Film class — week 11

3 November 2006, 1935 EST

Film #11 “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” (1964). We viewed it Tuesday.

Readings for Thursday: Lee Butler, “The Risks of Nuclear Deterrence: From Superpowers to Rogue Leaders” National Press Club, February 2, 1998.

Keir A. Lieber and Daryl G. Press, “The Rise of U.S. Nuclear Primacy,” Foreign Affairs, March/April 2006.

“Dr. Strangelove” is one of my all-time favorite films and its powerful 40-year old critique of American nuclear deterrence strategy continues to resonate today — even though the cold war is over and contemporary nuclear delivery technologies are much more accurate and deadly.

In the 1998 speech noted above, retired Air Force General Lee Butler — who served as commander-in-chief of the Strategic Air Command — argues that the comical and absurd premises of “Dr. Strangelove” were all too real throughout the cold war:

I was present at the creation of many of these systems, directly responsible for prescribing and justifying the requirements and technology that made them possible. I saw the arms race from the inside, watched as intercontinental ballistic missiles ushered in mutual assured destruction and multiple warhead missiles introduced genuine fear of a nuclear first strike. I participated in the elaboration of basing schemes that bordered on the comical and force levels that in retrospect defied reason. I was responsible for war plans with over 12,000 targets, many struck with repeated nuclear blows, some to the point of complete absurdity.

Butler adds that American nuclear retaliation against post-cold war threats is “inconceivable;” deterrence itself “serves the ends of evil.”

Given the “stakes of miscalculation” or “of crisis spun out of control,” some of which are emphasized in the film classic, Butler arrived at “a set of deeply unsettling judgements” about nuclear deterrence:

That from the earliest days of the nuclear era, the risks and consequences of nuclear war have never been properly weighed by those who brandished it. That the stakes of nuclear war engage not just the survival of the antagonists, but the fate of mankind. That the likely consequences of nuclear war have no politically, militarily or morally acceptable justification. And therefore, that the threat to use nuclear weapons is indefensible.

Butler’s call for a “reasoned path toward abolition” of nuclear weapons was affirmed by 60 retired generals and admirals, as well as more than 100 current and former heads of state and other senior civilian leaders. See the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons for a report in defense of this conclusion.

Lieber and Press make an argument about nuclear strategy that has been discussed previously here at the Duck of Minerva. Essentially, these scholars warn that the American force posture has nearly achieved nuclear primacy against both Russia and China, which is political science jargon that means a viable first-strike capability.

In the film, of course, General Buck Turgidson makes an argument for launching an “all out and coordinated” nuclear attack against the Soviet Union in the midst of the crisis featured in the film. He considers 20 million dead Americans, killed in response to this action, “modest and acceptable civilian casualties.”

Lieber and Press note that the original US nuclear primacy ended about the time “Dr. Strangelove” was made. But because of American techological advancements as well as deterioration in Russian capability, the US may now be able to “think the unthinkable” again.

In “Dr. Strangelove” and in Butler’s account of the cold war, the risk of any nuclear war is doomsday. Lieber and Press worry that American nuclear primacy might invite “crisis instability,” which means that Russian and Chinese leaders might be forced to use their limited nuclear arsenals in any crisis situation. It would be a case of “use ’em or lose ’em,” as was often discussed during the cold war.

A relatively small nuclear strike launched by Russia or China might not invite the doomsday scenario of mutual suicide feared (and perversely, revered) during the cold war, but it would trigger an unprecedented catastrophe.

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