Bosley Crowther, chief film critic for the New York Times, didn’t quite know what to make of Dr. Strangelove at the time of its release in January 1964. Stanley Kubrick’s dark antiwar satire was “beyond any question the most shattering sick joke I’ve ever come across,” he wrote. But if the film had its hilarious moments, Crowther found its overall effect distinctly unnerving. What exactly was Kubrick’s point? “When virtually everybody turns up stupid or insane — or, what is worse, psychopathic — I want to know what this picture proves.”
We may find it odd for an influential critic to expect a movie to “prove” anything. Kubrick’s aim was manifestly not to prove, but to subvert and discomfit.
With feature-length hyperbole — not a wisp of subtlety allowed — Dr. Strangelove made the case that a deep strain of madness had infected the entire U.S. national security apparatus. From the “War Room” that was the Pentagon’s holiest of holies all the way to the cockpit of a B-52 hurtling toward its assigned Russian target with a massive nuclear bomb in its belly, whack jobs were in charge.
A mere two years after the Cuban missile crisis, few Americans viewed the prospect of nuclear Armageddon as a joking matter. Yet here was Dr. Strangelove treating this deadly serious topic as suitable for raucous (and slightly raunchy) comedy. That’s what bothered Crowther, who admitted to being “troubled by the feeling, which runs through the film, of discredit and even contempt for our whole defense establishment, up to and even including the hypothetical Commander-in-Chief.”
If the nation owed its very survival to that defense establishment — a widely accepted supposition during the Cold War — Kubrick’s contemptuous attitude was nothing short of blasphemous.
We may imagine other inhabitants of the circle in which Crowther lived and worked sharing his unease. Collectively, they comprised a world of believers — not a faith community in a religious sense but an elite establishment. Members of that establishment accepted as gospel an identifiable set of political, cultural, and moral propositions that defined mid-twentieth-century American life.
Chief among them was a conviction that communism — monolithic, aggressive, and armed to the teeth — posed an existential threat to what was then known as the Free World. In the face of that, it had become incumbent upon the United States to arm itself to the teeth. The preeminent symbol of U.S. readiness to thwart that Red threat was a massive nuclear strike force held on hair-trigger alert to obliterate the entire Soviet empire. (A typical 1961 report from the Joint Chiefs of Staff suggested that a full-scale U.S. nuclear attack on the Soviet Union would kill half its population, or 108 million people. An analysis the Joint Chiefs provided to the Kennedy White House that same year put the dead for Russia and China together at upwards of 600 million.)
Instant readiness to wage World War III thereby held the key to averting World War III. Politicians, generals, and PhD-wielding “defense intellectuals” all affirmed the impeccable logic of such an arrangement. As the menacing motto of the Strategic Air Command, which controlled America’s nuclear bombers and missiles, put it: “Peace Is Our Profession.”