Chilling Cold War Movie

For our nuclear deterrent to be credible, our armed forces must be prepared to do the unthinkable under impossible conditions. Recognizing that need, in the late 1950’s the US Air Force produced a training film depicting its response to a surprise Soviet nuclear attack. If it wasn’t supposed to be serious, this movie would be funny. It’s hard not to laugh as the Air Force responds cooly and calmly to the surprise attack, and of course prevails. Even though millions of Americans are killed, “victory” is achieved by imposing our will on the Soviets, instead of the other way around.

George Washington University’s National Security Archive has both a four-minute clip and the full movie on its web site. The film is called “Power of Decision,” echoing a 1948 statement by the Strategic Air Command’s first commander-in-chief General George C. Kenney: “A war in which either or both opponents use atomic bombs will be over in a matter of days … The Air Force that is superior in its capability of destruction plays the dominant role and has the power of decision.” Following that belief system, one of the generals depicted in the film notes that the Soviets “must quit. We have the air and the power and they know it.”

Real life was not much different, with the American military often arrogantly optimistic about its capabilities. Talking about the Cuban Missile Crisis in his book, The Limits of Safety: organization, accidents and nuclear weapons, Stanford Professor Scott Sagan notes:

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Maxwell Taylor, for example, has argued that there was “not the slightest” legitimacy for concern about nuclear war in the crisis since “I was so sure that we had ‘em over a barrel,” and the air force’s operations deputy, Lieutentant General David Burchinal, later went as far as to assert that “we were never further from nucclear war than at the time of Cuba, never further.”

Such misplaced arrogance figured prominently in ancient Greek mythology, where it usually ended in the worst kind of destruction. In the nuclear age, we cannot afford to succumb to that sin of hubris.

Not surprisingly, the film depicts us as innocent victims responding to a Soviet surprise attack. Such depictions create fear and mistrust, and have a tendency to become self-fulfilling prophecies. The 2008 Georgian war is a modern-day example of a similar danger, with most American media depicting Georgia as the innocent victim of unprovoked Russian aggression, even though the reality is very different. As with hubris, we cannot afford to manufacture visions of absolute evil when, in reality, the world is much more complex.

About Martin Hellman

I am a professor at Stanford University, best known for my invention of public key cryptography -- the technology that protects the secure part of the Internet, such as electronic banking. But, for almost 30 years, my primary interest has been how fallible human beings can survive possessing nuclear weapons, where even one mistake could be catastrophic. My latest project is a book with the audacious subtitle "Creating True Love at Home & Peace on the Planet." Its soon to open website explains: https://anewmap.com.
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