Let’s not argue about this: the three greatest films about the Bomb are John Frankenheimer’s Seven Days in May, Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove and Sidney Lumet’s Fail Safe. All three were released in 1964, when movie-goers were still trying to forget the Cuban missile crisis. Previous posts have given kudos to Dr. Strangelove and Seven Days in May. Now it’s time to praise Fail Safe.

Two casting choices were off – Walter Matthau as the hyper-realist, hawkish professor and Dom De Luise (believe it or not) as an Air Force technical specialist – but the picture as a whole is as taut as an aging leading lady’s face. Fail Safe has few embellishments; the key scenes are built around tight shots of conversations between two people. There are great interactions between the U.S. President, played by a supernaturally wise and calm Henry Fonda, talking on the hotline to an off-screen Soviet Premier who somehow emerges from Walter Bernstein’s screenplay as a leader in full measure. One-on-ones between U.S. and off-screen Soviet military officers are also riveting. Ditto for the scenes during hotline conversations focusing on Fonda and his Russian interpreter, played superbly (again, believe it or not) by Larry Hagman, who later hit the jackpot with his heinous-head-of-the-ranch role in the weekly television show, “Dallas.”

Documentaries about the Bomb usually do not have lingering effect, perhaps because they play so blatantly on fears. Humor and subtlety can have greater resonance, particularly when the subject is how technology and mistrust can produce nuclear nightmares.

One remedy repeatedly proposed to prevent accidental nuclear war is to reduce the alert status of nuclear weapon delivery vehicles. The counter-argument is that “de-alerting” is a technical fix that can’t solve what is essentially a political problem.

The numbers of launch-ready U.S. and Russian warheads remain excessive. More than twenty years after the Cold War ended, Hans Kristensen estimates that Moscow maintains slightly more than 1,000 warheads ready for prompt use, while Washington maintains approximately 800 weapons in a high state of launch readiness. You don’t hear public officials arguing the case for these requirements because (a) it is so hard to do, and (b) most listeners would find these explanations deeply disturbing. But it is also hard to choreograph bilateral reductions in launch readiness, or to place much confidence in them.

Bruce Blair has been arguing the case for “de-alerting” for a long time. His book, The Logic of Accidental Nuclear War (1993) was an important contribution to debates over deterrence. Bruce’s arguments for de-alerting were never more persuasive than during and after the demise of the Soviet Union, when command and control arrangements in Moscow were iffy.

Recognizing this grave threat, the George H.W. Bush administration focused on weapons rather than launchers, initiating parallel steps to move warheads available for prompt use away from forward areas to central storage sites. These presidential nuclear initiatives were not subject to verification, and subsequently prompted concerns that Moscow didn’t keep all of its promises. The first Bush administration did not, however, have the time or luxury to engage in lengthy negotiations over monitoring arrangements and numbers. The George H.W. Bush administration negotiated deep, verifiable cuts in launchers, as well. President George W. Bush – another skeptic of de-alerting — also authorized steep reductions in the U.S. nuclear stockpile.

The strongest argument for reducing alert status is that far too many U.S. and Russian warheads remain in a high state of launch readiness – much higher than warranted by disputes that are very small by Cold War standards. The weakest case for de-alerting is as an anti-terrorism measure, the subject of a subsequent post. Complex technical fixes to de-alert U.S. and Russian forces will take time and energy. Both would be better spent on reducing stockpiled warheads and deployed launchers.