U.S. 1946 King's X

Having invented a new Holocaust,
And been the first with it to win a war,
How they make haste to cry with fingers crossed,
King's X -- no fairs to use it anymore!

by Robert Frost




1) What do you think of the exchange between Mr. Foster and the Professor? Who is right? Why?


1) What is the relationship between the sophistication of our weaponry and the likelihood of war? Does technology change the dynamics of war and peace? Does it "take over" and "create" its own situations as Mr. Raskob fears? Can elected officials maintain responsibility for when and how weapons are used now that our technology is so sophisticated?


1) What is General Black concerned about in the opening of this scene -- what is he referring to as the "policy of overkill"? How is it like or unlike the Professor's account of limited war? Where do they agree? Where do they disagree?

2) Is limited war possible? Can we confine the exchange of nuclear weapons to military targets alone, or must war lead inevitably to the destruction of cities? What are the preconditions for fighting a limited war? What assumptions does it require to fight such a war?

3) The Professor confesses that the idea of limited war presupposes no accidents. We learn however that just such an accident is occurring while he speaks. How would you answer the questions he asks: But, suppose for an example that unidentified flying object was one of their 50-megaton missiles that had gotten loose by mistake. What could be done? How could they prove it was really an accident? Would it make any difference if they could? Even if we believe them, should we still think in terms of limiting our response, or should we hit them back with everything we have?


1) Even knowing that the fighters can't catch the bombers, General Black argues that they must try. Why?

2) What do you think of the fail-safe system's impenetrability to human judgment, at all levels, from the Generals to the pilots? Does it make us safer from accident and human malice, or does it overly limit the opportunity for soldiers and public servants to use their own judgement and respond to the particulars of any given situation?


1) Would a policy of assured, mutual destruction - such as the doomsday system the Professor describes - increase or decrease stability and security between two nuclear-armed powers?

2) The professor describes the Soviets as "fanatics, not normal people" - and hyper rational "calculating machines." Believing this, he reasons they will not respond to an attack. He believes that this accident is an opportunity to make history by defeating the Soviets with a massive strike.

General Bogan, contrary to the Professor, argues that the Soviets possess a different kind of reason, just like his, and that they will reply, as he would, with an attack.

Finally, the President makes a point of asking Buck to interpret the Soviet Premier's words, speech and inflections for him. And he concludes with "history lesson number one" that the outcome of these events still depends on the actions and choices of individuals - individuals in this case as minor in this action as Buck, a translator.

What do you believe is the better account of history and rationality? What do the President's words and deeds to this point say about his leadership? What is our responsibility to history?

3) What can the President do to assure the Soviet Premier that this is an accident so as to avoid a launch of Soviet missiles against the United States?


1) The Professor further elaborates his position in this scene, arguing that this accident must be the beginning of a comprehensive first strike against the Soviet. This position is seemingly at odds with his previous calls for restraint in war - the targeting of military interests alone, and not population centers. Can you square the Professor's earlier emphasis on limited, rational war with his advocating a sneak attack and justifying it with the claim that "those that can survive are the only ones worth surviving?"

2) Why does the President ask General Black if he remembers the biblical story of the Sacrifice of Isaac -- where God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, and doesn't stay his hand until the very last moment? Who is analogous to Abraham and who to God? Who or what is Isaac?


1) What do you think of the President's plan? Did you expect this? Does the President have another choice?

2) If you were the Soviet Premier, would the willingness of the American President to sacrifice New York be adequate to call off your missiles? Would you, as God stays Abraham's hand when He knows Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son, stay the President's hand, once you knew his intentions and heart? Or would you require, as the President himself seems to suggest he would if he were the Premier, the President to carry out the execution?


1) In this final scene two great cities are destroyed, but a comprehensive nuclear war is avoided. In your opinion, was this much destruction unavoidable? What does the President think? What hope is there for avoiding similar episodes in the future?


1) What does this film teach about history, individual choice, and responsibility?

2) This film shows that nuclear weapons complicate an already complex and fragile peace between two countries. While we may no longer be a single, small accident away from a nuclear war with Russia, there are nonetheless at least 8 nuclear weapons states in the world today. When two such states are heavily armed and view each other as enemies, are they better off thinking about limiting nuclear war? Or, are they better off with a policy between them of mutual destruction - where each can assuredly destroy the other including its cities? Is there another alternative?

How does Fail-Safe reflect the concerns of the classic authors in this unit:

3) What would Kant say about the nuclear balance of peace presented in this film? About the emphasis by the President on individual choice and responsibility? What does Fail-Safe suggest about Kant's ideas of the requirement of reason and moral goodness to achieving a permanent peace?

4) What would Clausewitz think of the argument of the Professor that the Soviets are mortal enemies, but nevertheless, they will not respond to the dropping of Group 6's bombs on Moscow? What would he say of General Black's position?

5) What would Augustine have to say in response to the Professor's and General Bogan's argument about the character of the Soviets? Are they pursuing peace? Are there characters in these scenes that would confound Augustine?

6) Fail-Safe begins with Mr. Foster's assertion, "War isn't what it used to be." He reasons that nuclear weapons have forever changed war. Is he right? What do Augustine and Aquinas have to say about war and peace, courage and fortitude, as well as justice and the responsibility of those in public office that are still relevant? Do the other scenes from the film support the claims of these authors?

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