How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Herman Kahn

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Fred Kaplan marks the fortieth anniversary of Stanley Kubrick's best movie with an observation:

As countless histories relate, Mr. Kubrick set out to make a serious film based on a grim novel, "Red Alert," by Peter George, a Royal Air Force officer. But the more research he did (reading more than 50 books, talking with a dozen experts), the more lunatic he found the whole subject, so he made a dark comedy instead. The result was wildly iconoclastic: released at the height of the cold war, not long after the Cuban missile crisis, before the escalation in Vietnam, "Dr. Strangelove" dared to suggest—with yucks!—that our top generals might be bonkers and that our well-designed system for preserving the peace was in fact a doomsday machine.

What few people knew, at the time and since, was just how accurate this film was. Its premise, plotline, some of the dialogue, even its wildest characters eerily resembled the policies, debates and military leaders of the day. The audience had almost no way of detecting these similiarities: Nearly everything about the bomb was shrouded in secrecy back then.

Some of those similarities will be familiar to Strangelove buffs. We've all heard the speculation that the title character was inspired by Herman Kahn. (Aside: Kaplan writes as though there could only be one "real model" for Strangelove, but I don't see any reason why he couldn't reflect both Kahn and Werner Van Braun.) But a lot of the article was news to me, notably this:

The remarkable thing is, the fail-safe system that General Ripper exploits [in the movie] was the real, top-secret fail-safe system at the time. According to declassified Strategic Air Command histories, 12 B-52's—fully loaded with nuclear bombs—were kept on constant airborne alert. If they received a Go code, they went to war. This alert system, known as Chrome Dome, began in 1961. It ended in 1968, after a B-52 crashed in Greenland, spreading small amounts of radioactive fallout.

But until then, could some loony general have sent bombers to attack Russia without a presidential order? Yes.

And I loved Kaplan's closing tidbits:

In 1981, two years before he died, I asked Mr. Kahn what he thought of "Dr. Strangelove." Thinking I meant the character, he replied, with a straight face, "Strangelove wouldn't have lasted three weeks in the Pentagon. He was too creative."

Those in the know watched "Dr. Strangelove" amused, like everyone else, but also stunned. Daniel Ellsberg, who later leaked the Pentagon Papers, was a RAND analyst and a consultant at the Defense Department when he and a mid-level official took off work one afternoon in 1964 to see the film. Mr. Ellsberg recently recalled that as they left the theater, he turned to his colleague and said, "That was a documentary!"

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  1. I think you’re some kind of deviated prevert. I think General Ripper found out about your preversion, and that you were organizing some kind of mutiny of preverts.

  2. I’m sorry, too, Dmitri… I’m very sorry… All right, you’re sorrier than I am, but I am as sorry as well… I am as sorry as you are, Dmitri! Don’t say that you’re more sorry than I am, because I’m capable of being just as sorry as you are… So we’re both sorry, all right?

  3. So flouridation really was a communist plot?

  4. our well-designed system for preserving the peace was in fact a doomsday machine.

    What, did I miss doomsday? Or were the Soviets in fact deterred? I could have sworn it was the latter.

  5. “Fred Kaplan marks the fortieth anniversary of Stanley Kubrick’s best movie with an observation”

    Holy crap! Has it been 40 years since Full Metal Jacket? Time flies!

  6. So flouridation really was a communist plot?

    Flouridation may have been, but fluoridation was not.

  7. JDM: Full Metal Jacket is third best, after Strangelove and Paths of Glory.

  8. “Dave … I’ve made a number of poor decisions lately … I realize that now … Dave? … Stop … Stop, Dave … Stop … will you …”

  9. A must-read for any Dr. Strangelove fan is the New York Times’s original review, which is a masterpiece of humorlessness:

    …. 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.

    The Times, of course, deserves kudos for putting their whole film review archive online.

  10. R.C. Dean —

    our well-designed system for preserving the peace was in fact a doomsday machine.

    What, did I miss doomsday? Or were the Soviets in fact deterred? I could have sworn it was the latter.

    Obviously it was both. Which only makes sense, since what better deterrent can there be than a doomsday machine?

  11. “Full Metal Jacket is third best, after Strangelove and Paths of Glory.”

    I haven’t seen Paths of Glory but Dr. Strangelove is too heavy handed for me. Most of his films seem that way to me, Clockwork Orange being the most egregiously so. I’m really not a Kubrick fan, though at least his movies are interesting. (excepting Barry Lindon)

    Maybe he needed Spielberg to step in on some of his films and transform them into AI-like masterworks.

  12. JDM: Maybe he needed Spielberg to step in on some of his films and transform them into AI-like masterworks.

    Ha ha ha ha ha ha… [snort] [wipes eyes]
    Just picturing Spielberg’s transformation of Full Metal Jacket. Or Dr Strangelove. (I know just what he’d have added: Strangelove’s precocious niece and nephew, down in the War Room, saving the day by realising what the CRM-114 code was. “General Turgidson! You gotta listen to us! Alex and I know what the answer is! It’s OPE, General! Quick!”)

    [has sudden unnerving thought]

    That wasn’t serious, right?

  13. Kahn?!? That third-rate poseur? Strangelove was ME! Put my photo up against Seller’s make-up and see the truth.

  14. You’d never heard of Chrome Dome? I remember reading an article in TIME sometime around the “official” end of the Cold War (1991-ish) where the general plan of Chrome Dome was outlined.

    “Women sense my power, and they seek the life essence. I do not avoid women, Mandrake … but I do deny them my essence.”

  15. Bosley Crowther might have been “troubled” by “Dr. Strangelove”, but the fact is that the film has been a ragin’ fave for whole generations of B-52 aircrews. Evidently, if you’re not reciting lines from that thing by the first aerial tank-up on any given ass-buster of a flight, you just ain’t on the team. It’s one of the great untold ironies of American culture. If you go look through rec.aviation.military in Usenet, there is one active duty B-52 Aircraft Commander who tags his posts with Major Kong’s immortal line: “Stay on the bomb run boys, I’m gonna get those bomb doors open if it harelips everyone on Bear Creek.”

    “Chrome Dome” was an extremely demanding program on both airplanes and crews. Average mission duration was right at about twenty-four hours, aboard a shockingly uncomfortable airplane. (Kubrik got so much of the Stratofort’s interior correct that security bells started going off from Washington to Omaha, but he made it far more roomy than it really was.) Taking everything into account, that program is really astonishing.

    “Dr. Strangelove” is my all-time favorite Kubrik film, hands down.

  16. Why is it that whenever I try to post here, the status bar always gets stuck halfway through, leaving one in doubt of whther or not their post has actually made it?

    “This sort of thing has cropped up before, and it has always been due to human error.”

  17. “Just picturing Spielberg’s transformation of Full Metal Jacket.”

    “That wasn’t serious, right?”

    I think Full Metal Jacket would be much improved if R. Lee Ermey were replaced by a robot teddy bear and the NVA rode flashy neon motorcycles. Also, the film should have done more to expose Animal Mother’s soft weepy side.

  18. Although I have to confess, that while I would never repeat the experience, and I recognize that it may be the worst train-wreck of a movie ever to hit the big screen, while I watched AI, I was absolutely riveted. The “what the hell is this?” quotient was so high that my mind froze utterly.

  19. “mind froze utter”

    Much like the H+R comments server…

  20. jdm is on drugs.

  21. “Oh my God, it’s full of stars!” — 2001: A Space Odyssey, SF novel by Arthur C. Clarke

    “Oh my God, it’s full of stars!” — 2010, SF movie by I Forget, belatedly quoting from the earlier novel

    “Oh my stars, it’s full of gods!” — The Stone Canal, SF novel by Ken MacLeod that should be read by all SF-loving libertarians, and MacLeod’s The Star Fraction too.

  22. A lot of those stories about Kubrick’s sourcing for Strangelove have been around for years. He really did his homework, reading everything he could on nuclear strategy. Even though things were heavily classified back then a lot of stuff did pop up in books like Kahn’s and all sorts of policy wonk type publications. No doubt Kubrick also had input from a few insiders. What he couldn’t find out directly he guessed at or just made up.

    My favorite anecdote about the convincing authenticity of Dr. Strangelove was when President Reagan saw the Pentagon war room for the first time and was disappointed because it was nowhere near as magnificent as the one in the movie!

  23. Maybe he needed Spielberg to step in on some of his films and transform them into AI-like masterworks.

    Of course, we need to replace all of the guns in Full Metal Jacket with radios. Soldiers would never carry guns into combat.

  24. I’d always heard that Strangelove was based on John Von Neumann.

  25. I`d watch any movie that stars Slim Pickens, the man should have got an Oscar.Did Spielberg ever work with the great Slim miester?

  26. Maybe he needed Spielberg to step in on some of his films and transform them into AI-like masterworks.

    Well, one thing’s for sure — there isn’t anything Spielberg could do to make “Eyes Wide Shut” a worse film than it already is.

  27. Paths of Glory still wins by a nose over Kubrick’s other masterpieces (including Dr. Strangelove). Everyone should see it . . . and weep.

  28. I didn’t know it was the anniversary of Strangelove — but just the other day I wondered out loud what Kubrick would have done with the fact that the nuclear launch codes were OOOOOOOO.

    http://www.cdi.org/blair/permissive-action-links.cfm

    Would he have thought this too absurd too unbelievable? I would think not, and yet…

    Anon

  29. “Well, one thing’s for sure — there isn’t anything Spielberg could do to make “Eyes Wide Shut” a worse film than it already is.”

    But if only they’d followed the master’s original vision, and shown a few more breasts, the whole thing would have come together, no doubt.

  30. As I review all the nominations for Kubrick’s best movie, I can’t help noticing that so far no one has mentioned Barry Lyndon.

  31. “Holy crap! Has it been 40 years since Full Metal Jacket? Time flies!”

    .. I would modify that to say “since the first half of Full Metal Jacket”. The movie loses me after boot camp.

    IMHO – The Shining is Kubric’s best. It’s the finest movie ever made of a crappy novel (case in point: the “authentic” version came out for TV starring the guy from Wings (!). They adhered to the novel’s weapon of choice: the croquet mallet instead of the ax. Yeah, really fucking scary)

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