I was recently a participant at an International Nuclear History Boot Camp at Allumiere, Italy organized by the Nuclear Proliferation International History Project at The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, USA and University of Roma Tre, Rome, Italy. This year, participants represented twelve countries at the Boot Camp, providing a rich environment for nuclear learning from a multi-country perspective.

For all the young scholars from Pakistan and India researching on subjects related to nuclear weapons and their evolution, the International Nuclear History Boot Camp provides an excellent forum for learning from nuclear history from a stellar cast of Professors who have dedicated their life to this discipline. If one really wants to stand on the shoulders of giants then in addition to Google Scholar, NPIHP Nuclear History Boot Camp is where you need to start. The main goal of the NHBC is “to provide participants with a broad understanding of the history of nuclear weapons from 1945 to the present.” In addition “exploring how they influenced policy, why they proliferated in some countries but not in others, and how best to deal with nuclear weapons today” is among the primary objectives of this course.

Sadly the research culture in both Pakistan and India denies access to research scholars to national archives on nuclear related issues, since they are closed to general public and even the foreign policy documents are still confidential even after 67 years of independence. At the NHBC we were taught about the importance of history and historical research in helping us understand the complex international nuclear history, the strategic competition between the US and the Soviet Union, the evolution of their nuclear doctrines, the changing role of the nuclear weapons and their salience throughout history and in recent times. For a Pakistani researcher like me, studying in the U.S. and having access to the U.S. national, presidential and congressional archives has provided me a historical perspective on U.S. foreign policy towards Pakistan, which is exceptional in all its dimensions. I would therefore urge all my fellow researchers to benefit from the research culture U.S. has to offer and apply for advanced research degrees in the U.S. and get involved with projects like NPIHP and Stimson’s South Asian Voices to advance your learning for they provide a forum for young researchers and help them make their voice heard.  The digital archives maintained by NPIHP are a valuable resource for all scholars and can be accessed at http://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/

One part of the NHBC was watching movies related to nuclear weapons or about the effects of nuclear weapons on public psyche and policy during the Cold War. Each evening, Professor Martin J. Sherwin, Pulitzer Prize Winner for his biography of the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer, would open with a short intro to the ‘movie of the day’ followed by a discussion on impressions about the movie from the participants. So one night we watched Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.


 This was the second time I had watched the movie. The first time I watched Dr. Strangelove was when I was doing my Masters in IR from Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad Pakistan in 1998 and though I remembered what the movie was about, I did not remember each scene. (My awareness about the movie existed long before I actually watched it and I used to think until I watched it that it was titled Dr. Strange’glove’, but that is another post for another day.)  After the movie ended, Prof. Sherwin asked all of us to share our perspectives on the movie and as to what it meant for all of us at a personal level. No one had ever asked me this question before and since it had been sixteen years since I had last watched the movie, it did make me think what Dr. Strangelove meant to me as a Pakistani.

I am sure that almost everyone has watched Dr. Strangelove. There is no escaping Stanley Kubrick’s brilliance. I will not comment on the aesthetic genius that Kubrick is but instead will limit to sharing some personal observations on the movie and how it resonates with me on several levels:

Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper goes rogue, authorizes the B-52 bombers to drop nuclear weapons on the Soviet Union (without the knowledge of his immediate superiors or the president) and seals the base after ensuring a total communications shutdown (since he is the only one who has the recall code). As the attack approaches, it is obvious that World War III would begin after the Soviet nuclear retaliation and then there would be no stopping of the nuclear holocaust so many feared during the Cold War.


Though ‘rogue’ is not the term most people would use for Gen. Ripper, for me it was the classic ‘Rogue Military Commander Theory’ (RMCT) similar to the one that is propagated whenever there is a discussion about the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and Taliban gaining access to Pakistan’s nuclear assets through sympathizers either in the military unit or the commander in charge going nuts. It made me think, can Generals really go rogue, I mean, seriously?  Well, Generals have been known to make horrific statements about their enemies, for example, General Thomas S. Power, Commander-in-Chief of USAF Strategic Air Command 1957-1964 once stated: “Restraint? Why are you so concerned with saving their lives? The whole idea is to kill the bastards. At the end of the war if there are two Americans and on Russian left alive, we win!” Scary, isn’t it? Indian and Pakistani Generals have made similar statements about annihilating the enemy during war and also during the times of the crises pre and post nuclearization. In spite of highly charged MAD statements, both sides have exhibited restraint especially since the operationalization of what I call, mutually assured nuclear deterrence (MAND).

The contemporary discourse on concerns about Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and their security uses much of the Cold War hysteria to justify the ‘threat’ by a rogue military commander sympathizing with the terrorists. By making this statement, I do not intend on denying that there is a Taliban threat. There certainly is a threat to the lives of millions of innocent children, women and men in Pakistan and GOP is struggling to restore the internal law and order situation on daily basis, however, Taliban’s or Al-Qaeda’s desire to obtain ‘Pakistani nukes’ cannot be determined from isolated statements or events and generalized across the board. Even though Maulana Hafiz Saeed’s ‘Yom-e-Takbeer’ rally to celebrate the sixteenth anniversary of Pakistan’s nuclearization on May 28th in Islamabad makes me uncomfortable at a very personal level, it does make a strong statement about the sense of ownership and pride every Pakistani feels on the possession of nuclear capability.


In theory, anything is possible. Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are as safe and vulnerable as that of any other NWS and the argument made against this statement is that ‘but you have Taliban’: yes we do have the Taliban and the Al-Qaeda but looking at the nuclear security infrastructure in Pakistan along with the mechanisms that augment that security and then dismissing the ‘institutionalization’ of nuclear security culture as if it is not good enough according to Western standards is an unfair characterization. Pakistanis are at the coalface. They are the ones dying every day. They are the ones dealing with the Taliban and the Al-Qaeda threat directly. They should be given some credit for taking care of the most deadly weapons they possess for a loose nuke situation will be more detrimental for them than it will be for the region or the world at large. While lessons have been learnt from the Cold War like the two-man rule to ensure that no one person misuses authority, Pakistan has gone one step further to institute the three-man rule, requiring authorization of three persons for procedures related to nuclear weapons.

Incidentally, this year also marks the fiftieth anniversary of Dr. Strangelove, which was released in 1964 and Eric Schlosser’s piece in The New Yorker on it is a must read. The most important take-away for me from the movie was when the U.S. President called the Soviet Premier at the height of the crisis from the war room in the presence of Soviet Ambassador. The conversation between the two is the best of what black comedy has to offer but has great significance for me. Both India and Pakistan have luckily survived various crises with nuclear overtones and have had the benefit of U.S. mediation to dissipate the escalation/tension. Both countries are telling the whole world about the credibility of their nuclear structures, how secure their C2 is, how lethal their missiles are but they both are not talking to each other about it. It is high time that both countries sit across each other and talk about how they will be affected by a nuclear accident given how close in proximity they are to each other, how should they respond to each other in case of an inadvertent launch, how can they secure their international border and even the LoC against nuclear sabotage/theft and last but not the least, how can they raise awareness in their public about the consequences of a nuclear war between the two countries. These are real issues and these real issues have serious and direct implications for ordinary Pakistanis and Indians but sadly in the last 16 years we have talked to everyone but each other and our people. Ten years have passed since the Composite Dialogue between the two countries and still, the CBMs remain an ad hoc procedure birthing from crises.

As we enter our 17th year as two Nuclear Weapons States, let us screen Dr. Strangelove one more time in our think tanks, high schools or universities and hold discussions with our younger generation on what their take-home message is from the movie. And moreover, discuss whether things have changed 50 years later or have they stayed the same and become more dangerous. Let us talk to each other away from boundaries and barbed wires and embrace the fact that we as two nuclear neighbors are tied together. Together we can make, break or shape each other’s destinies. Narendra Modis and Nawaz Sharifs of our times will come and go but a stable, peaceful nuclear South Asia should be our legacy at the end of it all.

For all those who have not seen the movie and all those who want to see it again and analyze it from an Indo-Pak context, free viewing is available here



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