FAIL SAFE: A REMINDER FROM HAWAII

A few days ago, a couple of million Americans were pretty sure they were about to be turned into radioactive vapor.  That is, if they were lucky.  If they weren't, they'd survive for a few minutes or hours in collapsed burning rubble, or even less lucky, for a few days before they succumbed to radiation sickness--vomiting blood, hair and fingernails falling out, skin sloughing off.  And of course they had thirty-eight minutes to think about it.  Some huddled with family in the comical hope that the bathroom walls would save them from a fission fireball; others frantically tried to find the family that in any event they could not possibly save.  But all of them just waiting to die.

Oh--never mind!  In an error too absurd to be believed a careless employee at the emergency management center had hit the wrong button.  And with a callousness and carelessness too extreme to be forgiven the agency had waited forty minutes to call back its mistake.

The episode is chillingly reminiscent of one of the most disturbing and powerful films of the twentieth century.  In Fail Safe (Sidney Lumet, 1964) a short-circuit in a primitive Cold War computer sends a nuclear bomber wing on a run to the USSR.  They cross into Soviet airspace; the world stands on the verge of war.  Luckily the Strategic Air Command is able to call them back.  Close call.

But that's just the beginning.  One bomber section doesn't get the word and proceeds towards its designated target--Moscow.  As the movie unfolds, the American President and high command desperately seek to stop the planes before they reach their objective and trigger World War III--first dispatching US fighters to shoot down their own comrades, then giving the Soviets US secrets in an effort to help them do the same.  In the scene linked above--from the 2000 live-action remake by George Clooney, the only such effort in the history of movies to be as good as the original--the Russians have launched nuclear missiles at the last surviving American plane as the President pleads with its commander to listen to his son tell him there's been a horrible mistake.  

It doesn't work, of course.  I won't give it all away, but the American bomber makes it to Moscow, and only the most extraordinary sacrifice avoids the nuclear extinction of our species.

That we could end human history through simple error had been made obvious two years before the movie's release.  In the Cuban Missile Crisis, JFK was confronted with the discovery of Soviet nuclear missiles  ninety miles from Miami, putting the whole Eastern seaboard in danger of instant annihilation.  Throughout thirteen days of unimaginable tension, he resisted pressure from his advisers--including the surprisingly bloodthirsty Bobby--for a preemptive attack and stayed a course of gradually ratcheted-up pressure until the Soviets backed down.  

But that's not the whole story.  The missiles weren't there because of mindless Bolshevik aggression.  No, they were there because we screwed up.  The US had been supposed to remove its Jupiter nuclear missiles from Turkey--as close to the Soviet border as Havana is to Miami--months before and just never got around to it.  Thus the Soviets saw themselves as countering our hostile move.

But there's more.  What we didn't know until after the fall of the Soviet Union was that their commander on the ground in Cuba had tactical nuclear weapons and authority to use them without further orders.  So if we invaded--as Kennedy's cabinet urged--he could have fired short-range atomic missiles without picking up the phone to Moscow.  If Kennedy hadn't had icewater in his blood and steel in his sack, the likely consequence would have been an America and eastern Europe that glowed in the dark.

But he did, and we lived.  

What the Hawaii episode shows us is that technical failure or human error can trigger the most devastating and immediate consequences.  Those consequences can, however, be avoided by cold reason and a full appreciation of the scope and horror or modern war--it is worth remembering that both Kennedy and Kruschev had seen combat in World War II.

But the protagonists in our present nuclear crisis are neither rational nor seasoned.  Through some strange roll of the karmic dice the fate of humanity rests in the hands of two fat narcissistic manbabies with bizarre haircuts.  

The next time the wrong button gets pushed, we won't be so lucky.