"Dr. Strangelove," Stanley Kubrick's 1964 film about nuclear-war plans run amok, is widely heralded as one of the greatest satires in American political or movie history... "Strangelove" is far more than a satire. In its own loopy way, the movie is a remarkably fact-based and specific guide to some of the oddest, most secretive chapters of the Cold War. As countless histories relate, Mr. Kubrick set out to make a serious film based on a grim novel, "Red Alert," by Peter George, a Royal Air Force officer. But the more research he did (reading more than 50 books, talking with a dozen experts), the more lunatic he found the whole subject, so he made a dark comedy instead... What few people knew, at the time and since, was just how accurate this film was. Its premise, plotline, some of the dialogue, even its wildest characters eerily resembled the policies, debates and military leaders of the day. The audience had almost no way of detecting these similiarities:Nearly everything about the bomb was shrouded in secrecy back then. There was no Freedom of Information Act and little investigative reporting on the subject. It was easy to laugh off "Dr. Strangelove" as a comic book.
But film's weird accuracy is evident in its very first scene, in which a deranged base commander, preposterously named Gen. Jack D. Ripper (played by Sterling Hayden), orders his wing of B-52 bombers - which are on routine airborne alert, circling a "fail-safe point" just outside the Soviet border - to attack their targets inside the U.S.S.R. with multimegaton bombs. Once the pilots receive the order, they can't be diverted unless they receive a coded recall message. And only General Ripper has the code. The remarkable thing is, the fail-safe system that General Ripper exploits was the real, top-secret fail-safe system at the time. According to declassified Strategic Air Command histories, 12 B-52's - fully loaded with nuclear bombs - were kept on constant airborne alert. If they received a Go code, they went to war. This alert system, known as Chrome Dome, began in 1961. It ended in 1968, after a B-52 crashed in Greenland, spreading small amounts of radioactive fallout.
But until then, could some loony general have sent bombers to attack Russia without a presidential order? Yes. ...But were there generals who might really have taken such power in their own hands? It was no secret - it would have been obvious to many viewers in 1964 - that General Ripper looked a lot like Curtis LeMay, the cigar-chomping, gruff-talking general who headed the Strategic Air Command through the 1950's and who served as the Pentagon's Air Force Chief of Staff in the early 60's.In 1957 Robert Sprague, the director of a top-secret panel, warned General LeMay that the entire fleet of B-52 bombers was vulnerable to attack. General LeMay was unfazed. "If I see that the Russians are amassing their planes for an attack,'' he said, "I'm going to knock the [expletive] out of them before they take off the ground.""But General LeMay," Mr. Sprague replied, "that's not national policy." "I don't care," General LeMay said. "It's my policy. That's what I'm going to do."
...When Dr. Strangelove talks of sheltering people in mineshafts, President Muffley asks him, "Wouldn't this nucleus of survivors be so grief-stricken and anguished that they'd, well, envy the dead?" Strangelove exclaims that, to the contrary, many would feel "a spirit of bold curiosity for the adventure ahead."Mr. Kahn's book contains a long chapter on mineshafts. Its title: "Will the Survivors Envy the Dead?" One sentence reads: "We can imagine a renewed vigor among the population with a zealous, almost religious dedication to reconstruction."
Those in the know watched "Dr. Strangelove" amused, like everyone else, but also stunned. Daniel Ellsberg, who later leaked the Pentagon Papers, was a RAND analyst and a consultant at the Defense Department when he and a mid-level official took off work one afternoon in 1964 to see the film. Mr. Ellsberg recently recalled that as they left the theater, he turned to his colleague and said, "That was a documentary!"
Fred Kaplan is the author of "The Wizards of Armageddon," a history of the nuclear strategists.