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How Cold War Thrillers Expressed Presidential Campaign Concerns

Sixty years ago, a moviegoing public still grieving JFK's November 1963 assassination, experienced The Cold War U.S. and national leadership through the lens of the filmmakers who brought them cautionary tales and doomsday thrillers such as "The Best Man," "Fail Safe," "Seven Days in May," and "Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.” As the country concerned itself with possibilities of nuclear war, unknown characteristics of new president Lyndon Johnson and his likely 1964 presidential opponent Senator Barry Goldwater, the doomsday thrillers, combined with Kubrick's dark comedy, drew fans to theaters, playing off the fears that defined an important election year. 

Why so much anxiety about atomic warfare? In October 1962, the U.S. discovered the Soviet Union had a missile base in nearby Cuba. JFK's military advisers on the National Security Council encouraged him to strike Cuba by air, followed by a ground invasion. Kennedy was reluctant to invade the island, in part because a 1961 combined U.S. and Cuban exile invasion known as "The Bay of Pigs" incident failed poorly and raised questions regarding the new president's leadership. Rather than invade Cuba, JFK ordered a naval blockade of the Communist island to prevent additional missile delivery. Tensions rose in the U.S. when Kennedy ordered Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to remove the missiles (about whose presence the Russian leader originally lied). 

The rival superpowers faced each other down for 12 days, as high-level top-secret meetings occupied Washington nights. The U.S. public stood on edge. The stalemate concluded when Russia agreed to disassemble its missiles if the U.S. would remove its nuclear weapons from Turkey. Until such point, U.S. military bases were on high alert, and the nation, down to its youngest schoolchildren, experienced its most serious threat to national security since the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

On November 22, 1963, JFK was slain while riding in his motorcade during an early campaign swing aimed at unifying the progressive and conservative wings of the Democratic Party in Texas. The man arrested for the crime, former U.S. Marine Lee Harvey Oswald, had lived in Russia as a defector and married a Russian woman. In the first confusing hours following the assassination, many Americans grew even more suspicious of Russia. Some even wondered if the murder was part of a Soviet plot. 

Fast forward to the 1964 campaign season. "Dr. Strangelove" was released on January 29, 1964, and "Seven Days in May" premiered two weeks later. "Dr. Strangelove" was loosely based on former RAF fighter pilot Peter George's 1958 novel Red Alert. George, Terry Southern, and Kubrick collaborated on the screenplay. The story depicts a deranged Air Force Brigadier General named "Jack D. Ripper," (portrayed by Sterling Hayden) who orders B-52 bombers to carry out a hydrogen bomb attack on the Soviet Union. Peter Sellers, a former Royal Air Force ground officer and base entertainer, plays three parts: RAF Captain Mandrake, U.S. President Merkin Muffley, and presidential nuclear war advisor (and former Nazi) Dr. Strangelove. When Mandrake learns Ripper has ordered the bombing without consent from The Pentagon, he tries to thwart the general, who then locks both men in his own office. It is then that Mandrake observes Ripper is a rambling madman. In the presidential War Room, General Burk Turgidson (George C. Scott) convinces the president and military braintrust that there isn't time to recall the bombers, which involves knowledge of communicating a secret recall code to the pilots. Instead, Turgidson recommends raiding the Air Force base and arresting Ripper. 

The film's message is that our nuclear fate lies in the hands of human, fallible beings. The first test screening of the movie was scheduled for November 22, 1963, but the president's assassination led to a postponement. Even its release was delayed, as Columbia Pictures believed filmgoers would not be in the mood to enjoy the movie so near the dates of the tragedies in Dallas. A line where Slim Pickens, as Major "King" Kong, says, "...a fella could have a pretty good weekend in Dallas with all that stuff," was changed to substitute "Vegas" for "Dallas." The original screenplay concludes with a pie fight between the men in the War Room. General Turgidson says when the president is hit by a pie, "Gentlemen! Our gallant young president has been struck down in his prime". Kubrick altered the ending after Kennedy was killed.

On July 16, 1964, the GOP nominated Goldwater as its presidential candidate. The Arizonan was fond of saying, "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue." In the aftermath of JFK's murder, popular culture, and particularly cinema, became fixated on the importance and vulnerability of the U.S. presidency. This national focus, fueled by three days of major networks' coverage of the assassination, alleged assassin's capture, and presidential state funeral (four days if one counts JFK's nationally televised funeral on Monday, November 25, 1963), exposed the electorate in the raw form of electronic media, with the tensions and threats inherent in an unexpected presidential succession, or national crisis. Given the Cold War timing of the assassination and the fact the prime suspect was a former U.S. Marine who had defected to the Soviet Union, it stoked the cinematic imagination for related potboilers. In an instant. the U.S. had transformed from a country romanticizing a visionary and vibrant young chief executive with a charming, well-dressed, beautifully coiffed First Lady (who spoke fluent French and Spanish during state visits to foreign lands). Their nursery school-aged children to a society united mostly in mourning, conspiratorial rumors, and mistrust of Russia. 

A 1963 public opinion poll showed that 90 percent of U.S. citizens felt nuclear war was possible. In the dark, immediate hours following the assassination, Lyndon Johnson had been sworn in on an airport tarmac inside Air Force One. Truth was more solemn than any Hollywood thriller. That didn't deter the movie industry from trying. The recent best-selling political suspense novels were adapted for the big screen. With the 1964 presidential election looming, some citizens harbored real-world fears concerning the hawkish nature of the likely GOP nominee, Major General Barry Goldwater. The Arizona senator's campaign slogan, "In Your Heart, You Know He's Right," became the butt of satire. Civil rights activists retorted, "Yeah- way right!". Other progressives derisively chirped, "In Your Guts, You Know He's Nuts."

"Seven Days in May" was based on a 1962 novel by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II. It was the top bestseller on The New York Times list in November and December 1962, right after The Cuban Missile Crisis. The book and film are about an attempted U.S. military coup. In a screenplay by Rod Serling, U.S. president Jordan Lyman, played by Frederic March, signs a nuclear disarmament treaty with the USSR. Most voters disapprove of the agreement, leading to riots outside the White House. Dissent against Lyman builds within the halls of Congress and the upper echelons of the military. A Marine colonel named “Jiggs” Casey (Kirk Douglas) discovers that the Joint Chiefs of Staff, led by their chair James Scott (Burt Lancaster), are plotting a coup. They plan to kidnap Lyman and commandeer the country’s electronic communications systems. Casey alerts Lyman of the conspirators, and the president, though unsure of its veracity, assembles his closest confidants to look into the matter. The drama unfolds when the president cancels an appointment to participate in a scheduled military drill, which he suspects, based on Casey’s information, is a ruse to apprehend him.

President Kennedy had felt the cautionary message of "Seven Days in May" was so significant that he granted director John Frankenheimer a permit to film the riot scene on the Pennsylvania Avenue side of The White House. The movie premiered in D.C. on February 12, 1964. Edmond O’Brien earned an Oscar nomination for his role as longtime Georgia Senator Ray Clark (a play on President Johnson’s human sounding board in the U.S. Senate- Georgia’s Richard Russell)

"The Best Man," directed by Franklin J. Schaffner, was adapted for the screen by Gore Vidal, based on his stage play. It was released on April 5, 1964. The movie depicts the backroom politics involved in major party presidential nominations and stars Henry Fonda, Cliff Robertson, and Lee Tracy. Fonda and Roberston are cast as rivals for their party's presidential bid. Robertson, who had portrayed JFK in "Pt. 109" (the president had favored young Warren Beaty for the lead), plays a conservative senator concerned about the missile gap between the U.S. and USSR. Fonda's character is a former Secretary of State in a failing marriage, in part due to his infidelity. At their party convention in L.A., they battle for the endorsement of a dying former president, played by Tracy (and based on Harry Truman). The ex-president doesn't trust or like either candidate. Robertson's character, Joe Cantwell, comes across some leaked psychological files about Fonda's William Russell. The former president disapproves of the eleventh-hour smear tactic and supports Russell. Russell feels betrayed when he learns former President Hockstader has offered the vice presidency to three minor candidates. A Russell staffer informs Russell that Cantwell can be linked to a gay affair when he was serving in World War Two. The moral arc of the film turns on whether Russell will use this information to secure the nomination.

Real-world politicians knew about public fears of The Bomb. In mid-June 1964, John P. Roche, head of Americans for Democratic Action, a liberal lobbying group, encouraged President Johnson's press secretary, Bill Moyers, to run attack ads against Goldwater. In that era, such ads were rare, and televised campaign ads focused on what the candidate being endorsed would do and stand for. The combination of Goldwater's uncompromised stance on bombing Vietnam and persistent fears of nuclear war changed all that. On Labor Day 1964, at 9:50 p.m., during NBC's broadcast of their "Monday Night Movie," "David and Bathsheba," a Democratic concern aired a Johnson campaign spot that came to be known as "Daisy Girl." In the ad, produced by the agency Doyle Dane Bernbach, a toddler girl plucks petals from a daisy while counting down from ten to one, with a backdrop of an ominous male voiceover counting down to the detonation of a hydrogen bomb. The only other dialogue in the commercial was the concluding "Vote for Lyndon Johnson on November 7th". The ad only aired once.

"Fail Safe" was directed by Sidney Lumet. It, too, was based on a 1962 novel, this one by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler. The book's plot was so similar to 1958's "Red Alert" that the latter's author sued the publishers of "Fail Safe," resulting in a settlement out of court. The movie's premise surrounds U.S. bombers being erroneously deployed to attack Moscow and subsequent efforts to prevent the strike before it happens. Like "The Best Man," it stars Henry Fonda, this time with Walter Matthau, Fritz Weaver, and newcomer Larry Hagman. The film's lobby poster warns, "Fail Safe Will Have You Sitting On The Brink Of Eternity." Though not a comedy like "Dr. Strangelove," "Fail Safe" reminds us that thermonuclear combat may hang by a thread as thin as human discretion or mechanical error.

The movie was released on October 7, 1964, a month before Election Day. It performed poorly at the box office, arriving in the aftermath of the other Cold War thrillers and perhaps too close to Election Day for public comfort. The film was aesthetically daring, filmed without music, with cold black and white cinematography, and generous use of footage of actual U.S. bombers and fighter jets.

In 1965, “Dr. Strangelove” was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Actor (Sellers). It won BAFTA’s award for Best Picture, and Kubrick was voted Best Director by the New York Film Critics Circle.

Four films with common denominators helped define the public and Hollywood mindsets during the 1964 U.S. presidential campaign in varying ways. They hold up well to contemporary viewing, partly because of the divisive nature of recent U.S. presidential politics and partly because Frankenheimer, Kubrick, and Lumet often crafted timeless material. Some of the industry’s most talented actors and directors took part in shaping this alternate yet all too realistic world. 

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