I happened to be channel surfing this afternoon and landed on Fail Safe, the 1964 Cold War drama by Sidney Lumet and starring Henry Fonda, Walter Matthau, and a very young Larry Hagman. It’s an intense, chilling, and thought-provoking movie, and one that made a huge impression on me when I first saw it on TV as a kid.
Based on the novel by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler, Fail Safe presents us with the possibility of accidental nuclear war with the Soviet Union. U.S. planes on a training mission experience a malfunction and get a signal that their drill isn’t a drill, but a real threat. Their mission is to drop two 20-megaton nuclear devices on Moscow.
With measured diplomacy, the President (Fonda), aided by an Air Force General works with the Russians to help them shoot down our bombers in the hopes that the U.S. planes will be destroyed before reaching their target. The military, under orders from the president must do what it has been drilled into them not to ever do: cooperate with the enemy—and disclose to them our top secret information in a effort to help them shoot down the U.S. planes.
In the end, one plane is destined to get through, putting the president in an impossible position: how to find a way to avoid a full-scale Soviet retaliation. What else could the Soviet Premier do, knowing that Russia’s major metropolis has been annihlated by a nuclear bomb?
In the movie, the president decides he has no alternative to all-out war other than to drop two 20-megaton bombs on New York City (where his wife is visiting). It is a mea culpa designed to avoid global thermonuclear war with the Soviet Union. Some of his generals and political operatives believe he is not just misguided, but insane, instead seeing the crisis as pretext to go full-scale attack and take out those pesky Russians once and for all.
It is a brilliant movie (and novel, by the way). I’ve seen it countless times, and each time, even knowing the ending, it still chills me to the core.
It’s interesting that I happened to catch it here, just as the 2012 presidential election is about to heat up into the final fall push. I often think about Fail Safe during presidential elections, wondering how each of the candidates would confront the sort of impossible situation Fail Safe’s president (interesting, he is not named in the movie) faces. Which would pull us back from the brink, and which would dive heedless into the chasm full speed ahead, ready to exploit the crisis?
Every president confronts terrifying crises; it goes along with the territory. Some of them are horrific, even no-win, and I have to wonder which of our current candidates has the courage to make the sort of politically suicidal decision Henry Fonda’s president must in Fail Safe.
Which one of our candidates, President Barack Obama or former Governor Mitt Romney, would have the cojones to do the right thing, even if that means we shoot down our own planes, or (God forbid) obliterate an entire American city? And which would refuse to apologize for a terrible American mistake that had tragic consequences? Which one would be influenced by those who see in the tragedy an opportunity to flex American muscle, even if it means ultimately making us less secure?
The U.S. makes mistakes, sometimes individual military personnel make them, sometimes our contract mercenaries; sometimes errors of judgment happen up (far up) the chain of command. Do we insist on the doctrine that we are flawless, and therefore do not make mistakes as a world power, refusing to apologize or make amends? In fact, is the propoer response to up the rhetoric or rattle our sabre louder to exploit a tragic situation?
Mitt Romney and the Republicans scorn what they call President Obama’s “apology tour” early in his term. The president’s efforts to repair our extremely tarnished foreign policy reputation through careful diplomacy has been called weakness and derided as “European” or “anti-colonialist,” or worse.
Hearing Romney’s jingoistic rhetoric during his acceptance speech Thursday night makes me wonder how a President Romney might frame America’s foreign policy. And watching Fail Safe again makes me shudder to think what a President Romney would do if we should again find ourselves on the brink of war.