I don't know what the President is doing, but whatever it is he'd better be right. Khrushchev isn't going to sit around forever and watch those planes move in on Moscow. The whole thing rests on the President's ability to persuade Khrushchev it was an accident. If he doesn't, then we're going to have all-out, 100 per cent, slam-bang, hell-bent war. That's right, isn't it, General?
-Congressman Raskob, "Fail-Safe," page 206
For those who are familiar with the story of Fail-Safe due to the 1964 click here film directed by the legendary Sidney Lumet and starring Henry Fonda in an unforgettable performance as a U.S. president who finds himself in a nuclear crisis with the Soviet Union, the book is much like the film but delves deeper into the central themes as well as some of the main characters' psyches and background.
The story explores not only the ideological foundation of the Cold War conflict of 1945 to 1989 and its contribution to creating the immediate crisis but also the related political, psychological and technological foundations. On the political level, the question is implied throughout: why do ideological differences in how to organize one's society have to mean confrontation that puts all of humanity at risk as opposed to a "live and let live" approach? As the US president and Soviet premier (openly referred to as Khrushchev) attempt to deal with the crisis, it is clear that a psychological spiral of long-standing mutual distrust and perceived escalations have made the situation worse, creating circumstances that compound the crisis as it is learned that an understandably suspicious Soviet military leadership has already jammed radio communications on the US nuclear bombers that are on their way to attack Moscow as the result of a mistaken "go" order. The jamming has prevented the US leadership from communicating the error and an abort-mission order to the pilots.
This poisoned atmosphere of distrust leads directly to the horrendous decisions made to resolve the crisis later on.
On the technological side, it is brought out that the US nuclear bombers were given the erroneous "go" order to proceed to Moscow on an attack mission as the result of procedures that were supposedly infallible or as close to it as possible -- hence, the term "Fail-Safe". In the midst of the crisis, one of the foremost engineers of the system, who works for a private contractor, is forced to acknowledge that the more complex a system is, the more error-prone it is:
The fact of the matter is that the machines move so fast, are capable of such subtle mistakes, are so intricate, that in a real war situation a man might not have the time to know whether a machine was in error or was not telling the truth. (page 187)
Furthermore, the political and financial climate in Washington disincentivizes acknowledging potential errors and weaknesses in the system:
Those of us who manufacture the gear, who had some notion of what it was being used for -- we never told anyone that it was infallible. But somewhere in Washington they had to say it was perfect, that it couldn't make a mistake. General, there is no such thing as a perfect system and they should have told you that... Look, for years there has been a fellow named Fred Ikle, who has been working with the Rand Corporation and the Air Force on how to reduce war by accident. He has found flaw after flaw in the system, at just the same time that the newspapers were saying it was perfect. Kendrew over in England has talked about accidental war for years -- loud and clear. So have dozens of others. Most of us, the best of us on the civilian side, we knew that a perfect system is impossible. The mistake was that no one told the public and Congress. (page 207)
Thus, technology -- typically viewed without question as a convenient solution to excess labor or time-consuming tasks -- becomes instead a short-cut that ensnares its subjects.
What is remarkable about Fail-Safe isn't just its thought-provoking look at a topic of profound importance, but its ability to draw the reader in emotionally through complex and compelling characters who must grapple with the concrete decisions -- large and small -- that will contribute to the ultimate climax as the story unfolds.
The president, in terms of age, temperament and background, is clearly modeled on then-president John F. Kennedy. The reader gets to know the president through his translator, Peter Buck. Buck, who was discovered years before to have an uncanny talent for picking up the Russian language, along with its nuances and dialects, has been coasting through his job at the White House while going to law school at night as his services were understood only to be needed in the event of a crisis. Needless to say, it takes several seconds for it to sink into Buck when he gets the call on the special red phone in his drawer and is instructed by the president to meet him at the entrance to the underground bunker beneath the White House ASAP.
Then there is Walter Groteschele, a nihilistic professor who advocates the most hard-line positions imaginable in theoretical discussions of potential nuclear war, including first-strike actions, rattling off figures on what would constitute an acceptable number of deaths (in the millions) from the ensuing conflagration to still be considered a victory:
In one way, the public way, he was a respectable high priest of civic death. This dialogue he had raised from a secretive conversation to a respectable art. It was a game at which he was exquisite. Almost by his own single-mindedness and wit he had introduced to a whole society the idea that a calm and dispassionate and logical discussion of collective death was an entertainment. By refinements and logical innovation he had made municipal death a form of style and a way of life. (page 125)