In my book Monsters, Mushroom Clouds, and the Cold War (2001), I argue that, for purposes of gauging the impact of the Cold War (and especially of Cold War nuclear fears) on American science fiction, the decade we call the “1950s” should really be the “long 1950s,” extending from 1946 to 1964. 1946, after all was the beginning of the Cold War, and 1964 marked the end of the peak impact of Cold War nuclear terror on American culture, partly because Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, released at the beginning of 1964,marked the end of an era. Roger Ebert, in his review of Kubrick’s film, called it “arguably the best political satire of the century,” and the only questionable part of this characterization is the “arguably.” Perhaps the six decades since its initial release have rendered the film a bit less urgently topical, but it still remains the single most trenchant exploration of the one crisis in history that has brought human civilization closest to self-destruction. Some might object, of course, that the broad absurdist comedy of the film is inappropriate for such a serious topic, but aspects of the film itself make it clear that the attitudes that were central to this crisis were so patently and insanely preposterous that they could only be captured in a film with the tone of Dr. Strangelove, a tone that has not necessarily been rendered moot by developments in the intervening decades, even if human civilization now seems more obviously threatened by climate change than by nuclear holocaust.
As Charles Maland notes, Dr. Strangelove can be read as a powerful critique of the prevailing dominant paradigms of American political life in the late 1950s and early 1960s. However, it is important to recognize that the primary political orientation of the Dr. Strangelove is not procommunist or anti-American, but antimilitary, with the Soviet military leaders depictd as being at least as insane as the Americans in their blind pursuit of nuclear superiority. Still, the film captured the tenor of eaerly-1960s America so well that historian Margot Henriksen entitled her own study of the ideology of Cold War America Dr. Strangelove’s America. It is certainly the case that Dr. Strangelove, more than any other single film, captured the lunacy of the Cold War arms race mentality, while at the same time suggesting that certain American attitudes in the Cold War might have been inherited from the German Nazis, whose ideas were not extinguished by World War II, after all. Dr. Strangelove, in its parodic focus on the comic absurdity of the arms race, also signals a turn to postmodern strategies in dealing with the tensions of the Cold War. Based (loosely) on the novel Red Alert (1958) by Peter George, Dr. Strangelove goes well beyond the novel in its absurdist satire of the ideology of the Cold War arms race. The film became a cult favorite of the 1960s youth movement and was one of the classics of American culture of the 1960s, even though, strictly speaking, it is a British film, produced at London’s Hawk Studios.
The premise of the film is simple: both the United States and the Soviet Union are so caught up in the arms race that they pursue insane courses that make nuclear holocaust almost inevitable. Indeed, the film’s crisis is triggered by literal insanity, that of the suggestively named General Jack D. Ripper (played with appropriately grim lunacy by Sterling Hayden), commander of Burpelson Air Force Base and of a wing of the Strategic Air Command’s fleet of B-52 nuclear bombers. Unhinged by his extreme anticommunist paranoia (which leads him to believe that communist conspiracies are seeking to “sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids” through techniques such as fluoridation of water), Ripper orders his bombers to attack the Soviet Union, thereby triggering the labyrinthine security procedures that make it almost impossible to recall such an order.
Most of the film involves the efforts of the American government to recall the attack and thus avert the inevitable Russian retaliation. Much of it is set in the memorable war room, where President Merkin Muffley (played by Peter Sellers, who also plays Dr. Strangelove and Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, a British exchange officer serving as Ripper’s aide) convenes a meeting of his chief strategic advisors in an attempt to deal with the crisis. Chief among these advisors are General Buck Turgidson (played by George C. Scott and so named for both his phallic exploits and his penchant for inflated rhetorical posturing) and the zanily sinister Strangelove, whose continuing loyalty to his former Nazi ideology becomes increasingly obvious in the course of the film. When all attempts to avert the attack seem to be failing, Turgidson suggests an all-out assault on the Soviets while the United States still has the element of surprise on its side. Muffley, however, opts to warn the Russians, apologetically explaining the situation to Soviet Premier Dimitri Kissov in terms that make launching a nuclear strike seem like nothing more than a sort of social faux pas. Unfortunately, the Americans also learn to their horror that the Russians, as a deterrent to precisely such attacks, have installed a Doomsday Machine that will be automatically triggered by any nuclear blast over the Soviet Union, enveloping the planet in a cloud of radioactive dust and destroying all life.
Ripper, the only man who knows the code that can cancel the attack order, commits suicide in order to avoid revealing it. Fortunately, however, Mandrake manages to deduce the code, but before he can deliver it to the president, he is taken captive by Army Colonel “Bat” Guano (Keenan Wynn), who suspects that Mandrake, as a foreigner, is a commie “prevert.” Mandrake finally convinces the colonel to allow him to call the president from a pay phone, but then discovers that he doesn’t have any change: in America, it is difficult to accomplish anything without cash. Spotting a nearby Coke machine, he tries to convince Guano to break into the machine to get some cash, but the colonel is reluctant because of his great respect of the private property of the Coca Cola company, though he eventually complies. It’s an amusing and seemingly throwaway moment, but it nicely illustrates the numerous subtle ways in which Dr. Strangelove satirizes more aspects of American society than might be immediately obvious. Here, the sanctity of private property in the American psyche proves to be excessive—but what is really excessive is the respect that Americans have for the corporate behemoths that dominate so many aspects of American life (and life around the world).
Finally, though, Guano retrieves the change, and Mandrake calls the president and gives him the information so the attack can be averted by recalling the aircraft that are on their way to bomb the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, one of the bombers, commanded by Major J. T. “King” Kong (Slim Pickens), has already been damaged by anti-aircraft missiles and is unable to receive the command to avert the attack. The crew struggles to keep the plane aloft and manages to reach a potential target, only to find that the damage from the missile has also caused the bomb doors to jam. Kong crawls down into the bomb bay and manages to open the doors and release the weapon, dropping out of the plane astride the bomb and, in one of the most memorable scenes in modern film, riding it bronco-style, waving his cowboy hat and whooping it up as the bomb falls to earth.
The screen then goes white as the bomb hits, which might have been the best ending, dramatically, for the film. However, Kubrick tacks on an additional scene that makes some important thematic points. In the scene, Strangelove, while involved in a comic wrestling match with his bionic right arm, which seems intent on shooting upward in a Nazi salute, concocts a plan for preserving civilization by founding colonies at the bottom of mine shafts, safe from the radioactive cloud. This plan is a burlesque of virtually all of the post-holocaust fictions of the long 1950s, revealing the fantasy elements that lie behind so many of them. For example, Strangelove makes the patriarchal suggestion that, in order to facilitate repopulation of the earth, the new colonies should include ten women for every man and that, in order to encourage the men to do their reproductive duty, these women should be chosen for their “stimulating sexual characteristics.” Meanwhile, Turgidson’s gleeful reaction to this plan reveals the true nature of his personality, and it might be significant that the crazed world of Dr. Strangelove is an almost all-male world, with the film’s only female character being Turgidson’s secretary, Miss Scott (Tracy Reed). Miss Scott, of course, is also Turgidson’s mistress, and the film clearly implies that she functions in his employ more as a sexual object than as an office worker.
Reed also appears briefly in a photograph that identifies her as the centerfold in the June 1962 issue of Playboy magazine, which Kong reads aboard his nuclear bomber, suggesting a link between the objectification of women and aggressive militarism, a link that is reinforced by the fact that the cover of the magazine (the real cover of that Playboy issue is used in the film) identifies this issue as a “Toast to Bikinis.” Reed did not actually appear in this issue, but her appearance in this mocked-up version of the issue links to the fact that she is clad in a bikini throughout her one scene in Dr. Strangelove, which makes it fairly clear that her relationship with Turgidson is not strictly business. Meanwhile, the fact that the very name of these famous two-piece bathing suits is derived from the Bikini Atoll, a key site of American nuclear testing during the Cold War, provides another link between the status of Miss Scott as an exploited sexual object and the attitudes that lead, in this film, to nuclear destruction. Both of these phenomena, the film implies, are closely linked to masculinist/patriarchal ideologies.
In still another subtle touch, the mock Playboy photo featuring Reed shows her apparently nude, but with her bare buttocks strategically covered by an open copy of another magazine. That magazine can be seen, on close examination, to be the January 1963 issue of Foreign Affairs (Vol. 41, No. 2), a journal that published many key articles related to American policy in the Cold War. This particular issue prominently features an article by a then relatively unknown academic by the name of Henry Kissinger, a man who would later become extremely prominent as a key advisor to President Richard Nixon and whose warlike attitudes undoubtedly lengthened the American involvement in Vietnam, among other things. Kissinger, known for his eyeglasses and heavy German accent, has been widely suspected to have been the model for Dr. Strangelove. That does not appear to have been the case, but, for viewers watching the film after Kissinger’s rise to fame, it is almost impossible not to be reminded of Kissinger when viewing Strangelove.
The film proceeds as both the Americans and the Russian ambassador, called to the war room as part of the effort to avert the crisis, begin to get concerned about a possible “mine shaft gap,” suggesting that the two sides are concerned about which might be better prepared to preserve its power structure in underground postapocalypse facilities—but also suggesting that the two sides have still failed to learn their lesson about the folly of such competition, which they now envision as continuing even beyond the looming nuclear holocaust. Indeed, many in the room, especially Turgidson, don’t seem all that upset by the nuclear destruction of human civilization, imagining that conditions in the underground shelters after the war, with themselves surrounded by women with “stimulating sexual characteristics,” who are provided to them essentially as breeding stock, might be quite to their liking. The film then ends with a sequence of shots of nuclear explosions and mushroom clouds, with sentimental music (Vera Lynn’s “We’ll Meet Again”) playing in the background.
In many ways, Dr. Strangelove is weak as a political film. It does very little to examine the historical and political background of the Cold War, depicting it essentially as an ego contest between American madmen and Russian madmen. In the kind of association between violence and sexuality that is central to much of Kubrick’s work, the film characterizes the Cold War as a phallic competition driven by erotic energies, with macho generals on both sides trying to establish their greater manhood by proving that they have the bigger and more effective weapons. Strangelove (so memorable in Sellers’s portrayal, despite the fact that he is actually onscreen a surprisingly short time) may be the film’s most potent political image. His crucial presence as the president’s chief strategic advisor in the Cold War (emphasized through the titling of the film) tends to align the American position with that of the German Nazis, suggesting that Cold War America has followed in Hitler’s footsteps in attempting to exterminate the Soviet Union and all it represents. If nothing else, this motif calls attention to the willingness of the United States to align itself with repressive right-wing regimes around the world in the effort to win support in the battle against communism during the Cold War. In addition, the film can, as Charles Maland notes, be read as a powerful critique of the “Ideology of Liberal Consensus” that was the dominant paradigm of American political life in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Still, the primary political orientation of the film is not procommunist, or even anti-American, but antimilitary, with the Soviet military leaders being at least as insane as the Americans in their blind pursuit of nuclear superiority.
The explosions at the end of Dr. Strangelove presumably mean the end of human civilization, and perhaps human life, on earth. But, in another sense, they signal the end of an era in post-holocaust fiction and film. They also signal the arrival of a full-blown postmodernism. After the postmodern turn of Dr. Strangelove, it would become increasingly difficult to produce post-holocaust films (and, to an extent, novels) with a straight face. In particular, after Kubrick’s definitive statement on the absurdity of the arms race, film could no longer effectively perform its established function of soothing and softening nuclear fear. Indeed, Disch argues that Dr. Strangelove itself was partly responsible for the dramatic downturn in nuclear fear among the American population from 1964 onward. Meanwhile, American society became more and more concerned with the war in Vietnam and with the domestic politics of the civil rights and women’s movements. The peak era of nuclear fear was at an end, though the Cold War (and the tensions that went along with it) would persist for another quarter of a century, infecting American attitudes about everything from literature to liberation, from cinema to sexuality, in ways that we have only just begun to understand.
The Ongoing Relevance of Dr. Strangelove
One reason why the absurdist craziness of Dr. Strangelove was effective satire when the film was released was because the attitudes it lampoons would have looked all too familiar to contemporary audiences, who had just lived through more than a decade of excessive anti-communist and anti-Soviet hysteria in Cold War America. Indeed, one of the aspects of the peak Cold War years is the extremity of American attitudes, which seemed to go so far beyondanti-American attitudes in the Soviet Union (or anti-Soviet attitudes in most of the rest of the West). The distinguished British historian Eric Hobsbawm has addressed this phenomenon, noting that the “apocalyptic tone” of American Cold War rhetoric was not shared anywhere else in the world. Further, Hobsbawm notes that, while America’s NATO allies were very much committed to resisting the spread of communism beyond the boundaries of the Soviet bloc, it was only America that was dedicated to the literal destruction of communism (236–37). If nothing else, the Nazi satire embedded in the title character of Dr. Strangelove suggests that Cold War America followed in Hitler’s footsteps in its determination to exterminate the Soviet Union and all it represents. The film certainlycaptures the vehemence of American anti-Soviet attitudes, and to that extent itis very much a film of the period in which it was initially produced. It was, after all, filmed less than a year after the October-November 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world closer to the brink of nuclear war than it had ever been.
The Cold War officially ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, though the world still contains more than enough nuclear weapons to bring about the kind of civilization-ending event that is described in Dr. Strangelove. Most of those weapons are still controlled either by the United States or by Russia, with China rapidly gaining ground, though concerns that the next nuclear attack might occur by a marginal actor remains strong. Meanwhile, the invasion of Ukraine by Russia in early 2022 has raised considerable fears that a Vladimir Putin-ruled Russia might pose a more serious threat than the relatively rational and responsible Soviet Union ever did.
Even aside from such ongoing concerns about the possibility of nuclear holocaust, though, Dr. Strangelove remains relevant in a number of ways. Perhaps the most important of these are, first, the ongoing prevalence in American society of paranoid modes of thinking similar to those that fueled Cold War hysteria in the United States and, second, the ongoing survival within American political thought of certain extreme right-wing, white supremacist ideas of the kind that propelled the German Nazis into genocidal and militarist expansionism. Recent events in American politics have shown both of these to be ongoing concerns with possibly disastrous potential.
Much attention has been paid recently to the prevalence of sometimes bizarre conspiracy theories in American politics, as even the most preposterous conspiracy theories have often found large groups of followers, leading to the “Birds Aren’t Real” parody conspiracy theory, in which numerous young people have expressed their contempt for the spread of conspiracy theories by developing a mock conspiracy theory designed to show just how ludicrous many popular conspiracy theories really are. In fact, though, such seemingly crazed theories have a long history in American politics, which has always been dogged by an anti-intellectual, anti-rational, right-wing fringe, a fringe that, unfortunately, has become more mainstream in recent years. In a famous essay, first delivered as a lecture at Oxford University in November 1963 (and thus roughly contemporaneous with Dr. Strangelove),the American historian Richard Hofstadter noted what he calls “the paranoid style in American politics,” citing numerous historical examples of widespread American conspiracy theories dating back to the late eighteenth century and culminating in the anticommunist hysteria of the peak Cold War years.
Dr. Strangelove very clearly reflects that anticommunist hysteria, which apparently has driven Ripper over the edge into murderous insanity. His most clearly delineated conspiracy theory, though, is one that might be very much at home in today’s political context—minus the centrality of communism (though communism still shows up surprisingly often in contemporary American right-wing political discourse, despite the fact that communism itself clearly poses no threat in contemporary America. Explaining the “reasoning” behind his launch of a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union to Mandrake, Ripper claims that communists drink only vodka and that they acidulously avoid drinking water, because the entire American water supply has been contaminated as part of a communist plot. Human beings, Ripper notes, “need fresh, pure water to replenish our precious bodily fluids,” then describes the fluoridation of water as a threat to these fluids and thus as the “most monstrously conceived and dangerous communist plot we have ever had to face.” As “evidence” of his theory, he tells Mandrake (inaccurately) that fluoridation first began in 1946, i.e., in the first year of the Cold War, which makes it “incredibly obvious” to him that fluoridation is a “postwar communist conspiracy.” Ripper also notes that he first realized the effects of fluoridation when he once felt extreme emptiness and fatigue after having sex, leading him to conclude that he was suffering from a “loss of essence,” though he ensures the British officer that the phenomenon has not recurred thanks to the precautions he has taken against consuming fluoridated water. He also notes that, when having relations with women, he takes precautions (whatever that might mean) to make sure that his “essence” is not shared with them. Ripper thus once again supplies a sexual dimension to his theory about fluoridation, which once again becomes a patriarchal (and rather misogynist) attitude that sees women as a potential danger that might weaken the masculine power of men.
Ripper’s theory, crazy as it sounds, was only a slight exaggeration of theories that were being circulated quite widely on the right-wing fringe of American politics at the time. With the fanatically anti-communist (and anti-government) John Birch Society leading the way, many on the right characterized the fluoridation of public water supplies as a communist (or perhaps just a government) conspiracy. But, as Hicks succinctly details (noting Ripper as a key example), there have long been those who suspected something sinister about the fluoridation of water, even without any evidence whatsoever.
There are still those today who are suspicious of fluoridated water, though such suspicions were much more widespread a few decades ago. In today’s terms, the closest thing to Cold War concerns over fluoridation would probably be recent conspiracy theories concerning the Covid-19 vaccines, which have been the subject of all sorts of bizarre theories (again, with no evidence whatsoever). For example, some people have nonsensically claimed that the vaccines were a government plot, designed to inject tracking devices into the veins of the general population so that the government could track their whereabouts (as if they couldn’t easily do that already with the cell phones and other devices that anti-vaxxers use to post their conspiracy theories on social media.
The importance of the German Nazis in Dr. Strangelove also remains surprisingly relevant in the 2020s. We should keep in mind that the 1964 release date of the film was less than two decades from a time when Adolf Hitler and his minions still posed an existential threat to Western liberal democracy, so the Nazi resonance was still rather fresh when the film was initially released. And, again, there is a real basis for the fact that Dr. Strangelove is so obviously a German Nazi. After all, more than 1,600 German Nazi scientists and engineers were gathered up by American forces in Operation Paperclip in the wake of World War II, then brought to America to assume positions of importance, especially in the defense industry. In terms of Dr. Strangelove, the most important of these imported Nazi scientists wasWernher von Braun, Germany’s top rocket scientist and the head of the program that developed the V-2 rockets that rained terror on London during the war. Peter Sellers has said that he specifically modeled his characterization of Strangelove on von Braun, who by 1964 had become a very high profile figure in America as the director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and as the head of the team that developed the rockets that propelled American astronauts to the moon.
Imported German scientists were also key to the final stages of the Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bombs that were eventually dropped on Japan at the end of World War II, and the characterization of Strangelove as a former Nazi (whose Nazi sympathies remain strong) had a satirical punch in 1964 that it perhaps lacks today. At the same time, recent events in American politics have seen a shocking re-emergence of extreme white supremacist views that, in 1964, would have been unthinkable. The iconic swastikas that were the most recognizable emblem of the Nazis have recently made a comeback among American right-wing groups and have been prominently displayed by such groups. The reminder in Dr. Strangelove that the apparatus of Nazi Germany was not simply extinguished in World War II but in some ways merged into postwar American society perhaps supplies a partial explanation for the fact that Nazi ideas remain alive in America more than 75 years after the end of the war. The fact that those ideas do remain alive reminds us that, while Sellers’ performance might be over the top, the inclusion of Nazism in the film’s satire was, and remains, well-motivated. This satire effectively suggests that certain congruences between American mainstream ideology and fascist ideology might help to explain the hysterical vehemence of American anticommunist and anti-Soviet ideas during the Cold War. Meanwhile, these congruences themselves suggest a partial explanation for the fact that some extreme elements in American society continue to find fascist ideas attractive in the third decade of the twenty-first century.
Booker, M. Keith. Monsters, Mushroom Clouds, and the Cold War: American Science Fiction and the Roots of Postmodernism, 1946–1964. Greenwood Press, 2001.
Disch, Thomas M. The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of: How Science Fiction Conquered the World. Free Press, 1998.
Henriksen, Margot A. Dr. Strangelove’s America: Society and Culture in the Atomic Age. University of California Press, 1997.
Hobsbawm, Eric. The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914–1991. Pantheon Books, 1994.
Hofstadter, Richard. “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays. Harvard University Press, 1996, pp. 3–40.
Maland, Chuck. “Dr. Strangelove (1964): Nightmare Comedy and the Ideology of Liberal Consensus.” Hollywood as Historian: American Film in a Cultural Context. Edited by Peter C. Rollins, University of Kentucky Press, 1998, pp. 190–210.
 That crisis still very much lives in Western cultural memory and has been reflected in a variety of works, perhaps the most striking of which is the 2000 film Thirteen Days, a film that attracted considerable critical attention, though it was not a box office success.
 After significant amounts of research in the 1940s demonstrated that the fluoridation of water was extremely effective in reducing the incidence of tooth decay, the fluoridation of public water supplies became the official recommendation of the U.S. Public health Service in 1951, making it very much a Cold War phenomenon, though it has become more and more widespread in the years after the end of the Cold War.