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I was reminded by an article on Slate that the (to me) iconic film of the Cold War, Fail Safe, was released fifty years ago this week. And as the article records, more people remember the satirical film, Dr. Strangelove than the more chilling drama, Fail Safe. Perhaps they have forgotten it, as they have the Cold War itself.
Forgotten too are the tensions and the fears that pervaded that era; the threats of nuclear war. the suspicions and paranoia about Communism, the McCarthy hearings, the accusations and the innuendo. It seems as distance today as the era of Frederick the Great or Napoleon. For some people, anyway.
For a younger generation, the Cold War must seem as far from their world as my grandfather’s days in WWI seemed to me: a time of antiquated technology, of difference music, of style and fashion that seems so archaic. Watching the 1964 version of Fail Safe today must seem so dated, so antiquated. No tablets! No smart phones! No Facebook!
I came of age through the most tense, most confrontational years of the Cold War.
My first political memories are of the contentious “Kitchen debate” between Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and US Vice President, Richard Nixon. Nixon visited Moscow in July, 1959 and almost immediately got into a scrap with Khrushchev. There’s a photo of Nixon poking K in the chest, with K frowning. The two got into a heated argument at an exhibition of American kitchen appliances that was broadcast worldwide. It almost seemed the two would start WWIII right there.
Yet despite the apparent animosity generated during that visit, Khrushchev made his own tour of the US a few months later, in September. I recall the black-and-white images on TV of him and his wife, and President Eisenhower, riding around in the limo.
That visit is delightfully retold in Peter Carlson’s K Blows Top. As Carlson relates it, the event was a combination of surrealism, politics and Marx Brothers:
Illustrating the adventures of K in America were photos of the pudgy traveler, who mugged shamelessly for the cameras like a mischievous eight year old. Khrushchev may have been a dictator responsible for thousands of deaths, but he was also an incurable ham who couldn’t bear to disappoint a photographer. Consequently, the pictures in the clip folders were wonderfully wacky: Khrushchev grabs a live turkey! Khrushchev pats a fat guy’s belly! Khrushchev gawks at chorus girls! Khrushchev pretends to shoplift a napkin holder by stuffing it into his suit jacket while laughing uproariously!
Khrushchev’s trip was, as Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis dubbed it, “a surreal extravaganza.” Within an hour of reading the first clipping, I was hooked. For months, I spent my Thursdays and Fridays following the adventures of K as he traveled from Washington to New York to Hollywood to San Francisco to Iowa to Pittsburgh to Camp David, creating hilarious havoc all the way.
Fifty-five years ago, this past September 25, that tour. I still have a memory of it, a trifle hazy but still intact.*
I remember a lot of political things about that era, the Fifties and Sixties. The Cold War was in full swing. In elementary school at that time, they taught us to duck under our desks when we heard the air raid sirens, frequently tested for readiness in case Soviet bombers (and later, when ICBMs were developed, their missiles) flew over the pole towards us. There were advertisements for backyard bomb shelters in magazines. We practiced the duck-and-tuck, waiting for the mushroom cloud. **
I remember the Nixon-Kennedy presidential debates of 1960.My best friend and neighbour and I battled over them. He was for Nixon, I was for Kennedy. Kids playing politics instead of cowboys-and-Indians. (Khrushchev would later claim he helped defeat Nixon in his 1960 presidential bid; I suppose he never forgave Nixon for his prodding finger).
Then came the Berlin Wall and the subsequent crisis, in 1961. The tensions mounted. Kennedy stood at a podium in Berlin promising to stand fast. That was followed by the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 and the brinkmanship that brought us to the edge of the nuclear abyss. I remember the tensions, the worried looks of parents and grandparents as they watched the news, although I was too young to fully grasp what it meant.
And, unlike some of Slate’s readers, I remember seeing both Fail Safe and Dr. Strangelove in the theatre. In fact, I had read the 1962 book by Burdick and Wheeler, Fail-Safe, even before I saw the movie. Just as I read Nevil Shute’s 1957 post-apocalyptic novel, On the Beach, which was on the family bookshelves before that story was also turned into a film.***
I still find the history of that time fascinating, albeit somewhat chilling. The world seemed to dance closer and closer to WWIII every day. It was a topic of TV shows, comic books, movies, news commentaries. Nuclear armageddon dominated conversations. It was the subtext to the TV news and the newspaper headlines. It played out in wars and conflicts all over the globe for decades.
There’s a conversation at a party in Fail Safe when the guests discuss the results of nuclear war with Professor Groeteschele (played by Walter Matthau); an uber-patriot, and a cold, sneeringly contemptuous political scientist. It’s sardonic, yet it’s also chilling:
Professor Groeteschele: Face facts, Mr. Foster. We’re talking about war. I say every war, including thermonuclear war, must have a winner and a loser. Which would you rather be?
Mr. Foster: In a nuclear war, everyone loses! War isn’t what it used to be.
Professor Groeteschele: It’s the resolution of economic and political conflict.
Mr. Foster: But what kind of resolution with a hundred million dead?!
Professor Groeteschele: It doesn’t have to be a hundred million.
Mr. Foster: Even 60!
Professor Groeteschele: The same as a thousand years ago, sir. We also had wars that wiped out whole peoples. The point is still who wins and who loses, the survival of a culture.
Mr. Foster: A culture?! With most of its people dead?! The rest dying, the food poisoned! The air unfit to breathe! You call that a culture?!
Professor Groeteschele: Yes, I do, Mr. Foster. I am not a poet. I am a political scientist, who would rather have an American culture survive than a Russian one.
Female Party Guest: But what would it be like? I mean, really like?! Who would survive?
Professor Groeteschele: Who would survive? That’s an interesting question. I would predict . . . convicts and file clerks. [A male guest laughs.] The worst convicts. Those deep down in solitary confinement. And the most ordinary file clerks. Probably for large insurance companies, because they would be in fire-proof rooms, protected by tons of the best insulator in the world: paper. And imagine what will happen. The small group of vicious criminals will fight the army of file clerks for the remaining means of life. The convicts will know violence, but the file clerks will know organization. Who do think’ll win? [There is a long pause, and then he laughs.] It’s all hypotheses of course, but fun to play around with.
Yet as C.S. Lewis wrote in his 1948 essay, On Living in An Atomic Age, that sometimes all the angst was too much and we needed to get on with our everyday lives:
If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things – praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts – not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.
Comparing the two contemporary films in Slate, Ari Shulman writes about what makes Fail Safe more frightening and more emotionally compelling than Dr. Strangelove is that the characters seem so normal, not caricatures:
The general decency of Fail-Safe’s characters can make it seem naive, especially next to Dr. Strangelove. The film even shows the Americans and Russians forming friendships as they work together through the crisis. But the comparison really shows why the movie is so chilling. Its gobsmacking upshot is that the people in charge could actually be good and well-intentioned—and they’d carry out the destruction just the same. All of the personnel Schlosser interviewed seemed genuinely, soberly committed to averting war. And yet … under the principle of deterrence, their determination to avoid the nuclear holocaust also required an absolute commitment to bring it about if they were ordered to.
I think Hannah Arendt would have understood. In her book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, she wrote about how terrifying it was to discover that ordinary, average men and women could do monstrous things – not simply egomaniacs and sadists:
The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together…
The Slate piece mentioned above came as a serendipitous coincidence: only yesterday I picked up Gaddis’ book on the Cold War (cover image above) from a local bookshop, just part of my never-ending interest in the international politics of my time. And that got me to thinking about that era, and my childhood (that and a few other books I’m reading, including Applebaum’s Gulag: A History, which also deals with this era, although it is mostly about the pre-1960 period).
I have read extensively about the century from the late 1800s to the end of Communism, particularly about the rise of the dictatorships and the road to war in the 1920s and 30s. It’s hard to look back on that era and not wonder what captured so many minds, so many hearts. What was it in the ideologies of these angry, vicious states that compelled so many apparently normal, average people to become followers, supporters and, eventually, killers for the state?
It’s a strange, fascinating brew of politics, mass psychology, mass media, culture, science, and technology. It built the framework for what would become the Cold War that began a few short years after the defeat of Germany. Some say it began even during WWII.
The Cold War ended when Communism collapsed in the late 1980s and early 90s. Now the whole Communist ideal, its politics and its presence is looked upon as some odd aberration that interrupted our capitalist climb to dominance and financial excess. (Although some also say a new Cold War with Putin’s autocratic Russia has developed… sometimes not so cold, as Ukraine learned…)
But it wasn’t like that then. Capitalism wasn’t quite so confident, corporations and their CEOs weren’t quite so egregious in their greed and excess. Many people believed – many in the West including philosophers and intellectuals – that Communism offered an alternative: maybe a better way of doing things. maybe just different. That scared a lot of people into behaving.
While Communism was around, we in the West didn’t just chase money and material goods like we do today. We had to compete, to measure ourselves against the Soviet yardstick. If they has a space program, we needed to be the first on the moon. If they had all the chessmasters, we needed Bobby Fischer to beat them. If they excelled in medicare, in mathematics, in science, in industry… we raced them to the finish to prove we were at least as good in everything, if not better.
It made the West better, smarter and stronger to have some other ideology to challenge us, to make us prove our superiority. We are, I feel, morally and socially weaker, more self-indulgent, less open and more reclusive, and increasingly less educated without that competition. American democracy, in particular, has fallen to ruin under the weight of lobbyists and bought politicians.
Communism didn’t – and couldn’t – last, although until 20 years ago not a lot of people predicted its sudden downfall. It was a house of cards – economic, military, social and ideological cards – that was doomed to collapse. But that doesn’t diminish the fascination that its rise and fall holds. To understand it is to understand how the Twentieth century itself developed: how two ideologies came to dominate and polarize world politics.
And to understand how the polarization, even Balkanization, of today’s politics that is sweeping our country at all levels, you should try to understand the Cold War. In its cauldron, many of the ideologies and political platforms that stamp across today’s headlines were created.
* The tour was a public relations coup for Khrushchev, and it even looked like the US-USSR relations were thawing as a result. Not to be outdone, President Eisenhower announced he would visit the Soviet Union the following year. But on May 1, 1960, the Soviets shot down an American U-2 spy plane over their territory, and captured the pilot, Gary Powers. Eisenhower’s touted visit to Moscow was scrapped and the Cold War got colder.
** Funny but true story: in the mid-1970s, I was staying overnight with my then-girlfriend in her rooming house in Toronto. One night we were awoken by a loud wailing that shattered the quiet. Air raid sirens! I was up, raced down into the basement and tucked under the stairs in seconds, dressed only in my underwear. Just what we’d been taught to do all those years ago. I waited for the drone of the planes overhead. She and her other roomies in the house – mostly American draft dodgers – drifted down to the basement, puzzled, wondering if I had gone crazy. Turned out none of them had gone through the same sort of Cold War bomb-scare training like I had. They had never heard the air raid sirens before, had no idea what they were. Shows how Pavlovian such experiences can be.
*** Post-apocalyptic stories and novels abounded in the late 50s and through the 60s, especially in science fiction (H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine was an early post-apocalyptic story, albeit rife with Wells’ own political views). Many films were made of these tales. Planet of the Apes was one such novel; it still has an audience today in recent remakes, although they lack the bitter irony and moralizing of Pierre Boulle’s original novel (and the sequels that sprang from the original, while fun, are more comic relief than morality tales). Others like the Mad Max series were not post-nuclear war, but rather some dystopian future where the collapse is caused by economic, social, medical or environmental reasons (or maybe because of nuclear power plant disasters – see this article on Gizmodo).
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