Cold War comedy reminds graduates
of the responsibilities of diplomats © July 2, 2010, Norwich University Office of Communications

Actor Slim Pickens rides a nuclear warhead to doomsday in an iconic scene from Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 classic, Dr. Strangelove.

Actor Slim Pickens rides a nuclear warhead to doomsday in an iconic scene from Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 satiric classic, Dr. Strangelove.

Prof. Hal Kearsley started his yearly Residency Week lecture with a bang.

A movie screen in Norwich University’s Dole Auditorium erupted with the jarring archival footage of a nuclear explosion from the Operation Crossroads nuclear tests, which started in 1946 in the Pacific Ocean.

“You just saw the Bikini Atoll ... disintegrate into nothingness,” Kearsley told dozens of graduate students from Norwich’s College of Graduate and Continuing Studies [CGCS], who had presumably gathered for a few laughs and a bit of relaxation. Kearsley was using the footage to introduce a screening of Stanley Kubrick’s classic 1964 comedy, Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, starring Peter Sellers and George C. Scott. He has shown it annually to students on the verge of receiving their diplomacy degrees.

SGCS programs are online, but students travel to the Northfield, Vt., campus of Norwich, the country’s oldest private military college, on the week of graduation. In addition to receiving their diplomas, students present final projects, meet other people from their program face-to-face, and connect with the traditions and history of the undergraduate college. Diplomacy is one of nine graduate programs offered by CGCS.

Kearsley, program director for the Master of Arts in Diplomacy [MDY] program, kept the group laughing; banging on a theater seat with his shoe to evoke former Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, calling the initial U.S. nuclear program “defense on the cheap,” and threatening to sing the song played during the movie’s closing credits. But, like the film, his introduction harbored a message behind the levity.

“The real thing is beyond imagination,” said Kearsley, referring to the threat of nuclear war captured in a movie that portrays two Cold War superpowers hurdling toward Armageddon because of one overzealous commander. “It’s too scary. It’s way too scary.”

After detailing historical events leading up to the tense international situation when the film was made, Kearsley spoke about why he thinks it is important. Dr. Strangelove, in addition to being a great film and a fun way to entertain the group, is a terrific provocation to diplomacy students and maintains its relevance today, he said.

“We were trying to figure out, ‘What’s a movie that most people have not seen, but really fits in with the concept of diplomacy and international affairs?’” he said.

Sam Tanner, a CGCS student who lives in the Washington, D.C., area, recalled seeing Dr. Strangelove as a younger man. He agreed the film has retained its relevance, particularly when you view it in light of the modern focus on weapons of mass destruction. The impossibility of controlling WMDs, and the fact that they remain at the heart of anxiety and justification for the war on terror being fought by the U.S., is reflected in the paranoia and militancy depicted in Dr. Strangelove. He’s not certain, however, that the movie is more frightening now than when he viewed it with a Cold War mindset.

“Twenty-five years ago, the Soviets were still alive and kicking,” he said.

Tanner, a Navy pilot working at the Pentagon, added he’s always been fascinated by movie depictions of action aboard combat airplanes. Kubrick’s tense scenes aboard a B-52 bomber, detailing endless progressions of checks, balances, adjusting knobs and verifying procedures in manuals, were pretty realistic, he said.

His career would have made it impossible for Tanner to attend a traditional school, he said. CGCS made higher education possible, even as he was called to duty in the Persian Gulf just days after enrolling. He was able to keep up with his studies during deployment from September 2008 to April 2009, and graduate in June 2010.

“Timing wasn’t right to get a degree at a brick and mortar school,” he said.

At present, his MDY degree is mostly for his own illumination, and he enjoys the newfound insight into the minds of leaders, especially as a career military officer. “It’s nice to know why I’m deployed where I’m deployed ... What it gave me was the ability to listen to policymakers.”

Tanner added it was great to come to Norwich’s brick and mortar campus and meet his online colleagues.

“Everywhere you turn it’s another picture postcard,” he said.

Kearsley said Dr. Strangelove is a perfect film for Residency Week. It evokes laughter and joy, but also is a reminder of the nature of the careers diplomacy students will move into, and the importance to international relations.

“They have some very serious things to face in their future,” said Kearsley. “There’s a reason we don’t show My Fair Lady.”