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Strangelove on the Square: Secret USAF Films Showed Airmen What to Expect if Nuclear War Broke Out

The declassified Air Force film shows the crew of a U.S. B-52 bomber reaching its “Positive Control” (“fail safe”) point on the way to its target in the Soviet Union. But instead of turning around as usual, they get an order to proceed to their assigned objective. Having received and authenticated a “Go Code” message from U.S. Strategic Air Command (SAC), the pilot announces, “We’re going in,” navigating the aircraft in low over mountains, lakes, fields, and forests to avoid Soviet air defenses. The dramatic soundtrack swells as the bomber nears its target, unleashes its nuclear payload, and then speeds away to create “separation distance” between itself and the effects of the resulting explosion. Undamaged by the thermal blast and shockwave, the aircrew heads back home, but not before flying through “the contaminated cloud of another bomb dropped 30 minutes ago” by a different SAC B-52.

While this dramatization of a U.S. nuclear strike is reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 classic, Dr. Strangelove, it’s actually the climactic sequence of a 1960 SAC training film recently declassified by the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). Titled “Nuclear Effects During SAC Delivery Missions,” the film’s purpose is to familiarize SAC pilots and crew members with the devastating effects of nuclear weapons detonations and the detailed plans that the command had developed to help the crews evade the dangers of navigating through a nuclear battlefield. The narrator assures trainees that SAC had taken into account the effects of the blasts on U.S. aircrews and had prepared a “workable plan for every sortie to and from the target area.” SAC crewmembers are advised that they can safely navigate the aircraft home “if you follow rigidly your flight plan.”

Today’s posting includes the “Nuclear Effects” film and four other movies produced by SAC and the U.S. Air Force during the 1960s that were declassified in response to requests by the National Security Archive. Published here for the first time, the films reveal how SAC prepared bomber pilots and crews for nuclear war, educated them on the effects of the devastating weapons, and acquainted them with the contents of their “Combat Mission Folders,” which included guidance needed to reach targets and return to base safely.

A pair of SAC “film reports” from the mid-1960s feature the 1965-66 “Arc Light” bombings, a major SAC contribution to the rapidly escalating Vietnam War, and fascinating footage from the initial efforts to clean up the radioactive mess left behind by a January 1966 “Broken Arrow” accident in which a nuclear-armed B-52 crashed near Palomares, Spain. After all these years, the U.S. and Spain are still negotiating the terms of the cleanup of dangerous plutonium left behind by the accident.

A final film from 1966 gives viewers an inside look at the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS) site in Thule, Greenland, and the men working inside its secret Tactical Operations Room (TOR), where an Air Force officer is shown evaluating information on unidentified objects that may or may not represent a missile launch against the United States.

Read entire article at National Security Archive