Col. Strangelove

Peter Sellers’ classic black comedy, Dr. Strangelove, seemed unbelievable – until now. In that 1964 film, Air Force General Jack D. Ripper, starts a nuclear war to wipe out “the commies,” but ends up destroying the world because the Soviets had the ultimate deterrent, a doomsday machine that will destroy the biosphere if any of their cities is nuked. Fast forward to today’s New York Times story about Canadian Col. David Williams pleading guilty to murdering two young women as part of a sexually charged crime spree in which he broke into homes to steal girls’ and young women’s underwear, murdering two in the process. Add photographs that the Colonel took of himself masturbating in the stolen underwear and you have a script that Hollywood would reject as unbelievable. Except that it happened.

Whether or not Col. Williams had access to nuclear weapons is not stated, but he was the commander of Canada’s largest air base and had been cleared to fly top politicians and dignitaries, including Queen Elizabeth II. Even if he didn’t have access to nukes, presumably he was subject to comparable screening. And that screening failed miserably.

That fictional doomsday machine also turns out to have a real life counterpart. David Hoffman’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Dead Hand, details a Soviet era system called Perimetr. If the Soviet leadership were wiped out in a decapitation strike, the dead hand could reach from the grave to launch a retaliatory nuclear strike. It would do this by delegating authority to lower level personnel to launch missiles that would broadcast launch codes allowing the rest of the ICBM fleet to be used.

When will the world wake up to the unacceptable risk of fallible human beings being able to destroy the world? Hopefully before it’s too late.

About Martin Hellman

I am a professor at Stanford University, best known for my invention of public key cryptography -- the technology that protects the secure part of the Internet, such as electronic banking. But, for almost 30 years, my primary interest has been how fallible human beings can survive possessing nuclear weapons, where even one mistake could be catastrophic. My latest project is a book with the audacious subtitle "Creating True Love at Home & Peace on the Planet." Its soon to open website explains: https://anewmap.com.
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2 Responses to Col. Strangelove

  1. Marty, this is a terrific website. Very informative and interesting. It was good to see you at the Marconi meetings, and I wish we had more time to talk. I admire all that you are doing.
    Nancy

  2. Russ Wellen says:

    Dr. Strangelove is one of my all-time favorite movies. Though I think George C. Scott as Gen. Buck Turgidson stole the movie from Peter Sellers.

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