Dr. Strangelove Is Horrifyingly Relevant Again
Robert Brent Toplin is professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. He was also a professor at Denison University and has taught courses at the University of Virginia. Toplin has published several books that deal with history, politics, and film. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Dr. Strangelove, a dark comedy from 1964, is relevant to politics in 2017. The movie reminds us that an impulsive leader can push a nation into an unnecessary war. Dr. Strangelove shows a crazed U.S. military officer (General Ripper) mistaking an alert for the beginning of hostilities during the Cold War. The general calls for air strikes against the Soviet Union. When American and Soviet leaders try to prevent Armageddon, much goes wrong. Eventually the world is engulfed in mushroom clouds. Director Stanley Kubrick film poked fun at Cold War hysteria, but he also delivered a poignant message. Humanity is at risk when an emotionally unbalanced leader can signal a nuclear attack.
World leaders are currently worried about Kim Jong-un’s nuclear ambitions for North Korea, but they are anxious, too, about President Donald Trump’s confrontational approach when dealing with the North Koreans’ bombs and missiles. At various times, the American president reacted to provocations with aggressive rhetoric. Trump said there is a chance of a “major, major conflict” if North Korea does not curb its nuclear ambitions. He declared the era of strategic patience with North Korea “is over.” In response to a long-range missile firing, the President assured Americans, “We’ll handle North Korea . . . It will be handled.” Trump acts like he will not accept a continued nuclear and missile buildup by Kim Jong-un, yet the Korean dictator shows no sign of letting up. President Trump and officials in his administration say a military option remains on the table.
Kim Jong-un acts like he is playing hardball, too. His Korean Central News Agency warned, “There is no bigger mistake than the United States believing that its land is safe across the ocean.” The organization said the United States will “pay dearly for all its heinous crimes” if it commits aggression. Within days, President Trump reacted, saying, “They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” Diplomats are alarmed because leaders in the United States and North Korea have been ramping up verbal threats in recent weeks. On August 7, the Washington Post reported that Asian leaders were “racing to find a way to tap down a standoff that is growing more entrenched and dangerous by the day.”
Some American pundits believe President Trump’s macho language aims to benefit negotiations with North Korea rather than create a rationale for military intervention. Occasionally the President takes a less belligerent stand, they note. Trump said he would be “honored” to meet Kim Jong-un under the “right circumstances.” The Trump administration may tolerate problems when dealing with North Korea, as previous administrations have done. Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama tried a variety of strategies that included warnings and negotiations. Their diplomacy produced a few small achievements but failed to halt North Korea’s long-term military buildup. Trump offers more bluster than the other presidents, but his policies may not differ substantially. The Trump administration is pinning hopes on UN sanctions and help from North Korea’s powerful neighbor, China. Perhaps Trump and his team will continue to apply pressure but avoid a call to arms.
Bellicose language may complicate efforts to resolve a crisis, however. It is a factor in Dr. Strangelove. Scenes of the Pentagon’s War Roomshow the American President and his advisers dealing with an emergency. They have only a few hours to prevent nuclear holocaust. But an excitable U.S. general, “Buck” Turgidson (comically and brilliantly played by George C. Scott) takes a belligerent stand. When the Soviet ambassador visits the War Room to help defuse the crisis, Turgidson observes the Russian’s picture-taking and denounces the “commie rat.” A fight breaks out between the Soviet ambassador and Turgidson. The President scolds them, “Gentlemen. You can’t fight in here. This is the War Room!” When nuclear devastation seems inevitable, Turgidson recommends quick action to secure American dominance in the aftermath. This unhinged general’s language and behavior reveal a dangerously hawkish mentality.
In present-day Washington, D.C., it is not a crazed general that has many Americans worried; it is the President of the United States. Senator Jeff Flake (Republican from Arizona) addresses some of these concerns in a new book, Conscience of a Conservative. Flake says Trump exhibits “erratic” and “impulsive” behavior that is “reckless, outrageous, and undignified.” Several journalists have drawn attention to the President’s combative responses to news reports about meetings with Russians and possible collusion associated with the 2016 presidential election. They wonder how Trump will react if special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation applies much greater legal pressure. Trump might attempt a bold initiative in foreign affairs to deflect public attention from his troubled presidency.
These journalists are aware of a related pressure-cooker situation years ago that aroused concern about a president’s fitness for military command. In 1974 Richard Nixon seemed dangerously unstable during his final days in the White House. Defense Secretary James Schlesinger secretly informed leaders of the U.S. armed forces that they should not authorize nuclear strikes without Schlesinger’s confirmation and approval from Henry Kissinger. That order was unconstitutional but apparently wise in view of Nixon’s mental state. The Watergate scandal was destroying Nixon’s reputation, and officials worried that the President might try something extraordinary. Nixon could order military action to deflect public attention from his troubles or seek ways to look strong at a time of personal weakness.
If Donald Trump’s behavior turns more unsettling as investigations continue by the special counsel, the FBI, the Congress and the news media, Vladimir Putin could seize an opportunity. The Russian President might send troops into Ukraine and Eastern Europe. In that emergency, with a seemingly paralyzed executive branch, Washington officials might find it difficult to respond quickly and forcefully.
A scenario involving Putin’s aggression would be dangerous for the United States and Europe, but a more immediate threat relates to North Korea. A military escalation with Kim Jong-un’s regime could trigger missile firings by the United States and North Korea. Thousands of people in South Korea, Japan, and other countries could be endangered as well as many in North Korea and the United States. Dr. Strangelove, a dark comedy of the Cold War, has something to say about this threat. The movie reminds audiences that in the nuclear age humanity is in jeopardy when bellicose leaders promote confrontation rather than communication and negotiation.