Avoiding Another Dr. Strangelove

The threats of nuclear war is in the news again today. But often our thinking about the threats are stuck in the Cold War. At Facets’ Teach-In last month, Rachel Bronson from the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists explained what’s changed since the days when Dr. Strangelove was the most accurate depiction of nuclear war.

Rewatching Dr. Strangelove

Dr. Strangelove is a classic film made in 1964 at the height of the Cold War, and it is one film that’s always finding new prescience with modern audiences. Along with 1964’s other classic Seven Days in May and more recently In The Loop (2009), there are a number of films which depict the hypothetical decision making processes behind the drama of political catastrophes. As probable as any of these dramatizations feel, for decades these films have seemed like merely hypotheticals and dramatizations of complex and unlikely scenarios. It’s with recent news that the message of Dr. Strangelove has taken on a more serious tone again.

Watching Dr. Strangelove today has gained a sense of reality. For Rachel Bronson, executive director of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, the film points at a way of thinking about nuclear war today that exceeds the apt satire the film has been lauded for since its release. Now it serves as a depiction of outdated thinking on very modern issues.

The problems of antiquated thinking about our nuclear arsenals during a time when more countries are developing nuclear capabilities, weapons development moving toward a more rapid escalation ladder, were the topics of Bronson’s Teach-In at Facets. Last month, after a screening of Dr. Strangelove, Bronson spoke at length about what she views as the issues surrounding nuclear war and disarmament today. She spoke about the differences between the Cold War détente and standoffs occurring today. The discussions extended to mutual assured destruction and what the future of America’s arsenal should be.

The Cold War and Today

Among the first topics of discussion at last month’s Teach-In had to do with what’s changed between nuclear players from the past to today. Shortly after Dr. Strangelove was released, nonproliferation treaties (NPTs) became the framework for moving forward in a nuclear world.

The decades of discussions are less potent now. There are new nuclear armed countries on the map. Many of them have their own rivalries irrespective of the superpower dynamic of the US and USSR. Perhaps most significant though is that America’s understanding of North Korea is limited, perhaps as much as North Korea’s understanding of America.


The deterrent of mutually assured destruction remains a major point of deterrence. Bronson talked about how credible deterrents remain an important part of preventing a nuclear war. At the same time decreasing the room for mistakes and developing commonsense laws against first strikes featured in Bronson’s discussion.

Walking Up an Escalation Ladder

Avoiding the absurdity of a Dr. Strangelove situation is an important concern for Bronson. It’s one she understands to be connected with the steps which escalate a nuclear conflict. Even so, a “Doomsday Device” is not a real concern especially today.

As Bronson points out, smaller and more mobile nuclear devices are of greater concern. Miniaturization is the current goal of any arms race today. Making smaller nuclear weapons which are easier to deploy than the missiles shown in Dr. Strangelove could lead to dangerous consequences. It should not be too easy to use such a destructive weapon. Lowering the point of entering into a nuclear conflict is of concern to Bronson.


Even though deescalation has been the mission of nuclear capable countries for nearly fifty years, the weapons systems themselves should be updated technologically as they are decreased in number. This is the path toward greater protection. The goal, nevertheless, requires pointed investment in our nuclear arsenal.

About Teach-Ins

Facets organizes a Teach-In on a monthly basis. These are free events where the discussion of important topics can be led by experts like Rachel Bronson and are paired with some of the most illuminating films in the film cannon. You can see the entirety of this Teach-In, conversations with experts, and more on Facets’ YouTube channel.

Author: Jimmy Haley is a film student at DePaul University in Chicago. He works on productions around Chicago and is currently an Archival Intern at Facets.

Author: Peter Hogenson has been writing about film for ten years, most recently as a student at the University of Minnesota and as the Editorial Intern at Facets.

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