Ron Rosenbaum in Slate:
In Strangelove, the doomsday machine was a Soviet system that automatically detonated some 50 cobalt-jacketed hydrogen bombs pre-positioned around the planet if the doomsday system’s sensors detected a nuclear attack on Russian soil. Thus, even an accidental or (as in Strangelove) an unauthorized U.S. nuclear bomb could set off the doomsday machine bombs, releasing enough deadly cobalt fallout to make the Earth uninhabitable for the human species for 93 years. No human hand could stop the fully automated apocalypse.
An extreme fantasy, yes. But according to a new book called Doomsday Men and several papers on the subject by U.S. analysts, it may not have been merely a fantasy. According to these accounts, the Soviets built and activated a variation of a doomsday machine in the mid-’80s. And there is no evidence Putin’s Russia has deactivated the system.
Instead, something was reactivated in Russia last week. I’m referring to the ominous announcement—given insufficient attention by most U.S. media (the Economist made it the opening of a lead editorial on Putin’s Russia)—by Vladimir Putin that Russia has resumed regular “strategic flights” of nuclear bombers. (They may or may not be carrying nuclear bombs, but you can practically hear Putin’s smirking tone as he says, “Our [nuclear bomber] pilots have been grounded for too long. They are happy to start a new life.”)