Stanley Kubrick’s film Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb premiered in early 1964, making it over 50 years old. The movie is just as entertaining today as it was 50 years ago, but modern audiences don’t have the same gut reaction to it that Americans of 1964 did, because it was so topical at the time. The world was as crazy as the movie.
America had become an obsessively anti-Communist national-security state. Twenty-four hours a day, at least a few bombers, fully loaded with nuclear weapons, were aloft, as a way of warding off a Soviet sneak attack. The strategist Herman Kahn, in a notorious book, “On Thermonuclear War,” published in 1960, insisted that a nuclear war was winnable, and that life would go on despite millions dead and nuclear radiation everywhere. In the movie, George C. Scott’s General Buck Turgidson, the Air Force Chief of Staff, advocates for war as follows: “I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed. But I do say that no more than ten to twenty million killed, tops—depending on the breaks.” And Kahn later proposed a doomsday device as the ultimate deterrent: threatening the extinction of human, animal, and plant life, he believed, would end the dangerous brinkmanship displayed by the Soviet Union and the United States in the Cuban missile crisis. He thought that it was a reasonable idea, even a clever one.
Kubrick’s original intent was to produce a serious movie about nuclear war. However, his research revealed such absurdities in political and military nuclear protocol that, in order to tell the whole story, it would become a comedy. The result was “a nightmare comedy” which came painfully close to the truth. Read about how the movie came about at The New Yorker.