Dr. Strangelove & the Bomb
Cultural explosions in the 1960s
By Margot Henriksen

From Gadfly February 1998


"Mein Führer! I can walk!" So exults the previously wheelchair‑bound Dr. Strangelove to President Merkin Muffley at the conclusion of Stanley Kubrick's seminal film of the 1960s, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). The director of weapons research and development, this crippled ex‑Nazi (who nonetheless has a mechanical right arm that occasionally rises uncontrollably in a Heil Hitler salute) surges with life and health at the very moment of atomic apocalypse. Expecting in just a few seconds the triggering of the Soviet Doomsday Machine—being set off by a maverick American bomber that has dropped its nuclear load on Soviet territory—Strangelove has seduced the military and political leaders in the War Room with his vision of post‑apocalyptic life in mine‑shafts. As Dr. Strangelove stands erect and takes his first Frankenstein‑like faltering steps, an H‑bomb explosion obliterates his image. The following succession of hydrogen bomb explosions and mushrooming clouds announces the end of the world, the end of the film and the end to American culture's silence on the Bomb.

Dr. Strangelove's hilarious reanimation in an atmosphere of ionized death was emblematic of the film's black humor, and the film's black humor in turn symbolized a cultural sea‑change in the 60s. Laughing at death and ridiculing all Cold War pieties—from rabid anti‑Communism and nuclear safeguards to puerile political leaders and maniacal military men—Dr. Strangelove exuded the fearless, radical spirit that came to characterize the decade. Even before the forces of American dissent coalesced around the issues of civil rights and the Vietnam War, a cultural revolt was in the process of forming—and it was forming around a postwar icon previously spared much intense scrutiny: the Bomb. Dr. Strangelove told audiences a new and rebellious truth by exposing leaders' strange love for the Bomb and by presenting the logical if absurd end of the Cold War's direction: extermination. Openly acknowledging the insanity and the dangers of the atomic age, the film helped loose a cultural rebellion that cracked Cold War hegemony and the apocalyptic sway of the Bomb.

In the earlier era of Ike, Joe McCarthy, duck and cover drills, the Cleaver family and widespread acceptance of Cold War imperatives, American popular culture only allusively registered the damage of the new atomic age. Films, art, novels and music often cloaked Cold War pain and fear in muted or monstrously disguised symbols. This tentative confrontation with the Bomb in the 1950s found perhaps its clearest representation in science fiction films, a new form of cultural expression attuned to life in the atomic age. Nuclear discourse or dissent did not materialize in direct references to atomic and hydrogen bombs but rather appeared in the skies, deserts and oceans in the shapes of mutated creatures who embodied and displaced atomic panic. In 1951, The Thing warned of invading radioactive vegetable "things" falling from space, and terrifyingly counseled Americans to "watch the skies!" Giant deadly ants from New Mexico menaced the southwestern United States in Them! (1954) and turned out to be the mutated products of the first Trinity atomic blast at Alamogordo. American H‑bomb tests in the Pacific revived a prehistoric monster in the ocean depths near Japan in Godzilla (1956), and Godzilla trampled Tokyo and caused Hiroshima‑like destruction before being killed.

The dangers posed by these mutant creatures were acknowledged but contained, as the monsters consistently met their matches in the guise of military or scientific authorities capable of managing and ending their threats. Containing Cold War fears proved more elusive in the 60s, and authorities fared quite badly in their attempts to control atomic dangers. This seemed especially true for John F. Kennedy, who perilously upped the atomic ante in his tempestuous years as president. When the United States and the Soviet Union battled over the future of Berlin—a skirmish settled by the building of the Berlin Wall—both Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev fearsomely brandished their nuclear arsenals. Kennedy used the crisis atmosphere to urge Americans, in a nationally televised speech, to begin building bomb shelters as soon as possible. A bomb shelter craze ensued, but Americans ultimately rejected the idea of a cowering life underground and instead questioned the policies that demanded such a mole‑like existence. The close brush with thermonuclear annihilation in the Cuban missile crisis only intensified the new anti‑nuclear challenge faced by Kennedy and others in the "establishment."

Young Americans in particular, torn between their attraction to the youth and idealism of Kennedy and their aversion to his atomic adventurism, broke through the sacred Cold War stasis that had enshrined the Bomb and the authorities who worshipped it. Youth rebels in the 1950s had issued the first challenges to this status quo, as Elvis Presley (billed as "the only atomic‑powered singer") gyrated the life‑force of his pelvis against the death‑throes of his civilization, as Beat poet Allen Ginsberg taunted America to "go fuck yourself with your atom bomb." These voices of revolt multiplied in the 1960s, becoming a deafening roar that ruptured atomic age silence and passivity. Young writers like Joseph Heller, Ken Kesey and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. produced black humor novels that attacked the menace of the American Cold War system and its conformist mentality, including Catch‑22, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Cat's Cradle. In the latter novel by Vonnegut, the protagonist Jonah had collected material for a book entitled The Day the World Ended. It was to be about August 6, 1945, the day of the Hiroshima bombing.

This attunement to the life‑ending meaning of the Bomb suffused the 60s, in music, television, politics and film. Musicians bemoaned the links between technology and death in "teenage death songs" (like "Teen Angel" and "Leader of the Pack") and angrily sang rock 'n' roll dirges of the atomic age, such as Barry McGuire's "Eve of Destruction." Television shows attacked atomic age dangers openly, as in select episodes of The Twilight Zone, or allusively illustrated how humans had already mutated as a result of the roles they played in "nuclear families." Bizarre shows from the 60s, from Mr. Ed to The Addams Family, showcased strangely transformed families which at once suggested weird, potentially atomic mutations and at the same time celebrated a liberating nonconformity to Cold War familial norms. Both the New Left and the counterculture of the 60s embraced values inimical to the deadliness of the Bomb and the Cold War, and students took to the streets to demonstrate their unwillingness to cooperate with the system and its authorities—be they parents or presidents.

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb combined these threads of atomic age dissent and confirmed the existence of a cultural revolution in the 1960s. This revolution is perhaps more often associated with the causes that later mushroomed in the decade—civil rights and black power, Vietnam, gay and feminist rights—but its instigation can also be seen in the revolt prompted by the Bomb. It has become fashionable now to question the radical credentials of the 60s, and memories of that decade are just as often shaped by the groovy but "decade‑impaired" images of the Brady family in the periodic filmed remakes of The Brady Bunch. Nonetheless, the 60s were a watershed in American history, especially regarding the Bomb. By showing very simply that the Bomb meant death, 60s culture forwarded a curiously life‑affirming message and a profound belief in change that is largely absent in the more jaded 1990s. The Bomb metaphorically exploded on the American cultural landscape in the 1960s, shattering myths of easy living in the atomic age. Americans learned to start worrying, and to start imagining the possibility—or better, the necessity—of life without the Bomb.