Ciné Files: Dr. Strangelove's Real-Life Doomsday Machine

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Like so many people who enjoy watching (and overanalyzing) movies, it was inevitable that I would fall in love with the films of Stanley Kubrick. It started with 2001: A Space Odyssey, and it wasn’t long before I discovered my favorite movie of all time, and one that I think is a strong contender for Greatest Film of All-Time: Kubrick’s 1964 black comedy masterpiece, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

The plot of this film is already well-known, but I’ll rehash it here for my purposes: A rogue U.S. Air Force general, Jack D. Ripper, initiates a nuclear strike against the Soviet Union. It’s then revealed that the Soviets have constructed a doomsday device which, at the first sign of a nuclear strike, will automatically release a Cobalt bomb into the atmosphere, destroying all life on earth and rendering the surface uninhabitable. The ultimate weapon for the era of M.A.D. and Détente.

Scary stuff, right? At the height of Cold War tensions, it didn’t seem all that unlikely that the U.S. and Soviet Union would end up annihilating each other, and Dr. Strangelove’s “doomsday bomb” was Kubrick’s withering critique of the ultra-macho and myopic mindset of the U.S. and Soviet military—a mindset that could lead to ultimate destruction. And here’s the scariest part: The doomsday bomb is real, and it’s still active.

Last fall, Wired did a must-read exposé on the not-so-secret existence of a Cold War relic: a Soviet doomsday system called “Perimeter,” also known by the ominous name of Mertvaya Ruka, or “Dead Hand,” within official circles. And the system sounds like it was cribbed directly from Dr. Strangelove: ground-based detection devices, at the sign of a nuclear attack on Soviet territory, would then turn on a computer system that monitored the Soviet chain of command. If certain conditions were met, launch authority for a massive, world-ending nuclear counterattack would be transferred to a secure underground bunker, where the press of a button would initiate the ultimate apocalypse.

This boggles the mind. In the year of our Lord 1985, the then-collapsing Soviet Union put Dead Hand online, long after the Cold War’s most dangerous years.

It’s almost totally incongruous with Gorbachev’s efforts towards Perestroika and Glasnost in the second half of the ‘80s—the collapse of the Soviet oil economy had already left Russia on the ropes, leaving few options other than a gradual draw-down of hostilities and greater engagement with the West. So why, then, create an apocalyptic weapons system in an era when it seemed like the end of the Cold War was near-inevitable?

Reagan’s aggressive posturing is one possible explanation, as is the internal Soviet tension between Gorbachev and the lingering remnants of Brezhnev loyalists, who favored a military buildup in the name of Détente. But even these factors combined don’t account for the push to build and maintain a nuclear doomsday weapon. This is where I think Dr. Strangelove is way more instructive than any amount of court intrigue and geopolitical gamesmanship:

When Kubrick made Dr. Strangelove, I don’t think it was meant to be an isolated commentary on U.S.-Soviet relations in 1964. No, Kubrick was critiquing humanity’s ever-present —and all-too-often male—love of war and conflict. It’s an impulse that’s been with our species for a long time, and isn’t specific to any one era or nation. If this seems strange, ask yourself why nuclear weapons still exist. They have no strategic value outside of obliterating massive population centers; weapons that are purposefully designed to intimidate through their capacity to kill huge numbers of innocent civilians.

The Soviet Union is gone, and the world has become far too economically intertwined for any nation to risk the use of nuclear weapons. Wouldn’t the world be a better place without these things? Why not just get rid of them? Is “just in case the other guy gets one” really a good reason to leave thousands of costly nuclear warheads hanging around in some underground storage depot, where they could leak dangerous radiation, or worse, fall into the wrong hands?

There’s only one explanation, as far I can see: the same flawed, conflict-hungry thinking that gave us Détente in the first place. The same kind of thinking that Kubrick blew a hole through in Dr. Strangelove. And it didn’t just give us détente, it gave us a weapons system that could potentially be the end of life on Earth—or at least civilization as we know it. Sure, this seems like it’ll make for an interesting chapter in the history books, with the Cold War being over for two decades now. Except—Dead Hand is still active, still ticking away in an underground bunker.

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