How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Herman Kahn


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!"