“Fail-Safe”: Remember When Nukes Weren’t a Punch Line?

Why aren't we worrying about the bomb?

Larry Hagman and Henry Fonda in the Sidney Lumet film version of "Fail-Safe."

With concerns about nuclear confrontation with North Korea continuing to simmer, I decided recently to have a look at a Cold War novel describing an international crisis that morphs into a disaster. The hardbound copy of Fail-Safe that arrived at my door from Amazon seemed not to have been touched since its 1962 copyright date. After being toted in my bag for a few days, it sustained multiple rips to its fragile dust jacket, which I felt compelled for some reason to patch with Scotch tape.

This was not my first exposure to Fail-Safe. In 1971 or 1972, Betty Krier, my high school “Modern Problems” teacher, showed our class the 1964 Sidney Lumet film version starring Henry Fonda and Walter Matthau. I couldn’t recall many details from the film, but seared in my mind decades later were its final images of ordinary citizens going about their day in NYC, unaware that any second will be their last.

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Fail-Safe the novel is somewhat unusual in construction, perhaps in part because it was a collaboration between two writers, Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler. (A political scholar, Wheeler had originally treated the material in a short story, “Abraham ’58,” in 1957. Burdick was a best-selling novelist, most famous for co-authoring The Ugly American.) Fail-Safe does not have a clear point-of-view character, but instead hops about from perspective to perspective among many players. It unfolds, as does the movie, nearly in real time, tracing the weapons crisis through its alarming inception through to its grim conclusion. A few flashbacks are employed to give the reader information about characters’ backstories.

Burdick died at age 46 in 1965. Wheeler lived to age 85, passing in 2004.
Burdick died at age 46 in 1965. Wheeler lived to age 85, passing in 2004.

The novel isn’t about a deliberate nuclear battle, fought in anger. It’s about an error that occurs during what seems to be a routine safety maneuver. The mistake allows a group of American flyers to believe that they are on a mission to obliterate Moscow. Once set in motion, this mission becomes unstoppable, to the horror of everyone, not least the American president (unnamed, but clearly meant to be John F. Kennedy).

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Fail-Safe is obsessed with the glories of technology, even as it becomes a cautionary tale about its limits. The starring players in many of the book’s scenes are the “Big Boards” in the war rooms in Omaha and Washington, DC, by which the president and military brass monitor the fate of the misguided flyers, blip by excruciating blip. Scenes in which the authors marvel at the various Jetsonian contraptions used by the military elite will seem quaintly amusing to a 2018 reader. Case in point is this wide-eyed description of a “touch phone”:

One operated it merely by touching a button, and out of a small square box the voice at the other end of the line came out magnified and enlarged.

The darker side of these technological wonders is stressed late in the book, specifically in a phone conversation between the President and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev as the horrors prompted by the Americans’ error spin out before them, creating an “accidental war.” The President’s words prefigure 21st century concerns about artificial intelligence:

“Somehow these computerized systems have got to be brought under control. They represent a new kind of power — despotism even — and we’ve got to learn how to constitutionalize it.”

And yet, doesn’t any flawed technology at last reflect back on the flawed humans who created it?

The book is a pop thriller, but a very solemn one. The deadly seriousness with which Burdick and Wheeler treat the idea of nuclear engagement speaks to the mood of the times. Anything less earnest would certainly have been viewed as being in poor taste, especially considering that the book was serialized by the Saturday Evening Post in the very days the Cuban Missile Crisis was playing out. Consider, too, that in 1962, the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was still relatively fresh in most adults’ memory banks.

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Americans lately appear to have become numb to the prospect of a nuclear confrontation. Often we coat grave thinking about nuclear war with a patina of sardonic gallows humor. Last August, for instance, while chastising Donald Trump for his escalating threats to Kim Jong-Un, Stephen Colbert on The Late Show remarked: “Shh! Shut up! OK? You’ll get us all killed — and I just started The Handmaid’s Tale.” At about the same time, John Oliver on Last Week Tonight quipped: “You know, I could do laundry, but if the world is about to erupt into nuclear war, what really is the point?”

While I grasp the appeal of the “laugh-so-you-don’t-cry” approach to coping with possible global catastrophe, I worry about our seeming inability to face soberly the prospect of nuclear engagement and what it would mean for our planet and our species. Are cynical “We’re all gonna die” jokes inadvertently creating dangerous complacency?

There’s an interesting Fail-Safe connection to this question. In 1964, the same year the film version arrived, Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb was also released. Only two years had passed since the publication of Burdick and Wheeler’s novel, but the times were already a-changing. The Cuban episode passed; JFK was assassinated; irreverence was on the rise. Originally, Kubrick’s intention was to create a serious adaptation of Peter George’s Red Alert, a 1958 novel so similar to Fail-Safe that George sued Burdick and Wheeler (the case ended with an out-of-court settlement). Consequently, Kubrick took the daring step of turning his film into a comic romp, spoofing nuclear-crisis potboilers.

Noah Wylie (right) joined George Clooney in the 2000 TV version of "Fail-Safe."
Noah Wyle (right) joined George Clooney in the 2000 TV version of “Fail-Safe.”

Dr. Strangelove had the last laugh by becoming a beloved film classic. The Fail-Safe film, on the other hand, withered at the box office and is mostly forgotten. A 2000 live-broadcast, black-and-white TV adaptation of the novel, starring George Clooney, apparently did little to improve the property’s profile. Some reviewers felt the story’s themes had become passé. Austin Smith of the New York Post noted, “Today people don’t have the same fear of an impending apocalypse that they once did, despite the data presented at the end of the movie listing the countries around the world which today possess nuclear weapons.” Variety’s Laura Fries opined that the resurrected scenario may have appealed to oldsters but was “too esoteric for the MTV generation.”

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Several years later, however — in a post-9/11 world in which concern about Iranian and North Korean nukes was growing — at least some people were changing their tune. In a 2014 Slate article, Ari N. Shulman defended the earnestness of the Lumet film:

[As] brilliant and grotesquely funny as Dr. Strangelove is, the neglected Fail-Safe is the more mature and damning take on the nuclear enterprise. It feels like it could have really happened, and it’s terrifying as a result…. [Fail-Safe] isn’t a movie about why we should fear machines or the people who control them. It’s about how managerial systems can bring about just the things they’re designed to avert.

It was a system glitch that caused panic in Hawaii this Jan. 13 when an alert went out to residents warning of an imminent nuclear attack. The state worker (since dismissed) who sent the warning had misunderstood a call indicating a drill. That was bad enough, but it then took approximately 40 minutes before a clear and unambiguous retraction could be made.

I doubt that any Hawaiian terrorized by this false alarm would find much amusement right now in the classic Kubrickian image of actor Slim Pickens yee-hawing as he rides a nuclear device into oblivion. Maybe the rest of us should sober up a bit in our consideration of nuclear weaponry as well.