After the Doomsday Shroud

At the end of “Dr. Strangelove”, the titular character says to the President “I would not rule out the chance to preserve a nucleus of human specimens”, proposing a plan (which he probably had on the shelf since the late Nazi years…) to dig out dwelling space in the deepest mine shafts to wait out the devastation of the “doomsday device” that was automatically triggered when a rogue US unit successfully nuclear-bombed a Soviet target. How they got to that situation is a long story; if you haven’t seen the film you really should, as it’s fantastic, the greatest black comedy of all time in my view.

Yes, there really is such a Thing as a Doomsday Device!

Anyway, what most viewers might not be aware of is that the Soviet “doomsday device” in the film is actually closely based on real research, specifically into the “salted bomb”, a nuclear weapon designed to have enhanced fallout. Ordinary fallout from conventional nuclear weapons has been hyped up as an extinction-level threat, but the truth is it just won’t kill many people or render land uninhabitable outside a relatively small area next to ground zero. Even in the worst-affected areas, you can wait it out in a basement or even inside your house and come out in a few weeks without suffering much danger from radiation. In a “normal” nuclear war the primary threat is from the actual explosions, not getting radiation sickness.

On the other hand, a “salted bomb” creates fallout that lives up to the hype. While conventional fallout is made of radioisotopes that decay rather quickly, a salted bomb is enhanced (“salted”) with radioisotopes that decay relatively slowly, but still are hot enough to have nasty health effects; thus they poison the Earth and everyone on it for an extended period.

In “Dr. Strangelove” the fallout from the “doomsday device” is characterized as a “doomsday shroud” that encircles the Earth for 93 years; terrifyingly, this is actually realistic. Given a sufficiently large number of hydrogen bombs, you could generate enough fallout to kill everybody and render the entire surface of the Earth uninhabitable, at least for a time until the relevant isotopes decayed.

One interesting twist to this plan is that no delivery mechanism is required; since the weapon would kill everybody on Earth from any range, you could just bury them wherever was most convenient until the time came to detonate them. Exactly this construction was used in “Dr. Strangelove”. As the titular character points out, if you merely want to bury bombs the explosive yield can be arbitrarily large.

The Dead Hand: Life imitates Art?

Another aspect of “Dr. Strangelove” is that its “doomsday device” is automated. Perhaps terrifyingly, the Soviets, and now the Russians, do indeed have an automated device to launch nuclear weapons: Perimeter, better known in the West as the “Dead Hand”. Unlike the device in “Dr. Strangelove”, however, it can be turned on and off at will by the Kremlin, and is normally kept off, only turned on in the event of a crisis. Even when it does sense a nuclear attack, it devolves the authority to launch to the men in the silos, rather than launching nuclear weapons itself. If the device in “Dr. Strangelove” was like our real-life Dead Hand, then when the Kremlin realizes it was all a mistake they could have just turned it off, and avoided the devastation of the doomsday device.

A Nucleus of human Specimens

But let’s get back to the scenario of the film: let’s say such a device exists and it’s triggered for whatever reason. What hope is there for the survival of the human race? Dr. Strangelove’s plan to build out underground cities in mine shafts, with nuclear reactors to provide power and presumably some kind of supplies to wait out the next century, is actually a sound one: all that soil will attenuate the radiation to safe levels, and there’s plenty of mine shaft space that could jump-start digging efforts.

The Bringers of Death become the Preservers of Life: toward Nuclear Interplanetary Arks

After my latest viewing of the film, though, it occurs to me there are much more interesting, and better, possibilities than just burrowing underground. In particular, as of 1964, the year the film was made, Project Orion, which proposed to use nuclear pulse propulsion for spaceships, was in active development. Nuclear warheads were already available, courtesy of the world’s nuclear arsenals, and a spaceship big enough to make a whole city, big enough to fit thousands, even millions, of people was within the realm of technical feasibility. Just using steel as the structural material it was thought a spaceship of up to 8 million tons could be constructed.

Indeed, it’s thought that nuclear pulse propulsion was technically feasible as early as the 1950s. A big reason we didn’t see nuclear battleships roaming the solar system in the Eisenhower years was that constructing such a ship would take up large fractions of the gross domestic product. But if everybody’s going to die in a few months or whatever anyway what’s the difference? Realistically, after the end of “Dr. Strangelove” mankind may well have sent a nucleus of specimens, and presumably the technological package of industrial civilization, into outer space on interplanetary arks, rather than digging into deep mine shafts.

Such is even a staple of science-fiction stories where Earth is devastated, destroyed, or otherwise out of the picture, especially when it’s a background detail instead of the story itself being apocalyptic. On the other hand, as of 1964 nuclear pulse propulsion was still experimental at best, so they might have opted for a more proven alternative: nuclear submarines.

The Captain Nemo Option

In 1964 nuclear submarines had already existed for about a decade, and thus a fleet was already available to preserve a nucleus of human specimens in. Unlike conventional submarines, which need to surface and have range limited by their fuel, nuclear submarines can operate submerged for arbitrarily long periods of time without refueling. Water is a very good attenuator of radiation; if anything going underwater might actually be more effective protection than going underground. Also, unlike a mine shaft, a submarine is mobile, which might prove advantageous at some point in the hundred years people will need to hide under the surface.

The limiting factor is supplies, but enough provisions to last a hundred years could easily be provided if deemed necessary. Submarine crews are also all-male (even now there’s very few women), but they could easily be half-female or whatever if deemed necessary, which it would be in this case.

As of 1964 for all I know there are relatively few nuclear submarines available and those that did exist were relatively small, but new vessels could probably be built in a pinch, nuclear submarines far larger than any that have hitherto existed.

Moving back to real life for a bit, since “Dr. Strangelove” the largest nuclear submarines ever built have been the Soviet Typhoon class, big enough to accommodate 160 people with ample space, designed to be submerged for months on end in the course of normal operations, with the capability of being under much longer if necessary. That’s the kind of vessel that could serve as a maritime ark. Put 80 females and 80 males in there and it could have a genetically viable community just by itself!

Toward Submarine Arks

Even larger submarines than the Typhoon class could probably be constructed, much larger. Large enough to house a city of several thousand people in ample space and luxury, together with enough supplies to last for a hundred years, plus a closed ecosystem a la Biosphere II, and samples of all ecologically crucial species so after a hundred years the survivors can surface and rebuild the biosphere on the now-no-longer-radioactive ash and debris that will cover the Earth’s landmasses. Think a cross between Captain Nemo from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Noah’s Ark from the Bible.

Many such vessels could be built, ensuring redundancy in case something happens to a few of them, and ensuring that there will be a genetically viable human population and a fully-functioning biosphere beyond doomsday. Dr. Strangelove proposed to select the survivors according to eugenic criteria, and I suppose that’s an option, but more politically feasible would be selecting people at random from the general population to go into these submarine arks. Realistically, after the end of “Dr. Strangelove” this is probably the option they’d go for.

Why don’t we have Submarine Arks already?

Indeed, so robust would be such a system of nuclear submarine arks that it’s amazing to me we don’t already have a program like that that’s fully operational in real life. Why do the world’s great powers take the chance of devastation in a nuclear war when they could ensure continuity of their peoples, their nations, and of humanity and life on Earth with a relatively modest investment into these submarine arks? That would be the ultimate form of civil defense: such nuclear submarines could withstand any level of radioactive fallout, could be armed with nuclear missiles themselves (for self-defense, if nothing else), and cannot be tracked when submerged. Thus no nuclear attack, not even that of a doomsday device, would affect them.

If I were the leader of a country with the requisite capabilities I’d get cracking!


But then again, I’m also a big fan of civil defense schemes like the idea to provide enough shelter space for the entire population to withstand a direct hit by a nuclear bomb and building out whole towns underground so as to be nuclear-bomb-resistant by design (hint: nuclear tunnel-boring machines could accomplish all this very cheaply), not to mention the Deep Underground Command Center, and even the Strategic Defense Initiative. Mainstream doctrine seems to be to keep whole nations helpless so they’ll fear nuclear war as much as possible, no doubt to manipulate the populace and to use them as human shields in dealings with other powers, which is honestly a despicable way to run a country.

As Stanley Kubrick masterfully illustrated in “Dr. Strangelove”, “Mutual Assured Destruction” is suicide, not strategy. Complacently accepting human extinction is not an option: we can and we must do better.

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