Episode 3: A MAD, MAD World

LISTEN TO EPISODE THREE HERE

Welcome to Season 3 of Lies Agreed Upon, a podcast about Hollywood and history. 

I’m Lia Paradis.

And I’m Brian Crim. 

Remember this past Spring when, just a few days into the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin essentially threatened the nuclear annihilation of the Western world, as if nukes followed the rules of geopolitics? It was kind of triggering for people like us who lived during the Reagan-Thatcher years when we were the ones casually threatening nuclear war. I remember seeing Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell explain to her audience of millenials what MAD stood for, the nuclear triad, and brinkmanship. It was a total timewarp.

Let’s start with a clip! We’re mixing it up today. This is Lawrence O’Donnell reviewing the history of MAD for an audience that probably never had to live under it. We decided on the Cold War theme soon after the invasion of Ukraine in part because of coverage like this. Our unofficial slogan this season is everything old is new again.

Putin’s loose threats of nuclear retaliation bring all of this back for some of us, and it’s a reminder that MAD never loses its relevance.

Yeah, and think about what it was like for our parents in the 80s to hear Reagan and Andropov trade nuclear threats having lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, quite possibly the closest we ever came to an actual nuclear exchange, knowingly anyway. The Cold War superpowers came so close to destroying the world they got spooked and took several steps back, improving communication and starting a period of detente. About 18 years actually, but you know what we do here – how does the culture process this terrifying moment? What happens when everyday Americans suddenly know all this nuclear terminology? Capitalize on it, obviously!

Our movies this week represent the zenith of so-called Atomic Culture that began immediately after Hiroshima and Nagasaki and lasted until the late 60s, early 70s. Another wave began in the 80s, which we’ll cover in another episode. Dr. Strangelove, the wonderfully important and influential classic from Stanley Kubrick came out the same year as Failsafe, its more earnest counterpart telling virtually the same story, directed by Sidney Lumet. 1964 – you’ve got two years distance from the Cuban Missile Crisis, one year since the JFK assassination, domestic turmoil of all sorts, and here come these films about nuclear war, one darkly comedic and scary and the other just scary. But, I kind of thought it was unintentionally funny from a jaded perspective.

So what are our lies agreed upon for Doomsday!? The first lie is that MAD was inherently dangerous and flawed, likely to lead to armageddon. But, that’s a lie because it worked! We don’t like to admit it, but both movies push a lie! We’re still here, right? Ok, that sounds flip but we have to acknowledge that in a bipolar world dominated by nation-states with bureaucracies and stable leadership the systems dramatized in our films work. In a world with like a dozen nuclear powers? That remains to be seen.

Maybe a sub-lie (is that a word?) related to this relates to limited nuclear war. Failsafe actually makes a case that exchanging cities to destroy is horrifying, yes, but a plausible tactic to take if worst comes to worse. Dr. Strangelove exposes this for the absurdity that it is.

The second lie is about civilian leadership in the nuclear age. We’re conditioned to see the military as inherently, well, militaristic. Ever since Korea the military-industrial complex became a permanent entity, but what these films do is highlight the role civilians play in pushing brinkmanship. Civilians like Henry Kissinger, Herman Kahn, Edward Teller, the guys David Halberstam called the best and the brightest, these are the hawks of the Cold War. Dr. Strangelove and Failsafe skewer the military, sure, but the most dangerous characters are civilians. 

Let’s recap our films. Let’s begin with Dr. Strangelove. I think a lot of our listeners know the film and might be asking themselves, what more can these two say about it? Well, give us a chance. And we can’t assume too much prior knowledge, so we’ll break it down and get more into the origins of the film, the source material, and Kubrick’s process as a director later. 

Dr. Strangelove is of course directed by Kubrick and he co-wrote the screenplay with novelists Terry Southern and Peter George. George wrote the novel Red Alert, which Kubrick originally wanted to adapt without many changes. While the story is the same, Kubrick thought it worked better as a black comedy. The cast is great, largely because Peter Sellers, the brilliant comedic actor, plays three roles – Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, President Merkin Muffley, and the titular character, Dr. Strangelove. We have George C. Scott as General Buck Turgidson, Sterling Hayden as General Jack D. Ripper, Slim Pickens as Major Kong, and you might recognize James Earl Jones as a B-52 crewmember. Later we’ll tell you who some of these outrageous characters are references to in real life.  

The film begins at a Strategic Air Command base when Jack D. Ripper orders his B-52 bombers to go past their failsafe points where they normally hold awaiting possible orders to proceed into Soviet airspace. He tells the personnel on the base that the US and the USSR have entered into a “shooting war”.

In the “War Room” at The Pentagon, General Turgidson briefs President  Muffley about the attack that General Ripper ordered. You’d think a nuclear attack should require Presidential authority, but Ripper used “Plan R”, an emergency war plan enabling a senior officer to launch a retaliation strike against the Soviets if everyone in the normal chain of command, including the President, has been killed during a sneak attack. Turgidson tries to convince Muffley to take advantage of the situation to eliminate the Soviets as a threat by launching a full-scale attack. 

Would it surprise you to learn there was an entire industry of people whose job it was to think in exactly those terms? That wasn’t hyperbole, which is on reason why Kubrick concluded the movie had to be an absurdist comedy. 

Mandrake, an RAF exchange officer serving as General Ripper’s executive officer, realizes that there has been no attack on the U.S. when he turns on a radio and hears pop music instead of Civil Defense alerts. When Mandrake reveals this to Ripper, he refuses to recall the wing. Mandrake tries to convince Ripper to give up the three letter code. Ripper refuses and rambles on that the Communists have a plan to “sap and impurify” the “precious bodily fluids” of the American people with fluoridated water, which was indeed a favorite crackpot conspiracy theory of the age. 

Back in the war room, we learn the Soviets have a “Doomsday Device” which will automatically destroy all human and animal life on Earth if a nuclear attack were to hit the Soviet Union. According to the Soviet ambassador, the Doomsday device was made as a low cost alternative to the bomb-race. The President now calls upon Dr. Strangelove, a former Nazi and strategy expert cast as a mad scientist. Strangelove explains the principles behind the Doomsday Device and points out that since it was kept secret it has no value as a deterrent.

After attacking the SAC base and killing Ripper, the code recalling the bombers is sent, but Major Kong’s plane is the little B-52 that could and dodges all the Soviet and US efforts to destroy it and reaches its target. Back in the War Room, Dr. Strangelove lays out his crazy mine shaft plan to house the best and the brightest and repopulate the earth, of course with a ratio of “ten females to each male.” Turgidson rants that the Soviets will likely create an even better bunker than the U.S., and argues that America “must not allow a mine shaft gap”. A visibly excited Dr. Strangelove bolts out of his wheelchair, shouting “Mein Führer, I can walk!”.  And then we have the lovely montage of nuclear explosions, accompanied by Vera Lynn’s famous World War II song “We’ll Meet Again”.

Fail Safe has a very similar plot and came out the same year, but it is not a satire. It’s directed by Sidney Lumet, who is an excellent director with some amazing credits to his name. The Pawnbroker came out a year later, and you have 12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, and The Verdict. Like Dr. Strangelove, Fail Safe is based on a novel. This one is also called Fail Safe and was written by two political scientists. It stars Henry Fonda as the President of the United States, Walter Mathau as the nuclear war strategist Professor Groeteschele. And yeah, I think that’s meant to sound grotesque. Larry Hagman is the president’s interpreter. There’s some other great character actors – Dan O’Herily, Frank Overton, Fritz Weaver. And you’re not imagining it if you think you see Dom Deluise is in a small role. One of the strange things about Fail Safe is casting comedic actors in serious roles. Mathau, Larry Hagman, and Dom Deluise will make names in comedy, but they’re totally straight men here.

The primary difference in the plot between Strangelove and Fail Safe is that in Fail Safe the nuclear crisis is purely accidental, not the act of a mad general. During a conference hosted by Professor Groteschele a computer error causes a group of bombers to go on alert and receive false orders to nuke Moscow. The president attempts to recall the bombers or shoot them down, but Groeteschele is called on to advise the President. Though the military warns that the Soviets will retaliate with everything they have, Groeteschele insists that the Soviets will surrender when the bombers reach  Moscow. 

Here’s Groeteschele doing his best Dr. Strangelove/Buck Turgidson impression, explaining the value of the first strike.

Again, this is kind of real thinking in places like the Rand Corporation during the 1960s through the 80s.

The president orders U.S. fighters scramble to shoot down the bombers  and when that fails, help the Soviets do it. Divisions within the national security elites on hand are revealed as some, urged on by Groeteschele, want to fight and win a nuclear war as others remain loyal. The president is forced to consider an unthinkable contingency – destroy New York City in exchange for Moscow to avoid all out annihilation. Guess what, that’s what happens. The last moments of the film show images of people in New York going about their daily lives, unaware of the coming disaster, followed by freeze-frames of their faces as the nuclear bomb explodes. Incidentally, his wife was in New York too, so, you know, not as funny as Dr. Strangelove.

BREAK

Let’s revisit our lies agreed upon and see how each films deals with living under the cloud of nuclear destruction. The first lie concerns MAD – mutually assured destruction. It’s easy for us to look back on that era in 2022 and say, “hey, you know what, that worked.” As absurd as it is on paper, or on screen, MAD functions in a bipolar world with stable nation-states. There’s some alarming evidence of mishaps we know about after the fact – Able Archer in 1983, when the Soviet Union was absolutely convinced this NATO exercise was the prelude to a first strike. We have various radar mishaps, human error on both sides. Things like that. But all in all, the assumption proved sound. 

But in 1964, why would anyone think this was doable? Stanley Kubrick certainly had a dark view of human nature. Every film basically underscores this premise, so his absurdist satire seems like a natural reaction to a planned nuclear standoff. The film doesn’t have to fictionalize everything that could go wrong because it accurately portrays all the scenarios perfectly. I assign my students an article by Eric Schlosser in The New Yorker aptly titled, “Almost Everything in Dr. Strangelove Was True.” Schlosser broke down the science, the policies, the close calls, all that in a book called Command and Control. It really just proves how diligent Kubrick was as a researcher.

I love that the Pentagon was apoplectic about the movie because it was right. The 2013 documentary Command and Control is really worth your while, too. 

And what about Fail Safe? Here it is not a crazy general but a technical malfunction that throws things off, but MAD is still relevant here. In a bizarre way Fail Safe is telling us the system works because these two leaders – Henry Fonda, the most trustworthy man in America – calmly deliberates with an equally rational Soviet premier. Their solution? Sacrifice two cities and move on, do a lessons learned, maybe open up another landline. You know, tinker with MAD.

But what happens in a multipolar world with about a dozen nuclear powers, or whatever it is now? MAD is out the window. These movies are relics of a much more stable era, sadly. Do you feel better with North Korea, India, Pakistan, Israel, maybe Saudi Arabia in the future, all having the bomb? Can you see leaders on the hotline talking things through if some Pakistani F-16 with a tactical nuke gets too close to Kashmir, or whatever it is? Or, hey, Donald Trump is not Henry Fonda. Similarly, Vladimir Putin isn’t tired, old boring Brezhnev, is he? Dr. Strangelove gets to the human factor in a way Fail Safe never does. Even Dr. Groeteschele is kind of portrayed as a quirky, but reasonable guy.

That brings us to the second lie about civilians and the nuclear age. The hawks are not all wearing uniforms, chomping cigars, riding nuclear missiles like a cowboy at a rodeo. They have advanced degrees in the hard sciences or international relations. They are eggheads with little or no exposure to actual war. Both our films feature civilians playing the most frightening roles, scary because they reflect reality in the 1960s. I think the best way to introduce some of these figures is to map some of the characters in these films, especially Dr. Strangelove, to their real life equivalents.

We’ve established that Stanley Kubrick is a meticulous researcher and he immersed himself in the perverse world of nuclear strategy. Let’s start with General Buck Turgidson. He’s based on Air Force general Curtis Lemay, the cigar chomping hawk who pushed Kennedy to bomb Cuba. You put George C. Scott next to Lemay at that time and they’re indistinguishable.During World War II he trumpeted carpet bombing and applied the same mindset to the nuclear age. And if you want more evidence of just what a swell guy Lemay was, he was George Wallace’s running mate in 1968. 

President Merkin Muffley, played by an egg headed Peter Sellers, is a pretty obvious analog to perennial democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson. Stevenson ran a few times and was certainly a well-respected, intellectual type who had his moment as UN ambassador during the Cuban Missile Crisis, but Sellers plays him perfectly as the mild-mannered guy trying to calm down the Soviet premier like a patient wife with an excitable husband. 

Muffley is obviously not a hawk, but you can see how a president can fail to avert disaster even when they’re ostensibly sane and rational.

And what about the man himself, the Dr. Merkwurdiglieb – Strangelove. He’s a composite of several well-known figures. Let’s start with his Nazi background, a clear reference to household names like Wernher von Braun. He built the V-2 and by 1964 was in charge of the space race. Von Braun was the most well-known of the Nazi scientists we brought over through Operation Paperclip, and Strangelove is obviously one of those. Among his proposed inventions was an actual death star, a satellite that could rain nuclear weapons anywhere on the globe. That sounds a lot like Strangelove. 

Brian can vamp on Paperclip and the visibility of German scientists in the US, so Strangeloves were everywhere. Here’s von Braun doing Disney’s Man in Space series, which was the most watched TV show in 1955. Even the Soviet Union requested copies of it. Pay attention to his accent, his bearing, his expertise – its no accident Peter Sellers plays Strangelove in a similar manner.

Another person Strangelove represents is father of the hydrogen bomb, and a Hungarian immigrant, Edward Teller. He first escaped the Nazis and then the Soviets and worked closely with Oppenheimer on the Manhattan Project, but he never thought twice about what they produced. Here’s a clip from a documentary on Teller called “The Real-Life Dr. Strangelove”

Herman Kahn was another figure Kubrick mentioned in connection to the film. He was founder of the Hudson Institute, a kind of right wing think tank, and worked for the Rand Corporation. Kahn casually planned for nuclear war and advocated applying game theory to nuclear strategy. Sindey Lumet modeled Professor Groeteschele on Kahn, so you have both films working off this example. Also, you can throw in Henry Kissinger as an influence since he wrote his dissertation on fighting a nuclear war and certainly fits the bill as a hawk. He’s also German, of course.

Maybe we should hear a little from Strangelove. Here is his first appearance discussing the doomsday device. You can find the real Herman Kahn basically saying the same thing on some longer youtube interviews:

You have to love Turgidson, “I wish we had one of those doomsday machines.” The actual Doomsday device was called Dead Hand and the Soviets completed it in 1985.

Fail Safe has these moments too that shouldn’t be funny, but really are. Professor Groeteschele runs down how many people would die in a 20 megaton blast over New York, but his concern is preserving corporate records. It’s totally serious! 

It’s so eerie. The economy depends on this. Don’t waste time excavating government documents or the dead, save the corporate records. And this isn’t the satire? 

You can see how our films challenge the view that it is always the military pushing for war, being hyper aggressive. Well, what about these civilians? Von Braun, Kahn, Teller, and Kissinger. You can see versions of them in these 1964 films.

We should probably say something about the Soviets in these films. They definitely match their American counterparts. In Dr. Strangelove the Soviet ambassador is just as invested in the stupid Cold War binary thinking as everyone else in the “war room.” Remember that scene when they are minutes from nuclear annihilation and the guy is snapping photos of the “big board” like it means anything? Dimitri is childlike on the phone with Muffley, like they are both not quite up for the reality of it all.

In Fail Safe the Soviet Premier matches the president in his eminent reasonableness about sacrificing his capital city for New York. It’s so clinical and cold. But you also learn the Soviets have their own problems with hawks trying to disrupt the agreed upon limited exchange. That throws some cold water on the idea MAD is effective or these kinds of screw ups can be corrected. If both sides have crazies waiting in the wings, how stable could it be?

I found it really instructive to watch these back to back. One is ostensibly a satire, and is obviously quite funny, and the other is meant to be serious and frightening. I admire Sidney Lumet so much, but Kubrick’s perspective that MAD is best depicted as a dark comedy is the correct choice. 

We’ve spent a lot of time today focusing on, and appreciating, the absurdist humor of Dr. Strangelove, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. But we also want to point out that with the distance of time, it’s quite possibly Fail Safe that seems most absurd and unrealistic to audiences. 

Certainly my students, who watch both movies in the same week, consistently express that they find the high minded, selfless, and resolute politicians of Fail Safe to be totally unrealistic. Perhaps that’s a depressing commentary on today – that students raised in this political era can’t imagine a high-minded or selfless politician. 

As we described, the finale of Fail Safe has total thermonuclear annihilation avoided because the US president and the Soviet premier agree to sacrifice millions in Moscow and New York, including their own friends and families, to set an example. They deny the insane calculus of mutually assured destruction. 

And so even though the last sound is the shriek of cables melting in the blast, Fail Safe is still, oddly, a very optimistic movie. Henry Fonda tells us we can avoid this future. And he and the Russian premier show us that even if we can’t get rid of all of them, limiting nuclear warfare is also possible. 

Let’s play that scene. You’ll hear Larry Hagman’s voice as the translator, speaking the words of the Russian premier and then, near the end, the voice of the American ambassador in Moscow. 

[Clip not available online]

Now that you’ve listened to that, we’d like you to remember the equivalent moment at the end of Strangelove, when despite every effort the bombs still fly. It isn’t a limited war, it’s Doomsday. And it isn’t witnessed by sober, responsible men. Instead, we get Slim Pickens, in a cowboy hat, straddling a nuclear bomb as it heads towards its target, triggering total annihilation. 

Break

So let’s review our lies for today. We just had two. The first was not so much a lie as the problematic nature of MAD. We hate to admit it, but it worked. We’ve managed to get this far without killing everyone on the planet. And yet the general consensus is that it wasn’t so much that it worked, it’s that we all just got really, really lucky. Whether it’s the Cuban Missile Crisis, or Abel Archer, or a dozen other instances the public doesn’t even know about, we’ve spent decades dancing on the edge of the abyss. 

And because these near misses have almost triggered responses that had nothing to do with the reality on the ground, the notion that there could be a strategic, calculated limited nuclear war that didn’t get out of control is just as absurd. So oddly, we concur with our students: in many ways, Fail Safe is the more absurd plot. 

And the second lie is that it’s always the military who are trigger happy. Sure, you’ve got the Curtis Lemays of the world. But in actual fact, whether it’s Groeteschele or Strangelove, Herman Kahn or Edward Teller, civilian experts have often been the ones most willing to flirt with disaster. As we see in both movies, there ARE military hawks. But the reality is that it was, and is, the advisors, the fellows at all the think tanks, the smooth talkers with access to the politicians and the ability to sound eminently reasonable, who pose the greatest danger. 

We have links to a lot of interesting stuff on our website for this week’s episode. Make sure you check that out. And we look forward to the rest of the episodes in this season, so we hope you’ll join us. 

Published by Brian E. Crim

Brian Crim is professor of history at the University of Lynchburg and author of Planet Auschwitz: Holocaust Representation in Science Fiction and Horror Film and Television. Other books include Our Germans: Project Paperclip and the National Security State and Antisemitism in the German Military Community and the Jewish Response, 1914-1938.

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