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Article first published as The Wake-Up Call of Fail Safe in 2012 on Blogcritics.

I happened to be channel surfing this afternoon and landed on Fail Safe, the 1964 Cold War drama by Sidney Lumet and starring Henry Fonda, Walter Matthau, and a very young Larry Hagman. It's an intense, chilling, and thought-provoking movie, and one that made a huge impression on me when I first saw it on TV as a kid.

Based on the novel by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler, Fail Safe presents us with the possibility of accidental nuclear war with the Soviet Union. U.S. planes on a training mission experience a malfunction and get a signal that their drill isn't a drill, but a real threat. Their mission is to drop two 20-megaton nuclear devices on Moscow.

With measured diplomacy, the President (Fonda), aided by an Air Force General works with the Russians to help them shoot down our bombers in the hopes that the U.S. planes will be destroyed before reaching their target. The military, under orders from the president must do what it has been drilled into them not to ever do: cooperate with the enemy--and disclose to them our top secret information in a effort to help them shoot down the U.S. planes.

In the end, one plane is destined to get through, putting the president in an impossible position: how to find a way to avoid a full-scale Soviet retaliation. What else could the Soviet Premier do, knowing that Russia's major metropolis has been annihlated by a nuclear bomb?

In the movie, the president decides he has no alternative to all-out war other than to drop two 20-megaton bombs on New York City (where his wife is visiting). It is a mea culpa designed to avoid global thermonuclear war with the Soviet Union. Some of his generals and political operatives believe he is not just misguided, but insane, instead seeing the crisis as pretext to go full-scale attack and take out those pesky Russians once and for all.

It is a brilliant movie (and novel, by the way). I've seen it countless times, and each time, even knowing the ending, it still chills me to the core.

It's interesting that I happened to catch it here, just as the 2012 presidential election is about to heat up into the final fall push. I often think about Fail Safe during presidential elections, wondering how each of the candidates would confront the sort of impossible situation Fail Safe's president (interesting, he is not named in the movie) faces. Which would pull us back from the brink, and which would dive heedless into the chasm full speed ahead, ready to exploit the crisis?

Every president confronts terrifying crises; it goes along with the territory. Some of them are horrific, even no-win, and I have to wonder which of our current candidates has the courage to make the sort of politically suicidal decision Henry Fonda's president must in Fail Safe.

Which one of our candidates, President Barack Obama or former Governor Mitt Romney, would have the cojones to do the right thing, even if that means we shoot down our own planes, or (God forbid) obliterate an entire American city? And which would refuse to apologize for a terrible American mistake that had tragic consequences? Which one would be influenced by those who see in the tragedy an opportunity to flex American muscle, even if it means ultimately making us less secure?

The U.S. makes mistakes, sometimes individual military personnel make them, sometimes our contract mercenaries; sometimes errors of judgment happen up (far up) the chain of command. Do we insist on the doctrine that we are flawless, and therefore do not make mistakes as a world power, refusing to apologize or make amends? In fact, is the propoer response to up the rhetoric or rattle our sabre louder to exploit a tragic situation?

Mitt Romney and the Republicans scorn what they call President Obama's "apology tour" early in his term. The president's efforts to repair our extremely tarnished foreign policy reputation through careful diplomacy has been called weakness and derided as "European" or "anti-colonialist," or worse.

Hearing Romney's jingoistic rhetoric during his acceptance speech Thursday night makes me wonder how a President Romney might frame America's foreign policy. And watching Fail Safe again makes me shudder to think what a President Romney would do if we should again find ourselves on the brink of war.  

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (10+ / 0-)

    If I am not for myself, who will be? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?--Pirkei Avot

    by sasmom on Sat Sep 01, 2012 at 01:51:50 PM PDT

  •  Very Nice argument. A waffler who clamps onto (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    elmo, 207wickedgood, exterris

    rigiidity when confronted by headlights (Wee Willard)? Or an adaptable, compassionate and think instead of panic cool hand President Obama?  Our POTUS, who has proven himself to be able to retain humanity and civility in the face of extremely abusive behavior. Or wee Willie who runs from pillar to post as an opportunistic sociopath?

    How can you tell when Rmoney is lying? His lips are moving. Fear is the Mind Killer

    by boophus on Sat Sep 01, 2012 at 02:05:56 PM PDT

  •  Brilliant film (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    207wickedgood, zipn

    The antipode to DR. STRANGELOVE.

  •  Interesting question and I hope we never find out (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    exterris, kurt

    I don't find the ending a plausible depiction of how such a situation might play out today. Of course, the Cold War is over, so I don't know how well the scenario even translates into today's environment.

    But my guess is that we would double down on the error. Certainly we would not drop bombs on an American city. Most likely we'd send additional bombs to complete the works begun by accident. And I think it would be more or less the same no matter which party the President belonged to.

    "The smartest man in the room is not always right." -Richard Holbrooke

    by Demi Moaned on Sat Sep 01, 2012 at 02:11:02 PM PDT

  •  Vote for Obama, because if need (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Randomfactor, kurt

    be he'd destroy an American city. I don't know, it doesn't quite quite excite me as a campaign theme.

    Republicans are Americans and are human beings just like us (though sometimes when you look into their eyes it's as if you are looking into the cold, unmerciful eyes of a shark).

    by doc2 on Sat Sep 01, 2012 at 02:35:48 PM PDT

  •  The GOP's never made a secret of what it would do (0+ / 0-)

    Nuke, baby, nuke!!

  •  I guess I don't really understand the (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    mindara, exterris

    dramatic premise. Is the idea that the Russians will demand retribution for their losses, and nuking New York ourselves will prevent them from nuking even more cities?

    I can't help but believe that a gifted thinker and leader like Obama would find a solution other than the choice between the horrible and the even more horrible.

    Too often, the best solution is not considered, simply because no one thinks of it.

    •  I agree with you, elmo... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      elmo

      And while the premise of the story is dramatic and extreme (especially 20+ years after the collapse of the Soviet Union) the very simple question it ultimately led Sasmom to ask herself really helps to clarify the extreme differences between President Obama, who has proven to be (imo) the best Commander in Chief in my lifetime and Mitt Romney, who would make W. look competent.

      "This seat's taken"

      by mindara on Sat Sep 01, 2012 at 05:28:28 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Yes, that was my point... (0+ / 0-)

        Watching the movie, it really struck me with crystal clarity that Mitt would be terrifying in this situation, surrounded as he undoubtedly would be by his neo con masters.

        If I am not for myself, who will be? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?--Pirkei Avot

        by sasmom on Sat Sep 01, 2012 at 09:27:48 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  And that was exactly what I got from reading your (0+ / 0-)

          diary. The economy, our tax code and foreign policy are all number one in determining the future of not only our country but the future of our world. That sounds even a little melodramatic to me as I'm writing, but it's not. With President Obama at the helm, I'm confident in his abilities. The prospect of Romney as President? That is utterly terrifying.

          I'd never heard of this movie or the book before, I'll have to keep an eye out for it!

          "This seat's taken"

          by mindara on Sun Sep 02, 2012 at 06:33:55 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

  •  I take your point, but for my money, (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    exterris, kurt

    "Dr. Strangelove" was a more effective rendering of a similar scenario.

    We can't allow a mineshaft gap!

    "'club America salutes you' says the girl on the door/we accept all major lies, we love any kind of fraud"--The Cure, "Club America"

    by Wheever on Sat Sep 01, 2012 at 03:47:09 PM PDT

  •  Romney has more than one Dr. Strangelove. (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    terabthia2, sasmom, kurt

    John Bolton. Elliot Abrams. Others.
    They want to go to war with Iran.
    In their twisted universe, this preemptive war would not only eliminate a nuclear threat, it would fix the economy, modeling their fever dreams on how they think WWII ended the depression.
    Romney's foreign policy team is a nightmare surpassing any of his regressive domestic wrongheadedness.

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