It’s The End Of The World..And I Feel Fine Elspeth Wilson Politics & Film Final Paper December 15, 2000 It’s the End of the World ..
and I Feel Fine! (The role of intellectuals in the creation and justification of nuclear weapons.) 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.e. 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 Strangelo …