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Dr. Strangelove's 'Doomsday Machine': It's Real

GUY RAZ, host:

Just two years before Bernard Schriever retired from the Air Force, director Stanley Kubrick finished the movie Neil Sheehan just talked about a few minutes ago, "Dr. Strangelove."

In that film, which became a defining Cold War satire, leaders from the United States and Russia worked to prevent a terrible weapon from being triggered.


(Soundbite of film, "Dr. Strangelove")

Mr. Peter BULL (Actor): (As Ambassador Alexi De Sadesky) The Doomsday Machine.

Mr. PETER SELLERS (Actor): (As President Merkin Muffley) The Doomsday Machine? What is that?

RAZ: It was a system designed to unleash global nuclear Armageddon if Russia were attacked. Now, in 1964, that concept was a movie fantasy. What few knew until recently is that in 1984, the Soviet Union actually did build a doomsday machine of sorts. They called it Perimeter. It's discussed in not one but two books released this month and in an article in the latest issue of Wired magazine.

Earlier this week, I spoke with the author of that story, Nicholas Thompson, who also wrote the new book, "The Hawk and the Dove: Paul Nitze, George Kennan, and the history of the Cold War." Thompson explained how Perimeter works.


Mr. NICHOLAS THOMPSON (Author, "The Hawk and the Dove: Paul Nitze, George Kennan, and the history of the Cold War"): If there's a crisis, somebody in the Defense Ministries has to turn it on, so that's the first step. It then tries to find evidence that there's been a nuclear hit on the Soviet Union. If it determines that there has been a hit, then it tries to communicate back to the Defense Ministries. And if it can talk to them, it says, okay, humans are still alive. I don't need to work. I'll shut off.

But if it can't communicate with them, then it knows there's been a crisis. We've been hit by a nuclear warhead and all the lines of communications with the Defense Ministries have been taken out. So now, we need to bypass all the traditional layers of command authority, and suddenly, the ability to launch a nuclear retaliatory strike is given to some junior official in a bunker.

So suddenly, there's the capacity for the Soviet Union - even though the entire leadership is dead - to still strike back and destroy the United States.

RAZ: You did talk to many senior American officials: James Woolsey, former senior CIA director; George Shultz, the former secretary of state, who thought that this was a fantasy. They just didn't believe that anything like this existed.

Mr. THOMPSON: Well, once it's explained - I mean, they believed that it's real once there's evidence and once it's shown. But the amazing thing is that we weren't told about this system. George Shultz, secretary of state when this thing went online, he wasn't told.

And okay, so now why didn't the Soviet Union tell us about it?

RAZ: Right. If it was supposed to be a deterrent, why didn't they tell us?

Mr. THOMPSON: And the reason they didn't tell us, there are a couple of reasons. One, they're extremely secretive. They didn't tell their own arms negotiators. Number two is if you tell the United States about it, there's a better chance that we could disable, or trick it, or destroy it. But then the third reason is that it wasn't built as a classic deterrent. It was built to deter the Soviet Union. It was built to prevent this issue of launch on false warning. And that is the Soviet radars pick up what they think is an American nuclear strike.

Now, it might not be an American nuclear strike. It may be an eclipse or it may be a flock of geese. But they think they only have 10 minutes in order -whether to decide whether to retaliate before they're all killed. If you have this doomsday machine, it means you don't feel like you need to respond immediately.

RAZ: Hmm

Mr. THOMPSON: You can wait and see whether the radars are correct and whether it really is a nuclear strike or whether it's a flock of geese. My sense is that overall, it made us safer.

RAZ: I'm wondering how plausible that theory is, though? If SDI, the Strategic Defense Initiative, which became known as Star Wars, was very consciously designed as a deterrent and was publicized by the United States…


RAZ: …as a deterrent, it seems odd that the Soviets wouldn't do the same with this.

Mr. THOMPSON: Well, the Soviets just thought a lot differently about deterrence theory than we did. I mean, the closest parallel is we had an airborne command center flight during the entire Cold War, so that if the Soviet Union blew up Washington, we could have responded.

RAZ: We had airplanes in the sky 24 hours a day.

Mr. THOMPSON: Right. And that's actually, in its effect, not that different from Soviet doomsday response machine. But there's a big difference, we told the Soviets about it because we wanted to deter them from striking. They didn't tell us because of all these other issues.

RAZ: We should make it clear: this system is still in place. It still exist and could be turned on, right?

Mr. THOMPSON: The system is still in place. It's not on, as far as I understand, it's not on hair-trigger alert. It doesn't play the same central role in Russian nuclear strategy that it played under Soviet nuclear strategy. But according to people we - the people I've talked to, lots of them, many of whom would know, it's still there.

RAZ: Nicholas Thompson is a senior editor at Wired magazine and the author of the new book "The Hawk and the Dove: Paul Nitze, George Kennan and the History of the Cold War." He joined us from New York.

Mr. Thompson, thank you.

Mr. THOMPSON: Thanks a lot for having me here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.