How The USAF Envisioned Nuclear War

How The USAF Envisioned Nuclear War

“The Power of Decision” may be the first (and perhaps the only) US government film dramatising nuclear war decision-making. Commissioned by the Strategic Air Command in 1956, the film has the look of a 1950s TV drama, but the subject is the ultimate Cold War nightmare.

By the end of the film, after the US Air Force has implemented war plan “Quick Strike” following a Soviet surprise attack, millions of Americans, Russians, Europeans, and Japanese are dead. The narrator, a Colonel Dodd, asserts that “nobody wins a nuclear war because both sides are sure to suffer terrible damage”. Despite the “catastrophic” damage, one of the film’s operating assumptions is that defeat is avoidable as long as the adversary cannot impose its “will” on the United States. The film’s last few minutes suggest that the United States would prevail because of the “success” of its nuclear air offensive. Moscow, not the United States, is sending out pleas for a cease-fire.

The conviction that the United States could prevail was a doctrinal necessity because Air Force leaders assumed the decisiveness of air power. The founding fathers of the US Air Force came out of World War II with an unshakeable, if exaggerated, conviction that the strategic bombing of Germany and Japan had been decisive for the Allied victory and that air power would be crucial in future conflicts. (Note 1) The film’s title: “Power of Decision” embodies that conviction. The title itself is a reference to a 1948 statement by General George C. Kenney, the Strategic Air Command’s first commander-in-chief: “A war in which either or both opponents use atomic bombs will be over in a matter of days…The Air Force that is superior in its capability of destruction plays the dominant role and has the power of decision.” (Note 2) A confident statement made by one of the characters, General “Pete” Larson, near the close of reel 6 flows from that assumption: the Soviets “must quit; we have the air and the power and they know it.”

The story begins with Colonel Dodd, standing in the underground command post of the “Long Range offence Force” (oddly, the Strategic Air Command is never mentioned by name). Dodd discusses the Force’s strike capabilities, its mechanisms for keeping track of its strategic assets, and its war plans. That hundreds of bombers, based in US territories and overseas bases, are ready to launch at a moment’s notice is the “surest way to prevent war.” Dodd does not think that the Soviets are likely to strike, but if deterrence fails and the Soviets launch an attack, “this is what will happen.”


General Curtis LeMay, mid-1957, sometime during his transition from Commander-in-Chief of the Strategic Air Command [1948-1957]to Vice Chief of Staff, U.S. Air Force [1957-1961] .
[Photo source: U.S. National Archives, Still Pictures Division, RG 342B, Box 507 B&W]

What “happens” is the initial detection by US air defence network of the approach of Soviet bombers over the Arctic Circle. That leads to General Larson’s decision to launch the SAC alert force under plan “Quick Strike”; airborne and nuclear-armed alert bombers fly toward the Soviet periphery, but stay at position until they receive an attack order (this was the concept of “Fail Safe” or “Positive Control” although those terms were not used in the film). About an hour after the alert force is launched, General Larson receives reports of attacks on US bases, followed by more information on Soviet nuclear attacks on cities and military bases in Japan and Western Europe. “That does it,” General Turner (one of Larson’s deputies) exclaims. He soon receives a call on the red phone from the Joint Chiefs, who with the President, are in a protected command post. The president has ordered the execution of “Quick Strike,” releasing bombers and missiles to strike the Soviet Union. This simultaneous bomber-missile “double punch” is aimed at “all elements of [Soviet]air power” [bomber bases]along with “war making and war sustaining resources,” which meant strikes on urban-industrial areas and urban populations. To depict the undepictable, the film’s producers use stock footage of nuclear tests and missile and bomber launches.

Once it is evident that the Soviets have launched a surprise air attack, Colonel Dodd observes that “By giving up the initiative, the West must expect to take the first blow.” This statement is not developed, but for Air Force planners, “initiative” meant a preemptive attack or a first strike. By the early 1950, senior military planners and defence officials had begun considering the possibility of pre-emptive attacks on the basis of strategic warning; that is, if the United States intelligence warning system collected reliable information on an impending Soviet attack, decision-makers could approve strikes against Soviet military forces to disrupt it. (Note 3) Consistent with this, Strategic Air Command war plans assumed “two basic modes” for executing strike plans [See Document One below] . (Note 4) One was retaliation against a surprise attack; the other “plan was based on the assumption that the United States had strategic warning and had decided to take the initiative.” The SAC strike force would then be “launched to penetrate en masse prior to the enemy attack; the main target would be the enemy’s retaliatory capability.”

In the last part of reel 6, Air Force intelligence briefings review the destruction of the Soviet military machine, including destruction of air bases, weapons storage centres, and government control centres, among other targets. “Target M,” presumably Moscow, has “been destroyed” by a nuclear weapon which struck 300 yards from the aiming point. The Soviet attack has done calamitous damage to the United States, with 60 million casualties, including 20 million wounded, but evidence was becoming available of the “success” of the U.S. air offensive. The Soviet Air Force has been reduced to a handful of aircraft, it had stopped launching nuclear strikes outside of its territory, and SACEUR [Supreme Allied Commander Europe]reports the “complete disintegration of resistance” by Soviet ground forces. Moreover, cease-fire requests are coming in from the Soviets. In this context, General Larson’s certainty that the “Soviets must quit” conveyed prevailing assumptions about the value of strategic air power.

Around the time when “The Power of Decision” as being produced, a statement by SAC Commander-in-Chief General Curtis LeMay made explicit what was implicit in Larson’s observation. In an address before the Air Force’s Scientific Advisory Board in 1957 [see Document Two] , LeMay argued that U.S. strategic forces could not be an effective deterrent unless they were “clearly capable of winning under operational handicaps of bad weather and no more than tactical warning.” And by winning, LeMay said he meant “achieving a condition wherein the enemy cannot impose his will on us, but we can impose our will on him.” Larson’s statement about control of the air dovetailed exactly with LeMay’s assumptions about winning.

Little is known about the production and distribution of “The Power of Decision,” or even if it was actually shown. According to the history of the Air Photographic and Charting Service for January through June 1957, on 28 May 1956, the Strategic Air Command requested the service to produce the film, which would be classified Secret. SAC leaders may have wanted such a film for internal indoctrination and training purposes, to help officers and airmen prepare themselves for the worst active-duty situation that they could encounter. Perhaps the relatively unruffled style of the film’s performers was to serve as a model for SAC officers if they ever had to follow orders that could produce a nuclear holocaust. In any event, the script for “Power of Decision” was approved on 10 May 1957 and a production planning conference took place on 29 May 1957. The contract productions section of the Air Photographic and Charting Service was the film’s producing unit. (Note 5)

About the author

Dr. William Burr is a Senior Analyst at George Washington University’s National Security Archive. He directs the Archive’s nuclear history documentation project. He edited two of the Archive’s document collections: The Berlin Crisis, 1958-1962 and U.S. Nuclear History: Nuclear Arms and Politics in the Missile Age, 1955-1968. He received his Ph.D. in history from Northern Illinois University, was formerly a visiting assistant professor at Washington College, and has taught at the Catholic University of America, George Mason and American universities. In 1998 The New Press published his critically-acclaimed document reader, The Kissinger Transcripts: The Top-Secret Talks with Beijing & Moscow. During 1996-98 he served on the editorial board of Diplomatic History. He is currently a member of the Council of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR).
The next step was to find actors with security clearances because even the synopsis of the film was classified secret (although later downgraded to “office use only”). As the Air Force was not in the business of hiring actors, the production unit engaged the services of MPO Productions, a New York-based firm which produced commercials and industrial films. [References to MPO, Inc. are on the index cards and on “The End” frame at the close of reel 6] . What happened next, when the work on the film was completed, SAC’s assessment of the project, and whether, when, or where the film was shown, cannot presently be determined, although the information may be in the living memories of participants or viewers from those days.

Note: The relatively poor quality of this digital reproduction reflects the condition of the original reels as turned over to the National Archives by the Air Force.

1. For the development of ideas about air power and strategic bombing, see Tami Davis Biddle, Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare: The Evolution of British and American Ideas about Strategic Bombing, 1941–1945 ( Princeton University Press, 2002). See page 293 for “overselling” of air power. See also Gian Peri Gentile, “Advocacy or Assessment? The United States Strategic Bombing Survey of Germany and Japan,” Pacific Historical Review 66 (1997): 53-79.

2. Quotation from Headquarters, Strategic Air Command, History of Strategic Air Command, July-December 1959, Volume I, 191. Information provided by Mr. Barry Spink, U.S. Air Force Historical Research Agency (AFHRA), Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, e-mail 17 May 2010. After his unsuccessful tour as first Commander-in-Chief Strategic Air Command, Kenney become notorious for his endorsement of preventive war against the Soviet Union. See Marc Trachtenberg, History and Strategy Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), 106.

3. See Trachtenberg, History and Strategy, 134-135.

4. For a briefing by SAC commander-in-chief Curtis LeMay of the nuclear war plan, see David A. Rosenberg, “Smoking Radiating Ruin at the End of Two Hours”: Documents on American Plans for Nuclear War with the Soviet Union, 1954-55,” International Security, 6 (Winter, 1981-1982): 3-38.

5. Information from “Air Photographic and Charting Service history for January through June 1957,” provided by Mr. Barry Spink, AFHRA e-mail 13 May 2010.