Tuesday, April 24, 2012

28. Fail-Safe by Eugene Burdick and Harry Wheeler

Fail-Safe was a big bestseller during the cold war and one of those books, I believe that everyone was talking about at the time.  The theme is one film buffs will know well from classics like war Games and Dr. Strangelove: out automated weapon systems accidently trigger an attack that will lead us into nuclear oblivion.  Fail-Safe is deadly serious, though, and thoroughly researched.  It all takes place at the very top, with the president, all the top military brass and a few other stragglers as the large cast of characters.

Fail-Safe is the concept where if no action is taken, a thing will return to its safe state.  In this case, there is a fail-safe point where nuclear bombers will automatically turn around unless they get a specific command to go ahead and continue the attack.  In this case, due to a combination of factors (including an equipment malfunction, but not just that) one bomber group scrambling to what was a false alarm, does receive the go-ahead order and continues on its path to Moscow, with enough nuclear power to destroy the city entirely.

The rest of the book is everybody trying to stop it and the president (who is Kennedy, though his name is never mentioned, seen through the eyes of his expert translator) trying to convince Kruschev that the attack is erroneous.  If you think it through, and the book does, you can see the issues at stake.  How do you convince your enemy not to retaliate when you are just about to destroy their most important city?  The problem with the retaliation is that it will touch off a nuclear exchange that would basically destroy the world.

It's a gripping book, with great characters and a pretty intense outcome.  The portrayal of Kennedy was neat, making him seem like the coolest guy, a super badass with a profound humanitarian viewpoint on the world.  This probably represented a political bias of the authors, but whether it is accurate or not, it doesn't get in the way of the delivery of the problems of nuclear stalemate that depends on systems more complex than man.  It's funny, though, based on the foreward, it seems that these authors were convinced an accident will happen.  It never did and I wonder why that is.  How did we hold out long enough so that the Soviet Union collapsed under the weight of its own ideology? Was it just luck?  Did our systems get better?  It would be interesting to know more.

Bonus, check out this topical promotion at the end of the book (click to make big enough to read):

A fine example of the propaganda front during the Cold War

1 comment:

Jason L said...

Books From America!