Stanley Kubrick’s black comic masterpiece, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb opens in theaters to both critical and popular acclaim. The movie’s popularity was evidence of changing attitudes toward atomic weapons and the concept of nuclear deterrence.
The movie focused on the actions of a rogue U.S. officer who believes that communists are threatening the “precious bodily fluids” of Americans. Without authorization, he issues orders to U.S. bombers to launch atomic attacks against the Soviet Union. When it becomes evident that some of the bombers may actually drop their atomic payloads, American President Merkin Muffley frantically calls his Soviet counterpart. The Russian leader informs Muffley that an atomic attack on the Soviet Union will automatically unleash the terrible “doomsday machine,” which will snuff out all life on the planet. Muffley’s chief foreign policy advisor, Dr. Strangelove, reassures the president and chief officials that all is not lost: they can, he posits, survive even the doomsday machine by retreating to deep mineshafts.
Close scrutiny of the Dr. Strangelove character indicated that he was probably a composite of three people: Henry Kissinger, then a political scientist who had written about nuclear deterrence strategy; Edward Teller, a key scientist in the development of the hydrogen bomb; and Wernher von Braun, the German scientist who was a leading figure in missile technology.
Little scrutiny was needed, however, to grasp Kubrick’s satirical attacks on the American and Russian policies of nuclear stockpiling and massive retaliation. The film’s jabs at some of the sacred core beliefs of America’s defense strategy struck a chord with the American people. Particularly after the frightening Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962—when nuclear annihilation seemed a very real possibility—the American public was increasingly willing to question the nation’s reliance on nuclear weapons.