Nuclear Friday: George Bailey Wants to Communicate

Watching It’s a Wonderful Life wasn’t much of a holiday tradition until the early eighties.Thanks to careless paperwork during film studio mergers, this film lapsed into public domain. TV stations that owned or could acquire a print of It’s a Wonderful Life smelled the profits, and thus a tradition of “Special Presentations” was born.

As a result, George Bailey from It’s a Wonderful Life is probably Jimmy Stewart’s best known role. That’s kind of a shame because I don’t think it’s his best movie. Most critics would say Vertigo is his best work. I prefer the controversial in its time Anatomy of a Murder. 

But Jimmy Stewart wasn’t just a beloved classic Hollywood actor. He was also Brigadier General James Stewart, USAF Reserve. Stewart was drafted into the Army in 1940 as a private. Because of his Ivy League degree and his experience as a licensed private pilot, he was given an officer’s commission and transferred to multi-engine aircraft school. Stewart always resisted special treatment due to his celebrity status. The Air Corps did give him a “for the duration” assignment as a bomber pilot, so he wasn’t required to fly the full 26 missions (or die) like most pilots would, but Stewart did fly 20 combat sorties in the European air war. These missions included two “Big Week” raids on Berlin  designed to force the Germans to hold fighter reserves in Germany rather than transferring them to France to resist the anticipated cross channel invasion in June 1944.

Stewart was rotated out of combat shortly after D-Day, but kept his rank in the active reserve afterward. After serving as a public representative for the newly independent Air Force for over a decade, he was promoted to reserve Brigadier General in 1959.

And here he is with his brand new stars talking about how communications technology is the key to Cold War security. Watch carefully. This is the birth of the information age:

The movie begins with an animation of a future first strike against the US. I think the video means to depict the late 60s or early 70s. Some of the systems depicted in this animated sequence like the ALBM and the XB-70 that were under development at that time were never deployed. I may get into the reasons they were never deployed in subsequent Nuclear Friday posts, but for now, we should think about Gen. Stewart and his communications systems.

Just look at all those machines! Didn’t you see the fax machines?

But what I really want to know was what are those little soldering gun looking devices that the observers at the SAGE center keep touching to their scopes are? Is this touch screen technology in 1959? I’ve seen similar devices in other videos, but these were trigger devices with probe that looked like an electric guitar cable that had to be inserted into something that looked like an audio jack to avoid accidental launch of nuclear weapons, but this is different. Is the little trigger device touched to the radar scope some kind of analog to digital converter? This film was not widely released, but was never classified. Was it meant to leak to the Soviets that the US had an early form of touch screen technology?

The best part of this movie is the very end when Stewart discusses future plans to harden communications against nuclear attack, including automated routing of data through networked computers. That’s the Internet. This is the earliest citation I can find where anyone ever publicly expressed that the ‘Net should exist.

So why watch George Bailey when you can watch Gen. James Stewart telling you the internet is coming?



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