Tom Schelling, Stanley Kubrick and Dr. Strangelove

January 28, 2014
By Matt Cadwallader, HKS Communications

It is perhaps fitting that the man responsible for the iconic hotline between Washington and Moscow and other policies that helped stave off nuclear catastrophe at the height of the Cold War would also be the one to help Stanley Kubrick start World War 3.

Professor Thomas Schelling, one of the founders of Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) and winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2005 for his contributions to arms control, recounts how an article he wrote sparked Kubrick’s wild imagining of an accidental nuclear Armageddon: “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.”

After being asked by a magazine editor to survey a series of fictional accounts of nuclear war, Schelling became very interested in the book “Red Alert” by British author Peter George. He recalled the story’s plot as "the first plausible, detailed examination of how a war might actually get started.” His article caught the eye of Stanley Kubrick, who quickly secured the rights to “Red Alert.”

Kubrick travelled to Cambridge to meet with Schelling and George. The three spent an afternoon wrestling with a considerable plot hole: when “Red Alert” was written in 1958, inter-continental ballistic missiles were not much of a consideration in a potential U.S.-Soviet showdown. But by 1962, ICBMs had made much of the book’s plot points impossible. The speed at which a missile strike could occur would offer no time for the plot to unfold. "We had a hard time getting a war started,” said Schelling.

Schelling’s involvement with the production ended there. However, his continued contributions to arms control and deterrence were instrumental in keeping nuclear Armageddon in the realm of fiction.

The story is one of several fascinating accounts told by one of the 20th Century’s most original and influential thinkers as part of the Harvard Kennedy School Oral History Project.  Watch the full interview:

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Dr. Strangelove poster

Original film poster for "Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb"

Professor Thomas Schelling, one of the founders of Harvard Kennedy School, recounts how an article he wrote sparked Kubrick’s wild imagining of an accidental nuclear Armageddon: “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.”