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Suggested Answers to Discussion Questions for
Learning Guide to FAIL-SAFE

1.  [Standard Questions Suitable for Any Film]. No suggested Answers.

2.  Assume that the fail-safe plan used by the United States was, in several ways, the opposite of the plan described in the movie. No bomber could approach the Soviet Union without an explicit order and, once the plane was over target, no bombs could be dropped without another specific order. If no order was given or if communications were lost, the planes were to return to base. Some claim that these assumptions are correct and render the story told by this movie irrelevant. Do you agree that if the fail-safe system actually used was better than the one described in the movie, that the movie loses its relevance? Support your position. Suggested Response: For a discussion of this issue, see StrategyPage.com. It can be argued both ways. Certainly, inaccuracies affect the value of the film. However, history is full of examples of complex systems not performing according to expectations. If that happened to the fail-safe system, missiles would be launched, bombers would fly and the terrible dilemma facing the President of the United States in this film would be real. In our view, the core question posed by "Fail-Safe" remains, which is why we recommend the film.

3.  In the real world in the event of an accidental nuclear strike, would the Soviets have been placated by the American offer to bomb New York? Suggested Response: There is no one right answer to this question. A good answer should view the situation from the Russian point of view. One of the first steps in planning a foreign policy or a military strategy is answering the question, "What will the other side do?"

4.  Read Screenplay Excerpt #3. Do you agree with General Black that Professor Groeteschele has become as bad or worse than his enemy or do you agree with Professor Groeteschele that, in the play, the U.S. should have started a nuclear war? Tell us why. Suggested Response: General Black is correct. Groeteschele has become as bad or worse than his enemy. It is important to make children understand the aggressive nature of Russian Soviet Communism and the collective judgment of the American people that it had to be contained. A good answer will refer to this and conclude that a first strike, no matter how helpful it might have been militarily, was morally repugnant. During the Cold War, there were Americans who felt that Russian Soviet Communism was so aggressive and dangerous that Americans were justified in doing anything to "defend" the country. This included launching a first strike against the Soviet Union. However, a first strike that killed tens of millions of Russians would have been a monstrous act and a crime against humanity; worse than the crimes of the Nazis or the Japanese Imperialists. The decision not to start a nuclear war with a first strike was also the correct decision on practical grounds; the West won the Cold War in 1991 without resorting to nuclear weapons.

5.  Read Screenplay Excerpts #1, 2 and #4. Are we responsible for the distrust caused by our weapons, or are we innocent because the machines are too complex and too fast? Suggested Response: We created the machines. We created the mistrust; and we operated a defective fail-safe system. We cannot escape responsibility. The President is correct. This responsibility applies not only to the decision-makers, but also to some extent to every member of free society who voted (or failed to vote) in elections that elected people who controlled the weapons.

6.  List three defects in the fail-safe system shown in this film. For each defect give the counter argument showing why that feature should have worked or was, in fact, necessary. Suggested Response: The counter arguments are in parentheses. 1) failing to require a direct affirmative order at the time the planes were over target before bombs could be dropped (but then Russian jamming of our radios would be an effective defense); 2) failing to have a backup way to give orders to the planes (was one possible?); 3) not having fighters able to down the bombers (fighters have less fuel capacity than bombers; this would have required refueling the fighters in the air after the planes had proceeded beyond their fail-safe points. It would have been very complex and risky); 4) instructing pilots to ignore their leaders and their families (but then voices can be duplicated); and 5) the Americans in the film had developed a fail-safe system that made them overconfident (given that there was a nuclear stand-off, there was no other choice than to develop a fail-safe system and rely on it to a great extent).

7.  Can nuclear weapons ever be made safe from accidental detonation? In your answer, deal with the issues raised by the list of nuclear accidents contained in Selected Accidents Involving Nuclear Weapons 1950-1993 by Greenpeace [or a similar list developed from other sources.] Suggested Response: There is no one right answer to this question. See response to the next discussion question.

8.  Should we eliminate nuclear weapons if we cannot be sure there will be no accidental detonations? Suggested Response: There is no one right answer to this question. A good answer should include an evaluation of whether the value of deterrence is worth the risk of accident posed by nuclear weapons. You might follow up on this question by asking, what the Soviets would have done, in the context of the movie, had the U.S. responded by unilaterally disarming rather than by destroying New York.

9.  Does the film "Fail-Safe" make you more or less convinced that we need a National Missile Defense system? Suggested Response: There is no one right answer to this question. This question "fast forwards" the discussion to the contemporary debate about whether or not we should develop a system to knock down accidental launches or actions by rogue states.

10.  What are your impressions of Professor Groeteschele? Do you agree or disagree with him? Is he a Cold War relic or do voices such as his have relevance today? Suggested Response: There is no one right answer to this question. A good answer should include an acknowledgment that some experts advocated his position but that a first strike, as he recommended, would have been a crime against humanity. His evaluation of the Russians is a generalization that shows all of the hallmarks of prejudice. There probably were some doctrinaire Marxists who were as cold blooded as he described them, but that did not apply to all of the Russians or their leaders. The makers of the film, as the name Groeteschele suggests, disagreed with his advocacy of a first strike and his attitudes toward the Russians.

11.  Does the breakup of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War mean that an accidental nuclear detonation is less likely to happen? Suggested Response: There is no one right answer to this question. A good answer should include a discussion of the risks of nuclear proliferation caused by the breakup of the Soviet Union and the increased risks as countries with less sophisticated control systems than the U.S. acquire the bomb.

12.  What is the significance of the dream sequence and of the reference to "the matador" at the beginning and end of the film? Suggested Response: The matador is a metaphor for our own self-destructive tendencies. In the dream, as it turns out, we are both the matador and the bull.

13.  Was it a wise policy for the pilots to be ordered to ignore verbal changes of their orders? If not, what other alternative was there? Suggested Response: In retrospect, it was not a wise policy. There is no one right answer to the second part of the question. A good answer should evaluate the alternatives. For example, a code word could be used that changes every mission and is known only to two officers on the ground.

14.  If you had been one of the fighter pilots and had been given an order that clearly meant that you would die on a long shot mission, what would you have done? Suggested Response: Obey, as the fighter pilots did in the film. Men and women in the military are trained to follow orders, even though the orders will lead to their deaths. This is the only way that an army can fight.

15.  Could a similar situation occur today with another major power (Russia, China) or a rogue state (North Korea, Iran)? Suggested Response: There is no one right answer to this question. A good response should look at which other countries have weapons, as well as their policies toward the United States. Use recent events to show the imporance and urgency of this question.

16.  Do terrorists present a greater nuclear threat than the risk of a nuclear war caused by accident? If so, do the issues raised in the movie "Fail-Safe" still matter? Suggested Response: The risk of the accidental use of nuclear weapons is still with us, but beyond that there is no one right answer to this question. A good answer should acknowledge that: (1) accidental nuclear war is still possible and still a real threat, especially with so many other countries having the bomb and (2) since tensions are lower among the major nuclear states, it is less likely that an accident would lead to all out nuclear war.

17.  What would have happened had the situation described in the movie occurred before a direct communications link had been installed between the President and the Soviet Premier? Suggested Response: All out war, most likely.

18.  What steps did the Americans and Soviets take to make the world safer after the early 1960s? Suggested Response: In addition to the system for telephonic contact between the leaders, both countries adopted a policy of détente or a de-escalation of the nuclear confrontation through the ABM Treaty, SALT, START, and other nuclear treaties designed to reduce superpower tensions.

19.  What might have happened had Secretary Swenson and the President followed the suggestions of Professor Groeteschele? Suggested Response: There is no one right answer. A good answer will discuss whether any country could have won a nuclear conflict (even if some of the "experts" thought that we could); raise questions about what winning means in the context of tens of millions of deaths; discuss the concept of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD); and raise the ethical issues involved in a first strike, i.e., it is mass murder and a crime against humanity.

20.  Some, such as Political Science Professor John Mearshimer (see Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, March 31, 1998) credit nuclear weapons with deterring Soviet aggression and preventing World War III. Defend or attack his position. Suggested Response: There is no one right answer. A good answer should note that the Red Army was much larger than the U.S. Armed Forces; that nuclear weapons have a deterrent effect but also the difficulty in proving the cause of a "non-event", for example, it might also be true that there would have been no nuclear war even without MAD. This discussion can be expanded to include the debate on terrorism: How many events do we know were deterred or prevented by increased vigilance?

21.  How might Americans have reacted if it was a Soviet plane that slipped through fail-safe procedures and attacked Washington, D.C. or New York? Would we have accepted a Soviet/American "deal" to destroy Moscow as an act of penance? Suggested Response: There is no one right answer. A good response should allow us to assess whether the Soviet response in the film was realistic or not and should include the concepts of: (a) how the public would react; (b) should the public be restrained by its leaders on this point, if necessary; (c) what would the military do; (d) what would the right wing position be; (e) what would the left wing position be; (f) what would the Christian position be; (g) whether the maintenance of political power by the existing ruler (the President or the Chairman) is a valid consideration in making the decision.

22.  Was there any rational basis for Colonel Cascio's fear that the whole thing was all a Soviet hoax? Did he act correctly? Suggested Response: First and foremost, the officer was wrong because the military must always be subordinate to civilian authority. That is a basic tenet of democracy and of the U.S. Constitution. That is the reason that the President is the "Commander in Chief" of all of the U.S. Armed Forces. In addition, Colonel Cascio wanted to begin WWIII with a first strike by U.S. forces. A sneak attack first strike would have been criminal (e.g. Pearl Harbor), and against U.S. tradition. Was there any justification for his fears? Absolutely. The unprovoked attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese Imperial Navy in 1941 occurred before the Japanese had declared war. There was a history of Soviet expansion in Eastern Europe, Asia, and as close as Cuba. The Cuban Missile Crisis, in which the Soviets had lied to the U.S. and tried to secretly place nuclear missiles in Cuba, showed that there is a history of Soviet deception in the area of nuclear weapons. Finally, the Soviets were at the time actively jamming our radio signals to the planes, a very unusual and a hostile action. While the movie makes Cascio out to be somewhat crazy, there was some basis for his suspicions.


23.  In the film, why do the American bombers continue to fly past their fail-aafe points? Suggested Response: The Soviet jamming of our radio communications prevented the call back order from being received.

24.  Why didn't the pilot listen to the President, his superior officers, or even his wife? Suggested Response: The pilot had been ordered and trained to ignore such messages.

25.  In the movie, what orders are given to the Air Force fighter planes? What happens to them? Suggested Response: They are ordered to use up their fuel trying to catch the bombers and to shoot them down. Whether they succeed or fail to destroy the bombers, the fighter planes will fall into the sea and their pilots will die in the frigid waters of the ocean.

Social-Emotional Learning


1.  Evaluate the leadership qualities of the character of the President. Suggested Response: They were good. He made the hard decisions promptly, without vacillation, and had a reasonable and moral basis for each of his decisions. He didn't try to evade responsibility or pass the buck. The character could be criticized for not trying hard enough to craft a solution that would avoid the destruction of New York, but that was not within the parameters of the story.

2.  What will most likely happen to the President in the aftermath of the crisis? Would this man, as described in the film, really care? Suggested Response: There is no one right answer to the first part of question. As to the second part, he would have cared about his political future if he felt that he was the only person with the experience and motivation necessary to heal the wounds and find a way to prevent accidental war in the future or perhaps to secure disarmament. A good answer will explore whether the President's political career was over; whether he would be held responsible by the American people; whether he would he be put on trial for crimes against humanity; whether he would he be assassinated; whether the American people would understand his decision. In this film the President correctly didn't seem to give a thought to his own political survival.

3.  What did General Black (the Air Force bomber pilot on the mission over New York) do? Why did he do these things? Suggested Response: General Black dropped the bombs himself, took full responsibility for dropping the bombs, and then killed himself. He was acting as a good leader should act, except perhaps for the suicide. It is well known that soldiers ordered to execute people may get upset at pulling the trigger. (This is the reason that in many firing squads, one random blank bullet is given to the soldiers.) As for his suicide, General Black could have lived and worked to ban nuclear weapons or prevent another accidental war. While it is understandable that a man who has been ordered to kill millions of people, including his wife and children, would see no point to life and would want release from the incredible pain that he feels, there was probably a lot that General Black could have done to help prevent another accidental war in the future. He should have stayed around to fulfill that role.

Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.

1.  Was ethics involved in the decision of the President shown in this film? Suggested Response: It was central to it. He always had mind the that the primary goal was saving as many lives as possible. A good way to pursue a discussion of this issue is to ask whether there were any components of his decision that were not ethical. The answer is, yes. He had to factor in what he thought the Soviets would do and how to prevent them from unleashing their nuclear weapons on the U.S.

2.  Who were the stakeholders in the decisions that the American President and the Soviet Premier had to make in this film? Suggested Response: Everyone in the world. There were people who had more at stake than others, such as the people in and around Moscow and New York City.


(Do what you are supposed to do; Persevere: keep on trying!; Always do your best; Use self-control; Be self-disciplined; Think before you act -- consider the consequences; Be accountable for your choices)

3.  How does this pillar of character apply to the actions of the people in this film? Suggested Response: The President made himself and the U.S. accountable for the choices we had made. He honored the Pillar.

4.  In the movie, the Russians jammed communications which would have recalled Group Six to base. Does this absolve the Americans of responsibility? Suggested Response: No. But it made the Russians partly responsible for the destruction of their capital. In a tragedy such as this, there is plenty of blame to go around.


(Be kind; Be compassionate and show you care; Express gratitude; Forgive others; Help people in need)

5.  Should the Soviet Premier have insisted upon the destruction of New York City? Suggested Response: There is no one right answer to this question. We lean toward the following: No. He may have lost his job. It would have been difficult but he and the President should have worked out some other penance for the U.S. and should have agreed to some type of nuclear stand-down. They should have tried. The ultimate push toward such a solution comes from the ethical concept of forgiveness which is part of caring. Ultimately, Russia should have forgiven the U.S. If you were the Soviet Premier, would you rather die knowing that you saved the lives of millions or that you had exacted penance from a great power? We think the answer is obvious.

Last updated December 16, 2007.

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