Fail-Safe: Nuke-Noir Film Classic Turns Forty

October 7, 2004 - FAIL-SAFE, the film adaptation of the national best seller that dramatized the threat of accidental nuclear war, premiered in New York City forty years ago today. The Columbia release starred Henry Fonda, Dan O'Herlihy, Walter Matthau, Frank Overton, Ed Binns, Larry Hagman, Dom DeLuise and introduced Fritz Weaver. The bestselling book was written by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler and first appeared in syndication in the Saturday Evening Post during October 1962 (October as in "missiles of October"). The book anticipated "The Hotline" between US and USSR leaders which didn't exist prior to the June 20, 1963 agreement* which created a teletype link between the United States and the Soviet Union.

General Black (Dan O'Herlihy) appears in the bleachers section of his own nightmare - 'the matador, the matador...'Sometimes referred to as DR. STRANGELOVE but without the laughs, the Sidney Lumet directed B&W film classic was remade in 2000 by Stephen Frears (director) and George Clooney (producer) as a 2 hour live television broadcast that recalled the "Golden Age" of TV drama. A special edition DVD of the orginal film was released around this time.

FAIL-SAFE remains a relentless viewing experience that unfolds the logic of accidental war and is capped by a shocking and unexpected application of MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction) deterrence. Forty years later "normal accidents"** involving complex technological systems (Challenger and Columbia shuttle disasters, Three Mile island and Chernobyl nuclear emergencies, Bhopal Union Carbide poison gas leak, etc) are widely studied and preemptive wars, whether based on faulty intelligence or faulty circuits, are very much alive.

* A "Memorandum of Understanding" for the creation of a "hot line" teletype link between the United States and the Soviet Union was signed in Geneva by Charles C. Stelle and Semyon K. Tsarapkin, the U.S. and Soviet delegates, respectively, to the Geneva Diarmament Conference. The system's primary circuit consisted of a duplex cable permitting simulataneous transmissions between Washington and Moscow via London, Copenhagen, Stockholm and Helsinki. A standby radio circuit was to be established beween the two capitals by way of Tangier, Morocco. The primary cable circuit between Moscow and Washington will be 4,883 miles in length.

** Normal accident is a term introduced by Yale sociologist Charles Perrow in 1985 (Normal Accidents) that takes a view that accidents are not the exception but rather the rule and efforts to prevent them can sometimes increase their likelihood. "The odd term normal accident is meant to signal that, given the system characteristics, multiple and unexpected interactions of failures are inevitable." The two characteristics of normal accidents are "unexpected and complex interactions between faults that are tolerable individually" and "tight coupling allowing little opportunity for mitigation or defence once a fault occurs." Scott Sagan extends "normal accidents" to the field of nuclear weapons in The Limits of Safety: Organizations, Accidents, and Nuclear Weapons.

RELATED LINK: 20 Mishaps That Might Have Started Accidental Nuclear War by Alan F. Philips, at

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