It’s the fiftieth anniversary of the release of one of my favourite films – Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Described by the director as a satire about a ‘nuclear Wise Man’, it was co-written by Peter George, the British author of the 1958 novel on which the film is based, Red Alert, published under his pen name, Peter Bryant. In Britain the novel was called Two Hours to Doom.
Kubrick read George’s thriller in October 1961, the month Soviet scientists tested the largest nuclear bomb ever detonated. On 30 October at 08.30 GMT, scientists in Europe detected what was described as ‘the biggest man-made explosion on record’. Newsweek described the superbomb as ‘Khrushchev’s monster’. On an aerial photo of Manhattan Island, the magazine mapped the extent of its awesome destructive power. The bomb had a yield of at least 50 megatons. It would blast a crater at least a mile wide and would level buildings up to ten miles from ground zero. New York with its proud skyscrapers would be reduced to a radioactive wasteland.
Later, scientists said that the Russians had modified the bomb for the test; if it was ever used in war it would explode with a force of 100 megatons. The Hiroshima bomb was a mere 12.5 kilotons. The Soviets nicknamed their superweapon the Tsar Bomba, ‘King of Bombs’. Andrei Sakharov, who designed it under direct orders from Khrushchev, called it simply the Big Bomb. The detonation of the Tsar Bomba made Kubrick even more determined to make a movie about nuclear war. He had become obsessed with the subject.
Kubrick and George’s film was well received when it was finally released in January 1964 – the press screening of Dr Strangelove was originally due to take place on 22 November 1963, the day of President Kennedy’s assassination. The New York Times panned the movie as a ‘shattering sick joke’. But Sight and Sound said it demonstrated how ‘power politics have become a Frankenstein monster which one little error can send out of control’. Their critic praised it as ‘the most hilariously funny and the most nightmarish film of the year’. For the New Statesman it was a ‘mesmeric’ film that set out ‘to create its own category or genre.’ Despite Peregrine Worsthorne in the Sunday Telegraph likening Kubrick’s portrayal of Americans to Soviet propaganda, the film was hugely popular with moviegoers who ‘ringed the block’ at the Columbia cinema in London. The cinema even had to put on special late screenings at 11 p.m. each night. Ticket sales were 25 per cent higher than for any other film the Columbia had shown, and The Times reported that ‘all house records have been broken’.
Of course, it is the figure of the mad scientist, Dr Strangelove, that has helped make the film so memorable. Peter Sellers succeeds wonderfully in fusing together the traits of the real-life, and indeed fictional, figures on which he is based. Through the alchemy of film-making, Kubrick and Sellers created cinematic gold in the figure of Dr Strangelove.
The so-called father of the H-Bomb Edward Teller, Hitler’s rocket pioneer Wernher von Braun and the hawkish, wheel-chair-bound mathematician John von Neumann were all key players in the sciences of destruction. The references to Peenemünde and the concentration camps in the film’s novelization make it abundantly clear that von Braun was Peter George’s main model for Dr Strangelove. However, his words are those of the man who had worked with and admired both Teller and von Neumann: Herman Kahn, the physicist and futurologist who popularized the idea of the doomsday machine. He was the personification of the military intellectual – detached and coldly rational. Like the four riders of the apocalypse, these figures come together in the unforgettable character of Dr Strangelove, the ultimate doomsday man.
For the historian and cultural commentator Lewis Mumford, responding to the New York Times’ panning of the film, Kubrick’s masterstroke was to make Dr Strangelove ‘the central symbol of this scientifically organized nightmare of mass extermination’. For Mumford, the tragedy of the age they were living in was eloquently expressed by the manic figure of this fanatical rationalist:
‘This nightmare eventuality that we have concocted for our children is nothing but a crazy fantasy, by nature as horribly crippled and dehumanized as Dr Strangelove himself.’
He concluded by hailing Kubrick’s film as ‘the first break in the catatonic cold-war trance that has so long held our country in its rigid grip.’
Mumford was absolutely right to identify Kubrick’s film as a crucial moment in the culture of the cold war. For people all over the world, Dr Strangelove soon came to personify the sinister alliance of science and power politics that made it possible to annihilate millions at the touch of a button. Dr Strangelove’s logic could transform acts of inhumanity into practical solutions, his rhetoric clothed barbarity in sweet words of reason, and his think tanks – such as the ‘Bland Corporation’ (an allusion to Herman Kahn’s RAND Corporation) – used computers to transform lives into numbers. For numbers, as Kahn once said, are something you can think the unthinkable about.
Dr Strangelove ends with an awesome display of mushroom clouds erupting across the face of the earth, as the cobalt bombs of the Soviet doomsday machine explode. News footage of H-bomb tests is accompanied by British forces’ favourite Vera Lynn singing ‘We’ll Meet Again’. The brutal reality – fully understood by the film’s audience in 1964 – was that there would be no reunions after World War III.
The age of saviour scientists and winning weapons – familiar themes in the popular culture of the first half of the 20th century – was dead. Nuclear war in the age of the Tsar Bomba could have only one outcome: mutual annihilation. It was exactly this point that the pioneering nuclear scientist Leo Szilard had made during a radio broadcast in February 1950, when he first conjured up the spectre of the cobalt bomb, a weapon that could destroy life on Earth. It was this idea that Peter George later used in Red Alert.
In the 1960s, a new generation began to reject a life reduced to numbers and to look for answers beyond science and rationality. This generation no longer felt comfortable with the easy post-war certainties that their parents had accepted without question. For those who grew up in an age haunted by the Strangelovean cobalt bomb, the old ways of looking at the world seemed to lead to a dead end – to doomsday.
There’s another 50th anniversary this year, and that’s the death on 30 May 1964 of Leo Szilard. He was a brilliant though often infuriating man, bursting with original ideas on everything from science to politics and even fiction. He was, said one colleague, the greatest scientist never to have won a Nobel prize.
In 1933, while walking down Southampton Row in London he had seen how a self-sustaining atomic chain reaction could lead to an explosive release of nuclear energy. A close friend of Albert Einstein (they even designed a refrigerator together), it was Szilard who encouraged the great physicist to write to President Roosevelt in August 1939 warning of the possibility that Nazi Germany might develop an atomic superweapon. Leo Szilard was inspired by a utopian vision of how science and scientists could transform the world, but he was also haunted by a fear of how people might misuse this power. His life epitomizes the glories and follies of twentieth-century science and history.
I told the remarkable story of Leo Szilard and his nuclear hopes and fears, examined through the lens of popular culture, in my book Doomsday Men published seven years ago. I think it remains relevant, both as an exploration of our ambivalence towards science and scientists, and as a history of weapons of mass destruction. Today, cold-war tensions may have faded from the public mind and the media may be preoccupied with global warming, but the weapons are still out there, and the doomsday men are still at work developing new ones.
Few if any authors write for the money. I do it because I love books – both reading them and writing them. Doomsday Men and my last book, City: A Guidebook for the Urban Age, took at least three years to research and write. The book I’m now working on – a cultural history of crime, detectives and cities – will also take at least that long. Nowadays advances from publishers are extremely modest (I’m being polite; stronger words occur to me). You couldn’t live on them for a year, let alone three. I’m not an academic, so I scrape a living together by reviewing and editing.
There’s a lot of talk nowadays about crowdfunding new books and arts projects. That’s fine but the best way I know of supporting an author whose work you enjoy is to buy their books, and that includes their backlist too. So if you’ve enjoyed reading this brief post, which of course is based on what I wrote in my book Doomsday Men, then you might like to consider reading the whole book.
You can buy absurdly cheap copies of it now on Amazon (I don’t know who profits from these; certainly not the author) or if you really want to support me and my writing you might like to consider buying the e-book. You can buy it direct from Penguin (ePub) or from Amazon in the UK (Kindle), or Barnes & Noble (Nook) in the US.
Thank you for reading. Now go and watch Kubrick’s amazing film!