Dr. Strangelove and 16 years of South Asian Nuclearization

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



Posted in , Culture, Deterrence, History, India, India-Pakistan Relations, Nuclear, Nuclear Weapons, Pakistan, Security, Track II

Rabia Akhtar

Rabia Akhtar is Director, Centre for Security, Strategy and Policy Research and heads the School of Integrated Social Sciences at the University of Lahore, Pakistan. She is a member of the Prime Minister’s Advisory Council on Foreign Affairs. She is also a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council South Asia Center. Dr. Akhtar holds a PhD in Security Studies from Kansas State University. She has written extensively on South Asian nuclear security and deterrence dynamics. She is the author of the book ‘The Blind Eye: U.S. Non-proliferation Policy Towards Pakistan from Ford to Clinton’. Dr. Akhtar is also the Editor of Pakistan Politico, Pakistan’s first strategic and foreign affairs magazine. She received her Masters in International Relations from Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad and her Masters in Political Science from Eastern Illinois University, USA. She is also a Fulbright alumna (2010-2015).

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4 thoughts on “Dr. Strangelove and 16 years of South Asian Nuclearization

  1. Pakistan has been the frontline state in the war on terror for last twelve years and there has not been a single nuclear security incident. .In fifteen years after overt nuclearization, Pakistan’s security record has been par excellence and even better than states where 80 years old nuns could break into top secret nuclear facilities

  2. “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.”

    This is very scary because I have not come across anyone from the countries possessing Nuclear Weapons showing any kind of pride of ownership, most being apologetic or remorseful. This distinctively different mindset reflects a thinking these Nuclear Weapons will be useful in resolving disputes, the same way non State actors were created and deployed.
    Secondly, rogue behavior by Pakistani Generals has been the norm rather than exception having overthrown elected leaders, invaded neighbors territory, murdering elected Prime Ministers with sham trials, sponsoring terror attacks, making citizens disappear to trafficking in Nuclear Technology. These can be called rogue behavior everywhere, except in Pakistan which has at times felicitated these misdeeds rather than prosecuting and convicting those involved. One wishes the world would be as comforted by your assurance that the Generals have now become very responsible, there being no proof showing either change of heart or behavior. Fool me once shame on you, fool me twice and multiple times shame on me !

  3. @Daruwala
    “I have not come across anyone from the countries possessing Nuclear Weapons showing any kind of pride of ownership, most being apologetic or remorseful”.

    I am amazed at this statement because the Indians, Americans, Russians, Chinese, British, French and even Israelis that I have met are anything but apologetic or remorseful about the fact that they are the citizens of NWS or that their countries possess nuclear weapons or that they have the weapons to deter the ‘terrorists’ who incidentally don’t have a return address. There is nothing distinctive about the Pakistani mindset. Yes, the celebratory nature of Yom-e-Takbir is distinct (which has toned down in the past 16 years) and though you saw only Hafiz Saeed and his followers out on the streets, this day is a reflection for many Pakistanis about what it means to be a responsible nuclear nation. No one is out on the streets arrogantly making statements about using these weapons. There is a serious realization in Pakistani civil society that nuclear weapons are for deterrence purposes and now that Pakistan has established the credibility of its deterrence, it is time to set our house in order, look inward, rebuild economy and work towards stability in the region.

    I restricted myself from quoting India’s former Army Chief, Gen. Shankar Roy Choudhry who is on record for saying that if Pakistan did not have nuclear weapons, India would have attacked Pakistan in 2001-02 and after Mumbai. To me that fits the bill for rogue General too and such statements of teaching Pakistan a lesson or bringing Pakistan down to its knees is quite the norm on the Indian side. It is unfortunate that such thinking exists on both sides of the divide but the fact is that this lunacy is not the hallmark of any particular military.

  4. @Rabs

    I think there are two issues involved here

    1) I don’t know how it is in Pakistan, but in India there are multiple conversations – One thing said when the “white man” is in the room, quite the opposite when he/she leaves the room. What I’m beginning to realize is that even amongst Indians there are different conversations – frequently contradictory – among different sets of Indians in the room. The IFS for one are past masters at duplicity, variously witholding information from or outright lying to their political masters, frequently with conspiracy theories substituting for actual hard facts – which India cannot collect owing to the miniscule size of our Foreign Service (the IFS sabotaged expansion plans because all of them wanted to become ambassadors). There are a few outstanding exceptions to the rule – but they are just that – outstanding and exceptional diplomats.

    I would suspect that much by way of declassification is withheld to avoid embarrassing and weakening the IFS per se, rather than in any national interest.

    2) Another issue is the documents that are declassified go either to the archives or the Nehru Library. The archives are a black hole – ones documents go in there you they are lost because the department is seen as a “punishment posting” (you cant take any bribes there), with an untrained, underfunded, demoralized staff, sent there to “rot”.

    The Nehru Library is a cesspit of intellectual ossification. You get access only if you’re really famous or write lopsided hagiographies of the Nehru-Gandhi family. It has been historically staffed with family loyalists. So if you’re a new kid on the block trying to write a balanced book – the Nehru Library becomes verboten. Once you prove your ideological affiliations its open to you.

    That said there is circumstantial evidence that Nehru thought himself so smart, that he avoided putting his deepest thoughts down on paper, precisely with a view to avoid being caught out dishing porky pies. There is a rather harsh letter from President Rajendra Prasad, asking him to write things down, not not brief him verbally, as this created considerable embarrassment for the office of the president and the functioning of government. (quoted in Arun Shouries latest book on China)

    I don’t know how Pakistan is – but from what i read in Indian papers, thought control, indoctrination and outright duplicity seem rife on both sides of the border.

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