Who Was Dr. Strangelove?

Stanley Kubrick died Sunday. Of all the film characters he created, perhaps none is as memorable as Doctor Strangelove, as played by the incomparable Peter Sellers. (For a picture, click here.) Strangelove–the icy technocrat who also happens to be a Nazi, the oddball defense strategist sexually aroused by the thought of nuclear war–is particularly creepy because he is a twisted exaggeration of a familiar type. Which raises the question: Which real-life figures inspired Kubrick’s creation?

Many incorrectly suspect that Henry Kissinger was Kubrick’s model. While it is true that Kissinger had thick glasses and an even thicker accent, he was still a relatively obscure professor at Harvard in 1964 when the movie was released. (Kissinger didn’t became National Security Advisor until 1969.) Of course, we cannot rule out the possibility that Kissinger subsequently modeled himself, consciously or subconsciously, after Strangelove.

America’s best-known nuclear strategist in 1964 was American-born Herman Kahn, a physicist, RAND Corporation think-tanker, and author of On Thermonuclear War. (Kahn’s most famous argument was that some people would probably survive a nuclear war.) In the movie, Strangelove mentions an association with the “Bland Corporation” and argues that nuclear war is survivable. Kahn himself allowed that the character was “part Henry Kissinger, part myself, with a touch of Wernher von Braun.”

Von Braun, the rocket scientist, was probably the source for Strangelove’s poorly repressed Nazism. (Here’s an audio clip of the excited Strangelove mistakenly calling the President “Mein Fuhrer!”) Von Braun developed the V-2 during World War II for Hitler, emigrated to the USA to create rockets for NASA, and became something of national hero in the space agency’s heyday of the 1960s. Mort Sahl once quipped that von Braun’s autobiography I Aimed For the Stars should have been subtitled “but Sometimes I Hit London.”

Another influence was surely Edward Teller, the thickly-accented physicist-cum-technocrat who developed the H-bomb. Teller had an instrumental role in scuttling Robert Oppenheimer’s career and many liberals considered him a scary warmonger. Finally, some say that Sellers derived Strangelove’s astonishing accent from Weegee, a well-known New York photographer of the period who emigrated from Ukraine.

Next question?

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