From 1963—“SAC Command Post”

This twenty minute film was produced in 1963 for the U.S. Air Force’s Strategic Air Command [SAC] to show the operation of their command and control system for bombers and missiles armed with nuclear weapons. The story behind the film is told in a document published by The National Security Archive of George Washington University, “The Air Force versus Hollywood”.

To refute early 1960s novels and Hollywood films like Fail-Safe and Dr. Strangelove 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 picture) 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.

Note: 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.

By the time this film was made, SAC had already renamed the points at which bombers would hold before proceeding to attack the godless commies “Positive Control Points” instead of “Fail Safe Points”, probably as a reaction to bad press engendered by the eponymous book and film using the original terminology.

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