Carnegie Mellon University

Strategic Fictions: Crisis, Invention, and Discovery in the American Narratives of Nuclear Defense

Author: Doug Davis
Degree: Ph.D. in Literary and Cultural Studies, Carnegie Mellon University, 2003

Doug Davis's dissertation, "Strategic Fictions: Crisis, Invention, and Discovery in the American Narratives of Nuclear Defense," is a study of how the Cold War policy of nuclear deterrence was in essence a labor of telling stories about a future war.  Davis analyzes a diverse body of literature, including national policy documents, scientific texts, journalism, pro- and anti-nuclear propaganda, and numerous works of literary fiction and film that concern the future prospects of nuclear war.  He shows how all these strategic fictions participated in the construction of an American narrative of nuclear defense, a contradictory future imaginary of a world at war that came to define Cold War American global policy. 

Driven by reified concepts of threat and response, the practice of nuclear defense also meant imagining and writing about a future when that defense simply did not work.  Consequently, the American narrative of nuclear defense engendered military and political crises and reversals with its every articulation.  After surveying how this crisis-ridden narrative came to define Cold War American global policy, Davis explores how nuclear defense's crises were negotiated through three case studies of, respectively, Hollywood films about the Air Force (Anthony Mann's Strategic Air Command (1955) and Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove (1964)), postmodernist novels about World War II (Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) and Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow (1973)), and the geological science of impact-extinction theory, the recent scientific theory that the extinction of the dinosaurs was caused by a catastrophic asteroid or comet impact.  Davis concludes by considering how our understanding of Cold War America's strategic fictions of nuclear war may help us understand the strategic fictions of nuclear terrorism that are currently guiding the United States' new National Security Strategy of preemptive war.