripper launches his nuclear strike because he is convinced of a communist plot to fluoridate America's water and poison the "precious bodily fluids" of the country's citizens. Later, in an effort to prevent the impending nuclear war, the President invites Soviet ambassador De Sadesky to the War Room, but General Turgidson, unable to focus beyond his own distrust, protests, "He'll see the Big Board!"

Next Kubrick attacks the militaristic glee that characterized the supporters of a policy of nuclear deterrence. Coming into power, Kennedy announced his intentions to "restore America's declining military might and stem the Communist advance across the developing world" (Aliano 277). The national pride that was associated with the military was not even diminished by the Cuban scare. "Everyone knows -- or should -- that the U.S., with its nuclear arsenal, is the mightest nation in human history," bragged Time in an issue following the signing of the test-ban treaty. "But few people really realize the staggering dimensions of that might ... the destructive power possessed by the U. S. simply beggars imagination." Time continued to comment that Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara's comments were "profoundly encouraging" when he explained that "the U. S. is vastly superior to the Soviet Union in its nuclear arsenal and it is increasing its lead every day." The huge article on the U. S. arsenal estimated that there were 33, 000 warheads on hand for launching. It went on to describe the different types of warheads and their purposes with accompanying photos of each and even a launch sequence of a polaris missile rising out of the sea (16 Aug. 1963: 11-15). This glorification of the military is severly attacked by the humour of the film.

Most insidiously, Kubrick satirizes this love of military might by placing Dr. Strangelove, an ex-Nazi scientist, in charge of American weapons research. Some of the rhetoric of the cold war that demonized the Soviets compared Soviet Russia to Nazi Germany (Hinds 248-249). In the fifties, however, under President Truman, the U.S. decided to adopt the so-called "methods of its adversary." Instead of containing communism through diplomacy, the U.S. adopted a militant position in reducing Soviet power around the world while pursuing the ultimate goal of toppling the Soviet government (Hinds 244-245). In terms of guilt by association, by adopting Russian policies, the U.S. was adopting Nazi policies as well. Thus, having Strangelove, the ex-Nazi scientist, as the brains behind the U. S. missile program makes perfect sense, especially when he erroneously calls the president "mein Fuhrer." Lewis Mumford in a letter to The New York Times agreed, praising Kubrick for "making 'Dr. Strangelove' the central symbol of this scientifically organized nightmare of mass extermination. " Mr. Kubrick has not merely correctly related it to its first great exponent, Hitler, he has likewise identified the ultimate strategy of nuclear gamesmanship of precisely what it would be: an act of treason against the human race" (25). Perhaps it was the association of the American military with the "evil" of the Nazis, who had existed only twenty years back in history, that offended so many patriots.

As the character who is directly responsible for the events leading up to the destruction of civilization, General Ripper is perhaps the scariest exaggeration in the film. And yet out of all the characters in the film, he bears the strongest resemblance to a real-life personality, namely SAC Commander Thomas Sarsfield Power. During the Kennedy administration he had command over the nuclear force of the United States, an estimated "90% of the free-world's firepower." His stance against the test-ban treaty and his willingness to fight with his superiors point to a hard-line anti-communist approach that was as individualistic as Ripper's. He fought with a congressional committee for increased funding for bombers and missiles with the conviction that a powerful deterrent was necessary "as long as our very existence is threatened by an untrustworthy, unpredictable and unreasonable power." He is known to have stated, "It is invariably the weak, not the strong, who court aggression and war," but "in 1959 he completed a book advocating, under certain conditions, a pre-emptive first strike against Russia" (30 Aug. 1963: 16). Seen in the context of the world on the edge of war, this man is quite frightening, especially since in Kill and Overkill Lapp wrote that "with the diffusion of control of nuclear weapons to more and more hands, the chances of someone breaking under the stress are multiplied" (129). Whether or not a real "Plan R" existed to give Power the ability to launch a nuclear strike on his own initiative is not as relevant as the fact that the public saw that this aggressive person was involved at a high level with the nuclear bomb program.

Through its mockery of Cold War people and attitudes, Dr. Strangelove gave the public scapegoats for their tension. The film allowed audiences to feel superior to the leaders of the two nations while enjoying the purging effects of primal modes of expression: laughter and tears. Describing his experience of watching the film in his youth, David Rabe writes, "It was in a state of near hysteria that I watched the great white plumes of towering nuclear devastation erupting in gyres one upon the other" (34). Robert Brustein, writing at the time of its release, remarked that the film "is a plague experienced in the nerves and the funny bone" (3). "I found myself at the edge of tears as I watched a series of nuclear explosions fill the screen," wrote Loudon Wainright, adding, " This happened at the very end of Dr. Strangelove ... and I had been laughing wildly for an hour and a half" (15). Thus, part of the success of Dr. Strangelove was its appeal to base emotions in its treatment of a tense issue.

Part of the cultural revolution of the 1960s was a purveyance of sexual liberation. In this context the sexual imagery of Dr. Strangelove rises above being merely "puerile" (Hartung 632) to become part of the purging process itself, to link with the humour and terror in an orgasm -- the 'little death' of the 1950s. Critics like F. Anthony Macklin pointed out that the film from beginning to end is "a sex allegory" (55). The sexual imagery begins with the names of the characters: Buck Turgidson, Jack T. Ripper, Officer Mandrake -- the mandrake root, an aphrodesiac, resembles a penis -- Ambassador de Sadesky, Premier Kissov, bomber pilot Major King Kong, and President Merkin Muffley. As explained by Macklin, Merkin "means female pudendum" (56). Layered on these names are the sexual images of the film, from the opening credits in which two planes mate in a mid-air refueling to the tune of "Try a Little Tenderness," to General Ripper's phallic cigar, machine-gun, and hydrogen bombs, to General Turgidson's liason with his secretary, played by real-life Playboy centerfold Tracey Reed. The images of the mushroom clouds make up the orgasmic finale of a film filled with the same tension that gripped the nation during the days of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Rather than depicting sexual intercourse, however, the film seems to function on levels akin to masturbation. The men in the film, unable to connect with women, find self-gratification through the bomb. General Ripper explains to Mandrake that he first hit upon the Soviet fluoridation scheme during love-making when he experienced the sense of "a loss of essence," what we can interpret as impotency. General Turgidson abandons his secretary in the middle of a tryst to meet with the President in the War Room, where in one scene Turgidson delights himself by enacting the evasive manoevres of a B-52 bomber. Finally, King Kong, shown in the start of the film looking at a centerfold of Tracey Reed, rides the hydrogen bomb down to its target, waving his cowboy hat in the air and crying out in excitement/pleasure until the moment of the climactic explosion. It is no coincidence that an unused shot from the film features Dr. Strangelove masturbating with his wayward hand (Starr 100).

While the bomb is a masturbation tool for the characters, the film acts as a device for the audience, the critics, and even Stanley Kubrick himself. Psychoanalytically, as described by Peter Baxter in Wide Angle, the film arouses a sexual desire in the viewer through the only scene that features a woman, which is displaced onto the military-sexual images within the film (35-40). Furthermore, in 1964 Stephen Taylor argued that Dr. Strangelove was a bad piece of cinema, but it allowed people who had seen it to engage in self-gratifying description of the film's humour and imagery. He continued to point out that even the critics were engaging in a manner of masturbation, maximizing their own pleasure by spouting glowing rhetoric and raving about its plot twists (40-41). In support of his argument, most of the reviews of Dr. Strangelove, from The New York Times to Newsweek to Esquire divulged the entire movement of the plot, right up until the film's final scenes. One review even called the film a piece of self-indulgent farce on the part of Kubrick. Keeping in mind that George Orwell once said that "political thought, especially on the left, is a sort of a masturbation fantasy in which the world of fact hardly matters" (qtd in Chomsky 200), it is safe to say that Kubrick derived some amount of self-gratification from his dissenting tale. With audience members, critics, and director all releasing their own anxieties about the Cold War and nuclear Armageddon, Dr. Strangelove appears to have been a large circle-jerk giving pleasure and relief to its participants.

Dr. Strangelove expresses a purging of both the anxiety and the blind following of government military and foreign policies that distinguished the 1940s and 1950s. Lewis Mumford said as much in his popularly quoted letter to the Times defending Dr. Strangelove: "This film is the first break in the catatonic cold war trance that has so long held our country in its rigid grip" (25) Dr. Strangelove was an indicator of the times, for "by 1965 America was a changed country. Commitment, idealism, and dissent had come to replace the patriotic apathy of the 1950s" (Albert 13). Furthermore, the film's appeal to an emerging group of socially aware, university-educated young adults was noted by many critics. In his book Medium Cool, Ethan Mordden describes Dr. Strangelove as belonging to the category of "High Maestro Film," which is defined by him as "aritistically and culturally hip ... appealing to the intelligentsia but generally popular as well, so the intellectuals have a major topic to address when they discuss it" (192). Susan Sontag's review of a 1962 preview of the film confirms this classification: "Intellectuals and adolescents both love it. But the 16-year olds who are lining up to see it understand the film and its real virtues, better than the intellectuals, who vastly overpraise it" (qtd in Hoberman 20-21). In the later part of the decade, these sixteen-year-olds would become the university students who dominated the movement of political protest and counter-culture lifestyle that resulted in the large anti-war demonstrations in New York, Chicago, and Washington. 500,000 of these young adults would turn up for the Woodstock concert of 1969, which was as much of a defining event of the late 1960s as the Vietnam protest in Washington, occurring a few months later in the same year and drawing the same number of people (Albert 38, 50). As much as any film can claim to influence a society, Dr. Strangelove helped to fuel a generation of dissent.

Dr. Strangelove, then, effectively addressed the rational and irrational fears of the American public concerning the hydrogen bomb and marked the beginning of the anti-military movement of the 1960s. Taylor, while panning the film, stated that "it is a milestone. It promises a beginning to large-scale consideration of the folly of American and Soviet nuclear policy" (41). Kubrick, dipping into the reservoir of icons and rhetoric of the Cold War, exorcised the demons of nuclear culture from the nation's collective unconcious and encouraged dissent. Just as the right hand of Dr. Strangelove had the capacity to salute a totalitarian regime or to bring sexual release to its owner, the United States of the mid-1960s was caught between right-wing militarism and the emerging generation of pacifists, whose slogan of "Make love, not war" would make the decade a turning point in American culture.


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Copyright © 1997 Jeremy Boxen. Presented originally as a paper in Prof. Blaine Allen's
course in Film Studies, Queen's University, Canada, April 19th, 1995