Column: Dr. Strangelove Meets the Bush Administration





Mr. Carpenter is a writer and doctoral candidate in American history at the University of Illinois.

"He went and did a silly thing." Thus spoke President Merkin Muffley in 1964 to the Soviet Premier in a delicate attempt to explain that Air Force General Jack D. Ripper had just ordered bombers to vaporize Moscow. Meanwhile, General Buck Turgidson assured the president that even though the reliability of"Plan R"--that is, the sure means to recall wayward bombers--was indeed experiencing a bit of a bump in the road at the moment, the military's overall nuclear planning was sound.

Also in 1964, on the set of another Hollywood studio, the deadly serious Professor Groeteschele explained to dinner-party guests and later to a White House War Room assemblage that the only difference between nuclear and conventional warfare was in the number of dead bodies. As long as we could"minimize" our own casualties, dropping a big one here and there was merely another day at the races.

We Americans were alternately amused and horrified nearly 40 years ago by the embedded logic of Dr. Strangelove and Fail-Safe. Roughly 3 decades later, we thought we had left the madness behind--and for good. But the Strangelovian madmen--the Rippers and Turgidsons and Groetescheles--are back among us, having received the proper care and feeding by our modern-day President Muffley.

Today's Groetescheles are personified by the likes of Richard Sokolsky and Eugene Rumer, senior research fellows at the National Defense University's Institute for National Strategic Studies. Last week in an op-ed piece titled"Nuclear Alarmists" (Washington Post, 3/15), these intrepid strategists characterized criticism of Bush II's"Nuclear Posture Review" as"preposterous ... scaremonger[ing]." To them,"it is not hard to imagine" our preemptive use of low-yield nuclear weapons. Such use would prevent the loss (or further loss) of American lives, so to preclude"the nuclear option" is -- in so many words -- just plain silly.

What's astoundingly odd is that these strategic thinkers left the scenario at that. We'd whack some bad guys and all their evil devices in one fell swoop and in the process save a lot of American lives. End of story, well done. What they failed to mention was the likelihood of an ensuing domino effect: the chain reactions of reprisals, retaliations, and retributions that would plague us for years. One expects such myopic brainwaves emanating from a Skinhead convention, but from an intellectual Institute?

Moreover, Sokolsky and Rumer charged critics of the Nuclear Posture Review with"misreading ... history." Today's naysayers labor under the faulty assumption that throughout the Cold War, U.S. policy was to deploy nuclear arms"only to deter a nuclear attack on the United States by the Soviet Union." In reality, however,"the United States reserved the right to use nuclear weapons to deter both conventional and nuclear attacks on its ... allies" and in particular against threatening moves by the Warsaw Pact. Fair enough.

But here, they didn't leave it at that. Instead, Sokolsky and Rumer flatly asserted that"the credible threat to use nuclear weapons to offset the conventional superiority of the Warsaw Pact helped keep the peace in Europe throughout the Cold War." Just who is it who's misreading history? As foreign-policy historian Thomas Paterson noted in his excellent On Every Front: The Making and Unmaking of the Cold War,"scholars have devoted lifetimes to fathoming the intentions and decisions of Joseph Stalin and his Communist cohorts [during the coldest temperatures of the Cold War]. Yet all the answers carry the mark of speculation, not of certainty, of guessing, not of knowing."

Indeed, even Cold Warrior and diplomat George Kennen of containment-policy fame fervently believed that the more serious threat to European NATO partners lay"in the political field" -- more so"than any military danger that confronted them." In his Memoirs Kennan quickly repeated the point for emphasis:"This preoccupation with military affairs was ... regrettable. It addressed itself to what was not the main danger." Yet at the time he found himself in the hysterical wilderness of domestic political jockeying and demagoguing all things communist. His voice of reason went ignored.

Now, we're right back where we started. As one high-level Russian legislator recently observed, Americans -- and by that term he could have only meant those residing in the White House, Pentagon, and State Department --"have somewhat lost touch with the reality in which they live." What Secretary of State Colin Powell labeled as"prudent military planning" -- that is, that contained in the Nuclear Posture Review -- has been condemned by countless policy analysts and journalists as"the ultimate in stupidity and self-destructiveness," as"reckless folly," as simply"bizarre." Strangelove once again has the ear of President Muffley. We've needlessly entered another era of madness and astonishingly casual talk of"limited" nuclear strikes.

My wife and I have a two-year-old daughter. Had we known before conception that we would soon be thrust back into the terrors of 1964, we might have given second thoughts to bringing such pure innocence into such an insane world.

© Copyright 2002 P. M. Carpenter


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Dennis White - 4/19/2003

I thought that I was the only one who thought that Paul Wolfowitz was the reincarnation of Dr Strangelove. Thanks for the article
One of the side issues about the war I find quite strange and a little scary is how all the US military spokesmen are dressed in their desert combat fatigues. very manly and warrior like I am sure


Bud Wood - 3/21/2002

The escalation of threats to us, particularly in the USA, seems odd because we taxpayers are footing bills for more and more military might - - -which we are lead to believe provides security.
More and more money into weapons appears to be having the opposite effect. More and more appears to be providing less and less security. It isn't supposed to work that way - - or at least that's what we are lead to believe.
The US Taxpayer is a wonderous personage. Without the US Taxpayer, the USA would probably not be involved in empire building and other such overseas adventures. One might guess that the average taxpayer would prefer such. If indeed so, the question is why do we continually put up with so called leaders who charge onward, on the taxpayers' "credit card"? From Lincoln, through Roosevelt (Teddy), Wilson, FDR, etc., these guys have played god with our lives and the fruits of our productions. Is it not past time to call a halt?
Bud Wood


vis numar - 3/19/2002

These in the WH with their nuke appetite, may the 2 year olds be spared from this madness!

Let us hope we repeat the British history and oust this Churchill!