It is not clear exactly how much Kubrick knew about the secret aspects of the nuclear policy of the US during the making of Dr. Strangelove. He read over fifty books on nuclear warfare and conducted interviews with Herman Kahn, a strategist for the RAND corporation, as well as Alastair Buchan, and Thomas Schelling. Though some of these thinkers may have had some knowledge or suspicions about secret US policies, it is unlikely that all of the details in Dr. Strangelove that have since proved accurate could have been known at the time. Additionally, many of the driving details of the film, such as the hovering of aircraft near their fail-safe points, came directly from Peter George’s novel, Red Alert, on which the film is based. George was in the Royal Air Force and served in WWII, but was by no means a military insider with knowledge of national secrets of any nation.
Now, more than fifty years after the release of Dr. Strangelove, many declassified Cold War documents have revealed the remarkable accuracy of the film. The fictional Operation Dropkick, in which bombers armed with nuclear payloads flew on high alert near their fail-safe points for 24 hours a day, had a real-life counterpart called Chrome Dome. In real life it was only 12 of these aircraft, and not 34 as in the film, but they were put into place to make immediate retaliation possible; if they received a go-code, they immediately went to war and were already beyond their fail-safe points. This system was put into place in 1961, and was only ended in 1968, after one of the bombers crashed in Greenland, spreading small amounts of nuclear radiation. As for Ripper’s inexplicable ability to issue a nuclear attack to such bombers, that too was a possibility in the real world. President Eisenhower approved a policy that allowed the transfer of war powers, including the ability to issue nuclear retaliation, in the event that the President had been killed in an attack.
When President John F. Kennedy took power, he was absolutely shocked to learn of this delegation of powers. He began to tighten nuclear policy somewhat, including making sure American nuclear weapons stationed in other countries were actually locked. Still, the policies remained remarkably loose by today’s standards throughout the Cold War, and Kennedy himself had to have approved of the Chrome Dome operation.
Even more eerily, the idea of a doomsday device was not far from the truth. 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. Though no nation has claimed to have built this bomb, the Soviet Union did build a network of computers and sensors that would allow for an easy and immediate retaliation in the event of a nuclear strike on their country. They completed this network, called Perimeter, in 1985, long after the making of Dr. Strangelove, and it was remarkably similar in concept to the device that would trigger the doomsday bomb in the film. If an attack in the Soviet Union were detected, it would allow the issuing of a nuclear strike by lower echelon military personnel, without authorization from the Kremlin.
Though viewers at the time may not have been aware of many of these policies, there had certainly been public fear over the control of the country’s nuclear arsenal. It is quite unsettling now to think that the nervous laughter that the film produced in its audience by creating absurdly bad nuclear policies should have instead been real fear, based on remarkably real, remarkably ill-thought out policies.