Fail Safe and Dr. Strangelove, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

In Fail Safe and Dr. Strangelove, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, Sidney Lumet and Stanley Kubrick question the relationship between technology and humanity by emphasizing mankind’s tendency to create machines that cannot be adequately controlled. By blatantly revealing the absurdity of game theory (Mutual Assured Destruction as a reasonable deterrence for nuclear war), both directors call into question the dominant pro-Cold War American ideology. One of the most quintessential aspects of this ideology includes the drive for constant technological advance and strategic superiority.

Without the brainpower of the scientists and intellectuals who dedicated their lives to the extension of technological power and the study of international conflict, the Arms Race would certainly not have been possible. These academics not only became the architects of atomic weapons but they were also faced with justifying the use of these nuclear bombs, and creating a theoretical framework within which nuclear warfare might be appropriately (and rationally) conducted. Within this context, one noteworthy parallel between Fail Safe and Dr.

Strangelove is the existence (in both films) of a single intellectual genius that actively perpetuates the “science” of nuclear advancement and strategy. Indeed, through the characterizations of Professor Groeteschele and Dr. Strangelove, both Lumet and Kubrick examine the prominent role of intellectuals (both scientists and theorists) in the creation and justification of nuclear warfare. Ultimately, both Lumet and Kubrick reveal the problems with relying solely on science and mathematics to resolve international conflict, thus suggesting that modern warfare requires a more humanistic, ethical definition of right and wrong.

Both Fail Safe and Dr Strangelove serve as moralizing responses to the dominant American Cold War culture, rhetoric, and political policy. In his article titled “Dr. Strangelove (1964): Nightmare Comedy and the ideology of Liberal Consensus,” Charles Maland identifies the dominant American cultural paradigm (during the Cold War) as “the Ideology of the Liberal Consensus. ” Maland maintains that the Ideology of the Liberal Consensus first developed as the American people began to feel increasingly threatened by the rise and spread of Communism.

After World War II, this cultural paradigm solidified, taking “on an intellectual coherence of its own. ” Indeed, the logic behind this paradigm involved two widely accepted principles: (1)“The structure of American society is basically sound. ” (2)“Communism is a clear danger to the survival of the United States and its allies. ” From the combination of these assumptions, emerged a new definition of Americanism that was predicated upon the concepts of democracy, capitalism, and general material abundance.

However, in order to satisfy the demands of this new Americanism, the United States needed to “struggle against Communism and willingly support a strong defense system…for power is the only language that the Communists can understand. ” Because the maintenance of a superior defense system required frequent technological advancement, physicists, chemists, and other scientists became necessary members of government/military research teams.

In addition to the so-called hard scientists, theorists and strategic experts were needed in order to make informed and rational decisions about the circumstances under which the new technological devices (i. e. nuclear weapons) should be used. This emerging Cold War cultural paradigm was both created by and gave birth to a new breed of academic—the ‘nuclear-intellectual. ’ Because technology, nuclear science, and war strategy became such an integral part of the definition of American culture and security, the scientists and the theoreticians that participated in this ‘nuclear culture’ achieved political prominence.

These academics not designed advanced killing-machines, but they were also employed to create a new theoretical framework that rationally justified the use of nuclear weapons in specific confrontations. Thus, both the hard-scientists and the game-theorists became an integral part of the Cold War culture, supplying the country with two vital ingredients (both the machinery and the rhetoric) necessary for the creation of a new American ideology (based on democracy, capitalism, societal complacency, and soviet paranoia etc. ).

Because of the unique role of intellectuals in the initial formulation of the ideology, principles, and technology behind the “liberal consensus,” any work that seeks to criticize the Cold War system (the arms race and the subsequent cultural acceptance of it), ought to include academics and scientists in its representation of the problems of the ideological status quo. Therefore, it is no surprise that both Fail Safe and Dr. Strangelove each include an intellectual government advisor—a representative of the new ‘nuclear intellectual’ group.

Each movie shows how intellectuals are both the architects of killing devices and also help to foster a general climate of destruction through game theory ideology. Thus, a prominent (albeit subtle) theme of each film is the criticism of the involvement of intellectuals in the “art of war. ” The rather negative portrayal of both Professor Groeteschele and Dr. Strangelove reveals the skepticism that Lumet and Kubrick share about the new group of “nuclear intellectuals. ”

There were two specific types of intellectuals involved in nuclear strategy and national defense: (1) the scientists who strove to create new, better, and more lethal war machines and (2) the theoreticians whose job it was to use game theory to create theoretical frameworks that both justified and shed light upon the use of advanced killing machines (like nuclear weapons). While both types of intellectuals had fundamentally different fields of expertise, in both cases, the intellectuals strove to find ways to win wars—to satisfy the goal of game theory (i. . maximize wins and minimize losses). This description applies to both Professor Groeteschele and Dr. Strangelove—In Fail Safe, Professor Groeteschele uses game theory to weigh the likely wins and losses in possible nuclear confrontations, continuously striving to uncover the most advantageous outcome for the United States; In Dr. Strangelove, Strangelove fanatically strives to create more efficient and lethal technology, basing the projects he chooses to pursue on rational outcome and game theory.

Individually, the characters reveal a great deal about the specific film in which they appear. Indeed, in both films, the accident that occurs happens outside the expertise or jurisdiction of the intellectual. Rather than something going wrong with one of Dr. Strangelove’s nuclear devices, a human-based error occurs, which triggers the secret Soviet Doomsday device—a tactical error on the part of the Russians. Likewise, in Fail Safe, Professor Groeteschele is never truly proven wrong.

Instead of making a terrible tactical or theoretical miscalculation, the rules of the game are completely changed for the Professor after a glitch in the new supercomputer. By focusing on accidents outside the expertise of the intellectual, each film reveals that no matter how accurate scientific theory is, it cannot necessarily encompass all that it must when the stakes of “the game” have become so great (i. e. the loss of New York City, Moscow, and perhaps the entire world).

Through the character of Dr. Strangelove, Kubrick introduces the concept of the modern ‘mad scientist’ (the crazed nuclear architect). By naming the film after a character with so little airtime, Kubrick suggests that Strangelove occupies an essential, but also less prominent, background role in the planning and execution of nuclear warfare. Indeed, Strangelove designs and constructs the weapons of war. While there is little public glory to this job, clearly it is absolutely essential to nuclear confrontation. Scientists like Dr. Strangelove make nuclear catastrophe possible.

While Kubrick has gone to great lengths to make his film a comedy, he specifically exaggerates recognizable political/military personalities and possibilities—thus enabling him to explore and criticize the “new, Cold War Americanism. ” Dr. Strangelove plays a prominent role in this parody of reality. Indeed, despite his minimal airtime, Strangelove is designed to embody the quintessential nuclear scientist of the Cold War. Maland notes that “the creators seem to have taken a great deal of care in creating Strangelove as a composite of a number of pundits in the new ‘science’ of nuclear strategy. Strangelove represents a bizarre juxtaposition of four of the most infamous nuclear scientists and strategists that dominated the profession during the height of the Cold War—Edward Teller, Henry Kissinger, Herman Kahn, and Werner Von Braun.

Of all these scientists, the comparison between Strangelove and Edward Teller is probably the most provocative: “Not only was Teller involved in the creation of the atomic bomb, but he was also a strong anti-Communist who pushed hard for the development of the much more powerful hydrogen bomb in 1949 and 1950. Teller, who was notoriously passionate about the explosive properties of physical matter, would have likely shared Strangelove’s twisted excitement about the awesome power required for the destruction of the world. Another interesting comparison is that between Strangelove and Henry Kissenger: Strangelove’s own “definition of deterrence—the art of producing in the mind of the enemy the fear to attack you—sounds remarkably like the definition Kissinger offered in his Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy (1957).

Strangelove’s nuclear rhetoric is also very similar to that of Herman Kahn, who discusses the very topic of a Doomsday device in his book, On Thermonuclear War—like Strangelove, Kahn concludes that a Doomsday device would not be a rational deterrent because it could not be controllable. Finally, like the infamous Werner Von Braun, Strangelove seems to have significant, high level connections with Nazi Germany (i. e. “mein Fhrer”), and similarly care little about what side of the battle he is on. Dr. Strangelove represents scientific obsession; Strangelove is brilliant and thrives of the application and success of his own genius. However, his role as the Director of Weapons Research is done not out of a feeling of duty to America or even out of a dislike of the USSR, rather he applies his brilliance out of narcissism, an erotic passion for nuclear power, and a love of the “game” of war.

Dr. Strangelove’s indifference to the country and president he serves is revealed at the very end of the film when he becomes so carried away in his excitement about the destruction of the world that he confuses the President with “mein Fhrer. While clearly implying that Strangelove was once a prominent Nazi who had personal contact with Hitler, I do not believe that this ejaculation means that he is still deep down a Nazi or even harbors a particular alliance to Hitler. Instead, Strangelove’s accidental digression into the past, suggests his excitement for war and destructive power. Not since World War II, when he served Hitler, has Strangelove experienced so much destructive power concentrated all at once.

As a man that is part machine, Strangelove is essentially ‘turned-on’ by the electric charge released from so many atomic bombs—thus, at the very end of the film; he is able to walk again. As a critique on the scientists involved in the creation and improvement of nuclear technology, the Strangelove character is a damning statement. Indeed, while Strangelove himself is not identified as “the enemy” in the film, he is clearly the creator of the true “enemy”—the nuclear bomb.

Furthermore, Strangelove is an amoral character that seems to lack any remote semblance of an ethical code of conduct. As a scientist and a strategist, Strangelove is a calculating machine whose job is only to maximize wins and minimize losses during war. Thus, the fact that Strangelove creates machines, reasons like a machine (solely through rational numerical formulism), and has literally become a physical manifestation of a machine, implies that the scientists involved in nuclear armerment must give up much of their humanity during their quest to create perfect war machines.

There are two different types of academics that played essential roles in the Cold War—the hard-scientists (like Strangelove) and the theoreticians (like Groeteschele). While Dr. Strangelove creates the weapons of destruction, Professor Groeteschele strives to provide a theoretical framework that justifies the use of such “killing devices. ” Indeed, Groeteschele is obsessed with game theory and nuclear strategy. By definition, the purpose of game theory is to maximize one’s wins and minimize one’s losses through abstract mathematical formulism.

Such formulism must involve numerical calculations made by mutually informed players competing against each other (each with imperfect information about the capabilities or intent of the other). This method of strategy was extremely popular during the Cold War and remains a significant method of strategic theory. Through this form of theorizing and calculation, Groeteschele strives both to deter the Russians from attacking (and, in the case of attack, to maximize the American wins).

The relationship between the game theory of Groeteschele and the machines of Strangelove is particularly provocative. Indeed, both methods of strategy involve abstract formulism—measuring human life on purely numeric terms. Both nuclear warheads and game theory are void of morality or value, reducing both human life and weapons of mass destruction to the level of artificial tokens that are consistently applied and measured against theoretical outcomes. Thus, the role of Professor Groeteschele is that of a calculating machine, and as such a ‘machine,’ Groeteschele, like Strangelove, lacks humanity.

While this lack of humanity manifests itself physically in Strangelove, it dominates the psychology of Groeteschele, who generally abandons emotion for cold rationality. Groeteschele’s abandonment of his own humanity for the maintenance of his rational faade reveals his obsession with being the perfect game-player. Interestingly, Groeteschele, unlike Strangelove, does not care about the beauty of nuclear warfare or the energy it releases, to him, bombs merely represent the tools a nation must employ in order to win “the game” against the enemy.

As a man whose job is to advise politicians when they should commit “mass-murder” and how many people they should try to kill, Groeteschele must mutate his impression of his enemy into something less than human. Indeed, in order to justify the destruction of the Soviet peoples, the Professor has to develop his own myth that the Russians are actually truly rational, calculating Game players (i. e. the perfect opponent). By convincing himself of this, Groeteschele is able to view the Soviets as merely being instruments of calculation and abstract formalism, rather than human beings.

Indeed, in defense of his argument that the Americans should strike first so that the Russians will concede, Groetechele states that the Russians are “Marxist-fanatics, not normal people…they don’t reason the way you reason, they’re not motivated by human emotions such as rage and pity…they are calculating machines, they will look at the balance sheet, and they will see that they cannot win. [and] the Russians will surrender. In the previous statement, Groetechele reveals much more about himself than about the Russians: his own religious-like adherence to rational game theory has allowed him to nurture a dangerously nave view of the contemporary world.

Clearly, the Russians are human beings, and as human beings, they are sometimes motivated by human emotions. Fail Safe is essentially a film against the art of deterrence and game theory. Lumet’s first criticism of game theory occurs when the machine malfunctions (due to new Russian interference technology).

In a “game” in which both players are wielding weapons of mass destruction, Lumet suggests that rational prediction cannot always prevent confrontation through deterrence theory. Indeed, the fact that the machine’s error escaped Groeteschele’s original calculations weakens the validity of game theory. Furthermore, in game theory, the informed players rarely have a complete picture of the capabilities or intent of their enemies. Because of this, tragic and irrational mistakes can be made. Lumet’s most damning critique of Groeteschele and his rhetoric of rational destruction comes from the voice of General Black.

Indeed, Blackie realizes that both Americans and Russians are human beings, and that rather than trying to destroy Russia for the sake of preserving American culture, we should seek to preserve humanity in general: “You know what your saying—Justifying murder, in the name of what…to preserve what? Even if we do survive, what gives us the right? Are we better than what we say they are…what gives us the right to live then? What makes us worth surviving, when we are ruthless enough to strike first—fighting for your life isn’t the same as murder! While there is no such thing as morality when it comes to rational choice, general Black suggests that deeply held morality and a respect for life should transcend rationality and the quest for economic and political supremacy. While Groeteschele makes decisions through maximizing the ratio of gain to loss, Blackie relies on his personal ethical code. Emerging as both a martyr and a hero, Blackie is willing to take responsibility and sacrifice his life for a mistake that he adamantly tried to prevent.

The dichotomy between General Black’s sincere morality and Groeteschele’s rational indifference to moral principles reveals Lumet’s intolerance of amorality. Ultimately, Lumet suggests that large-scale warfare (with such high stakes) cannot be reduced to any type of abstract formalism—machine or human. Instead, contemporary warfare must operate under a code of ethics that respects human life and international differences. Mr. Lumet’s pacifistic comment in the beginning of the film seems to most accurately represent the underlying message of fail Safe: “In a nuclear war, everyone losses, war isn’t what it used to be.

Both Fail Safe and Dr. Strangelove explore the new (Cold War) American ideology from the standpoint of an accidental nuclear disaster. By blatantly revealing the absurdity of game theory (particularly Mutual Assured Destruction as an adequate deterrence for war), Kubrick and Lumet call into question the dominant pro-armerment American ideology. In order to examine the entire macrocosm of possible nuclear disasters, both directors choose to include a character that embodies the contemporary ‘nuclear intellectual. Indeed, scientists and theoreticians (like Groeteschele and Strangelove) played a prominent role in defining and perpetuating the new Cold War culture.

These academics not only became the architects of nuclear bombs but they were also faced with creating a viable theoretical framework within which the use of these weapons would be both recommended and justified. However, both Kubrick and Lumet suggest that in order to apply their brilliance towards mass destruction and death, intellectuals must give up a portion of their humanity, becoming increasingly more like the devices they create and defend.

The mutual catastrophes that occur in Fail Safe and Dr. Strangelove show the inevitability of human weakness and scientific fallibility. Through the development of Professor Groeteschele and Dr. Strangelove, both Lumet and Kubrick illustrate the catastrophic possibilities of relying solely on science and mathematics to resolve international conflicts. Ultimately, modern, high stake warfare requires a more humanistic, ethical code of right and wrong.


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