General Jack D. Ripper, commander of Burpelson Air Force Base, has gone crazy. This would not be that big a deal, but Burpelson Air Force Base is home to the Strategic Air Command’s 843rd Bomber Wing. Those bombers are B-52s fitted with nuclear warheads. And thanks to the fact that no one in the military seem to notice the increasingly paranoid behavior of General Ripper, those bombers are currently on their way to their targets deep inside the Soviet Union under impression that all-out nuclear war is imminent.
These bombers can only head toward their targets after receiving a Go Order and they can receive that Go Order only under the most rigidly controlled of procedures. Once they receive the Go Order, they will not turn back unless they receive the Recall Code. They must receive this Recall Code prior to reaching their Failsafe Point. The Failsafe Point is the line at which bombers carrying nuclear warheads can be recalled before their presence will be alerted to the Soviets that Russia is under attack. Once the planes pass this point, there is way to stop the course of future events.
General Jack D. Ripper is one of the few men in America who knows this information and also has the power to send the necessary codes. But, as General Ripper explains to Group Captain Lionel Mandrake of the Royal Air Force, the communist plot to infiltrate American by poisoning everyone’s precious bodily fluids mandate that action must be taken peremptorily before the situation gets too out of control. Ripper orders Mandrake to put the entire base on alert after ordering Wing Attack Plan R into motion. This plan includes a contingency by which the bombers must equip their radios to accept communications that include a secret three-letter code to ensure that the communications is legitimate. Only one person knows that code.
General Jack D. Ripper.
When Mandrake discovers the Pentagon has not issued any war orders, he heads to Ripper’s office to investigate whereupon he quickly determines that Ripper’s belfry is now populated only by bats and he may be the only person standing between recalling the bombers and nuclear Armageddon.
Meanwhile, in the War Room buried deep beneath the Pentagon, General Buck Turgidson is information Pres. Merkin Muffley that Ripper has succeeded in giving the Go Order to a squadron of bombers. Muffley expresses dismay that such an order could be given without the President’s authorization, but Turgidon explains how Plan R was instituted to allow a strike order to be given in the event that a first strike from the enemy wiped out everyone with the authorization to give that order.
The only hope they have is to attempt to send every single possible combination of the three-letter code that must accompany all communication with the bombers. The problem is that it could take as long as two whole days before they come upon the right code. The order is issued to take Burpelson by force and arrest Gen. Ripper.
Gen. Turgidson attempts to convince that the only viable option is to allow the bombers to carry out their mission and count on the element of surprise to result in a victory that causes the Soviets to stand down. Muffley outright rejects a legacy as the President that started a nuclear war and instead seeks to contact his Russian counterpart. Muffley and Sovet Premier Kissof speak over the “hot line” as the President tries to soothe the Premier’s ruffled feathers by offering to reveal the secret targets that the bombers are heading to.
This attempt to save as many Russian lives as possible hits a snag, however, when it is revealed that the Soviet Union has manufactured a secret weapon called the Doomsday Device that upon the first strike from a nuclear bomb within Russia’s borders will automatically create a domino effect of sorts in which enough bombs are detonated to ensure radioactive cloud hangs over the earth for the next century. As part of the point of the Doomsday Device, it cannot be dismantled without setting it off.
The wheelchair bound Dr. Strangelove, former Nazi scientist and current advisor to the U.S nuclear weapons program, points out that keeping this information secret essentially stands in direct opposition to the entire point of a Doomsday Device. After all, such a weapon can only be effective deterrent if its existence is known to the enemy. Turns out the announcement was scheduled just one week later.
US forces arrive at Burpelson to take it by siege, but those within the base are under the impression that it is the Soviet military disguising themselves as fellow Americans. A battle rages at Burpelson before it is finally taken, but the mission fails in its goal of arresting Ripper and getting the all—important three-letter code after Rippers shoots himself. Mandrake has figured out from notes scrawled by Ripper that the code likely involves the letters POE as Ripper has repetitive written and spoken of the poisoning of the purity of essence by the Soviets.
After a brief obstruction by an overly official soldier suspicious of Mandrake’s British accent, he finally manages to relay this information to the Pentagon which promptly issues the Recall Code. Celebrations are in order as all the bombers turn around and start heading back.
Except for one.
Muffley learns that a missile has managed to damage the communications ability of one of the bombers, making it impossible for them to receive the Recall Code. Inside that bomber is pilot Major T.J. “King” Kong. Kong, realizing he has lost too much fuel to reach his intended target, decides instead to drop his payload on a secondary target that can be reached, thus eliminating the possibility for Soviet plans to locate the bomber and take it out before it can drop its bombs.
Approaching the target, Kong sends the order to open the bomb bay doors and release the payload. The doors won’t open, however, having been damaged by the strike that took out the plan’s communications. Kong makes his way down to the bomb bay and, straddling the nuclear bomb, repairs the wiring problem keeping the doors from opening. When they do open, the bomb drops with Major Kong still astride, waving his cowboy hat and whooping and hollering like he’s breaking a bronco. The bomb detonates and immediately sets off the Soviet Doomsday Device.
As nuclear annihilation takes place around them, those in the War Room are protected by their great depth from the surface above. Dr. Strangelove holds court with the serious contention that it would only take a few hundred thousand survivors living in deep enough to avoid the effects of radiation to repopulate the earth. Of course, in order for this plan to succeed, there would need to be 10 fertile females for every fertile male. Turgidson expresses concern that the Russkies have come to the same conclusion when Strangelove without quite realizing what he is doing stands up out of his wheelchair and takes his first steps in years. Overwhelmed with emotion, he cries out “Mein Fuhrer, I can walk!” as nuclear bombs are seen detonating into huge mushroom clouds.