The Air Force versus Hollywood

Documentary on "SAC Command Post" Tried to Rebut "Dr. Strangelove" and "Fail Safe"

Cold War Documentaries Present the Air Force's Spin on Airborne Alert, the "Missile Gap," and Nuclear Command and Control;
Films Premiered On-line in the National Security Archive's Nuclear Vault

Edited by William Burr

Underground Command Post at Strategic Air Command Headquarters, Offutt Air Force Base. Still taken from Air Force Special Film Project 1236, "SAC Command Post"

Washington, D.C., January 15, 2010 - 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. 

"SAC Command Post" is one example of the Air Force's sizable documentary film output, which includes a number of documentaries on that service's role in researching, developing, deploying, and operating nuclear weapons systems, as well as in tracking the nuclear activities of adversaries. The films inevitably embody some of the Air Force's spin, promoting views, policies, and programs that were then on its agenda. In this special collection for the "Nuclear Vault," the National Security Archive presents two other documentaries highlighting Air Force nuclear-related activities during the crisis years of the Cold War. They are:

  • "Project Headstart" (1959), original classification status unknown, which depicts SAC's first airborne alert test by bombers operating out of Loring Air Force Base (Maine) in the fall of 1959.  Designed to keep nuclear-armed bombers in the air so they could head towards Soviet targets at a moment's notice, airborne alert was an accident waiting to happen.  In 1966 and 1968 crashes of nuclear-armed B-52s in Spain and Greenland caused international incidents.
  • "Development of the Soviet Ballistic Missile Threat" (1960), originally classified "secret," illustrates the role of Air Force intelligence in the "missile gap" debates in the years before the 1960 presidential election. Like other government intelligence organizations, the Air Force hyped up the Soviet ICBM threat, not recognizing how far ahead of the Soviet Union the United States already was.

These films are from DVD reproductions of the original footage stored in the collections maintained by the National Archives' Motion Pictures Unit, College Park, MD. A number of Air Force films from the 1960s, including secret Strategic Air Command reports, remain classified. The National Security Archive's Nuclear Documentation Project has requested them for declassification release.

The Air Force's film production units routinely created documentaries for public relations purposes, for internal education and training, and to update and inform top officials on current programs. The Air Force produced films in several categories, including Training Films (TF), Film Reports (FRs) and Special Film Projects (SFPs). (Note 1) Film Reports on military operations, exercises, or new technologies were often produced at the request of Air Force Headquarters or the Joint Chiefs of Staff. During the 1950s and 1960s FRs covered a wide variety of topics, including the latest developments in military technology by the Air Research Development Command (ARDC), progress on the ICBM and IRBM programs, reports by the Strategic Air Command, exercises in the Panama Canal Zone and Alaska, and monthly reports on "Air Strikes, Southeast Asia" during the Vietnam War.  Many Film Reports were classified at the time, but have since been declassified (except SAC reports).

Generalizations are difficult about Special Film Projects (SFPs), but apparently many were for more general audiences and designed to have a wider appeal.  As with the FRs, the Motion Picture Unit at the National Archives has boxes of index cards that provide a detailed description of each film.  SFPs included films on moral and ethical issues, holiday celebration films, and also on particular USAF needs, such as safety. Some SFPs were designed to inculcate positive views of major policies and government organizations, such as "The Miracle of Progress," a film on the NATO alliance or "Eagle's Talons," on the role of the Defense Department in "safeguarding our freedoms." Some were produced to assist friendly foreign governments, such as "The Imperial Ethiopian Air Force", a recruiting film produced for the Ethiopian military.

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.



Map showing route for nuclear-armed B-52s flying over northeastern United States, Canada, and Greenland during operation "Head Start." Still from Film Report 33, "Operation Head Start."

Film 1: Airborne Alert

Streaming Video: Air Force Film Report 33, "Operation Headstart", 1959, produced by Air Photographic and Charting Service (component of Military Air Transport Service)
Air Force Index Card

Source: National Archives Motion Pictures Unit, Record Group 342

Direct Download: Part 1 | Part 2

["Right" click on the links above and select "Save Target As..." or "Save Link As..." to download the .mp4 video files.]

Document: Strategic Air Command Historical Study No. 79, The SAC Alert Program, 1956-1959, n.d. [1960], Chapter 3: "Airborne Alert, 1958-1959," Secret, Excised copy

One of the Air Force's most remarkable, if problematic, capabilities during the Cold War's middle years was keeping nuclear-armed B-52 bombers continuously airborne so they could head to their targets if war broke out. Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove was, in part, about the actions of an airborne alert crew commanded by Colonel King Kong (memorably played by Slim Pickens). This film, most likely produced for senior leadership in the Air Force or the Pentagon, documents the Air Force Strategic Air Command's first airborne alert test, "Head Start."

For top commanders like Commander-in-Chief Strategic Air Command [CINCSAC] Thomas Power, airborne alert would meet significant strategic needs; once the Soviets had an ICBM capability, keeping some nuclear-armed bombers in the air would be insurance in the event of an attack on SAC bomber bases. Moreover, Power believed that airborne alert would strengthen the U.S. diplomatic position during peace as well as during crises, when a small alert operation could be expanded. Finally, airborne alert was consistent with having a preemptive attack option; bombers would be in the air and closer to their targets ("Head Start"). (Note 2)

Conducted during September 15-December 15, 1958 by the 45th Air Division (8th Air Division) at Loring (Maine) Air Force Base, "Head Start" kept nuclear-armed B-52 bombers continuously in the air on a route over Canadian and then Danish air space in Greenland (as shown on a map in the film). (Note 3) Refueled in the air at designated locations, the crews would be in radio contact with SAC Headquarters through frequent "no answer required" Foxtrot messages. By contrast, a "no test" Foxtrot message would "commit the crew to combat."  This was consistent with SAC's "Positive Control" system designed to keep alert aircraft in their orbits unless they received "go-code" orders instructing them to head toward Soviet territory. (Note 4)

Not mentioned in this film is that "Head Start" was the first exercise using high-yield "sealed-pit" nuclear weapons, which were "war ready," unlike the previous generation of weapons, which required insertion of the nuclear components. The new weapons had special safety features that minimized risk of accidental nuclear detonation, but Atomic Energy Commissioner John McCone wanted the alert test confined to Loring AFB.  If bombers crashed on take-off or landing and the high explosives in the bombs detonated scattering radioactive material, it would happen at only one base instead of several. Perhaps because of safety concerns, President Eisenhower did not give permission for "Head Start" B-52s to carry nuclear weapons until mid-October, after the exercise had gone on for a few weeks. (Note 5)

This short film provides a largely positive assessment of "Head Start I", with the narrator asserting that it was a conclusive demonstration "that airborne alert can be maintained successfully." Declassified documents suggest, however, that Air Force leaders were skeptical, returning SAC's original report on "Head Start" so that it could be redone. While SAC's final report concluded that the test demonstrated airborne alert's feasibility, some objectives were not achieved, such as determining the Command's "maximum capability to … provide airborne alert sorties," and other problems remained unsolved, such as the physical impact of airborne alert operations on the B-52 fleet. (Note 6) To answer such questions, SAC undertook "Headstart II," but it took a few more years before airborne alert became a routine operation.  The program would end in disaster when B-52s crashed in Spain (1966) and Greenland (1968), with one bomb nearly lost off the Spanish coast and radioactive debris spilled on both Spanish and Danish territory.


Chart showing Air Force intelligence estimate of Soviet ICBM inventory in 1960 (50) and 1961 (250). Still taken from Film Report 342, "Development of the Soviet Ballistic Missile Threat."

Film 2: The Missile Gap

Streaming Video: U.S. Air Force Film Report 103, "Development of the Soviet Ballistic Missile Threat," 1960, produced by Air Photographic and Charting Service, Secret
Air Force Index Card
Source: National Archives, Motion Pictures Unit, Record Group 342

Direct Download: Part 1 | Part 2

["Right" click on the links above and select "Save Target As..." or "Save Link As..." to download the .mp4 video files.]

This film, depicting a once secret Air Force briefing on the prospective Soviet missile and bomber threat in the years ahead, illuminates the difficulties of intelligence analysis.

Delivered by Director of Warning and Threat Assessment, Office of Assistant Chief of Staff for Intelligence, Col. Linscott A. Hall, and one of his assistants, Lt. Colonel Joel Parks, the briefing was representative of Air Force intelligence thinking at the height of the "missile gap" controversy over the degree of the Soviet ICBM buildup. The intended audience for the briefing may have been other intelligence agencies, senior officials in the Pentagon, and possibly civilians and officers who worked on nuclear targets, so they would have their agency's angle on the prospective threat.

The Air Force had a reputation for threat inflation during the Cold War, but in 1960 all U.S. intelligence offices and agencies produced exaggerated estimates and "worst-case scenarios" of Soviet capabilities to produce and deploy ICBMs. (Note 7) In keeping with that trend, Parks declared that the Soviet ICBM program was in an "advanced state of development," which would put Moscow in a position to threaten the United States with a "crippling blow." The Soviets would have 125 ICBMs by 1961, 288 by 1962, and 490 the next year. (The actual numbers would turn out to be far fewer: 16, 56 and 122.) Parks also saw Moscow making significant progress in producing nuclear weapons and fielding long-range bombers. According to Colonel Hall, this rate of progress was consistent with Moscow's search for a "mixed offensive force" to "achieve decisive military superiority as soon as practicable." 

With the briefing given at the secret level, it did not cover the top secret U-2 program or highly classified communications intelligence programs, which played important roles in strategic intelligence. Nevertheless, Colonel Parks's briefing was informative on the electronics intelligence (elint) collected by the Air Force to monitor the missiles test centers at Tyura Tam and Kapustin Yar. Parks discussed how monitoring stations at Shemya Island, Alaska, and Diyarbaldr, Turkey, picked up telemetry from long-range missile tests that could be used to ascertain the rate of Moscow's progress. (Note 8) It was not until 1961, however, when the U.S. intelligence establishment was getting reliable data from Corona satellite photography, that it recognized that the "missile gap" was on the other side and that Moscow had only a few ICBMs. Nevertheless, some Air Force leaders disputed the new intelligence findings, perhaps because they were so inconsistent with previous positions taken by their agency. (Note 9)


Entrance to the offices of Joint Strategic Target Planning Staff (JSTPS), the production center for the Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP). Still taken from Air Force Special Film Project 1236, "SAC Command Post"

Film 3: "The Pulsing Heart of SAC"

Streaming Video: U.S. Air Force Special Film Project 1236, "SAC Command Post," n.d, Produced by Air Force Audio Visual Service (Military Airlift Command), 1365th Photo Squadron
Air Force Index Card
Source: National Archives, Motion Pictures Unit, Record Group 342

Direct Download: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

["Right" click on the links above and select "Save Target As..." or "Save Link As..." to download the .mp4 video files.]

Very little information is currently available about the production of "SAC Command Post" by the the 1365th Photo Squadron, and no evidence has surfaced that it was ever shown. (Note 10) The film provides a detailed picture of the Strategic Air Command's command-and-control system lodged in the lower levels of SAC headquarters at Offutt Air Force Base, near Omaha, Nebraska. Describing tight civilian control over decisions to use nuclear weapons, the film emphasizes SAC's place in the chain of command and the mechanisms for preventing the "unauthorized launch" of bombers and missiles that could start a nuclear war.

Internal evidence suggests that work on the film began during 1963 because the issue of the Omaha World Herald that one of the SAC officers is shown reading appears to have a June 1963 date on it. That production began in 1963 cannot have been coincidental. Air Force leaders were no doubt concerned that writers and film producers had been raising questions about loose command-and-control arrangements over nuclear weapons, even the scary prospect that a SAC commander could launch nuclear strikes on his own authority. In April 1963, only a few months before the Air Force was working on this film, The New York Times published an article about Kubrick's London studio, quoting the director that Doctor Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb was about a "psychotic general, who believes that fluoridation of water is a Communist conspiracy to sap and pollute our precious bodily fluids, has unleashed his wing of H-bombers against Russia." (Note 11) Kubrick was working with British writer Peter George, who in 1958 had published Red Alert, about a deranged general initiating a nuclear attack on Russia. Also showing that fear of loose control over nuclear weapons was entering the popular culture, American novelists Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler had written Fail-Safe, published in 1962, about a U.S.-Soviet crisis caused by the accidental transmittal of attack orders to SAC bombers (That the plot was close to Red Alert led to a plagiarism lawsuit).

In this context, Air Force leaders may have decided to present their side of the story to the general public and that is what "SAC Command Post" does. Depicting SAC as the "greatest deterrent to general war in the world today," the film depicts the Command's nuclear forces, ground and airborne-alert operations, and the decision-making system that controlled those forces. Taking the viewer into the underground command post, the narrator describes the component parts: the intelligence situation room, the entrance to the offices of the Joint Strategic Target Planning Staff (which kept the "strategic war plan integrated"), and the SAC controllers with the Gold Phone that kept commanders in touch with Washington and which would relay Presidential orders to go to war. 

The coverage of SAC's alert procedures shows the warning systems used to detect incoming missiles (Ballistic Missile Early Warning System) and the detonation of nuclear weapons on U.S. territory (Bomb Alarm System). In the event of an attack, or warning of an attack, the "positive control" (or fail-safe) system would ensure that bombers would return to their bases if their pilots did not receive a "go" message. If SAC units received attack orders, presumably originating with the President, SAC bomber and ICBM crews could not drop bombs or launch missiles unless they acted together beginning with steps to authenticate their orders. In the event a nuclear strike took out SAC headquarters, the Command had established continuity of operations plans centering in an airborne command post that had been flying since February 1961. Through well established procedures, SAC would "prevail if we have to fight."

A specific organizational need may have provided the impetus for the film's production, but why it was never used publicly needs to be explained. It is possible that by the time that the film was nearing completion it may have become a problem in its own right. With President Lyndon Johnson determined to avoid crises with Moscow, higher-ups may have seen an official documentary trumpeting SAC's readiness for nuclear war as off-message, even though it was consistent with the president's public rhetoric about centralized control over nuclear use decisions. Although "SAC Command Post" was not classified, perhaps the presentation of so many SAC activities raised the film's sensitivity making it more difficult to show publicly. Perhaps the film was used for internal training purposes but there is no evidence of that either. If any Air Force or other Pentagon retirees have any recollections of what might have happened with "SAC Command Post," they are welcome to share them.

Viewers, however, should be aware of the degree to which the film slides over significant command-and-control and safety problems, for example, the extent to which bomber crews had the capability to make autonomous nuclear use decisions as well as the risks that inhered in the airborne alert program. (Note 12) Also unmentioned is the program initiated during the Eisenhower administration to predelegate presidential nuclear use decisions in the event of a emergency conditions; although predelegation figured prominently in Dr. Strangelove as Plan "R", it was one of the most sensitive official secrets of the Cold War.



* Thanks to staffers at NARA's Motion Pictures Unit for DVD transfers and for answering many questions about the Air Force film collection.

1. E-mail from Barry Spinks, Air Force Historical Research Agency, Maxwell Air Force Base, 29 July 2009.

2. Scott Sagan, The Limits of Safety: Organizations, Accidents, and Nuclear Weapons (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 167.

3. The Canadian government gave permission for four overflights daily, including refueling, as long as there was daily service-to-service clearance by the RCAF.  See memo from Philip Farley, Special Assistant for Atomic Energy, to Acting Secretary of State, "Strategic Air Command Exercise 'Headstart,'"13 September 1958, DNSA.  With respect to Greenland, U.S. authorities believed that the 1951 defense agreement with Denmark and a 1958 understanding with Prime Minister Hansen gave the U.S. Air Force a free hand for B-52 flights, thus U.S. officials never asked Copenhagen for permission. Danish officials gradually became aware that the B-52 carried nuclear weapons; this made them uncomfortable, but they were unwilling to make an issue out of it until January 1968 when a nuclear-armed bomber crashed near Thule Air Base. See Danish Institute of International Affairs, Greenland During the Cold War: Danish and American Security Policy 1945-1968 (Copenhagen, 1967), 16-17, 29-36, 38.

4. Sagan, The Limits of Safety, 163.

5. "Memorandum of Conference with the President, August 27th, 1958," 29 August 1958, DNSA; Strategic Air Command Historical Study No. 79, The SAC Alert Program, 1956-1959, n.d. [1960], both in DNSA. A B-52 had already caught on fire at Loring on June 26 and another one would crash on a farm house hear the base in early September.

6. Ibid.

7. See Peter Roman, Eisenhower and the Missile Gap (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995), 30-45, and Howard Stoertz, "Intelligence Aspects of the 'Missile Gap,'" November 1968,

8. For missile test detection systems in Turkey and Alaska, see Jeffrey Richelson, A Century of Spies: Intelligence in the Twentieth Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 304-305, 339, and 382, and  Stanley G. Zabetakis & John F. Peterson, "The Diyarbkir Radar," Central Intelligence Agency, Studies in Intelligence

9. See "Memorandum of Conference with President Kennedy," 20 September 1961, when SAC commander-in-chief General Thomas Powers stated that "we had only 10% usable photographic coverage of the USSR. Since in the photographed area 20 ICBM pads had been found, there might be many times more in the unphotographed area. Generals Lemnitzer and Taylor contested the accuracy of this estimate of useful coverage and the conclusion drawn from it."

10. Telephone conversation with Barry Spink, Air Force Historical Research Agency, 28 July 2009. That the production may not have had a generous budget is suggested by the chintziness of a few shots, such as the use of paintings instead of footage of bombers in flight.

11. "'Nerve-Center' for a Nuclear Nightmare," The New York Times, 21 April 1963.  See also Fred Kaplan, "Truth Stranger than 'Strangelove,'" The New York Times, 10 October 2004,

12. Major Don Clawson's Is There Something the Crew Should Know?  Irreverent Anecdotes of an Air Force Pilot (London: Athena Press, 2003), at pages 105-106, where he observes that the "total reliance on the B-52 combat crew force's integrity amazes me today … In spite of the contention [of] motion pictures such as Dr. Strangelove and Thirteen Days that there was an electronic interlock on the B-52 inhibiting the crew from arming and dropping the weapons, there was no such system."