In 1964 something happened that caused great concern in the US public. It wasn’t any international crisis. The use of nuclear weapons was a major concern in the 1964 presidential election, but that wasn’t why so many Americans were worried about something new. This new concern came straight from Hollywood. Both Dr. Strangelove and Fail Safe came out in 1964, and both were about accidental or unauthorized use of nuclear weapons, and both feature the “nuclear hotline”, a communications system set up between the governments of the US and USSR shortly after the Cuban Missile Crisis. Links go to the trailers for the films. I recommend watching them for pure early sixties goodness.
The United States Air Force responded to the concerns with this film that was shown to Air Force staff, and members of Congress. It was classified Official Use Only, not Secret, even though it contains images that would have been secret just a year or two earlier:
The first part of the video uses the term “Positive Control Point” instead of the older term “Fail Safe Point” I think to both disassociate the USAF with Fail Safe and to emphasize that that no bomber can violate USSR airspace without direct orders. Fail Safe made it seem that bombers would go past fail safe points unless they received contrary orders.
Of course, in Dr. Strangelove, the bombers did act under positive control, but it was unauthorized positive control. This video addresses that issue as well. What I found most interesting about this was how similar it was to the scene in Dr. Strangelove when the pilot and communications officer compare code books before the pilot (Major Kong) requests confirmation and only then does Kong open the safe that contains the Attack Plan R orders for each of the crew members. The USAF film specifically addresses this situation by stating that bombers have to receive verbal confirmation, not just digital signals as in Strangelove.
This USAF film also mentions nuclear-armed air defense aircraft and shows a BOMARC missile popping up in its beautiful anti-flash white. I have to say that there were almost no controls over BOMARC and the interceptors carrying the Genie rocket. But you can’t start a nuclear with either of those weapons, so I guess that’s OK. I plan on writing more about the BOMARC as soon as I find out the complete story about why Canadian BOMARCs weren’t covered in the US-Canada nuclear sharing agreement.
Overall, this USAF film confirms that Dr Strangelove is the more technically accurate film of the two 1964 releases. I think this is mostly because of their source materials. Fail Safe is based on a 1962 novel of the same name and is set in the very early seventies. Dr. Strangelove is based on a 1958 novel called Red Alert, which is set in the early sixties.
I hope there will be be a FS vs. DS war in the comments.
In the 1964 election Goldwater used the slogan “In your heart, you know he’s right.” Somehow this became “In your heart, you know he might.” suggesting that Goldwater might be a little eager to drop the bomb. LBJ then released the greatest television ad of all time.