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The Fail-Safe problem

  1. Jan 22, 2006 #1

    Ivan Seeking

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    The movie Fail-Safe
    http://www.destgulch.com/movies/fsafe/

    came up in another thread, and then by chance it was on yesterday so my wife Tsu I watched it. When it was over and we were both still sitting on the edge of our seats, Tsu commented that this movie really defined the fear of a generation [or two or three].

    If you haven't seen it, you should stop reading this now and rent the movie. If you have seen it, how do you feel about the final option chosen by Fonda?

    Looking back now, being that the Soviet collapsed without a shot [missile] being fired, it is easy to say that the decision would have been correct. But the argument existed all along on both sides that since WWIII seemed all but enevitable, we should strike first if the opportunity arose. In fact this is much like the logic that we see claimed today in Bush's "pre-emptive" invasion of Iraq.

    It was once common for high school students to be given similar problems as a political science exercise. And it was also common for twelth graders, for example, to opt for all out nuclear war given these types of scenarios! It could be quite terrifying to see how difficult it was to avoid WWIII, even given the best intentions of idealistic and naive seventeen year olds.
     
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  3. Jan 22, 2006 #2

    Bystander

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    It's just a novel, and a Hollywood adaptation of the novel. Been years (40 at least) since I read it, and I can't tell you whether it struck me as plausible at the time --- I certainly didn't lose any sleep over it. Far as I recall, none of the premises were even vaguely consistent with the Cold War "rules" Ike and Nikita had worked out between themselves.
     
  4. Jan 22, 2006 #3

    Ivan Seeking

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    It really wasn't about the specifics of the politics at that particular time, it was about the possiblity of getting caught-up by a system that threatened to go beyond human control - and that may have in the end - with rapid response being so critical.
     
  5. Jan 22, 2006 #4

    selfAdjoint

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    It was the literary IMAGINATION of such a situation. The fact of the matter is however that the "rules worked out by Ike and Nikita" worked through many changes of government in both countries and were tested to the limit in the incident where Soviet early-warning radar mistook a meteoroid for a missile and went on maximum alert; they were prepared to launch but the system made a place for cooler heads to prevail. Most novels about government seem to work on the hypothesis that governments are run by fools. Until very recently that was a canard.
     
  6. Jan 22, 2006 #5

    Bystander

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    Ike and Nikita both worked from the premise that only fools were going to be in the positions of power. This was the problem/circumstance the "rules" were developed to address. Not a Nobel Peace Prize between 'em --- shame, really. They took on the ugliest situation in the world, and didn't do that bad a job.
     
  7. Jan 23, 2006 #6

    Ivan Seeking

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    The conviction possible through hindsight is always a luxury, but at the time it [the Fail-Safe story] certainly reflected the fears that many people had. And don't forget that for a long time people believed in winnable nuclear wars.

    Also, those fears that we had were probably justified about the time that the Soviet collapsed. Even one of my own physics professors was active in the effort to stop the evolution of completely automated response systems that would be required by the next generation of missiles. There would have been no time for human intervention. He also had was a list of about a hundred "near launches" caused by false alarms . But this is all a bit off topic since in the movie we actually nuked Moscow. I have always found the paradox posed in the movie to be a fascinating one.

    In a similar vein, there was a choice made by FDR [or maybe Truman] to sacrifice a large ship with many men onboard, during WWII. If we warned the Captain that U-boats would cross paths with the ship, we would have risked our secret knowledge of the Enigma code and threatened the entire war effort. So the agonizing decision was made to sacrifice the ship and all onboard.
     
    Last edited: Jan 23, 2006
  8. Jan 23, 2006 #7

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    At least one convoy, maybe more, westbound, May '43(?), so-called "Black May" by the Kriegsmarine; and the decision might have gone as high as Ernest King. What was the deal? Got indications from intercepted U-boat communications that the convoy codes had been cracked, and had no way (the convoy in question was W-bound, and still in the "air gap," so no messages wrapped around bean bags) to alert the convoy commander without tipping our hand? It's gonna take a day or two to find the details. Wound up getting the homebound empties and a convoy out bound from Halifax, and maybe another outbound shot up.

    Laconia supposedly went all the way to Roosevelt --- was that deliberate escalation to "all-out war," or an error in judgement --- or, would it have made any difference in the long run?
     
  9. Jan 23, 2006 #8

    russ_watters

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    I've often wondered how true that really is (and perhaps we won't ever know): certainly people operated under the assumption that nuclear wars were winnable, but that doesn't mean they actually believed it - it just means that's how they were required, by their jobs, to think.

    I have my doubts that any President would have had the stones to actually follow one of those plans until after a strike was confirmed - by a mushroom cloud.
     
  10. Jan 23, 2006 #9

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    "Winnable" was predicated on "limited exchange;" the "gamed" scenarios always "ran away" beyond the "limited exchange" level without totally unrealistic constraints.

    Today, the U.S., France, U.K., Russia, or China could in principle, with each others' consent, have "winnable" nuclear wars with Israel, India, Pakistan --- sizes of nuclear arsenals of I., I., and P. presumably being single digit to low double digits. However, global politics being the game it is, mutual consent among the "big 5" for one or all to beat up one or all of the "little 3" isn't a likely scenario.
     
  11. Jan 23, 2006 #10

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    Quick update on Battle of the Atlantic: Ultra (Enigma) had definite information at the end of '42 that B-Dienst was reading Naval Cipher 3 (the convoy cipher); this was not operationally countered by convoy command until mid-43; the Kriegsmarine added the 4th wheel (Triton) to their Enigmas in '42, blacking out Ultra for 11 mos., running through mid-43; and there were 5 convoys traversing a concentration of 50-60 U-boats in late April, early May '43. Still ain't got "who" decided "whom" didn't have a "need to know."
     
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