The Air Force versus Hollywood

National Security Archive

The Air Force versus Hollywood: Documentary on "SAC Command Post" Tried to Rebut "Dr. Strangelove" and "Fail Safe"

WASHINGTON, January 15, 2010 - To refute early 1960s
novels and Hollywood films like Fail-Safe and Dr.
which raised questions about U.S. control over nuclear
weapons, the Air Force produced a documentary film--"SAC [Strategic Air
Command] Command Post"
--to demonstrate its  responsiveness to
presidential command and its tight control over nuclear weapons.

During the crisis years of the early 1960s, when U.S.-Soviet
relations were especially tense, novels and motion pictures raised
questions about the Air Force's control over nuclear weapons and the
dangers of an accidentally or deliberately-triggered nuclear war.
Foremost were Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler's novel Fail-Safe
(1962) (later turned into a motion
) about an accidental war and the film Dr.
Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
a brilliant satire about a nuclear conflict deliberately sparked by a
psychotic Air Force general. Both Dr. Strangelove and Fail-Safe
may have created enough worries in the Air Force about its image to
lead the service to produce a film--"SAC [Strategic Air Command]
Command Post"--designed to confirm presidential control over the
"expenditure" of nuclear weapons and the difficulty of initiating an
'unauthorized launch" of nuclear bombers.

Never used publicly by the Air Force for reasons that remain
puzzling, "SAC
Command Post"
is premiered online today on the National
Security Archive Web site. Produced during 1963-1964, this
unclassified film tried to undercut Dr. Strangelove's image of a
psychotic general ordering nuclear strikes against the Soviet Union by
showing that nuclear war could not be "triggered by unauthorized
launch." To reinforce an image of responsible control, "SAC Command
Post" presents a detailed picture of the communications systems that
the Strategic Air Command used to centralize direction of bomber bases
and missile silos. With the film's emphasis on SAC's readiness for
nuclear war, higher authorities may have finally decided that it was
off-message in light of the Johnson administration's search for stable
relations with Moscow. 

"SAC Command Post" is one example of the Air Force's sizable
documentary film output, which includes a number of documentaries on
that service's role in researching, developing, deploying, and
operating nuclear weapons systems, as well as in tracking the nuclear
activities of adversaries. The films inevitably embody some of the Air
Force's spin, promoting views, policies, and programs that were then on
its agenda. In this special collection for the "Nuclear Vault," the
National Security Archive presents two other documentaries highlighting
Air Force nuclear-related activities during the crisis years of the
Cold War. They are:

  • "Project
    (1959), original classification status
    unknown, which depicts SAC's first airborne alert test by bombers
    operating out of Loring Air Force Base (Maine) in the fall of 1959. 
    Designed to keep nuclear-armed bombers in the air so they could head
    towards Soviet targets at a moment's notice, airborne alert was an
    accident waiting to happen.  In 1966 and 1968 crashes of nuclear-armed
    B-52s in Spain and Greenland caused international incidents.
  • "Development
    of the Soviet Ballistic Missile Threat"
    originally classified "secret," illustrates the role of Air Force
    intelligence in the "missile gap" debates in the years before the 1960
    presidential election. Like other government intelligence organizations,
    the Air Force hyped up the Soviet ICBM threat, not recognizing how far
    ahead of the Soviet Union the United States already was.

These films are from DVD reproductions of the original footage
stored in the collections maintained by the National Archives' Motion
Pictures Unit, College Park, MD. A number of Air Force films from the
1960s, including secret Strategic Air Command reports, remain
classified. The National Security Archive's Nuclear Documentation
Project has requested them for declassification release.

The Air Force's film production units routinely created
documentaries for public relations purposes, for internal education and
training, and to update and inform top officials on current
programs. The Air Force produced films in several categories, including
Training Films (TF), Film Reports (FRs) and Special Film Projects
(SFPs). (1) Film
Reports on military operations, exercises, or new technologies were
often produced at the request of Air Force Headquarters or the Joint
Chiefs of Staff. During the 1950s and 1960s FRs covered a wide variety
of topics, including the latest developments in military technology by
the Air Research Development Command (ARDC), progress on the ICBM and
IRBM programs, reports by the Strategic Air Command, exercises in the
Panama Canal Zone and Alaska, and monthly reports on "Air Strikes,
Southeast Asia" during the Vietnam War.  Many Film Reports were
classified at the time, but have since been declassified (except SAC

Generalizations are difficult about Special Film Projects
(SFPs), but apparently many were for more general audiences and designed
to have a wider appeal.  As with the FRs, the Motion Picture Unit at
the National Archives has boxes of index cards that provide a detailed
description of each film.  SFPs included films on moral and ethical
issues, holiday celebration films, and also on particular USAF needs,
such as safety. Some SFPs were designed to inculcate positive views of
major policies and government organizations, such as "The Miracle of
Progress," a film on the NATO alliance or "Eagle's Talons," on the role
of the Defense Department in "safeguarding our freedoms." Some were
produced to assist friendly foreign governments, such as "The Imperial
Ethiopian Air Force", a recruiting film produced for the Ethiopian

Note 1: The visual quality of these films--reproduced on DVDs
prepared by the National Archives motion pictures unit--varies, even
from reel to reel within the same movie. Unfortunately, the Air Force's
preservation of the original films did not meet archival standards, so
the quality reflects their condition when they arrived at the National
Archives. Some films that would have been useful for presentation here
are virtually unusable because the sound tracks did not survive.

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