In recent months, I have grappled frequently with the idea that a form of fascism may be rising in America. Recent events have surprised me, as they have shocked others. But the other day, I remembered a paper I wrote nearly 5 years ago in a Cold War literature class, and it reminded me that I should not be surprised at all. Stanley Kubrick gave us a pretty great idea of how America would fall prey to fascist ideals, albeit in a more existential and oblique way. Here’s the text of that essay, unaltered from its original submission in November 2011.
During the Cold War, America was ostensibly fighting the Soviet Union. However, in his 1964 film “Dr. Strangelove,” Stanley Kubrick makes the case that while locked in this battle, the country was still plagued by the remnants of fascism lingering from World War II. Through the proceedings of the United States government with former Nazi scientist Dr. Strangelove in the War Room, Kubrick shows that in the efforts of President Merkin Muffley and his advisors to prevent a state-executed nuclear holocaust, the country falls prey to fascist ideals.
America was so committed to destroying fascism in World War II that they were even willing to ally with the Soviet Union, a nation with a conflicting political ideology. At the war’s outset, both countries feared the rapid expansionist policies of Hitler. But as the clash continued, they also grew to fear the Nazi’s dehumanizing and barbaric applications of technology to commit genocide sanctioned by the highest-ranking officials of the party, including Hitler himself. The two countries ultimately forced Nazi capitulation and dismantled the fascist government, writing the history of the war as if bringing Hitler to his demise was tantamount to destroying the most perniciously evil being on the planet.
President Muffley fears even being mentioned in the same sentence as the Fuhrer, judging his own decisions against the notorious legacy: “I will not go down in history as the greatest mass murderer since Adolf Hitler.” With the development of the atomic bomb – a testament to human scientific progress yet also a means to achieve ends of Nazi proportions – world superpowers the Soviet Union and the United States began to stock up on nuclear weapons to keep the world from destroying itself. To maintain this fragile peace, they kept the world in a climate of fear as an apocalyptic meltdown loomed.
History defines the Cold War in terms like deterrence and mutually assured destruction; Kubrick, however, has a different vocabulary for the contentions between America and Russia. Through satire, he breaks down what he perceives to be the ridiculousness of such strategies to a juvenile game of comparing penis size. The drive for war is tied into the male sex drive through consistent use of phallic imagery, ranging from cigars and missiles to a fuel nozzle. Many of the characters carry sexually connotative names, including references to male studs (General Buck Turgidson), perversity (Dr. Strangelove), and aphrodisiacs (Captain Mandrake).
One character that does not fit the mold is President Merkin Muffley, whose first and last names are slang references to the female pubic region. The contrast between he and the generals is further drawn by exaggerated physical differences. While Turgidson and the other men in the War Room are big, bulky men with deep voices, Muffley is balding, timid, and nebbish and talks in higher, nasal tones. Such a characterization of the most powerful man in the country hardly conjures an image comparable to the fiery, militaristic Adolf Hitler.
At the beginning of the film, Muffley appears immune to many of the ideas of the other generals in the War Room. He can reason conscientiously in the presence of these men, taking into account the lessons of history before hastily jumping to a decision. Muffley is able to make clear distinctions even when pressured by grandiosely worded arguments:
TURGIDSON. Mr. President, we are rapidly approaching a moment of truth both for ourselves as human beings and for the life of our nation. Now, the truth is not always a pleasant thing, but it is necessary now make a choice, to choose between two admittedly regrettable, but nevertheless, distinguishable post-war environments: one where you got twenty million people killed, and the other where you got a hundred and fifty million people killed.
MUFFLEY. You’re talking about mass murder, General, not war.
Turgidson’s rhetoric employs an appeal to pathos, a ploy that Muffley can reject because it requires him to personally make the choice to kill millions of people. He equates such a deliberate decision with Hitler’s calculated extermination of those he considered less superior. Muffley also fears another parallel between himself and Hitler because the Nazi dictator also claimed justification for slaughter by saying it served his country’s best interests.
However, Dr. Strangelove exposes that the President’s fear may only be of the image associated with fascism. The femininity implied by Muffley’s appearance and name suggest that he is more prone to be swayed by logical and intellectual arguments than the testosterone-fueled generals. With the world in peril, Muffley turns specifically to Strangelove for advice on how to proceed in the face of – and later, the aftermath of – the triggering of the Doomsday Machine.
Strangelove, the director of weapons research and development for the United States, is a brilliant ex-Nazi scientist bound to a wheelchair. Dr. Strangelove champions the computerization of the Doomsday Machine, claiming that it becomes all the more effective because it lacks the human element to make the decision to stop it: “Because of the automated and irrevocable decision making process which rules out human meddling, the doomsday machine is terrifying.”
Muffley initially fears the machine when informed of its existence, but once told that he would not have to be implicated in triggering it, he calls it “fantastic.” Unlike when talking with Turgidson, he is now comfortable with the idea of causing the death of millions only because the killing will be impersonal. While this development might disassociate him with the face of Nazi Germany, Muffley appears to have failed to realize that, ironically, he is advocating the use of technology to achieve similar outcomes.
The ease of lapsing into fascism is most evident in the final scene. After the bomb Major Kong rides into the ground detonates, the world is in ruins and on the brink of apocalypse. With a nuclear holocaust on the horizon, Dr. Strangelove begins to propose mineshaft survival measures that sound eerily reminiscent to Nazi programs like the Final Solution and eugenics. He encounters slight opposition from Muffley though:
MUFFLEY. I would hate to have to decide who stays up and who goes down.
STRANGELOVE. That would not be necessary, Mr. President. A computer could be set and programmed to accept factors from youth, health, sexual fertility, intelligence, and a cross section of necessary skills.
Muffley gives a tacit approval to Strangelove’s ideas by not really questioning their validity. Much like with the Doomsday Machine, Dr. Strangelove is able to allay the President’s fears by adding in the allure of technology, thus removing a sense of personal responsibility from whatever occurs. At the same time, Strangelove is enabling Muffley to commit a much more systematic extermination than the Nazis could have ever carried out because of the advanced technological capabilities of the United States without having to outwardly look as treacherous as Hitler.
Kubrick juxtaposes Muffley’s regression to fascist ideals with Dr. Strangelove’s bodily relapse back into its old Nazi habits. When asked by President Muffley if it would truly be possible for humans to survive in the mineshafts for 100 years, Strangelove’s voice gets higher and faster in excitement; he also refers to the President as “Mein Fuhrer,” a slip he quickly corrects. Soon after, his right hand begins acting up, seig-heiling Muffley against his will after exalting the values of the military.
After he furiously beats it into submission, his wayward right hand curls up under his chin in the pose of the famous statue “The Thinker” and then proceeds to choke him. This image harkens back to one of Kubrick’s central messages: anyone, even a genius that can ponder the deepest questions of humanity and existence, can be strangled by the impulses of their right side. Here, the right side is literally Strangelove’s spastic hand, but figuratively, it is the ultra-right leanings of fascism.
Even as Dr. Strangelove begins to outwardly show his fascist tendencies, Muffley and General Turgidson do not question his political motivations. In fact, they even seem to contemplate it further. While Muffley sits in pensive silence, Turgidson begins to apply his American sexually driven jingoism to Strangelove’s Nazi ideas:
TURGIDSON. We must be increasingly on the alert to prevent them from taking over other mineshaft space, in order to breed more prodigiously than we do, thus, knocking us out in superior numbers when we emerge! Mr. President, we must not allow a mineshaft gap!
Turgidson’s comment demonstrates that Strangelove’s intellectual fascism has quickly become intertwined with the American ideology. Immediately following this outburst, Dr. Strangelove gets up out his wheelchair and begins to walk, declaring: “I have a plan … Mein Fuhrer! I can walk!” His rise from the wheelchair and subsequent unapologetic reference to Muffley as his Fuhrer echoes what Kubrick views as a nascent American fascism coming to full bloom.
Strangelove, like the political ideology he supports, was not exterminated by World War II but only confined to a wheelchair and imported to the United States in a weakened form. Dr. Strangelove and fascism both lurk in the secret depths of the American government, waiting to attach itself to the masculine-fueled drive for war and experience a revival. In a film replete with irony, perhaps the cruelest and hardest to face is Kubrick’s prediction that the United States will one day come to resemble the very thing it fought to eradicate.
Despite being satirical in tone, Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove” offers many criticisms of American culture not confined to just the Cold War epoch. During a time when an insidious enemy threatens to destroy the fabric of society itself, it becomes all too easy to look to the horizon and let the foundations of America rot. If policing communism – or any other threat – means a regression into fascist ideals, the United States may not be a savior but rather a danger to the world and to itself. In their strenuous effort not to look bad, Kubrick suggests that America may have forgotten to actually be good.
If the country cannot change its ways, perhaps the United States is headed down a path similar to the one tread by the Weimar Republic, Germany’s post-World War I government. In a volatile world shaken up by global conflict, it easily fell victim to forces that would commit monstrous atrocities.