It has been fifty years since the release of Stanley Kubrick’s dark look at the Cold War, 1964’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. In that time, we have inched no closer to world peace, but at the very least we emerged from the Cold War relatively unscathed.
Still, even with the Cold War a thing of the past, cinematically destined to remain the topic of 80s nostalgia, the world is not threat-free. In fact, some may say with the world getting smaller and smaller thanks to technology (primarily via the internet and social media), global threats are as real as ever. Kubrick’s film examines the theoretical use of a doomsday device, which threatens to wipe out all life on the planet.
Today, with ongoing overseas military conflicts, brutal terror attacks, and increasing patriotic paranoia, this got me wondering: Is the world in danger of annihilation from a doomsday device?
This got me thinking: Has the planet ever been in danger of a doomsday device?
The Answer: Pravda says nyet. (But can we really trust them?)
While a subject of various science fiction films and gaming systems, a doomsday device is nothing unique to Dr. Strangelove. However, the film sets up the parameters of such a device rather well. During the Cold War, the U.S. proliferated its cache of nuclear weapons as part of their mutual assured destruction strategy. In other words, knowing it had more resources than the Soviet Union, America imposed such a threat that even if a country managed a first strike, the retaliation would be so powerful and ubiquitous that neither side would emerge the winner.
In Dr. Strangelove, due to the wayward actions of a psychopathically disturbed general, a fleet of U.S. bombers are sent into Russian air space to take out the enemy’s retaliatory bases. However, unbeknownst to the Americans, the Russians had just initiated a doomsday device which would be launched by a computer given the proper conditions. The result being a buried cache of fictitious “cobalt thorium G” nuclear weapons would explode and contaminate the earth with radiation for more than 100 years.
As the character of Dr. Strangelove (Peter Sellers) points out in the film, this is not “a practical deterrent,” and “the whole point of a doomsday machine is lost if you keep it a secret.” Sadly, the events of the film occurred only a few days before the Russians were planning on announcing their device to the world, thus completing the circular threat of mutual assured destruction.
The general idea for doomsday devices in this scenario is that they 1) wipe out all life on earth, and 2) have the human element removed to assure they are, in fact, triggered automatically.
Of course, the earth clearly has never been destroyed by a doomsday weapon (thanks to the work of the X-Men during the Cuban Missile Crisis, of course), but that doesn’t mean a real weapon hasn’t been developed, so…
Was there ever a doomsday device?
However, the Russians did develop a device in the 1980s that sounds eerily like the system presented in Dr. Strangelove. The Dead Hand system was developed in order for the Russian military to strike back in the case of an American first strike. Using a computer system known as Perimetr, the program would scan for indications of a nuclear attack, including seismic activity and radar data. If it detected a nuclear attack, Perimetr was capable of launching its missiles back at the U.S.
Now, aside from the terrifyingly automated nature of this system, there is one major difference between Dead Hand and the one seen in Dr. Strangelove: No cobalt bombs, fictional or otherwise.
Cobalt bombs have been theorized for more than 60 years, mainly as a demonstration of the lethal nature of the nuclear age. These weapons would seed a bomb with cobalt which, upon detonation, would become radioactive and poison the earth for up to 25 years. It results in a common total war military strategy of salting the earth and making it inhabitable, and thus negating the advantages of the spoils of war.
Still, even without the doomsday nature of cobalt bombs, the automated delivery of Dead Hand by Perimetr is chilling. As pointed out in the 80s Cold War thriller WarGames, a lot of people would be more comfortable with a human brain and human conscience attached to a human hand pushing a button instead of a cold, inhuman, calculating computer.
Even more chilling is the fact that there are several reports that indicate the old Soviet system is still in place and operational today. Few of us have a car that still works after 35 years, let alone a automated nuclear retaliation system. What could possibly go wrong? After all, the Russians did such a great job making the Olympics go smoothly.
Even if we trust Russian to handle their Cold War-era weapons…
What else do we have to be afraid of?
Doomsday devices don’t stop at nuclear weapons. Heck, they didn’t even start there. Dozens of scenarios for globally-catastrophic weapons have been conceived over the years.
This summer, some speculated that nature developed its own biological warfare with the Ebola virus, and some have warned that the emerging militant group ISIS might try to use the virus as a doomsday weapon. The only saving grace of this scenario is the virus can be contained with modern medicine and would be more likely to strike terror into a population than to wipe out human life on this planet.
Other potential doomsday devices include an e-bomb, or an electromagnetic pulse, which could wipe out most technology in a large geographic area. With continuous conflicts in the Middle East, tensions between India and Pakistan, terrorism worldwide, ISIS, and a crazy North Korean dictator left alive without the intervention of Seth Rogen and James Franco, it’s a wonder we’re still alive at all.
And to put a really predictable depressing spin on this entire scenario, the blueprint for a weapon with doomsday capabilities was designed years ago by the United States. The weapon, known as Project Pluto or “the flying crowbar” was a cruise missile with a nuclear-powered jet engine. Not only was it designed to deliver a payload of nuclear bombs to a foreign target, its use went far beyond that. After delivering its payload, the missile could be designed to fly over a geographic area, spewing radioactive fallout from its unshielded nuclear engine. No need to seed a bomb with cobalt here. Just send a never-ending cruise missile over your enemy and salt the earth while you stay warm, cozy and radiation free on your own side of the ocean.
The world of Dr. Strangelove doesn’t seem so crazy any more, does it?
“We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when, but I know we’ll meet again, some sunny day.”