‘Directing Doomsday’: Lessons Learned from Nuclear Weapons in Film

This quarantine is an opportune time to watch and re-watch movies such as Dr. Strangelove, Failsafe, Command and Control, By Dawn’s Early Light, and China Syndrome, which underscore the threats from nuclear accidents.

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The COVID-19 global pandemic has turned the status quo on its head and injected massive uncertainties in domestic politics and international security. The world was caught underprepared to deal with the COVID 19 crisis, and similarly it is also ill-equipped to respond to what might happen if there was even a “limited” nuclear strike. Whilst theoretical knowledge of the dangers posed by nuclear weapons enable us to assess the geopolitical dynamics wrought by the bomb, visuals of nuclear weapons tests, documentaries and movies implore us to become more knowledgeable about the magnitude of devastation caused by nuclear weapons.

As of today, there are a total of 13,410 nuclear weapons in the world. Great power competition has come back into sharper focus, global arms control efforts are waning, nine nuclear-armed states are expanding their arsenals, and the integration of emerging technologies and nuclear weapons are exacerbating nuclear risks. The human costs, the scale of destruction and the lasting damage that the use of nuclear weapons would cause has been known since 1945. In 2020, one of the first steps to manage and reduce nuclear risks is to bolster education on nuclear weapons issues and raise awareness of the lethality of nuclear weapons.  

This quarantine is an opportune time to watch and re-watch movies such as Dr. Strangelove, Failsafe, Command and Control, By Dawn’s Early Light, and China Syndrome, which underscore the threats from nuclear accidents. These movies push the audience to think about nuclear command and control issues, vulnerabilities of operations, inadvertent human errors and the catastrophic in case of a failure. Undoubtedly, the silver screen has often sensationalized and dramatized issues pertaining to the atomic bomb and it must be underlined that movies have pedagogical limits. It is necessary to distill the larger socio-political message of nuclear weapons while being cognizant of the large factual inconsistencies and inaccuracies shown on screen.  

In Stanley Kubrick’s compelling film, Dr. Strangelove (1964), Sterling Hayden plays the role of a Communist-hating General who was convinced that a “Red conspiracy” is fluoridating water in order to pollute precious body fluids. When this warmonger General sent a wing of bombers off to drop bombs in the Soviet Union, the President’s council in the War Room at the Pentagon is unable to recall the bombers. The situation is further complicated by the presence of the Soviets “doomsday device”. The idea of a “doomsday device” has relevance in the 21st century and continue to capture both popular imagination and stir debates on how much control machines should have in nuclear decision-making.

While the United States’ nuclear command and control communications systems (NC3) is robust, reliable and resilient and maintains a credible deterrent as opposed to how it is poorly depicted in the movie, new technologies are placing novel strain on US NC3. In the midst of major modernization efforts of the US nuclear arsenals and NC3 and developments of new technologies like artificial intelligence, scholars have argued that pre-delegating nuclear decision to machines can be a slippery slope because machines can relentlessly optimize pre-set goals, as depicted in the movie Dr. Strange Love. Akin to the movie’s doomsday machine concept, few other scholars have advocated that the US may need to develop automated and predetermined strategic response systems based on AI as technical threats to strategic forces have compressed decision-making timelines for leaders.

Another specific command and control issue that the movie compels its audience to think about are the possibilities of field operatives to change targets based on changing variables encountered during a mission. For instance, historical evidence point to the fact that Nagasaki was not the primary target and weather conditions forced the mission’s commander to change the attack from the original intended target (the industrial hub Kokura).  

During the movie, bomber pilot Major T. J. Kong after assessing the rapidly depleting fuel condition improvises and selects a closer target instead of the original one. The movie fails to accurately project that field operatives follow an authorized chain of command for changes in target locations and the move taken by the character of Slim Pickens in the movie comes across rather shoddily portrayed for effect on the big screen. Although it does point the audience and also wargamers to think through scenarios of response mechanisms when there is a loss of communication and changes in decision-making line of command. According to the Strategic Air Command Atomic Weapons Requirements Study for 1959 declassified in 2015, a well-documented list of potential targets in the erstwhile Soviet Union and elsewhere were identified by intelligence analysts with priority number ranks assigned to targets.

Despite criticisms of being labeled as a “political satire”, Dr. Strange Love is successful in capturing the idea and vulnerabilities associated with machine control versus human control in nuclear decision-making. Additionally, the movie manages to touch upon a theme which rings concerns to date – ensuring and preserving political control in the mix of evolving technology, and cyber security threats to NC3.

In the same year 1964, another major American movie, Columbia pictures ‘Fail Safe’ arrested the attention of the audiences. It showed the dangers of an accidental deployment when a critical code message gets inadvertently sent to a flight of loaded bombers over Alaska to bomb Moscow. Unlike in Dr. Strangelove, where nuclear war is orchestrated by the conscious decision of men, the drama in Failsafe kicks-off highlighting the dangers of over-reliance on the efficiency of machines. In both the movies, the characters of the President are shown as glued to the “hot line”, trying to correct through diplomacy and cooperation man-made accident (Dr. Strangelove) and machine-made (Failsafe).

It is fairly argued that the US NC3 is effective and so far, has successfully averted launching a military response despite false alarms. However, a few of the difficult questions portends us to considers whether machines are infallible? Can one completely rule out any margin of human errors while managing nuclear arsenals?

The movie Command and Control based on an accident in 1980 in Arkansas involving a Titan II nuclear missile is a riveting tale of the inadvertent folly of human beings and the inevitability of a disaster. Directed by Eric Schlosser, Command and Control conveys the answer to the above questions explicitly. While the US NC3 has exercised great caution and sophistication in handling precarious and some of the deadliest nuclear arsenals, the question remains whether mankind can afford the risk of still maintaining more than 16,000 nuclear warheads that are like ticking time bombs?

Michael O’ Sullivan in the Washington Post argued a similar point that the 1980 accident is not the highlight of the movie. Instead, the film’s real message is that we should be more frightened by the existing number of nuclear warheads. The movie Command and Control provokes its audiences to delve into several other questions: if human frailties can cause a nuclear warhead to detonate then how susceptible are we to intentional acts of sabotage? Or what are the contingency plans in place if warheads detonate unintentionally within one’s own territory?

While the decade of the 1960s at the height of the Cuban missile crisis highlighted the perils of accidental nuclear wars, three decades later concerns of accidental deployment remained through the 90’s. In 1990, just before the end of the Cold War, the movie ‘By Dawn’s Early Light’ showcased how the Cold War could quickly turn into a hot war. The movie is one of the most realistic takes on accidental launch and makes a climatic start when the USSR is hit by an ICBM launched by dissident factions in the Soviet Union. However, after it became known that the ICBM that hit USSR was not launched by the US, the Russian Premier made a series of proposals to the American president to de-escalate and prevent a nuclear holocaust. This movie is a clear reflection that the scare of accidental launch by the US or USSR expanded to include the challenges of misperceptions and fall-out in the event of nuclear use by rogue non-state actors.

Any discussion on the threats posed by nuclear weapons and fissile materials is incomplete without reference to an accident that occurred at the Three Mile Island (TMI) nuclear plant in south-central Pennsylvania. It is also ironic that the movie ‘The China Syndrome’ was released on March 16, 1979, just twelve days before the TMI accident. This accident is known as one of the worst known accidents until the meltdown at Chernobyl in 1986. After the TMI incident, co-star and producer of The China Syndrome, Michael Douglas commented that “It goes beyond the realm of coincidence. It’s enough to make you religious.”

The movie puts the spotlight on safety and security of nuclear power plants and portrays a near accident at a nuclear reactor. The movie takes the audience through the motions of a high-paced drama of averting a major accident (due to misreading of crucial water level within the nuclear plant). The central message that the movie offers is that safety precautions are being compromised by the nuclear power generation industry. A piece of irony that relates so closely to the TMI incident is that in the movie, one of the protagonists mentions that the accident depicted in the movie had the potential of wiping out the entire population, the size of Pennsylvania. On the morning of March 28, 1979, when a small valve in the TMI reactor plant pressurizer system stuck open, it resulted in a severe nuclear power plant accident causing a fuel core meltdown. Thus, ‘China Syndrome’, a cautionary melodrama quickly turned into a prophetic docu-drama underscoring the safety and security concerns in nuclear power plants quickly turned the possibility of a nuclear nightmare being so real. This incident also marked the beginning of the end of the expansion of nuclear power plants in America. Fears and concerns about the safety and security of nuclear reactors run high to date. However, it must be noted that the TMI incident resulted in substantial passive and active nuclear reactor design changes to increase reactor safety.

Today, more than seven decades after the dawn of the nuclear age, we are still grappling with the realities of the bomb. As mankind races towards greater uncertainty and faces the dangers of nuclear weapons, it is of essence that we begin spreading education on nuclear weapons. In doing so, pop-culture has a special role.

Sylvia Mishra is a Washington D.C. based researcher working on Asian security issues, nuclear policy and disruptive technologies. She is the Co-Chair of the WCAPS CBRN Working Group and CSIS PONI mid-cadre fellow.

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