No Laughing Matter: Nuclear Policy and Dr. Strangelove

nuclear security

The threat of nuclear weapons has been prevalent since the second half of the 20th century. The size of nuclear arsenals worldwide has grown substantially, and now includes strategic and tactical weapons. The sophistication of nuclear technology has also grown, and countries seem to be in an arms race to develop and acquire the most advanced nuclear devices. There still exists a political dependence on the doctrine of deterrence, namely the threat of mutually assured destruction (MAD), which is used as a strategy for security.

Dr. Stangelove: Seriously Unserious

Dr. Strangelove is a critically acclaimed dark comedy about the Cold War and the threats of nuclear warfare during this time. While the subject of nuclear warfare is no laughing matter, director Stanley Kubrick uses satire to reduce the catalyst of world destruction to nothing more than an egregious blunder.

The film opens with US General Jack D. Ripper, the commander of Burpelson Air Force Base, as he orders a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union as a reaction to his paranoia regarding Communist conspiracy. Once his orders have been executed, Captain Lionel Mandrake, who serves as Ripper’s executive officer, realizes that these orders were issued inappropriately. He resolves to remedy the situation, but Ripper will not disclose the three-letter code needed to abort the mission.

Meanwhile, at the Pentagon, General Buck Turgidson informs President Merkin Muffley that Ripper issued the nuclear attack under the “Wing Attack Plan R”, which is a wartime contingency plan intended to give Field Commanders authority to retaliate with nuclear devices in the event the Soviets initiated attacks and incapacitated first line response.

Muffley is shocked that the such a plan exists, then is reminded that he himself supported and endorsed it. Turgidson encourages Muffley to follow through with the attack, after all, they are in a strategic position now to curtail the “Red Retaliation”. Muffley declines, and calls Soviet Premier Dmitri Kisov. Kisov then informs them that his country has a “doomsday device” that will automatically detonate and destroy the entire world if there is any nuclear attack on Soviet forces.

By satirizing the fragile sense of paranoia and high levels of tension on both sides, the film conveys the significance of Cold War anxiety. The “doomsday device” is a direct play on the strategic nuclear deterrent of “mutual assured destruction” (MAD), and idea still prevalent today. MAD is based on the fact that nuclear warfare is a suicidal event, and universal cataclysmic disaster will ensue if nuclear arms are detonated.

Later on in the film, General Ripper commits suicide as he is under the false impression that the Soviets are after him and will torture him for the code to de-arm the nuclear devices. Mandrake finds the code, and tries to collect call the “war room” at the Pentagon. The Pentagon will not accept collect calls and repeatedly hang up on Mandrake. Again, Kubrick implements satire to show that the fate of the entire world hinges on a collect call.

Nuclear Policy From the Cold War to Today

Though the Cold War has long since ended, its doctrines and policies still shape international relations. Relationships between countries continue to reflect the Cold War struggle, as alliances are formed by promises of protection and mutual agreement on nuclear policy.

The politics of nationalism are discernible in Dr. Strangelove and continue to be quite relevant in the world today. People are now more than ever committed to the succession and prominence of their home country. Unfortunately today, the tendency to resort to violence has not lessened, and the capacity for violence has increased exponentially. Countries harbor massive stockpiles of nuclear weapons and materials, and there is continuous military preparation and training for the use of nuclear arms.

Taking steps towards nuclear control, in 1968, the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was formed, keeping proliferation contained across states. The NPT formed several enforcement agencies, such as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), however, these do not guarantee a fail-safe nuclear control.

It is known that countries such as Libya and Iraq harbor nuclear weapons and are actively researching and pursuing nuclear technology. In the film, the Soviet Union is seen as a nuclear threat, much as Libya and Iraq are today. There is almost a palpable sense of prejudice against the Russians in the film, as Turgidson states that he is “beginning to smell a big fat Commie rat,” and subsequently refers to the Soviets as “a bunch of ignorant peons.”

Dr. Strangelove is very much a reflection of its time. The Cold War created an atmosphere of tension and stress regarding nuclear arms that permeated throughout the world. Today, the idea that countries have unregulated and by NPT definition “illegal” nuclear technology and devices, creates the same level of paranoia. The film’s use of satire on the political and strategic struggle involving nuclear warfare quite adeptly extends to the issues involving non-proliferation and nuclear abolition today.

Sources
Kristensen, Hans M. “US Nuclear Weapons in Europe.” Natural Resources Council, 2005.
Center for Environmental and Regulatory Affairs. Nuclear Policy

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