The Doomsday Machine

Tales from the Nuclear Age:

 Copyright 2010 by Charles M. Glassmire 


Oct. 14, 2010

 The Doomsday Machine

          In 1964, director Stanley Kubrick released the motion picture Dr. Strangelove (or How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb).  At that moment America and the Soviet Union were

Movie Poster

heavily engaged in the cold war, and a nuclear exchange between the two countries was quite possible. In the USSR, paranoid fear of the United States was rampant, especially the fear of a US nuclear first strike against them. To the Soviet leaders, the United States’ image was that of an evil capitalist-based but devilishly clever nation, hell bent on world conquest. Similarly (but perhaps less hysterically) in the US, first strike fears of the USSR also circulated.  Strangelove  was a chillingly real but ironic black comedy examination of the dynamics of the international situation then balanced on a razors edge.

          The film tells the fictional story of a rogue cigar smoking US Air Force Base Commander, General Jack D. Ripper (played by Sterling Hayden), who fears the USSR is plotting to destroy his “precious bodily fluids…”.  He explains there is a communist conspiracy to fluoridate the US water supply. In the film he thus releases an unauthorized vengeful nuclear B-52 attack against the Soviet Union.

          Could a single person launch a US nuclear strike? We laughed at the movie, but knew it was impossible, so we said. The government explained all the safeguards which had been installed, and besides, only the President could order missiles and aircraft to attack anyone. When Secretary  McNamara came to power during the administrations of Kennedy and Johnson, he sensed that, in the event of the Presidents death during a war, launch authority might diffuse downward among lower commanders to insure survival of the nation. So he additionally ordered that secret launch codes (called “Permissive Action Links” or PAL’s) be installed in all Minuteman missile silos. So we all knew no one could launch their own personal nuclear war.

          Launch Officer Bruce G. Blair (Ph.D. and now president of CDI) was a SAC missile commander during the early 1970’s. Writing an article dated February 11, 2004  in The Defense Monitor, published by the Center for Defense information, Washington DC, Blair testified to the actual conditions existing in the Minuteman Silos where he served during the 60’s and 70’s.

           [Fearing the PAL locks would interfere with launch orders in the event of war] “… the Strategic Air Command in Omaha quietly decided to set the “locks” to all zeros in order to circumvent this safeguard. During the early to mid-1970’s during my stint as a Minuteman launch officer, they still had not been changed. Our launch checklist in fact instructed us, the firing crew, to double-check the locking panel in our underground launch bunker to ensure that no digits other than zero   [author’s emphasis]  had been inadvertently dialed into the panel…So the “secret unlock codes” during the height of the nuclear crises of the Cold War remained constant at 00000000 …”

          Thus all SAC launch crews knew the launch codes were set to all zeros.  Did anyone bother to tell McNamara?  In 2004 Blair interviewed McNamara. When he told the former Secretary about the lock codes being reduced to zeros, Blair writes the Secretary responded

          “ I am shocked, absolutely shocked and outraged. Who the hell authorized that? …“

          Blair further tells us that the PAL’s were not reset away from zeros until 1977.  An optimist might say, in recognition of this terrifying situation, it is a hugh tribute to the personnel of SAC that this system remained firmly in their control throughout the height of the Cold War.

          But Dr. Strangelove goes on to suggest an even more chilling “fantasy”.  In the film, as General Jack D. Rippers’ nuclear armed wing of B-52’s leave their fail-safe orbits and charge into the enemy airspace, the movie depicts a fantasy Pentagon War Room where all the leaders of the United States gather around a hugh circular table to carefully consider the situation.  (All this in an age of thirty minute reaction time?) Even the Russian Ambassador, Alexei DeSadeski (Peter Bull) has time to drop in on the meeting.  

          General “Buck” Turgidson (George C. Scott – perhaps modeling SAC Commander Curtis LeMay), tries to persuade President Muffley (a Peter Sellers character  modeled after Adlai Stevenson) to take advantage of the situation and press the attack to destroy all the Soviet missiles. Muffley protests angrily that Turgidson told him a SAC personnel program would prevent a single commander from ever launching his own nuclear war. Turgidson grudgingly pouts that he doesn’t think “it’s quite fair to condemn a whole program because of a single slip-up”.

          On the hot-line Red Phone, the Soviet Premier, Dmitri Kisov, is drunk. The Premier tells Muffley if the USSR should suffer a nuclear strike which wipes out their Command Authority, the Soviets have deployed a Doomsday Device which will automatically launch a nuclear counter-attack to destroy America, and will subsequently eliminate all life on Earth. He assures Muffley the system is in place and is activated and is no longer under human control. The terrified Muffley now asks Dr. Strangelove (also played by Peter Sellers) for advice.

          The Strangelove character portrays a wheelchair bound ex-Nazi scientist. He wears coke-bottle eyeglasses and his cigarette is perched precariously in the air between two stiff artificial fingers of his bent right arm. The arm seems paralyzed from an old war wound, but occasionally still goes out of control. Wearing a frozen smile/grimace on his face, when the scientist becomes agitated the arm spontaneously erupts in the Nazi salute, causing him to occasionally shout “Mein Fuhrer” at Muffley.  

          Dr. Strangelove logically explains the Doomsday Machine is perfectly possible, even simple to implement, and outlines the technical details. He gets more and more agitated in the telling. Shouting at the Soviet Ambassador that a Bland Corporation Study has shown that such a device would be a credible deterrent, except that “the whole point of the Doomsday Machine is lost  IF YOU KEEP IT A SECRET!  WHY DIDN’T YOU TELL US” he shouts?  The humbled Ambassador looks at the floor and mumbles they were going to reveal it next week at the Party Congress because Premier Kisov likes surprises …

          So in 1964 we went to the movies, we viewed the Strangelove film as a masterfully creative fantasy, we laughed away our Cold War tensions, and thanked our stars, reassured that in our comfortable rational world such things could never ever occur. 

          Surely not?  Dear Reader, read on …

 (to be continued …)




One Response to “The Doomsday Machine”

  1. Alva Daffner Says:

    Yes, I remember well. Maybe we should all get together to see the movie agaim.

    Do send part e of this piece soon.

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