Donald “Dr. Strangelove” Trump and some of the Times We almost had a Nuclear War

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

I have long wondered why no one in Hollywood has remade Stanley Kubricks’s 1964 “Dr. Strangelove: Or How I learned to Stop worrying and Love the Bomb.” They’ve remade almost everything else from the 1960s, but that classic Peter Sellers film languishes in black and white and I’m not sure most Millennials have seen it.

Dr. Strangelove: ‘Major Kong Rides the Bomb

From the paranoid military officer Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden), who is convinced that Communists are diluting the integrity of his bodily fluids (nowadays it would surely be Muslims) to the ex-Nazi evil genius (Peter Sellers) who can barely constrain himself from repeated Hitler salutes to the exuberant cowboy fighter pilot Major T. J. “King” Kong (Slim Pickens), who rides a nuke down on the old Soviet Union, the film is an archive of the craziest Cold War excesses.

Now it turns out that Donald Trump is remaking Dr. Strangelove in real life.

TYT Nation points out that Joe Scarborough of MSNBC’s ‘Morning Joe’ revealed that a national security expert briefed Trump a while ago, and that Trump asked three times in a one-hour briefing why we can’t use nuclear weapons, since we have them:

Trump denies the remarks.

Since the end of WW II, nuclear weapons have been defensive, part of a deterrence strategy to avoid being attacked (MAD or Mutually Assured Destruction).

But Trump is not alone in his notion of actually deploying nuclear weapons in an offensive capacity. Sen. Ted Cruz talked about making the Syrian desert glow during the GOP primaries, clearly implying that he would nuke al-Raqqa, the capital of Daesh (ISIS, ISIL) in Syria.

Nuclear weapons produce fall-out, throwing enormous amounts of radioactive dirt into the air, which then settles on grass and gets into milk and the rest of the food supply. I was in London during the Chernobyl meltdown, which wasn’t nearly as big as a nuclear explosion, and the British authorities warned us against drinking milk that summer. So Cruz would have inflicted harm not only on Syria (most Syrians opposed Daesh) but also on Israel, Turkey, and much of Europe.

Worse than fallout is nuclear winter. As Carl Sagan pointed out in a famous panel interview in 1982, a full scale nuclear war could kill 2 billion people and throw so much dust into the atmosphere that vegetation would die off and lead to the extinction of human life on earth. (Predictably, Henry Kissinger objected on the grounds that if the public knows such facts, it will interfere in policy-making on nuclear issues by policy elites like himself.)

I’ve never regretted more that Sagan, one of my heroes, is no longer with us to make this argument in public (he has few effective successors among practicing scientists willing to speak out on these issues).

Lest you think that nuclear weapons would never be deployed in an aggressive war, consider that in the 2001-2002 standoff between India and Pakistan, India moved its nuclear weapons close to the Pakistani border in what was likely prepositioning for possible deployment. (Since Pakistan had 14 small nuclear bombs then, tens of millions of people could have been killed).

Most Americans know about the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. But few know that during it, a US jet pilot wandered over the North Pole into Soviet territory and was in danger from MiGs that were scrambled. The US sent in a nuclear=armed escort to rescue the pilot and apparently that escort was authorized to fire the nukes under their wings at will.

Both in the 1956 and 1973 Israeli-Arab wars, the US went on high nuclear alert. In the 1956 case a routine Soviet naval exercise in the Black Sea combined with a misunderstanding of a flock of swans put the world on the brink.

Although it is probably not true that Moshe Dayan pushed the Israeli cabinet to use nuclear weapons in the 1973 war, it does seem likely that he proposed blowing up a nuclear weapon as a demonstration of Israel’s power, to give the advancing Syrian and Egyptian armies pause. But such a provocative action might well have brought a response from the Soviet Union, which was backing the Arab League forces, and so still contained the possibility of an escalation.

Then there were a couple false alarms at NORAD in the 1980s, when computer equipment went crazy and showed that Soviet warheads were already airborne. If Ronald Reagan, who may already have been suffering from Alzheimers, had shot from the hip in response, we might have seen a nuclear winter right then and there.

There is always a danger that if a weapon is in the arsenal, it will be deployed. If the leader of a country is reckless (Dayan) or addled (Trump, Kim Jong Un), then all bets are off. That is why Republican primary voters need to be shamed for their irresponsibility; you don’t give an obvious maniac the nuclear codes.

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47 Responses

  1. As you note, Brits couldn’t have milk. Norway’s Laplanders had their herds of deer contaminated by Chernoble fallout. most East European countries had to destroy their grass.

  2. A couple of additions. Sagan and his associates figured out that as few as 100 large nuclear weapons would trigger a nuclear winter, so you wouldn’t even need a full scale war.
    During the Reagan Administration, they actually operated on the assumption that a nuclear war could be won and planned for that. Finally, the Russians also had a terrible computer glitch in the 80’s that showed an incoming flight of US ICBM’s. However, the Soviet officer in charge on duty, had the courage to assume it was a mistake and did not report it to the Kremlin. Which was a good thing because Reagan’s bellicose talk about the “evil empire’ had convinced Soviet leaders (especially Premier Andropov who had come through the KGB and was really paranoid) that he, Reagan, wanted to start and win a nuclear war. Had that incorrect information been passed on to the Kremlin, they very well could have ordered a retaliatory strike that would have destroyed civilization as we would have responded in kind.
    One last thing, some movies are so perfect (like Casablanca, Psycho, etc.) that they should not be remade. Why mess with perfection?

  3. I hold no brief for Trump but at least he is new to politics and might do something different. Clinton is a known war monger and has a track record to prove it. As I see it, American politicians are just gangsters in suits whilst the lot who pass for politicians over here in the UK have the acumen of a toad and evil of a serpents from hell !

  4. All true. But what is the alternative? Hillary’s support for violence, aggression and regime change from Iraq to Libya to Syria is a matter of record. Now she wants another no fly zone in Syria and to counter the “evil” Putin in Ukraine. Isn’t that a more proximate threat from a certified war criminal?

    • You are perfectly describing the difference between Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater. Goldwater wanted to replace our aggression in Vietnam with a nuclear genocide. Which of those two alternative worlds would you rather be living in now?

      • You are perfectly describing the difference between Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater. Goldwater wanted to replace our aggression in Vietnam with a nuclear genocide. Which of those two alternative worlds would you rather be living in now?
        And wasn’t HRC a Goldwater Gal in those days?

  5. “I have long wondered why no one in Hollywood has remade Stanley Kubricks’s 1964 “Dr. Strangelove: Or How I learned to Stop worrying and Love the Bomb.” They’ve remade almost everything else from the 1960s, but that classic Peter Sellers film languishes in black and white and I’m not sure most Millennials have seen it.”

    Some films should not be remade because the original, in black and white, cannot be improved upon, and 1964’s “Dr. Strangelove” is one. An example of a classic that was remade is1962’s “The Manchurian Candidate,” filmed in black and white, and starring Frank Sinatra, Lawrence Harvey and Angela Lansbury. It was remade in color in 2004, starring Denzel Washington, Liev Shreiber, and Meryl Streep.

    The 2004 remake of “The Manchurian Candidate” was not nearly as good as the original. The stars could not match the acting of the original cast, and the black and white original, with its shades of lighting, was far more atmospheric than the remake. I’m afraid a remake of “Dr. Strangelove” would be just as disappointing.

    Both original films, by the way, are shown on Turner Classic Movies from time to time, and anyone, including Millennials, can see them. (That is, if Millennials are capable of tearing themselves away from their ubiquitous “social media” long enough to watch a great movie.)

    • A couple of other original black and white films that could never be improved upon, both in their cast and in their director’s touch. 1942’s “Casablanca,” starring Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Conrad Veidt, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, and the incomparable Dooley Wilson as “Sam,” Rick’s pianist and singer. There are no actors today who could come close to those magnificent performances.

      And 1949’s “The Third Man,” directed by Carol Reed, and starring Orson Welles and Joseph Cotton. If anyone were to attempt a remake of “The Third Man,” he should be summarily executed by firing squad at sunrise.

    • Yeah, I was floored by Juan’s statement about remakes and the film’s status as ‘languish(ing) in black and white.’

      Remaking Dr. Strangelove? In color, no less? Yikes – that would be ghastly. The film was deliberately made in black and white. On the other hand, imagine ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ (released two years earlier) had been filmed in black and white. The colors of the desert, the robes worn by Omar Sharif, Anthony Quinn, and Peter O’Toole, the… well, anyway…

      Not with Juan at all on this one…

    • I know several Millennials who openly brag they have never seen a movie older than ten or at the outside twenty years, or never seen a black-and-white movie. They seem to think they’ve nothing at all to gain or learn from ancient junk like that. Dolts.

  6. Your tribal warrior chops are showing. No mention of Mr. Obama’s enormously destabilizing move to renew the nuclear arsenal, now with small “tactical” nukes. No mention of Mrs. Clinton’s bear baiting and Putin demonization to hide her own considerable malfeasance and how this brings us closer to a confrontation with a nuclear power. Oh no, it’s look at the scary man the Republicans put up. Nearly every charge leveled at Trump can also be leveled at Mrs. Clinton. If I were forced to choose which thumb I want near the button, it certainly wouldn’t be Mrs. Clinton, the poster child for the corruption of our political system and a driver of the present over the top bellicosity toward Russia.

    • How many will die in the race war that Trump’s followers hunger to launch to “Take our (White) country back”? The one I’m willing to fight against, right here in your own streets with the most powerful weapons I can obtain? I guess American minorities are too patriotic and supportive of American imperialism and the evil Federal government, which must be destroyed. Tell us to stand down when the rednecks come marching down our streets, Mr. Williams, in the name of world peace. I dare you.

      • You should watch Stephen Cohen’s interview on CNN regarding Donald Trump ‘s criticism of our currently overly aggressive stance toward Russia and the danger this poses of triggering a nuclear war. Stephen Cohen is a liberal, not some conservative hack. Furthermore he is a distinguished Russia scholar. He knows what he is talking about. We are currently in a new cold war which Clinton will undoubtedly exacerbate. With her well-documented bad judgement and hawkish temperament Clinton will increase the risk of nuclear war substantially when she becomes president. Donald Trump is a loose cannon, but does not pose the same risk for the reason outlined above. If you or Juan Cole are worried about nuclear war you should vote for Jill Stein If this enables Trump to become president (it won’t) at least he poses less of a nuclear war threat than Clinton. You can find Prof. Cohen’s CNN interview on YouTube by searching for “Russia scholar Stephen Cohen shuts down CNN”

  7. According to Avi Shlaim, in his book, “The Iron Wall”, during the Gulf War in 1991, Israel pointed its nuclear armed missiles toward Iraq and readied them to fire on command.

  8. Remake Dr. Strangelove? Mandrake, DON’T!!!! That classic came as close to movie perfection as possible.

    Meanwhile, protect your precious bodily fluids.

  9. In 1983 USAFE (US Air Forces in Europe) staged a nuclear exercise called “Able Archer”. The Soviets interpreted this as the US possibly deploying for a preemptive strike.

    Due to their very centralized top-down command structure, the Soviets were always afraid we might try to take out their leadership with a first strike.

  10. Eventually those weapons will be used again. Unless they’re banned, which according to the terms of the NPT is supposed to be happening. The rest of the world did agree not to build them, and the nuclear powers did commit to disarmament.

    But the USA is violating their obligations under that treaty, aren’t they? (as are the rest of the nuclear powers, who aren’t pressing the USA to abandon the modernization of their arsenal.)

    Why not re-make that movie? Can you name any actor who could match the performance of Peter Sellers? The movie is better in black and white, the colour matches the theme of the film; life or death – madness versus sanity.

    • There’s no reason to think that. She’s been slightly more hawkish than Obama, but the idea of nuking Iran is insane.

  11. Perhaps Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton will prove to be the Gavrilo Princip of World War Three. They or some idiot in their cohorts probably have what it takes.

  12. Thanks Juan – this simply can not be hammered home urgently enough.

    But . . .

    Dear John Wilson, Geoffrey Grey, Michael Williams, and Jischinger:

    While she is far from perfect and has been committed to policies to which I would vociferously object (and have, as a Bernie supporter who thinks Chomsky is pretty much on the mark when it comes to American and western powers): No Hillary is not the same or worse than Trump. Where did you go to school, and if so was any history offered? Or, hell, where have you been for the past year?

    Trump is a violent unstable individual. He has created a situation that is calling into question the very survival of our democracy. He has expressed zero commitment to our constitution. He has made clear his hatred of people based on race, based on gender, based on physical appearance and disabilities. He has confused hatred and violence for strength, and incited brutality at his rallies. He has expressed support for torture, and for the breaking of every convention from Geneva to Nuremberg. He is addicted to social media and committed to one thing and one thing only: self. He denies the existential threat of global warming. He wants to arm America literally to the teeth, proposing mandatory laws requiring guns in schools (!). If you think him mentally stable and fit for office, then you are just lazy, not committed to democracy, foolish, self-destructive, indeed, smacking pretty much of every sin that hath a name. He is a thug, and you are standing shoulder to shoulder with him, whether you vote for him or sit it out (or in the case of the Brit simply generalizing about politicians – a form of intellectual indolence).

    Hillary is beside the point and this has long since ceased to be about her. There are two people in this country at this moment as I have said before: democrats (small “d”) committed to the traditions, imperfectly practiced though they may be at times, of constitutional government, dignity of office, and civil discourse, and neo-fascists. And we have seen the fascist show before. And how did that turn out?

    You all need to do some serious serious soul searching and ask yourself, Where will you stand?

    And as always, pars Republicana delenda est (though they seem to be doing a pretty fine job of it themselves these days!)

    • And another thanks from me. As one who has made similar arguments, it amazes me how anyone, especially of the left, could equate Trump and Clinton. I’d just like to add that Trump is obviously an extreme narcissist, a bully, pathological liar and seems to have ADD. I’m no psychologist, but he seems close to a sociopath as he has no qualms about violating social norms and even laws in order to advance his own extreme self interest, no matter what the effect on others. Personality wise Clinton is close to the opposite.

    • Grumpy, I seem to recall a previous president and many in his government who declared water boarding legitimate. Then there was the rendition affair which sent victims overseas to undisclosed location specifically to be tortured. It seems to me that many of the things you accuse Trump of have already been the norm for others who have held the post to which he aspires. May I remind you of the chilling interview of Clinton when she was cackling like some kind of demented witch an the horrific murder of Gadaffi.

      • Your point does not address Trump’s lack of stability in other respects. E.g., I trust Hillary to lay down power four years from now. Will Trump do the same? We can’t bet on it. Hillary may violate the constitution here and there. Trump does not understand it in the least. Hillary seems at least willing and able to respond to the needs of a multi-racial and multi-cultural society. Trump hates it. She will protect reproductive rights. Trump will be a tool of the hard right on that score (he as much as said that Pence will run the show). Hillary will protect the health care of everyone on my farm who depends on the ACA. Trump the the republicans will shred it. Hillary at least acknowledges global warming. Trump does not. But above all, this election is about the preservation of democracy first and foremost – imperfect, nay, horrible though it is at times, because Hillary is a pretty establishment candidate (and no, that is not a bad thing at the moment), who at least understands the basics of government and will provide stability. And as one who has relatives in the financial sector, I can tell you they hate Trump, because, surprise surprise, markets and economies don’t like uncertainty, they like stability, and dems are putting that on offer this year.

        Btw, I am well aware that violent policies are the “norm” for this country, and have done everything a private citizen can to change it – e.g., protest, talked and written to my reps, written and called the White House, voted, written letters to the editor of papers local and national, etc. etc.

        I am curious though, do you really think Hillary comparable to one who incites violence at rallies, who threatens media, attacks the first amendment, will gut NATO, Geneva, Nuremberg, and gods know how many alliances, who incites racial hatreds and divisions in this country, who calls for the murder of terrorists families, who attacks whole groups based on creed, and has made a host of misogynistic and vulgar remarks? Who has made so many horrible statements, cozied up to Putin, called for espionage against the US by hostile powers, shown admiration for the leader of north Korea, attacked a Gold Star Family, talked about the size of his dick with much self-admiration, and kicked a baby out of his rallies – and most though not all of that all within the past week? Honestly, what is the thought process here?

  13. As the much vaunted businessman that he claims to be, the concept of using nuclear weapons IS BAD FOR BUSINESS!! escapes him?

    The man may be an idiot as are his factually adverse followers.

  14. ‘I have long wondered why no one in Hollywood has remade Stanley Kubricks’s 1964 “Dr. Strangelove: Or How I learned to Stop worrying and Love the Bomb.” They’ve remade almost everything else from the 1960s, but that classic Peter Sellers film languishes in black and white and I’m not sure most Millennials have seen it.’

    I share the views of others who have already cautioned against trying to improve upon perfection. What I have to add is that “Dr. Strangelove” is not in any way “languishing” and cannot possibly be unknown to Millennials. Any young person who takes a film course is likely to see it. Any young person who has access to the Internet will see “Dr. Strangelove” sooner or later.

    The question that I have is whether Donald Trump has ever seen this film. After all, he was born in 1946, and “Dr. Strangelove” came out in 1964, so he’s had five decades since he was 18 to see this movie.

    To those commenters who can’t stop reminding us of the flaws of the Democratic Party in general and of Hillary Clinton in particular, I would like to point out that there is a long, long way you can go as a military hawk before you will contemplate using nuclear weapons. If you are afraid that Mrs. Clinton is going to start a nuclear war, you are not only paranoid, but your paranoia needs to get its priorities straight. The next opportune time to criticize Mrs. Clinton – rightly – for her hawkishness will be AFTER she is safely elected President, not before.

  15. Frankly, it strikes me as perfectly sensible to ask such questions of the relevant experts and, if necessary, follow up with further questions until you are absolutely clear. I would, and Trump has no more experience of such a responsibility than I. Clinton, on the other hand, doubtless ‘knows it all’ but her record with a previous red button inspires somewhat less than overwhelming confidence. The real problem today is gross fiscal inequality which destroys a nation’s cohesion, setting parties, groups, and even individuals against each other in a manner that cannot be mended because the institutions which have presided over the development of the inequality remain in place and are incapable of putting it back. This in the end is why the electoral process has produced such a bleak choice. If Trump does pick up the prize but it will be due to having comparatively fewer negatives.

    • Trump asked three times about getting to use nuclear weapons because he really wants to annihilate his enemies. Which he relentlessly demonstrates with his open hatred of America’s minorities.

  16. It would appear that some American “leftists” have so thoroughly refused to accept any responsibility for their own failure in getting working-class Whites to adopt socialism, that they are now being seduced by the idea of helping Trump win in the hope that he will destroy the evil American empire and the Federal government from within.

    Those of us Americans who are harmed by his cruelty, racism, and vindictiveness will not forgot who betrayed us when we crawl out of the ashes.

  17. I think that describing Hillary as “far from perfect” is quite a whitewash, she is both a warmonger and a tool of Wall Street. I suspect that there is quite a bit of linkage and overlap between these two positions. She not only voted to invade Iraq when she was a senator, but she was a prime lobbyist and cheerleader for the destruction of Libya and the current carnage in Syria. By supporting non-existent “moderate rebels” in Syria, she is in fact advocating for Al-Qaeda. (The folks who brought us 9-11)

    If elected, I don’t think that Hillary will just start launching missiles and dropping atomic bombs. Since Hillary advocates setting up a no-fly zone in Syria, I could see it as quite likely that she would order American jets to hit some of Assad’s forces resulting in said planes being shot down by Syrian or Russian planes or by the anti-aircraft missile system the Russians have installed in Syria. In this case I don’t see Hillary backing down, but doubling down, putting us all on a track that would end in a total war, a track that all our rhetoric about “our democracy” and the constitution will do nothing to stop.

    So it is Trump and his bombastic rhetoric which are not the issue. Indeed, Trump’s off the wall statements seem designed to attract the attention of the press; after all he has gotten what, tens or hundreds of millions in free media exposure.

    Trump is basically a buffoon and blowhard while Hillary is likely to start us on a path that will lead to all-out war, even if that is not specifically intended.

    The real issue is that the Hillary and her neo-con followers, such as Victoria Nuland, Robert Kagan, Madeline Albright, Sasmantha Powers et al be kept out of the White House and hopefully expunged from the halls of U.S. power.

    Trump is essentially an unknown, but the Hildebeest has a long established track record of spreading death and chaos wherever she turns her attention.

    Time to roll the dice and go for the unknown.

    • “while Hillary is likely to start us on a path that will lead to all-out war”

      Please, get a grip? Stating extremist talking points as fact is weak and a waste of your obvious concern.

      End of patronizing.

      • The problem with this meme that Clinton will lead us to war is a defeatist predetermination. It’s like – now that Sanders was nominated – that’s the end of the anti-war left. That is immature politics. In fact, we should work overtime to unite with the anti-war libertarians. We need all we can get to face off against whoever wins in November.

        • The antiwar libertarians and the Trump cult operate on basically the same premise: White Christian Americans are economically superior to all other races but evil Big Government and racially-contaminated democracy get in the way of their asserting their natural supremacy at home and abroad. Look up some of Ron Paul’s newsletter smears against African-Americans in the past. Paul is now a Republican because his supporters from 1980s libertarianism are now Republicans, and God knows how many are now Trumpists. Gary Johnson is running as a sort of goulash of libertarian and Reagan Republican, but as Chomsky would likely point out Reagan’s aggression was the reality of the capitalist need for eternal expansion, not the isolationist bubble that the Libertarians and Trumpists dream about. Shut down internationalism and you must completely restructure the US economy in ways no free-market absolutist could tolerate.

        • So? If Clinton wants to send American troops into Syria, they would oppose it. Politics often makes strange bedfellows, don’t you think?

  18. I was stationed in Germany (USArmy) during that ’73 Israeli/Egyptian war. The whole ‘nuclear alert’ thing was a farce. They sent the line units out to the rally points- had them paint the vehicles ‘sand tan’, while they waited for the orders to mobilise. In our rear-echelon personnel admin unit, we got told that if there really was going to be deployment to Israel, we would get evacuated to England, Italy or back to the US, but that wasn’t going to happen. We were sabre-rattling to keep the Soviets from interfering with the Israeli activity. The line units used their 72 hour activation to finish painting the vehicles in the camoflague pattern that had the tan base coat. It look like an real alert, but it was just a ruse, an extreme diplomatic gesture. Our unit knew of the actual purpose the day before the alert was ordered. Trump’s ‘thumb on the button’ is a scary thought, but his domestic policies (such that they’ve been suggested) will cripple the nation. Clinton at the helm, may continue this ‘war on terror’, but a nuclear option would derail the ‘gravy train’ of defence contractors, armament manufacturers, and the alliance of politicians and lobbyists, that so depend upon that endless ‘war’.

  19. Veterans for Peace is all over this issue, and has re-built the Golden Rule, the first vessel to challenge nuclear testing in the atmosphere. She’s now touring in the Pacific Northwest.

    We owe it to our grand-kids to try.

    And Kubrick was more correct than almost anyone knew back in the 1960’s. Although he was denounced by the militarists, his assertion that area US commanders could launch a nuclear war on their own was correct.

    Here is a scary article on the subject . .

    link to newyorker.com

  20. Killery wants to arm the Ukraine with heavy weaponry ON Russia’s border. Russia has replied that they will respond with nuclear weapons. Trump has said that he could get along with Putin. Killery’s calls Putin “Hitler”. Are you sure her finger on the button is better?

  21. Starting a nuclear war with the USSR over one US pilot is just nuts.

    I’ve read about the Israeli nuclear alert in 1973, altho’ the details change with every account. In one believable story, the Israeli leadership did ready their weapons — which were not commonly known to exist at that time, if I recall correctly — early in the war, when the surprised Israeli forces were reeling and it looked for a moment that the Syrians would overrun the Golan and continue down into Galilee, plus the Egyptians pour across the Sinai and enter Israel. Evidently it was thought that an existential crisis was nigh, and Israel would use the Bomb to stop its enemies, whatever the cost. This would likely have produced a Soviet reaction, hence the US alert. I’m not sure what was going on behind the scenes but it must have been a tense time. Then the battlefield situation stabilized for Israel and the threat of their using nukes receded. For the moment.

    But I’m glad they haven’t sullied the one and only original Dr. Strangelove with another pointless, s****y Hollywood money machine remake.

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