The Genesis of Dr. Strangelove

Wednesday, October 20th, 2010

Dan Lindley provides a study guide to Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, which discusses the genesis of the film:

Dr. Strangelove is based on Red Alert by Peter George (who used the pen name Peter Bryant). George was an RAF major in military intelligence. While serving at a U.S. airbase in the U.K, a B-47 roared overhead, shaking a precariously perched coffee cup and sending it crashing to the floor. Someone said “that’s the way World War III will start.” and George was off to the races with an idea to write Red Alert. George wrote the book in three weeks.

The story of how Red Alert inspired the film goes back to 1958 when someone handed Thomas Schelling the book during an airplane flight. As the first detailed scenario of how someone might start a nuclear war, Schelling found the book sufficiently interesting to purchase and give away around four dozen copies. Over lunch with a magazine editor, Schelling discussed writing an article on accidental nuclear war, and mentioned Red Alert. The editor suggested opening up the article with a review of the literature on WWIII. So, Schelling wrote the article and reviewed Red Alert, On the Beach, and Alas Babylon. The magazine rejected the article, but it was soon published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. (36) A friend of Schelling who wrote for the Observer of London got the Bulletin article reprinted in full as the lead story in the features section. Stanley Kubrick read the newspaper story, then the Bulletin article, called up the publishers of Red Alert, and got in touch with George. Kubrick, Schelling, and George then sat down for an afternoon to discuss how to make the movie.

When the book was written, intercontinental missiles were not a factor in the strategic balance. But by the time they discussed the movie, both ground and submarine launched missiles were gaining in importance compared to bombers. Kubrick, Schelling, and George spent much time trying to see of they could start the war and play out the crisis with missiles. They could not. Only bombers provided enough time to make all the war room scenes possible. In particular, they wanted to create the strategic choice of whether the President would exploit the bomber launch to send in follow-on forces.(37) With missiles, the war would have started much too quickly. One theme of the book was how hard it was to actually start a nuclear war. Schelling noted that this theme got a bit lost in the film.

According to Schelling, another concern of Kubrick’s was to avoid insulting or attacking the U.S. Air Force. (38) Kubrick found himself in a bind on this because he couldn’t start the war without a psychopathic officer. This was one reason the characters in the film are at times so exaggerated and unbelievable. In the end, a major reason the film is so comedically effective is the way it alternates between absolute realism (such as in its military standard operating procedures and terminology) and incredible zaniness. (39) According to Terry Southern, George’s Red Alert helped set the stage for deadpan realism in Dr. Strangelove: “Perhaps the best thing about the book was the fact that the national security regulations in England, concerning what could and could not be published, were extremely lax by American standards. George had been able to reveal details concerning the “fail-safe” aspect of nuclear deterrence (for example, the so-called black box and the CRIM [sic] Discriminator) — revelations that, in the spy-crazy U.S.A. of the Cold War era, would have been downright treasonous. Thus the entire complicated technology of nuclear deterrence in Dr. Strangelove was based on a bedrock of authenticity that gave the film what must have been its greatest strength: credibility.” (40)

George was concerned that his American friends would hold the film against him. (41) Schelling wrote to reassure him, to say that was not true, that he liked the film and would be welcome as a friend on any future visit to the U.S. Later, Schelling wrote another letter saying he would be bringing his family to London, but George’s wife wrote back that George would not be responding…

Peter George committed suicide in June of 1966, perhaps in part because he suffered “fear and pain about the threat of nuclear war.” (42) One theme of this paper is that many of the fears raised by Peter George and in Dr. Strangelove were remarkably close to reality. The film makes fun of it, but the world was (and still is) a very scary place. Hopefully this article has made this clear, especially in its sections on the logic of deterrence and the devolution of authority, civil-military relations, pre-emption, the precariousness of MAD, and in the comparisons of film language to real language. After much scholarship and experience, these dangers are more easily seen in the year 2000. But in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Peter George was a pioneer in helping make us aware of these dangers. We should be grateful.

In that Bulletin piece, Metors, Mischief, and War, famed game-theorist Schelling sings the praises of Red Alert, “one of the niftiest little analyses to come along”:

The author does not frighten us with how loosely SAC might be organized and how easily the system could be subverted; what makes this book good fiction is what makes a good mystery — the author has used his ingenuity to make the problem hard.

(Hat tip to Kalim Kassam.)

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