Dr. Strangelove was written and produced at the height of the Cold War, amidst such escalations as the Berlin Crisis (the closing of the border between Soviet East Berlin and democratic West Berlin) and the Cuban Missile Crisis (the establishment of a Soviet missile base in Cuba). The era was defined by fear of nuclear devastation, and widespread political paranoia. Both the Soviet Union and the US had established policies of deterrence by mutually assured destruction (MAD), which promised total nuclear annihilation as retaliation to any nuclear launch from the other. Both superpowers were rapidly growing their nuclear arsenals to prevent a “missile gap,” and ensure that the other nation could not overpower them enough to prevent a full retaliation.
In the late 1950s, Stanley Kubrick became obsessed with the threat of a nuclear war. He began rapidly consuming military and political books on the subject, and considered moving to Australia out of fear of the bomb. He purchased the rights to the novel Red Alert by Peter George, and began collaborating with George on a script for a political thriller based on the novel. However, Kubrick eventually decided that a serious treatment of the subject wouldn’t be taken seriously, and he and George began reworking the script into a comedy, hiring the satirist Terry Southern to help transform the script just before filming. Peter Sellers also played a part in writing the script, as he was given significant freedom to improvise in his several roles, and his improvisations were retroscripted, or added into the script during filming, if Kubrick liked them. The fundamental plot of the film stayed true to the plot of the novel throughout this rescripting, with a few changes (there is no doomsday machine in Red Alert).
Through this collaboration, the script became an outrageous black comedy, full of sexual innuendo, wordplay, and one-off jokes. However, much of the comedic tension and irony of the film came from Kubrick’s research into the defense strategy of the US and the remarkably realistic satirizing of the military. Kubrick met with several military and defense insiders, scientists, and politicians, such as Alastair Buchan, Thomas Schelling, and Herman Kahn, in order to get a fuller picture of the country’s often obscured nuclear policies. While writing the originally serious script, Kubrick kept finding himself having to leave out true details that seemed absurd, to keep it from becoming comedic. He began to see inherent comedy in the paradoxical idea of mutually assured destruction.
Kubrick decided to use an extreme extension of mutually assured destruction—a doomsday machine that will wipe out all life on earth including its home country—as the crux of the film. Such a machine is the logical conclusion of mutually assured destruction, and was used by Herman Kahn in On Thermonuclear War (1960) to demonstrate the flaws of such a policy. As ridiculous as it might sound, however, a doomsday machine was very much a part of political and social consciousness at the time. Physicist Leo Szilard first theoretically described a bomb that could produce enough nuclear fall-out to wipe out life over vast areas in 1950, in order to point out that the progression of nuclear technology could eventually wipe out life on earth. The US Air Force then requested such weapons, which were seriously investigated but never deployed. In 1964, the year of Dr. Strangelove’s release, the US Department of Defense updated a book called The Effects of Nuclear Weapons to include a section that described such a device and its effects.
This “doomsday device” is made from placing normal cobalt metal around a thermonuclear warhead, which would then be transmuted to the radioactive isotope Cobalt-60 after detonation. Dr. Strangelove’s “Cobalt-Thorium G” doomsday device was based on this concept, which Kubrick learned of from Herman Kahn, as well as the idea of a networked response to nuclear attack that had been theorized as a strategy consistent with the MAD doctrine. In such a network, a single nuclear attack would trigger a computerized response that launches the nuclear arsenal of the attacked nation. This would prevent one nation from overpowering another by wiping out the other’s government in a first attack, leaving them unable to retaliate (with that nation’s leaders gone, no one can order a nuclear strike). In Dr. Strangelove, the Soviet “doomsday device” is a literal doomsday device, while the American equivalent is the president’s delegation of authority to order a nuclear strike. Both strategies are inexplicably kept secret from the other power, leaving both impotent as deterrents, presumably their only purpose.
It is unclear how much Kubrick really knew about the defense strategies of the US and Soviet Union when writing the script, because these strategies were mostly kept secret from the public. He did conduct interviews with many military and strategy insiders, which could at least partially explain some of the eerie accuracy the film would later turn out to have had. Documents from the era that were declassified 50 years later showed that President Eisenhower had authorized the use of nuclear weapons by military commanders in the event the White House could not be reached. By 1985 the Soviets had completed Perimeter, a network of computers and sensors that would enable the launch of nuclear weapons without oversight from Soviet leadership in response to an attack. Though much of the US nuclear policy was kept secret, the MAD doctrine unnerved much of the public and caused wide speculation about such policies, even if they could not be confirmed. Daniel Ellsberg, a RAND analyst at the time of the film’s release, recently commented that as he left the theater after seeing Dr. Strangelove, he turned to his colleague and said “That was a documentary!”
Kubrick based his characters on real military personnel and strategists at the time. His military commanders, like Gen. Buck Turgidson and Brigadier Gen. Jack Ripper were extremely nationalistic, trigger-happy, and anti-communist, and were based loosely on General Curtis LeMay. Jack Ripper in particular resembled LeMay, who chomped cigars and allegedly promised to “knock the shit out of” the Russians if it looked like they were mounting an attack, despite knowing that was against national policy. Jack Ripper’s theory that the Soviet’s were trying to poison American’s with fluoridated water came directly from actual fears in the US in response to the newly popularized dental health measure. This conspiracy theory, a clear marker of Ripper’s psychotic break, leads to interactions with Seller’s character Captain Lionel Mandrake that are at once unnerving and hilarious, and would later help transform that theory into a running joke in the American consciousness.
Dr. Strangelove himself was based on an amalgam of three scientists and thinkers: Herman Kahn, a strategist at the RAND Corporation; John von Neumann, a lead in the Manhattan project who proposed the MAD doctrine; and Wernher von Braun, a scientist in the Nazi rocket development program who was recruited after WWII ended. Von Braun’s influence on the character, who is unable to control his hand from performing a Nazi salute and who accidentally calls the president Mein Fuhrer repeatedly, was intended to satirize Operation Paperclip. This program brought over 1,600 scientists and engineers from post-war Germany to the US, many of whom had been members or leaders in the Nazi party, to assist with nuclear program.
As production was progressing on Dr. Strangelove, Kubrick learned of another film on the same topic that was also under production by Columbia Pictures, called Fail Safe, though it was to be a realistic thriller. The plot of Fail Safe was remarkably similar to that of Dr. Strangelove, and Kubrick worried that its release ahead of Dr. Strangelove would hinder box office receipts. He and Peter George sued for copyright infringement, and there was an out-of-court settlement. The suit succeeded in delaying the production of Fail Safe, which came out 8 months after Dr. Strangelove, to mediocre ticket sales. Fail Safe was criticized in much the same way as was Dr. Strangelove, though it garnered many excellent reviews and would later be considered a brilliant Cold War thriller. The two films are often considered together as a reflection of nuclear fears at the time and public mistrust in the government’s control over continuously escalating crises and massively destructive arsenals.
The Cold War context of the film and the satirizing of real officials are not only necessary to understand the humor, international politics, and nuclear history of the film, but also to understand its importance within the film industry. The film came a mere two years after John Henry Faulk’s court victory marked the official end of Hollywood blacklisting of perceived communists. Throughout the 1950s, the Second Red Scare dominated politics, as Joe McCarthy and his allies conducted a witch-hunt of communist sympathizers within the government and media. McCarthyism began by targeting those affiliated with socialism or communism, and quickly became a tool for suppressing opposition and any who criticized the US government or military. A film like Dr. Strangelove, which openly mocks the entire military establishment, would have been unthinkable 10 years earlier. The release of Spartacus in 1960, also directed by Stanley Kubrick, with formerly-blacklisted-screenwriter Dalton Trumbo’s name in the credits for the first time in over a decade, also marked a major turning point in the history of the communist witch hunt.
Though the end of McCarthyism allowed the production of such a film, the legacy of the red scare and the prevailing pro-military attitudes in the US caused backlash against the film. A New York Times film critic, Bosley Crowther, wrote that it was a “discredit and even contempt for our whole defense establishment.” Others called it “juvenalian satire,” “dangerous… an evil thing about an evil thing,” and compared it to Soviet propaganda. Nevertheless, the film was a box office success, is now regarded one of the greatest comedies of all time, and was selected for preservation in the US National Film Registry.