LEARNING GUIDE TO:
SUBJECTS — U.S./1945 - 1991; World/Cold WarAge: 14+; No MPAA Rating; 1964, Drama; 112 minutes; B & W; Available from Amazon.com.
Description: It's the middle of the Cold War. Armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. (Russia) stand toe to toe, ready to destroy each other, and the world, on a moments' notice. The countries rely upon the logic of Mutual Assured Destruction to prevent war. One day, due to a mechanical failure, a group of U.S. war planes, armed with hydrogen bombs, flies off toward the Soviet Union. It's target is Moscow. It doesn't respond to orders to return. WHAT DO WE DO NOW?!!!
The President of the United States is called upon to make quick and important decisions. How can he assure the Soviet Premier that this is not the start of an all out nuclear attack? If the bombers cannot be stopped, how does he propose to convince the Soviet Union not to launch an attack that will destroy the United States? Or, as some advise, should he simply order an all out first strike and start WWIII with a big advantage?
The movie is based on a best selling novel of the same name by Harvey Wheeler and Eugene Burdick. The experience of viewing this film will be enhanced if used at part of TeachWithMovies.com's Lesson Plan on Mass Casualties and Making Decisions About War.
Benefits of the Movie: "Fail-Safe" serves as a reminder that, while nuclear tensions have diminished, there are still thousands of nuclear weapons in arsenals around the world. See Estimates by the Natural Resources Defense Council. Additionally, several nations who do not already have nuclear weapons are trying to build them. The chances of an unintended launch of a missile or of a nuclear accident remain all too real. See CNN site on nuclear weapons accidents.
In 2000, after the end of the Cold War, a remake of "Fail-Safe" on television attracted more than 20 million viewers. See Fail Safe Remains a Tale for Our Times. This indicates a continuing interest in the story and in the issues that it presents.
Possible Problems: MODERATE. A woman makes a pass at Professor Groeteschele, the villain of the film. He slaps her. The film begins with a dream sequence showing the agony of a bull being killed in a bullfight. While this sequence adds a layer of meaning to the film, it is not essential. Children who are sensitive and who are empathic towards animals should be warned and perhaps they should skip the first 60 seconds of the film (until the end of the dream sequence). One of the characters, under extreme provocation, commits suicide. There is mild profanity in the movie. The words "damn" and "hell" are used several times.
The dramatic tension in "Fail-Safe" builds slowly through the first 25 minutes. It may be necessary to remind children during this time that the drama will become intense as the film unfolds its gripping tale.
Some critics claim that the fears of accidental nuclear war are exaggerated and that the fail-safe system shown in the movie is much different than those actually employed by the United States. See compendium of critiques and defenses of the film at StrategyPage.com. The points of the critics are important and should be discussed with children who see the film. The debate over whether the film is inaccurate, and whether that even matters, is an excellent way to lead children to the benefits of this film. See Discussion Question #2.
Parenting Points: Ask and help your child to answer the Quick Discussion Question. Be sure to mention that in 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force strongly advised that the U.S. start a pre-emptive nuclear war against the Soviet Union. Fortunately, President Kennedy ignored this advice. See Learning Guide to "Thirteen Days". Acquaint your child with the terms Mutually Assured Destruction and Brinksmanship. If your child is interested in the topic review some of the other discussion questions.
Selected Awards, Cast and Director:
Featured Actors: Dan O'Herlihy, Walter Matthau, Frank Overton, Ed Binns, Fritz Weaver, Henry Fonda, Larry Hagman, William Hansen, Russell Hardie, Russell Collins, Sorrell Booke.
Director: Sidney Lumet.
QUICK DISCUSSION QUESTION: Read Screenplay Excerpt #3. Do you agree with General Black or with Professor Groeteschele? Tell us why.
Suggested Response: This hypothetical is based upon real events that occurred during the Cuban Missile Crisis of October, 1962. At that time General Curtis LeMay, Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force, thought that nuclear war with the Soviet Union was inevitable and wanted it to occur before the U.S. lost its 18 to 1 edge in nuclear missiles. He saw the Cuban Missile Crisis as a golden opportunity for this war. (Defense Secretary Robert McNamara interviewed in "The Fog of War") President Kennedy was horrified that anyone would contemplate this idea and managed to resolve the crisis without a nuclear war. See Learning Guide to "Thirteen Days".
Nuclear war is not a viable option for any country because of the incredibly high casualties. Any country that would launch a nuclear war with an unprovoked first strike, even at its mortal enemy, commits an atrocity worse than the Holocaust.
Groeteschele's attempted argument about the Jews using guns on the Nazis, has no application to the question of whether a country should launch an unprovoked nuclear first strike. Individual acts of self-defense are not the same as mass murder.
World War II ended with the explosion of atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As the Eastern and Western blocs settled into a cold war, more countries acquired the bomb. Nuclear weapons also became more lethal. Hydrogen bombs, developed in the early 1950s, are far more powerful than their atomic counterparts. In the topsy-turvy world of nuclear policy, the development of the hydrogen bomb was presented as an attempt to ensure peace and security:
Statement by President Harry S. Truman
on the Hydrogen Bomb -- January 31 1950
It is part of my responsibility as Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces to see to it that our country is able to defend itself against any possible aggressor. Accordingly, I have directed the Atomic Energy Commission to continue its work on all forms of atomic weapons, including the so called hydrogen or super bomb. Like all other work in the field of atomic weapons, it is being and will be carried forward on a basis consistent with the overall objectives of our program for peace and security.Under the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction (with the ironic acronym "MAD") nuclear war became a suicide pact. There would be no winner and both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. (Russia) would be destroyed. Albert Einstein is reputed to have remarked that he did not pretend to augur the details of World War III, but he was certain that World War IV would likely be fought with sticks and rocks.
BUILDING VOCABULARY: appropriations, fail-safe, Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD), deterrence, standard operating procedures (SOP), brinkmanship.
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Teachers who want parental permission to show this movie can use TWM's Movie Permission Slip.
Nonetheless, at times, both the United States and the Soviet Union adopted policies of brinkmanship, where nuclear threats were tossed around in an effort to force the opposing side to back down over an issue in contention. The American Heritage Dictionary (Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000) defines brinkmanship as "[t]he practice, especially in international politics, of seeking advantage by creating the impression that one is willing and able to push a highly dangerous situation to the limit rather than concede."
One example of brinkmanship was the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev's attempts to force the British and French to terminate their invasion of Egypt's Suez Canal with threats of nuclear war. Another example was America's not so veiled threats to the People's Republic of China to cease shelling the tiny Taiwanese islands of Quemoy and Matsu.
The nerve jarring Cuban Missile Crisis of October of 1962 was the ultimate exercise in brinkmanship and changed superpower perspectives on nuclear weapons. Policy makers began to appreciate that these weapons were not just big bombs. They were truly instruments of terror - for those who wielded them as well as for those who would be bombed. Numerous nuclear accidents and miscalculations only heightened superpower concern over the subject.
See Nuclearfiles.org articles on the Cuban Missile Crisis. For more about the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis see Learning Guide to "Thirteen Days".
See 20 Mishaps That Might Have Started Accidental Nuclear War by Alan F. Philips, M.D.
The superpowers signed a series of treaties to reduce the tension. One provided for direct communication between the superpower leaders to avoid misunderstandings. Test ban treaties (land, undersea, etc.) were crafted to forestall threatening tests. The countries of the world banded together to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, an attempt to limit the spread of nuclear weapons. Countries without nuclear weapons agreed not to construct them in exchange for peaceful nuclear technology from the nuclear powers.
Both superpowers worked hard to reduce the number of weapons among established countries in a pair of Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT). But the development of Multiple Independent Reentry Vehicles (MIRVs), which enabled several warheads to be placed on a single missile, complicated efforts at superpower cooperation. The United States Senate refused to ratify SALT II.
After President Ronald Reagan threatened to construct a space-based defense system (Strategic Defense Initiative), the Soviets began to realize that their nuclear capability could not only be weakened, but completely invalidated by this new generation of weapons. Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev then signed a series of agreements that actually reduced (not limited) the spread of weapons. This was an important step in the conclusion of the Cold War.
See United Nations article on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
See Federation of American Scientists article on Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT II).
Even as the Soviet Union made the transition to the Russian Federation, cooperation continued with a set of Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties (START). Now, cooperation appears to be waning with America's decision to construct a National Missile Defense system (NMD). Though America insists that the weapon would only be used for defensive purposes, NMD undermines the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which banned such weapons as attempts to "win" a nuclear conflict. The NMD might also invalidate the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 which was designed to keep the upper atmosphere nuclear free. Furthermore, Russia views claims that NMD is purely "defensive" with the same skepticism that the U.S. viewed the "defensive" Soviet missiles in Cuba in the early 1960s. Russia has since used worldwide suspicion of NMD to forge closer ties with its traditional rivals Europe and China, as together they pressure the U.S. not to go forward with NMD.
The National Missile Defense system is intended to be a defense against an outside attack by a rouge state or terrorist group. Some in the scientific community are skeptical about its feasibility and cost. Early tests have proved problematic and the program is still in its nascent phase.
Even with NMD, the United States proposes to maintain a large arsenal of nuclear weapons. The rationale for this is outlined in the United States Defense Department Nuclear Posture Review. The National Academy of Sciences provides a counterpoint, calling for deep cuts in the number of missiles the United States deploys: Arms Control Ass'n article on The Future of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Policy. The situation is not static. The United States is now proposing to develop a new generation of nuclear weapons designed to penetrate underground nuclear, chemical and biological facilities such as those developed by rogue states.
See CNN article: Star Wars, Episode Two.
See Wikipedia article on the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.
See CNN Article on Missile Defense Plan, Missile Defense System Won't Work by David Wright and Theodore Postol and See CNN article on Missile misses target, officials call it a success.
SCREENPLAY EXCERPT # 1:
Mr. Knapp: I see what you mean, Mr. Raskob, but that's the chance you take with these systems.
Congressman Raskob: Who says we have to take that chance. Who voted who the power to do it this particular way. I'm the only one around here got elected by anybody. Nobody gave me that power.
Mr. Knapp: It's in the nature of technology. Machines are developed to meet situations.
Congressman Raskob: . . . and they take over and start creating situations.
Mr. Knapp: Not necessarily.
Congressman Raskob: But there's always a chance. You said so yourself.
General Bogan: We have checks on everything. There are checks and counterchecks.
Congressman Raskob: Now, who checks the checker? Where's the end of the line, General? Who's got the responsibility?
General Bogan: The President.
Congressman Raskob: He can't know everything that's going on. How can he? It's too complicated. And if you want to know, that's what really bothers me. The only thing that everyone can agree on is that no one's responsible.
Secretary Swenson: What breaks down?
Mr. Knapp: A transistor blows. A condenser burns out. Sometimes they just get tired, like people.
Professor Groeteschele: Mr. Knapp overlooks one factor. The machines are supervised by humans. Even if a machine fails, a human being can always correct the mistake.
Mr. Knapp: I wish you were right. The fact is that the machines work so fast. They are so intricate. The mistakes they make are so subtle. That very often a human being just can't know whether a machine is lying or telling the truth.
See U.S. Nuclear Weapon Enduring Stockpile.
See BBC article on US 'plans new nuclear weapons'.
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Secretary Swenson: We don't go in for sneak attacks. We had that done to us at Pearl Harbor.
Professor Groeteschele: And the Japanese were right to do it! From their point of view we were their mortal enemy. As long as we existed we were a deadly threat to them. Their only mistake was that they failed finish us at the start. And they paid for that mistake at Hiroshima.
A General: You're talking about a different kind of war.
Professor Groeteschele: Exactly. This time we can finish what we start. And if we act now, right now, our casualties will be minimal.
General Black: Do you know what you're saying?
Professor Groeteschele: Do you believe that Communism is not our mortal enemy?
General Black: You're justifying murder.
Professor Groeteschele: Yes, to keep from being murdered.
General Black: In the name of what? To preserve what? Even if we do survive are we better than what we say they are? What gives us the right to live then? What makes us worth surviving, Groeteschele? That we are ruthless and struck first?
Professor Groeteschele: Yes! Those that can survive are the only ones worth surviving!
General Black: Fighting for your life isn't the same as murder.
Professor Groeteschele: Where do you draw the line once you know what the enemy is? How long would the Nazis have kept it up, General, if every Jew they came after had met them with a gun in his hand! But I learned from them, General Black, oh, I learned!
General Black: You learned so well that now there's no difference between you and what you want to kill!
The President: I don't agree!
Soviet Premier: No human being did wrong. No one is to be blamed.
The President: We're to blame, both of us. We let our machines get out of hand.
The President: Two great cities may be destroyed. Millions of innocent people killed. What do we say to them, Mr. Chairman, "Accidents will happen?" I won't accept that!
Soviet Premier: All I know that as long as we have weapons . . . .
The President: All I know is that men are responsible. We're responsible for what happens to us. Today we had a taste of the future. Do we learn from it or do we go on the way we have? What do we do Mr. Chairman? What do we say to the dead?
Soviet Premier: I think if we are men we must say that this will not happen again. But do you think it possible, with all that stands between us.
The President: We put it there, Mr. Chairman, and we're not helpless. What we put between us we can remove.
The Quick Discussion Question relates to this Screenplay Excerpt. In 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force advised that the U.S. start a pre-emptive nuclear war against the Soviet Union. Fortunately, President Kennedy ignored this suggestion. See Learning Guide to "Thirteen Days".
1. See Discussion Questions for Use With any Film that is a Work of Fiction.
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.
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?
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.
5. Read Screenplay Excerpts #1, 2 and #4. Are we responsible for the distrust and our weapons systems, or are we innocent because the machines are too complex and too fast?
6. List three defects in the fail-safe system shown in this film. For each defect give the counterargument showing why that feature should have worked or was, in fact, necessary.
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.]
8. Should we eliminate nuclear weapons if we cannot be sure there will be no accidental detonations?
9. Does the film "Fail-Safe" make you more or less convinced that we need a National Missile Defense system?
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?
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?
12. What is the significance of the dream sequence and of the reference to "the matador" at the beginning and end of the film?
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?
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?
15. Could a similar situation occur today with another major power (Russia, China) or a rogue state (North Korea, Iran)?
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?
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?
18. What steps did the Americans and Soviets take to make the world safer after the early 1960s?
19. What might have happened had Secretary Swenson and the President followed the suggestions of Professor Groeteschele?
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.
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?
22. Was there any rational basis for Colonel Cascio's fear that the whole thing was all a Soviet hoax? Did he act correctly?
QUESTIONS TESTING ATTENTIVENESS AND COMPREHENSION
23. In the film, why do the American bombers continue to fly past their fail-safe points?
24. Why didn't the pilot listen to the President, his superior officers, or even his wife?
25. In the movie, what orders are given to the Air Force fighter planes? What happens to them?
Select questions that are appropriate for your students.
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Social-Emotional Learning Discussion Questions:
1. Evaluate the leadership qualities of the character of the President.
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?
3. What did General Black (the Air Force bomber pilot on the mission over New York) do? Why did he do these things?
|For suggested answers: click here.|
Moral-Ethical Emphasis Discussion Questions (Character Counts)
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?
2. Who were the stakeholders in the decisions that the American President and the Soviet Premier had to make in this film?
(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?
4. In the movie, the Russians jammed communications which would have recalled Group Six to base. Does this absolve the American's of responsibility?
(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?
Teachwithmovies.com is a Character Counts "Six Pillars Partner" and uses The Six Pillars of Character to organize ethical principles.
Character Counts and the Six Pillars of Character are marks of the CHARACTER COUNTS! Coalition, a project of the Josephson Institute of Ethics.
For suggested answers: click here.
MOVIES ON RELATED TOPICS: For movies relating to the risk of nuclear war see: Thirteen Days, Fat Man and Little Boy, Seven Days in May and Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.
Links to the Internet: See the links cited in the Benefits and Helpful Background sections above and the following:
Assignments, Projects and Activities: Assignments, Projects, and Activities for Use With any Film that is a Work of Fiction
Students can be asked to do the following:
PHOTOGRAPHS, DIAGRAMS AND OTHER VISUALS:
Bibliography: In addition to websites which may be linked in the Guide and selected film reviews listed on the Movie Review Query Engine, the following resources were consulted in the preparation of this Learning Guide:
Credits: This Learning Guide written by Dr. John A. Tures, Assistant Professor of Political Science, La Grange College, La Grange, Georgia and James Frieden, TWM.
Last updated August 4, 2010.
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