SUBJECTS — U.S./1945 – 1991; World/Cold War


MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS — Responsibility, Caring.

AGE: 14+; No MPAA Rating;

1964, Drama; 112 minutes; B & W. Available from

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TWM offers the following worksheets to keep students’ minds on the movie and direct them to the lessons that can be learned from the film.

Film Study Worksheet for ELA Classes and

Worksheet for Cinematic and Theatrical Elements and Their Effects.

Teachers can modify the movie worksheets to fit the needs of each class. See also TWM’s Movies as Literature Homework Project.


Additional ideas for lesson plans for this movie can be found at TWM’s guide to Lesson Plans Using Film Adaptations of Novels, Short Stories or Plays.


It’s the middle of the Cold War. Armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. (Russia) stand toe to toe, ready to destroy each other, and the world, on a moments’ notice. The countries rely upon the logic of Mutual Assured Destruction to prevent war. One day, due to a mechanical failure, a group of U.S. war planes, armed with hydrogen bombs, flies off toward the Soviet Union. It’s target is Moscow. It doesn’t respond to orders to return. WHAT DO WE DO NOW?!!!

The President of the United States is called upon to make quick and important decisions. How can he assure the Soviet Premier that this is not the start of an all out nuclear attack? If the bombers cannot be stopped, how does he propose to convince the Soviet Union not to launch an attack that will destroy the United States? Or, as some advise, should he simply order an all out first strike and start WWIII with a big advantage?

The movie is based on the best selling novel of the same name by Harvey Wheeler and Eugene Burdick. The experience of viewing this film will be enhanced if used at part of’s Lesson Plan on Mass Casualties and Making Decisions About War.


Selected Awards:



Featured Actors:

Dan O’Herlihy, Walter Matthau, Frank Overton, Ed Binns, Fritz Weaver, Henry Fonda, Larry Hagman, William Hansen, Russell Hardie, Russell Collins, Sorrell Booke.



Sidney Lumet.


“Fail-Safe” serves as a reminder that, while nuclear tensions have diminished, there are still thousands of nuclear weapons in arsenals around the world. See Estimates by the Natural Resources Defense Council. Additionally, several nations who do not already have nuclear weapons are trying to build them. The chances of an unintended launch of a missile or of a nuclear accident remain all too real. See CNN site on nuclear weapons accidents.

The film also contributes to the contemporary debate over defense systems designed to destroy incoming missiles. See National Missile Defense Debate by the Carnegie Endowment for Peace. The movie will help inspire children to discuss the wisdom of possessing large stockpiles of nuclear weapons, as well as investigate what is being done to safeguard them. One only has to examine the destruction wrought by atomic weapons at the conclusion of World War II and note the incredible advances in their destructive capability to realize that everyone is at risk if there is an accidental explosion of a nuclear weapon.

In 2000, after the end of the Cold War, a remake of “Fail-Safe” on television attracted more than 20 million viewers. This indicates a continuing interest in the story and in the issues that it presents.


MODERATE. A woman makes a pass at Professor Groeteschele, the villain of the film. He slaps her. The film begins with a dream sequence showing the agony of a bull being killed in a bullfight. While this sequence adds a layer of meaning to the film, it is not essential. Children who are sensitive and who are empathic towards animals should be warned and perhaps they should skip the first 60 seconds of the film (until the end of the dream sequence). One of the characters, under extreme provocation, commits suicide. There is mild profanity in the movie. The words “damn” and “hell” are used several times.

The dramatic tension in “Fail-Safe” builds slowly through the first 25 minutes. It may be necessary to remind children during this time that the drama will become intense as the film unfolds its gripping tale.

Some critics claim that the fears of accidental nuclear war are exaggerated and that the fail-safe system shown in the movie is much different than those actually employed by the United States. The points of the critics are important and should be discussed with children who see the film. The debate over whether the film is inaccurate, and whether that even matters, is an excellent way to lead children to the benefits of this film. See Discussion Question #2.


Ask and help your child to answer the Quick Discussion Question. Be sure to mention that in 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force strongly advised that the U.S. start a pre-emptive nuclear war against the Soviet Union. Fortunately, President Kennedy ignored this advice. See Learning Guide to “Thirteen Days”. Acquaint your child with the terms Mutually Assured Destruction and Brinksmanship. If your child is interested in the topic review some of the other discussion questions.


World War II ended with the explosion of atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As the Eastern and Western blocs settled into a cold war, more countries acquired the bomb. Nuclear weapons also became more lethal. Hydrogen bombs, developed in the early 1950s, are far more powerful than their atomic counterparts. In the topsy-turvy world of nuclear policy, the development of the hydrogen bomb was presented as an attempt to ensure peace and security:


Statement by President Harry S. Truman
on the Hydrogen Bomb — January 31, 1950


It is part of my responsibility as Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces to see to it that our country is able to defend itself against any possible aggressor. Accordingly, I have directed the Atomic Energy Commission to continue its work on all forms of atomic weapons, including the so-called hydrogen or super bomb. Like all other work in the field of atomic weapons, it is being and will be carried forward on a basis consistent with the overall objectives of our program for peace and security.

This we shall continue to do until a satisfactory plan for international control of atomic energy is achieved. We shall also continue to examine all those factors that affect our program for peace and … security. (

Under the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction (with the ironic acronym “MAD”) nuclear war became a suicide pact. There would be no winner and both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. (Russia) would be destroyed. Albert Einstein is reputed to have remarked that he did not pretend to augur the details of World War III, but he was certain that World War IV would likely be fought with sticks and rocks.

Nonetheless, at times, both the United States and the Soviet Union adopted policies of brinkmanship, where nuclear threats were tossed around in an effort to force the opposing side to back down over an issue in contention. The American Heritage Dictionary (Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000) defines brinkmanship as “[t]he practice, especially in international politics, of seeking advantage by creating the impression that one is willing and able to push a highly dangerous situation to the limit rather than concede.”

One example of brinkmanship was the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s attempts to force the British and French to terminate their invasion of Egypt’s Suez Canal with threats of nuclear war. Another example was America’s not so veiled threats to the People’s Republic of China to cease shelling the tiny Taiwanese islands of Quemoy and Matsu.

The nerve-jarring Cuban Missile Crisis of October of 1962 was the ultimate exercise in brinkmanship and changed superpower perspectives on nuclear weapons. Policy makers began to appreciate that these weapons were not just big bombs. They were truly instruments of terror – for those who wielded them as well as for those who would be bombed. Numerous nuclear accidents and miscalculations only heightened superpower concern over the subject.

The superpowers signed a series of treaties to reduce the tension. One provided for direct communication between the superpower leaders to avoid misunderstandings. Test ban treaties (land, undersea, etc.) were crafted to forestall threatening tests. The countries of the world banded together to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, an attempt to limit the spread of nuclear weapons. Countries without nuclear weapons agreed not to construct them in exchange for peaceful nuclear technology from the nuclear powers.

Both superpowers worked hard to reduce the number of weapons among established countries in a pair of Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT). But the development of Multiple Independent Reentry Vehicles (MIRVs), which enabled several warheads to be placed on a single missile, complicated efforts at superpower cooperation. The United States Senate refused to ratify SALT II.

After President Ronald Reagan threatened to construct a space-based defense system (Strategic Defense Initiative), the Soviets began to realize that their nuclear capability could not only be weakened but completely invalidated by this new generation of weapons. Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev then signed a series of agreements that actually reduced (not limited) the spread of weapons. This was an important step in the conclusion of the Cold War.

Even as the Soviet Union made the transition to the Russian Federation, cooperation continued with a set of Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties (START). Now, cooperation appears to be waning with America’s decision to construct a National Missile Defense system (NMD). Though America insists that the weapon would only be used for defensive purposes, NMD undermines the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which banned such weapons as attempts to “win” a nuclear conflict. The NMD might also invalidate the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 which was designed to keep the upper atmosphere nuclear-free. Furthermore, Russia views claim that NMD is purely “defensive” with the same skepticism that the U.S. viewed the “defensive” Soviet missiles in Cuba in the early 1960s. Russia has since used worldwide suspicion of NMD to forge closer ties with its traditional rivals Europe and China, as together they pressure the U.S. not to go forward with NMD.

The National Missile Defense system is intended to be a defense against an outside attack by a rogue state or terrorist group. Some in the scientific community are skeptical about its feasibility and cost. Early tests have proved problematic and the program is still in its nascent phase.

Even with NMD, the United States proposes to maintain a large arsenal of nuclear weapons. The rationale for this is outlined in the United States Defense Department Nuclear Posture Review. The National Academy of Sciences provides a counterpoint, calling for deep cuts in the number of missiles the United States deploys: Arms Control Ass’n article on The Future of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Policy. The situation is not static. The United States is now proposing to develop a new generation of nuclear weapons designed to penetrate underground nuclear, chemical and biological facilities such as those developed by rogue states.




Congressman Raskob: Well, I’ll tell you the truth, these machines scare the hell out of me. I don’t like the idea that every time I take off my hat something up there knows I’m losing my hair. You want to be damn sure that thing doesn’t get any ideas of its own.

Mr. Knapp: I see what you mean, Mr. Raskob, but that’s the chance you take with these systems.

Congressman Raskob: Who says we have to take that chance. Who voted who the power to do it this particular way. I’m the only one around here got elected by anybody. Nobody gave me that power.

Mr. Knapp: It’s in the nature of technology. Machines are developed to meet situations.

Congressman Raskob: . . . and they take over and start creating situations.

Mr. Knapp: Not necessarily.

Congressman Raskob: But there’s always a chance. You said so yourself.

General Bogan: We have checks on everything. There are checks and counterchecks.

Congressman Raskob: Now, who checks the checker? Where’s the end of the line, General? Who’s got the responsibility?

General Bogan: The President.

Congressman Raskob: He can’t know everything that’s going on. How can he? It’s too complicated. And if you want to know, that’s what really bothers me. The only thing that everyone can agree on is that no one’s responsible.




Mr. Knapp: The more complex an electronic system gets, the more accident prone it is. Sooner or later it breaks down.

Secretary Swenson: What breaks down?

Mr. Knapp: A transistor blows. A condenser burns out. Sometimes they just get tired, like people.

Professor Groeteschele: Mr. Knapp overlooks one factor. The machines are supervised by humans. Even if a machine fails, a human being can always correct the mistake.

Mr. Knapp: I wish you were right. The fact is that the machines work so fast. They are so intricate. The mistakes they make are so subtle. That very often a human being just can’t know whether a machine is lying or telling the truth.




Professor Groeteschele: Every minute we wait works against us. Now, Mr. Secretary, now is when must send in a first strike.

Secretary Swenson: We don’t go in for sneak attacks. We had that done to us at Pearl Harbor.

Professor Groeteschele: And the Japanese were right to do it! From their point of view we were their mortal enemy. As long as we existed we were a deadly threat to them. Their only mistake was that they failed finish us at the start. And they paid for that mistake at Hiroshima.

A General: You’re talking about a different kind of war.

Professor Groeteschele: Exactly. This time we can finish what we start. And if we act now, right now, our casualties will be minimal.

General Black: Do you know what you’re saying?

Professor Groeteschele: Do you believe that Communism is not our mortal enemy?

General Black: You’re justifying murder.

Professor Groeteschele: Yes, to keep from being murdered.

General Black: In the name of what? To preserve what? Even if we do survive are we better than what we say they are? What gives us the right to live then? What makes us worth surviving, Groeteschele? That we are ruthless and struck first?

Professor Groeteschele: Yes! Those that can survive are the only ones worth surviving!

General Black: Fighting for your life isn’t the same as murder.

Professor Groeteschele: Where do you draw the line once you know what the enemy is? How long would the Nazis have kept it up, General, if every Jew they came after had met them with a gun in his hand! But I learned from them, General Black, oh, I learned!

General Black: You learned so well that now there’s no difference between you and what you want to kill!




Soviet Premier: And yet this was nobody’s fault.

The President: I don’t agree!

Soviet Premier: No human being did wrong. No one is to be blamed.

The President: We’re to blame, both of us. We let our machines get out of hand.

The President: Two great cities may be destroyed. Millions of innocent people killed. What do we say to them, Mr. Chairman, “Accidents will happen?” I won’t accept that!

Soviet Premier: All I know that as long as we have weapons . . . .

The President: All I know is that men are responsible. We’re responsible for what happens to us. Today we had a taste of the future. Do we learn from it or do we go on the way we have? What do we do Mr. Chairman? What do we say to the dead?

Soviet Premier: I think if we are men we must say that this will not happen again. But do you think it possible, with all that stands between us.

The President: We put it there, Mr. Chairman, and we’re not helpless. What we put between us we can remove.


1. See Standard Questions Suitable for Any Film.

No suggested Answers.


2. Assume that the fail-safe plan used by the United States was, in several ways, the opposite of the plan described in the movie. No bomber could approach the Soviet Union without an explicit order and, once the plane was over target, no bombs could be dropped without another specific order. If no order was given or if communications were lost, the planes were to return to base. Some claim that these assumptions are correct and render the story told by this movie irrelevant. Do you agree that if the fail-safe system actually used was better than the one described in the movie, that the movie loses its relevance? Support your position.

Suggested Response:

For a discussion of this issue, see It can be argued both ways. Certainly, inaccuracies affect the value of the film. However, history is full of examples of complex systems not performing according to expectations. If that happened to the fail-safe system, missiles would be launched, bombers would fly and the terrible dilemma facing the President of the United States in this film would be real. In our view, the core question posed by “Fail-Safe” remains, which is why we recommend the film.


3. In the real world in the event of an accidental nuclear strike, would the Soviets have been placated by the American offer to bomb New York?

Suggested Response:

There is no one right answer to this question. A good answer should view the situation from the Russian point of view. One of the first steps in planning a foreign policy or a military strategy is answering the question, “What will the other side do?”


4. Read Screenplay Excerpt #3. Do you agree with General Black that Professor Groeteschele has become as bad or worse than his enemy or do you agree with Professor Groeteschele that, in the play, the U.S. should have started a nuclear war? Tell us why.

Suggested Response:

General Black is correct. Groeteschele has become as bad or worse than his enemy. It is important to make children understand the aggressive nature of Russian Soviet Communism and the collective judgment of the American people that it had to be contained. A good answer will refer to this and conclude that a first strike, no matter how helpful it might have been militarily, was morally repugnant. During the Cold War, there were Americans who felt that Russian Soviet Communism was so aggressive and dangerous that Americans were justified in doing anything to “defend” the country. This included launching a first strike against the Soviet Union. However, a first strike that killed tens of millions of Russians would have been a monstrous act and a crime against humanity; worse than the crimes of the Nazis or the Japanese Imperialists. The decision not to start a nuclear war with a first strike was also the correct decision on practical grounds; the West won the Cold War in 1991 without resorting to nuclear weapons.


5. Read Screenplay Excerpts #1, 2 and #4. Are we responsible for the distrust caused by our weapons, or are we innocent because the machines are too complex and too fast?

Suggested Response:

We created the machines. We created the mistrust; and we operated a defective fail-safe system. We cannot escape responsibility. The President is correct. This responsibility applies not only to the decision-makers, but also to some extent to every member of free society who voted (or failed to vote) in elections that elected people who controlled the weapons.


6. List three defects in the fail-safe system shown in this film. For each defect give the counter argument showing why that feature should have worked or was, in fact, necessary.

Suggested Response:

The counter-arguments are in parentheses. 1) failing to require a direct affirmative order at the time the planes were over target before bombs could be dropped (but then Russian jamming of our radios would be an effective defense); 2) failing to have a backup way to give orders to the planes (was one possible?); 3) not having fighters able to down the bombers (fighters have less fuel capacity than bombers; this would have required refueling the fighters in the air after the planes had proceeded beyond their fail-safe points. It would have been very complex and risky); 4) instructing pilots to ignore their leaders and their families (but then voices can be duplicated); and 5) the Americans in the film had developed a fail-safe system that made them overconfident (given that there was a nuclear stand-off, there was no other choice than to develop a fail-safe system and rely on it to a great extent).


7. Can nuclear weapons ever be made safe from accidental detonation? In your answer, deal with the issues raised by the list of nuclear accidents contained in Selected Accidents Involving Nuclear Weapons 1950-1993 by Greenpeace [or a similar list developed from other sources.]

Suggested Response:

There is no one right answer to this question. See response to the next discussion question.


8. Should we eliminate nuclear weapons if we cannot be sure there will be no accidental detonations?

Suggested Response:

There is no one right answer to this question. A good answer should include an evaluation of whether the value of deterrence is worth the risk of accident posed by nuclear weapons. You might follow up on this question by asking, what the Soviets would have done, in the context of the movie, had the U.S. responded by unilaterally disarming rather than by destroying New York.


9. Does the film “Fail-Safe” make you more or less convinced that we need a National Missile Defense system?

Suggested Response:

There is no one right answer to this question. This question “fast forwards” the discussion to the contemporary debate about whether or not we should develop a system to knock down accidental launches or actions by rogue states.


10. What are your impressions of Professor Groeteschele? Do you agree or disagree with him? Is he a Cold War relic or do voices such as his have relevance today?

Suggested Response:

There is no one right answer to this question. A good answer should include an acknowledgment that some experts advocated his position but that a first strike, as he recommended, would have been a crime against humanity. His evaluation of the Russians is a generalization that shows all of the hallmarks of prejudice. There probably were some doctrinaire Marxists who were as cold blooded as he described them, but that did not apply to all of the Russians or their leaders. The makers of the film, as the name Groeteschele suggests, disagreed with his advocacy of a first strike and his attitudes toward the Russians.


11. Does the breakup of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War mean that an accidental nuclear detonation is less likely to happen?

Suggested Response:

There is no one right answer to this question. A good answer should include a discussion of the risks of nuclear proliferation caused by the breakup of the Soviet Union and the increased risks as countries with less sophisticated control systems than the U.S. acquire the bomb.


12. What is the significance of the dream sequence and of the reference to “the matador” at the beginning and end of the film?

Suggested Response:

The matador is a metaphor for our own self-destructive tendencies. In the dream, as it turns out, we are both the matador and the bull.


13. Was it a wise policy for the pilots to be ordered to ignore verbal changes of their orders? If not, what other alternative was there?

Suggested Response:

In retrospect, it was not a wise policy. There is no one right answer to the second part of the question. A good answer should evaluate the alternatives. For example, a code word could be used that changes every mission and is known only to two officers on the ground.


14. If you had been one of the fighter pilots and had been given an order that clearly meant that you would die on a long shot mission, what would you have done?

Suggested Response:

Obey, as the fighter pilots did in the film. Men and women in the military are trained to follow orders, even though the orders will lead to their deaths. This is the only way that an army can fight.


15. Could a similar situation occur today with another major power (Russia, China) or a rogue state (North Korea, Iran)?

Suggested Response:

There is no one right answer to this question. A good response should look at which other countries have weapons, as well as their policies toward the United States. Use recent events to show the importance and urgency of this question.


16. Do terrorists present a greater nuclear threat than the risk of a nuclear war caused by accident? If so, do the issues raised in the movie “Fail-Safe” still matter?

Suggested Response:

The risk of the accidental use of nuclear weapons is still with us, but beyond that there is no one right answer to this question. A good answer should acknowledge that: (1) accidental nuclear war is still possible and still a real threat, especially with so many other countries having the bomb and (2) since tensions are lower among the major nuclear states, it is less likely that an accident would lead to all out nuclear war.


17. What would have happened had the situation described in the movie occurred before a direct communications link had been installed between the President and the Soviet Premier?

Suggested Response:

All out war, most likely.


18. What steps did the Americans and Soviets take to make the world safer after the early 1960s?

Suggested Response:

In addition to the system for telephonic contact between the leaders, both countries adopted a policy of détente or de-escalation of the nuclear confrontation through the ABM Treaty, SALT, START, and other nuclear treaties designed to reduce superpower tensions.


19. What might have happened had Secretary Swenson and the President followed the suggestions of Professor Groeteschele?

Suggested Response:

There is no one right answer. A good answer will discuss whether any country could have won a nuclear conflict (even if some of the “experts” thought that we could); raise questions about what winning means in the context of tens of millions of deaths; discuss the concept of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD); and raise the ethical issues involved in a first strike, i.e., it is mass murder and a crime against humanity.


20. Some, such as Political Science Professor John Mearshimer (see Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, March 31, 1998) credit nuclear weapons with deterring Soviet aggression and preventing World War III. Defend or attack his position.

Suggested Response:

There is no one right answer. A good answer should note that the Red Army was much larger than the U.S. Armed Forces; that nuclear weapons have a deterrent effect but also the difficulty in proving the cause of a “non-event”, for example, it might also be true that there would have been no nuclear war even without MAD. This discussion can be expanded to include the debate on terrorism: How many events do we know were deterred or prevented by increased vigilance?


21. How might Americans have reacted if it was a Soviet plane that slipped through fail-safe procedures and attacked Washington, D.C. or New York? Would we have accepted a Soviet/American “deal” to destroy Moscow as an act of penance?

Suggested Response:

There is no one right answer. A good response should allow us to assess whether the Soviet response in the film was realistic or not and should include the concepts of: (a) how the public would react; (b) should the public be restrained by its leaders on this point, if necessary; (c) what would the military do; (d) what would the right wing position be; (e) what would the left wing position be; (f) what would the Christian position be; (g) whether the maintenance of political power by the existing ruler (the President or the Chairman) is a valid consideration in making the decision.


22. Was there any rational basis for Colonel Cascio’s fear that the whole thing was all a Soviet hoax? Did he act correctly?

Suggested Response:

First and foremost, the officer was wrong because the military must always be subordinate to civilian authority. That is a basic tenet of democracy and of the U.S. Constitution. That is the reason that the President is the “Commander in Chief” of all of the U.S. Armed Forces. In addition, Colonel Cascio wanted to begin WWIII with a first strike by U.S. forces. A sneak attack first strike would have been criminal (e.g. Pearl Harbor), and against U.S. tradition. Was there any justification for his fears? Absolutely. The unprovoked attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese Imperial Navy in 1941 occurred before the Japanese had declared war. There was a history of Soviet expansion in Eastern Europe, Asia, and as close as Cuba. The Cuban Missile Crisis, in which the Soviets had lied to the U.S. and tried to secretly place nuclear missiles in Cuba, showed that there is a history of Soviet deception in the area of nuclear weapons. Finally, the Soviets were at the time actively jamming our radio signals to the planes, a very unusual and a hostile action. While the movie makes Cascio out to be somewhat crazy, there was some basis for his suspicions.




23. In the film, why do the American bombers continue to fly past their fail-aafe points?

Suggested Response:

The Soviet jamming of our radio communications prevented the call back order from being received.


24. Why didn’t the pilot listen to the President, his superior officers, or even his wife?

Suggested Response:

The pilot had been ordered and trained to ignore such messages.


25. In the movie, what orders are given to the Air Force fighter planes? What happens to them?

Suggested Response:

They are ordered to use up their fuel trying to catch the bombers and to shoot them down. Whether they succeed or fail to destroy the bombers, the fighter planes will fall into the sea and their pilots will die in the frigid waters of the ocean.



1. Evaluate the leadership qualities of the character of the President.

Suggested Response:

They were good. He made the hard decisions promptly, without vacillation, and had a reasonable and moral basis for each of his decisions. He didn’t try to evade responsibility or pass the buck. The character could be criticized for not trying hard enough to craft a solution that would avoid the destruction of New York, but that was not within the parameters of the story.


2. What will most likely happen to the President in the aftermath of the crisis? Would this man, as described in the film, really care?

Suggested Response:

There is no one right answer to the first part of the question. As to the second part, he would have cared about his political future if he felt that he was the only person with the experience and motivation necessary to heal the wounds and find a way to prevent accidental war in the future or perhaps to secure disarmament. A good answer will explore whether the President’s political career was over; whether he would be held responsible by the American people; whether he would he be put on trial for crimes against humanity; whether he would he be assassinated; whether the American people would understand his decision. In this film, the President correctly didn’t seem to give a thought to his own political survival.


3. What did General Black (the Air Force bomber pilot on the mission over New York) do? Why did he do these things?

Suggested Response:

General Black dropped the bombs himself, took full responsibility for dropping the bombs, and then killed himself. He was acting as a good leader should act, except perhaps for the suicide. It is well known that soldiers ordered to execute people may get upset at pulling the trigger. (This is the reason that in many firing squads, one random blank bullet is given to the soldiers.) As for his suicide, General Black could have lived and worked to ban nuclear weapons or prevent another accidental war. While it is understandable that a man who has been ordered to kill millions of people, including his wife and children, would see no point to life and would want release from the incredible pain that he feels, there was probably a lot that General Black could have done to help prevent another accidental war in the future. He should have stayed around to fulfill that role.


Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.


1. Was ethics involved in the decision of the President shown in this film?

Suggested Response:

It was central to it. He always had mind the that the primary goal was saving as many lives as possible. A good way to pursue a discussion of this issue is to ask whether there were any components of his decision that were not ethical. The answer is, yes. He had to factor in what he thought the Soviets would do and how to prevent them from unleashing their nuclear weapons on the U.S.


2. Who were the stakeholders in the decisions that the American President and the Soviet Premier had to make in this film?

Suggested Response:

Everyone in the world. There were people who had more at stake than others, such as the people in and around Moscow and New York City.



(Do what you are supposed to do; Persevere: keep on trying!; Always do your best; Use self-control; Be self-disciplined; Think before you act — consider the consequences; Be accountable for your choices)


3. How does this pillar of character apply to the actions of the people in this film?

Suggested Response:

The President made himself and the U.S. accountable for the choices we had made. He honored the Pillar.


4. In the movie, the Russians jammed communications which would have recalled Group Six to base. Does this absolve the Americans of responsibility?

Suggested Response:

No. But it made the Russians partly responsible for the destruction of their capital. In a tragedy such as this, there is plenty of blame to go around.



(Be kind; Be compassionate and show you care; Express gratitude; Forgive others; Help people in need)


5. Should the Soviet Premier have insisted upon the destruction of New York City?

Suggested Response:

There is no one right answer to this question. We lean toward the following: No. He may have lost his job. It would have been difficult but he and the President should have worked out some other penance for the U.S. and should have agreed to some type of nuclear stand-down. They should have tried. The ultimate push toward such a solution comes from the ethical concept of forgiveness which is part of caring. Ultimately, Russia should have forgiven the U.S. If you were the Soviet Premier, would you rather die knowing that you saved the lives of millions or that you had exacted penance from a great power? We think the answer is obvious.


See Assignments, Projects, and Activities for Use With any Film that is a Work of Fiction.


Students can be asked to do the following:

  • Research some of the views of “realists” such as John Mearshimer or Henry Kissinger on the use of nuclear weapons in national policy. (Students can also be asked to profile views of contemporary policymakers such as Bush Administration staffer Richard Perle or Vice President Dick Cheney on this issue.)
  • Write a paper answering any Discussion Question set out above.
  • Give a class presentation, singly or in groups, on any Discussion Question set out above.
  • Research and write a paper on how America’s current fail-safe policy works.
  • Research the history of accidents involving nuclear weapons, come to a conclusion about whether nuclear weapons are safe from accidental detonation, and defend your position.
  • Write a paper or give a presentation comparing the book and the movie and analyzing which is the better vehicle for presenting the issues of the risks of accidental nuclear war.
  • For each short screenplay excerpt set out above, write a short essay supporting one position or the other. (As an alternative, the class can be divided up into groups and the matter may be debated in class.)


  • Fail-Safe by Harvey Wheeler and Eugene Burdick;
  • Seven Days in May by Fletcher Knebel and Charles Bailey;
  • The Sum of All Fears by Tom Clancy;
  • Night of Camp David by Fletcher Knebel;
  • The Fourth Protocol by Frederick Forsyth; and
  • Maximum Vigilance by Steve Pieczenik.



In addition to websites which may be linked in the Guide and selected film reviews listed on the Movie Review Query Engine, the following resources were consulted in the preparation of this Learning Guide:

  • The Limits of Safety: Organizations, Accidents and Nuclear Weapons by Scott D. Sagan;
  • Tactical Nuclear Weapons: Emergent Threats in an Evolving Security Environment edited by Brian Alexander;
  • The Tragedy of Great Power Politics by John Mearshimer;
  • Arms and Influence by Thomas C. Schelling;
  • Deadly Arsenals: Tracking Weapons of Mass Destruction by Joseph Cirincione, Jon Wolfsthal, Miriam Rajkumar and Jessica Tuchman Mathews;
  • Weapons of Mass Destruction: The No-Nonsense Guide to Nuclear, Chemical and Biological Weapons Today by Robert Hutchinson;
  • Contemporary Nuclear Debates edited by Alexander T.J. Lennon, and
  • The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: A Debate Renewed, Second Edition by Scott D. Sagan and Kenneth N. Waltz.
  • “Suez Crisis.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2003. Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service. 24 Sep, 2003

Credits: This Learning Guide written by Dr. John A. Tures, Assistant Professor of Political Science, La Grange College, La Grange, Georgia, and James Frieden, TWM.

Credits: This Learning Guide written by Dr. John A. Tures, Assistant Professor of Political Science, La Grange College,

La Grange, Georgia and James Frieden, TWM.  Last updated August 4, 2010.

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