At the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Stanley Kubrick was living in England. He decided that it was not safe there and he should move his family to Australia. Since he refused to fly commercially, he booked passage on a boat. But when he found that he would have to share the bathroom facilities with a neighbouring cabin he cancelled the whole thing, preferring to take his chances with the bomb.
He had studied the RAND Corporation’s game theory analyses of nuclear deterrence, and read Herman Kahn, who thought the planet could survive a few megadeaths. He came to the conclusion that all of this was delusional. Every strategy led to paradox and none could anticipate reality. This is what inspired him to make Dr Strangelove.
The film came out in 1964, when there was still above ground nuclear testing. The last such test was by the Chinese in 1980. That nobody does them any more is a good thing, given the dangers of fallout, but it has had the effect of turning nuclear weapons into something of an abstraction. I come from a generation of schoolchildren who were taught to hide under our desks in case of a nuclear raid. I sometimes wish there could be a demonstration test of a hydrogen bomb. I saw two nuclear bomb tests in the Nevada desert in 1957, and it is a sight you never forget. Observing such a test might be of special value to Donald Trump, whose comments on nuclear weapons have become more and more inane and more and more dangerous.
‘Let it be an arms race,’ the president elect said on MSNBC before Christmas. ‘We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all.’ What can this possibly mean? Who are ‘they’ and how will we outmatch ‘them’? Is this a contest to build more and bigger and bigger bombs? Is it some sort of endurance race in which we will ‘outlast them all’? In these matters President Putin sounds more rational than Trump. He has said his goal is to modernise Russia’s nuclear weapons and limit the cost. A case can be made for modernising America’s weapons too. This would cost a trillion dollars or so.
Who knows what Trump’s plan – if there is a plan – will cost? What does he plan to do about North Korea, which seems to be approaching full nuclear status? This is especially acute if he continues to alienate the Chinese, who might be able to put a brake on the Korean programme. He is like someone in a bumper car at a fairground, lurching from place to place, babbling incoherently. Even Stanley Kubrick could not have invented Donald Trump and even Australia may not be safe.