I just finished reading Arsenals of Folly by Richard Rhodes. Not a bad book about the arms race, though not quite as interesting as the other Rhodes books I’ve read (The Making of the Atomic Bomb and Dark Sun). What struck me was how much I kept thinking of Dr. Strangelove while I was reading the book, especially the parts about the early Cold War years in the 1950s and 1960s. One passage in particular was significant:
After the war, Truman disguised his aversion to using nuclear weapons with public bluster, but his policies as well as private comments reveal his qualms. An artillery officer in the First World War, he hesitated to put atomic bombs into the hands of the military; he told James Forrestal, his first secretary of defense, that he did not propose “to have some dashing lieutenant colonel decide when would be the proper time to drop one.” Through the Atomic Energy Act of 1946, the historian David Alan Rosenberg writes, Truman imposed “a system that made atomic weapons a separate part of the nation’s arsenal, with the President of the United States the sole authority over their use….” [p. 78], 
This immediately brought to mind an early scene from Dr. Strangelove. The nation’s top civilian and military officials have just started a meeting in the War Room of the Pentagon. General Turgidson (George C. Scott) is about to inform President Muffley (Peter Sellers) and the gathered staff that the Air Force has launched a nuclear attack on Russia:
GEN. TURGIDSON: (leaning over a binder entitled WORLD TARGETS IN MEGADEATHS) Mr. President, about 35 minutes ago, General Jack Ripper, the commanding general of Burpelson Air Force Base, issued an order to the 34 B-52s of his wing which were airborne at the time, as part of a special exercise we were holding called Operation Dropkick. Now it appears that the order called for the planes to attack their targets inside Russia. The planes are fully armed with nuclear weapons with an average load of 40 megatons each. (Gestures toward the Big Board.) Now the central display of Russia will indicate the position of the planes. The triangles are their primary targets. The squares are their secondary targets. The aircraft will begin penetrating Russian radar cover within 25 minutes.
PRES. MUFFLEY: General Turgidson, I find this very difficult to understand. I was under the impression that I was the only one in authority to order the use of nuclear weapons.
GEN. TURGIDSON: That’s right sir. You are the only person authorized to do so. And although I hate to judge before all the facts are in, it’s beginning to look like General Ripper exceeded his authority.
PRES. MUFFLEY: It certainly does, far beyond the point I would have imagined possible.
GEN. TURGIDSON: Well, perhaps you’re forgetting the provisions of Plan R, sir.
PRES. MUFFLEY: Plan R?
GEN. TURGIDSON: Plan R is an emergency war plan in which a lower echelon commander may order nuclear retaliation after a sneak attack if the normal chain of command has been disrupted. You approved it, sir, you must remember. (Muffley frowns.) Surely you must recall, sir, when Senator Buford made that big hassle about our deterrent lacking credibility? The idea was for Plan R to be a sort of retaliatory safeguard.
PRES. MUFFLEY: A safeguard.
GEN. TURGIDSON: Well, I admit the human element seems to have failed us here.
Perhaps the main theme of Rhodes’ book is the extent to which the military-industrial complex drove the planning for nuclear war, and the appalling, almost cavalier rationale they used to justify it. Rhodes discusses the Strategic Air Command’s (SAC) approach to solving the problem of having hundreds of planes trying to deliver nuclear bombs to their targets simultaneously, potentially destroying each other if they weren’t coordinated properly. Rhodes writes,
The solution to the problem, the Joint Chiefs concluded in 1959 after prodding from the secretary of defense, was that “atomic operations must be pre-planned for automatic execution to the maximum extent possible.” Thus was inaugurated the Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP), developed initially under the direction of Air Force Lieutenant General Thomas Power, who succeeded Curtis LeMay as commander in chief of SAC from 1957 to 1964.
John F. Kennedy was briefed on the first plan, SIOP-62, by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Lyman L. Lemnitzer, on 13 September 1961. SIOP-62, Lemnitzer told the president, was designed to work either preemptively or in retaliation for a Soviet nuclear strike on the United States. Like SAC’s earlier plan, it targeted not only the Soviet Union but also the People’s Republic of China and allies of the two countries in Eastern Europe and elsewhere, all to be hit at the outset of hostilities with a massive simultaneous attack from all sides at once, bomb as you go. The PRC and Eastern Europe would be hit even if they had not initiated hostilities. …
The journalist Fred Kaplan reports that General David Shoup, the Marine Corps commandant, asked Thomas Power at a similar SIOP briefing in 1960 if the United States had any options to avoid bombing China if that country happened not to be involved in the conflict that had led to nuclear war. “Well, yeah, we could do that,” Kaplan reports Power replying, “but I hope nobody thinks of it because it would really screw up the plan.” [p. 87] 
This would be funny if hundreds of millions of lives weren’t at stake.
And the brilliance of Dr. Strangelove is that Kubrick took this topic, its absurd military reasoning and politics, and really did make it funny.
 Rhodes, Richard. The Arsenals of Folly: The Making of the Nuclear Arms Race. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007.
 Rhodes, Richard. The Making of the Atomic Bomb. Simon & Schuster, 1986.
 Rhodes, Richard. Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb. Simon & Schuster, 1995.
 Kubrick, Stanley. Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Columbia Pictures Corporation, 1964.
 Millis, Walter, Ed. The Forrestal Diaries. New York: Viking, 1951, p. 458. Quoted in  p. 78.
 Kaplan, Fred. The Wizards of Armageddon. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1983, p. 270. Quoted in  p. 87.
Read Full Post »