Sunday, January 02, 2011


How I learned to start worrying and hate the bomb

By Edward Copeland
Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove has hovered in my all-time top 10 since I was in high school but I never imagined that its central premise, that a lone general gone bonkers could initiate a nuclear attack on the Russians by the U.S., actually understated the case in America from the early 1960s through 1977. That's just one of the revelations you'll find in the documentary Countdown to Zero, which takes a broadbrush approach to the history and current state of nuclear proliferation.

Written and directed by Lucy Walker, the bulk of Countdown to Zero concerns what one assumes would be the biggest nuclear fear in the world today: terrorists getting their hands on a device and exploding it, but despite the fearmongering that comes with that territory, the documentary's most illuminating moments concern the past and other revelations.

Of course, the scariest part of this section is how insecure nuclear materials remain in the former Soviet republics, as in the case of one man who stole an unbelievably large amount of enriched uranium hoping to get rich and only getting caught because the buyers he sought for it were the same ones his friends used to purchase stolen car batteries.

For one thing, decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, both the U.S. and Russia maintain a large arsenal of armed missiles ready to launch at one another at a moment's notice. In 1995, it almost happened accidentally. A rocket was launched to explored the Northern Lights, but somehow the news of this failed to get to Boris Yeltsin in the Kremlin and it registered as a first strike and came perilously close to a retaliation until a luckily sober Yeltsin recognized that it must be a mistake and refused to allow the return volley.

There were plenty of other close calls, some caused by things as simple as a cheap but defective microchip, another by the rising moon. The most frightening revelation, the one that makes Dr. Strangelove seem as if it complicated its plot, was the insistence by former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara that there be a 12-figure code to enable the launch of a nuclear missile, a position the military opposed. So, to piss him off, they made the code 12 zeros and ranks as low as lieutenant knew it and could have set off their own war if they wanted. This system remained unchanged until 1977.

You also learn in what order which countries acquired nuclear weapons and through man-on-the-street interviews how little is known about how many nukes remain in the world. Countdown to Zero seems particularly timely when it recounts the signing of the most recent START treaty, the treaty that loony Republicans wanted to stop. Then again, I imagine Jim DeMint longs for those endtimes.

Countdown to Zero proves informative, even if its early section seems to regurgitate mostly known facts, it makes up for it as the film goes along.

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The thing that worries me is that we actually do have a contingent of military personnel that couch their responsibilities in evangelical terms, believing that Armageddon is a "good thing" as it will hasten the second coming.

For the interested/concerned, check out the book "With God on Our Side: One Man's War Against an Evangelical Coup in America's Military" (, and the upcoming documentary "Waiting for Armageddon" (

Beware, though, there is some VERY disturbing logic at play here.
I'm definitely putting this one in the queue, Ed. Strangelove, along with Lumet's FAIL-SAFE, really opened some eyes during that decade. I also thought HBO's By Dawn's Early Light was a significant film on the subject. Thanks.
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