Stanley Kubrick's Portrayal of American Foreign Policy in Dr. Strangelove (1964)

Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 film Dr. Strangelove is a satirical depiction of American foreign policy during the Cold War. He uses themes such as anti-Communist paranoia, a lack of recognition of the enormity of nuclear war and blind faith in technology to mock and expose the incompetence of American nuclear strategy during the 1960s. Many of the characters in the film are also designed to reflect individuals in power at this time, providing the audience with a point of reference to enforce the satirical themes.

Perhaps the key depiction of American foreign policy during the Cold War era in Dr. Strangelove is the incompetence of the nuclear strategy of the US. Firstly, there is a great deal of internal conflict over what approach to take when dealing with nuclear power. General Turgidson represents the hard-line leader, who wants a ‘first-strike’ policy and is excited by the possibility of nuclear war. This is contrasted by President Muffley, who is an ineffectual leader with no control over the situation or strong intentions on nuclear war.[1] This presents the indecisive and ineffective leadership when determining nuclear policy. Dr. Strangelove was perhaps the first film on this topic to present American strategy in a negative light, actively criticising the decisions of American leaders and highlighting the absurdity of their nuclear policy. Specifically, the policy which allowed the events of the film to occur was the ‘Fail-Safe’ system. During the 1960s, b52s with nuclear bombs were kept on constant airborne alert, ready to be given the Go code. This code could be given by Generals and high ranking officers without a presidential order.[2] This policy was allowed during the 1950s by Eisenhower, as ‘With great reluctance, Eisenhower agreed to let American officers use their nuclear weapons, in an emergency, if there were no time or no means to contact the President.’.[3] This policy was then continued into the 1960s by Kennedy, who was told a ‘subordinate commander faced with a substantial military action could start the thermonuclear holocaust on his own initiative if he could not reach you’.[4] It is evident then, that the actions of General Ripper were entirely possible, and a nuclear war could be started without the approval of the President. Nuclear weaponry was also left vulnerable to outside interference, as a Joint Committee on Atomic Energy found that ‘the weapons – some of them about a hundred times more powerful than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima – were routinely guarded, transports, and handled by foreign military personnel. American control of the weapons was practically non-existent.’[5] This lack of control demonstrates that not only were the systems put in place deeply flawed, but their own nuclear weaponry was also not being actively controlled by American military. Nuclear strategy was therefore flawed both in the areas the US did control, and those they left up to chance.

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Another important aspect of American foreign policy at this time that Stanley Kubrick identifies is an intense anti-Communist paranoia. Following the end of the Second World War, a fear of Communism returned to America, after first appearing in the Red Scare throughout the 1920s and 1930s. There was therefore a precedent and foundation for anti-Communism within the US. This phenomenon was particularly exacerbated after the war by Joseph McCarthy, a senator who built his support of suggesting that Communism had infiltrated US government and was the biggest threat to American society. His base of support was wide and he evidently appealed to large portion of the public. Griffith suggests this was based on a disillusionment with government, where McCarthy ‘filled a vacuum created by a combination of irresponsibility, irresolution and ineptitude on the part of Republicans and Democrats alike’.[6] Maland identifies the post-war consensus as the belief that the ‘structure of American society was basically sound, and that communism was a clear danger to the survival of the United States and its allies’.[7] This entrenched belief that the Soviet Union and Communism were huge threats to America is reflected throughout Dr. Strangelove, particularly through the characters of General Ripper and General Turgidson. Ripper’s conspiracy that ‘fluoridation is the most monstrously conceived and dangerous Communist plot we’ve ever had to face’ exhibits the fantasy and absurdity of this fear of Communism. In this context, Russians are also treated as though they are a different species, who ‘never drink water’ and are intent on violating Americans’ ‘precious bodily fluids’. Ultimately, Ripper’s fear of Communism is the catalyst for the events of this film, as it was his choice to send the b-52s to drop their bombs. General Turgidson also demonstrates a strong distrust of the Soviet Union, beginning with him fighting the Russian ambassador in the War Room. Even in the conclusion of the film, where nuclear holocaust is a certainty, he argues that it is ‘naïve of us to assume that these new developments are going to cause any change in soviet expansionist policy’ and worries of a ‘mineshaft gap’, suggesting his distrust of the Soviet Union supersedes his fear of nuclear war. Turdgidson is intended to represent General Curtis LeMay of the Strategic Air Command, who frequently clashed with politicians, including Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and President Kennedy, over the use of nuclear weapons during both the Cuban Missile Crisis, and later the Vietnam War.[8] Both the characters of Ripper and Turgidson therefore present the aggressive fear and distrust of the Soviet Union, and the violent and extreme responses of those in the military and the government.

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Much of the film is also built on those in power not fully addressing or understanding the enormity and severity of nuclear war. Since the first use of a nuclear bomb by the United States on Japan in 1945, the American government had become increasingly desensitized to the concept of nuclear war and its destruction. In addition to this, there was a belief among Americans that the events of this film were impossible, and although there was a constant fear of nuclear war, there was also resistance to the concept that this could happen in reality. Burr suggests that ‘in the early 60s there was more of a trusting attitude, before the Vietnam War. People had more confidence in the government’.[9] Denial among the government was also prevalent, as ‘an expert at the Institute for Strategic Studies called the events in the film impossible on a dozen counts’ and Curtis LeMay himself stated that ‘nothing like that could happen’.[10] However, there was a clear deficit between public denial and internal concerns that nuclear war was realistic. While the State Department professed that ‘all is well with the atomic stockpile program and there is no need for any changes’ in 1961, within the Pentagon, the book Red Alert ‘was taken seriously as a cautionary tale about what might go wrong’, and even Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara ‘privately worried that an accident, a mistake, or a rogue American officer could start a nuclear war’.[11] There was therefore clear evidence that the possibility of nuclear destruction was not taken as seriously as it should be, despite some internal concerns within the Pentagon. Kubrick presents this theme a number of times during the film, beginning with Major Kong in the bomber. His discussion of ‘survival kits’ and ‘promotions and citations’ are ultimately irrelevant in this situation, as they are unlikely to come out of this mission alive. This shows he does not fully appreciate the gravity of the situation, and ‘the scene reasserts that Kong is fighting another war at another time’.[12] In the War Room, there is a similar inability to understand the impending destruction, as President Muffley’s phone conversation with the Russian Premier is stuttered and awkward, at a time when there are precious few minutes left. Nuclear destruction is presented as unfortunate social error. The pleasantries exchanged between them, such as ‘it’s great to be fine’ turn to more absurd discussion like ‘can you imagine how I feel about it’ and ‘I’m sorry as well, don’t say you’re more sorry because I’m just as capable to be sorry as you are’. This is an uncomfortable and emotional conversation which entirely glances over the topic at hand, and focuses on the embarrassing relationship between the two leaders, rather than the nuclear war about to begin. Kubrick is therefore able to present American leaders as unable to understand the significance of nuclear weapons and their use during the Cold War era.

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An additional factor of American foreign-policy making at this time was a blind faith in technology and the systems in place within the government and military, built to allow nuclear war. The development of new weaponry was an important marker of the early Cold War during the late 1940s and 1950s, beginning with the American atomic bomb, leading to a Soviet response with their own atomic bomb in 1949. The US then advanced this with a hydrogen bomb in 1952, with the Soviets again creating their own a year later.[13] This increasingly radicalised development of new weapons was indicative of the increasingly intense ‘arms race’ between America and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, a competition in having the most military power and therefore the upper hand in any future conflict. This radicalisation is extended by Kubrick in Dr. Strangelove, with the nuclear gap extending to a ‘doomsday gap’. In this scenario, the Soviet Union has created a doomsday device which will destroy all life on earth in the event of a nuclear attack. While this concept seems absurd and far-fetched, it is only a small extension of the theory behind nuclear weapons, which Henry Kissinger argued was essential in Nuclear War and Foreign Policy (1957).[14] Roger Ebert argues that ‘What Kubrick’s Cold War satire showed was not men at the mercy of machines, but machines at the mercy of men’, placing all responsibility on those who created and control nuclear technology.[15] The concept of a Doomsday device was actively entertained and worked on by the Soviet Union in 1974, known as “the Dead Hand”, which ‘could allow junior military officials to launch missiles without oversight from the Soviet leadership’.[16] Kubrick’s identification of this concept in 1964 shows his prescience and accuracy in predicting the natural conclusion of the radicalised development of technology. Much of this technology was intended as a ‘deterrent’ to nuclear war, primarily based on the doctrine of ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’. This theorised that the use of nuclear weapons by two opposing nations would guarantee the destruction of both, leading neither of them to initiate a nuclear attack. However, this was not entirely effective, as the US was prepared to adopt a ‘first strike’ policy, and John Foster Dulles, Secretary of State for Eisenhower, insisted on a policy of ‘massive retaliation’.[17] This enforced the intention that if the Soviet Union were to initiate any attack, even one which was not nuclear, the US would respond aggressively with nuclear power. Therefore, the possibility of nuclear war was very likely despite this doctrine, which Kubrick emphasises, and suggests this is indicative of man’s faith in the technology they create.

 

In conclusion, Stanley Kubrick portrays American foreign policy during the Cold War era in a negative light, highlighting the absurdity of nuclear strategy, anti-Communist paranoia, a blind faith in technology, and a profound lack of understanding of the enormity of nuclear war. The intricacies of nuclear strategy were clearly flawed, as the system was vulnerable to radical individuals starting a war without oversight. Kubrick uses General Ripper to portray this, a man whose conspiracy theories on the infiltration of Communism led him to launch nuclear bombs by himself. Dr. Strangelove is himself utilised to present the blind faith the American government had in their own weapons, which allowed for increasingly radical weaponry to be adopted, heightening the risk of nuclear destruction. Finally, the denial and ignorance of those in power towards the significance and danger of nuclear war was evidently prevalent at this time, which Kubrick exhibits through his characters becoming distracted by personal issues and having faith in the systems they have put in place. Ultimately, Dr Strangelove is a damning satire of US foreign policy and as a commentary on nuclear strategy, has only become more insightful and significant over time.

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  • [1] Charles Maland, ‘Dr. Strangelove (1964): Nightmare Comedy and the Ideology of Liberal Consensus,’ American Quarterly 31:5 (Winter, 1979)

  • [2] Fred Kaplan, “Truth Stranger Than ‘Strangelove’”, New York Times, 10 October 2004

  • [3] Eric Schlosser, “Almost Everything in ‘Dr. Strangelove’ Was True”, The New Yorker, 17 January 2014, https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/almost-everything-in-dr-strangelove-was-true

  • [4] Eric Schlosser, “Almost Everything in ‘Dr. Strangelove’ Was True”, The New Yorker, 17 January 2014, https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/almost-everything-in-dr-strangelove-was-true

  • [5] Ibid.                                                                                                     

  • [6] Robert Griffith, ‘The Political Context of McCarthysim’, The Review of Politics 33:1 (January 1971), p. 31

  • [7] Charles Maland, ‘Dr. Strangelove (1964): Nightmare Comedy and the Ideology of Liberal Consensus,’ American Quarterly 31:5 (Winter, 1979)

  • [8] Kenneth H. Williams, LeMay on Vietnam (2017), p. 4

  • [9] Chris McGreal, “How the US took on Dr Strangelove and tried to make Americans love the bomb”, Guardian, 11 February 2010, http://www/guardian.co.uk/world/2010/feb/11/us-military-propaganda-film 

  • [10] Eric Schlosser, “Almost Everything in ‘Dr. Strangelove’ Was True”, The New Yorker, 17 January 2014, https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/almost-everything-in-dr-strangelove-was-true

  • [11] Ibid.

  • [12] Charles Maland, ‘Dr. Strangelove (1964): Nightmare Comedy and the Ideology of Liberal Consensus,’ American Quarterly 31:5 (Winter, 1979)

  • [13] Charles Maland, ‘Dr. Strangelove (1964): Nightmare Comedy and the Ideology of Liberal Consensus,’ American Quarterly 31:5 (Winter, 1979)

  • [14] Ibid.

  • [15] Roger Ebert, “Dr. Strangelove”, Chicago Sun-Times, 28 October 1994, http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps.pbcs.dll/article?AID=/19941028/REVIEWS/410280302/1023

  • [16] Eric Schlosser, “Almost Everything in ‘Dr. Strangelove’ Was True”, The New Yorker, 17 January 2014, https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/almost-everything-in-dr-strangelove-was-true

  • [17] John Foster Dulles (12 January 1954). “The Evolution of Foreign Policy”. Department of State, Press Release No. 81