The Stories We Tell

(American Progress, an 1872 painting by John Gast, is an allegorical representation of the modernization of the new west. Here Columbia, a personification of the United States, leads civilization westward with American settlers;


The Greater Good project at UC Berkeley recently published an article, The Science of the Story which discusses the science behind storytelling – how it affects humans on a biological level and its implications, both for forging empathy and for potentially exerting control. The article states:


Experiencing a story alters our neurochemical processes, and stories are a powerful force in shaping human behavior. In this way, stories are not just instruments of connection and entertainment but also of control.

This article naturally interested me as a fiction writer; but it interested me just as much as an analyst on Russia and U.S. foreign policy.  In terms of the stories we tell about the other and how that shapes policy and vice versa, potentially leading to a vicious circle with terrible ramifications, understanding the consequences of the narrative is critical.  My attempts, via articles and blog posts, to provide facts and information about Russia to counter the distortions we constantly hear from our politicians and media that paint that country in a bleak and ominous manner are an important part of that.


However, just as important as the story we tell about Russia (or any other country) is the story we tell about ourselves. As Stephen Kinzer discussed in the presentation I posted a few days ago, there has been a strong strain within our culture from its earliest days to view America as a shining city on a hill with a special God-given mission to remake the world in our image.  In the 19th century it was known as Manifest Destiny, in the 20th century we represented the Free World against the “Evil Empire” during the Cold War, and today it is Exceptionalism with a mission of spreading democracy and a “Responsibility to Protect.”


As David S. Foglesong, an historian at Rutgers University, points out in his 2007 book The American Mission and the “Evil Empire,” this self-righteous impulse to convert or reform in relation to Russia has existed to varying degrees since the late 19th century:


There was something about Russia that made it more persistently fascinating. Since Russia could be seen as both like and unlike America – both Christian and heathen, European and Asiatic, white and dark – gazing at Russia involved the strange fascination of looking into a skewed mirror.  The commonalities, such as youth, vast territory and frontier expansion that made Russia seem akin to the United States for much of the 19th century served to make Russia especially fitted for the role of “imaginary twin” or “dark double” that it assumed after the 1880’s and continued to play through the 20th century.  Soviet communism, as an atheist and universalist ideology, came to seem, more than any other rival creed, the antithesis of the American spirit.  Thus, more enduringly than any other country, Russia came to be seen as both an object of the American mission and the opposite of American virtues.  (page 6)

This dynamic of fascination and revulsion and the role of “dark double” are reminiscent of what Carl Jung referred to as the “shadow” – that part of one’s self that one doesn’t like and doesn’t even wish to acknowledge.  This denial inevitably leads to pathology in the individual.


Something similar can be seen in the earliest days of America’s messianic attitude toward Russia (and others) as Foglesong highlights how the height of the sanctimonious condemnations against the alleged sins of Tsarist Russia in the late 19th century coincided with the rise of domestic problems in America, which showed that all was far from perfect up on the hill. These included:


…declining religious faith, demoralizing materialism, dishonorable treatment of Native Americans, and the disenfranchisement and lynching of African-Americans.  Discomfort with such troubles inclined journalists, editors, ministers, and other opinion leaders to emphasize problems in Russia that made American imperfections pale in comparison.  Thus as Americans resolved uncertainties and conflicting notions about Russia, that country gradually came to serve as a “dark double” or “imaginary twin” for the United States….Treating Russia as both a whipping boy and a potential beneficiary of American philanthropy fostered in many Americans a heady sense of their country’s unique blessings, and reaffirmed their special role in the world. (pages 11-12)

This superior self-image and messianic tendency is rooted in the Puritan/Calvinist strain of Protestantism of the early European settlers.  Foglesong also documents that the journalists and activists who were most responsible for portraying Russia in the late 19th and early 20th century as unusually brutal, backward and repressive and consequently stirring up public opinion against the Tsarist government, had religious backgrounds.


A prime example is George Kennan, a journalist who actually began his career as a skeptic of Russia’s revolutionary movement.  But a sequence of events while on assignment investigating Russia’s exile system for Century magazine in 1884-85 resulted in a conversion of sorts.  Kennan had a religious upbringing but became disillusioned in terms of trying to reconcile his faith with science and his observations during his travels as a journalist.  After meetings with some of the revolutionaries, he began to sympathize with what he saw as their sophisticated western-style intellectualism.  This sympathy deepened after he got sick in the borderlands between Russia and Mongolia and he encountered Russian exiles whose courage and endurance inspired him.


Kennan soon took up the revolutionaries’ cause against the “evil” Tsarist government.  In his zeal, however, Kennan became less objective in his reporting and often disseminated embellished or even fabricated events and characterizations of the conditions in Russia, portraying the Tsarist government in the most simplistic and blackest terms.


As biographer Frederick Travis has shown, Kennan exaggerated conditions and invented episodes in order to paint Siberian prisons “in even blacker colors than the shade that some of them so richly deserved.”  Only a few years earlier Kennan had maintained that the exile system was no worse than western prisons, but now he rejected such comparisons and insisted upon absolutist moral condemnation of tsarist brutality.  (page 17)


Kennan also misrepresented how America was viewed by Russians, particularly Russian political dissidents who had largely been disabused of their idealistic notions of America and its capitalist system after visiting here in the 1870’s, subsequently exploring socialism as an alternative foundation for reform or revolution.    Foglesong also makes the point that Kennan and other crusaders for a “free Russia” showed little interest in what the majority of Russians actually thought about the prospect of being “saved” by these self-appointed forces of light, a glaring omission in the American discourse.


The similarities of these early writers and their agenda to the dynamics of the secular missionary writers of today, like Masha Gessen, Edward Lucas and Anne Applebaum, with their never-ending depictions of contemporary Russia as a nightmarish cesspit lorded over by a demonic Putin, who is preventing the Russian masses from realizing their profound desire to become Americans in furry hats, is striking.


Of course, a narrative in which one necessarily represents a paragon of goodness requires an evil other as a contrast to continually demonstrate that goodness.  And when one’s self-image is that of the righteous against an evil foe, it then justifies virtually any means to convert or vanquish the evil – coups, assassinations, massive bombing campaigns (“we had to destroy the village in order to save it”), perhaps even a nuclear first strike as some of president Kennedy’s military advisers had recommended in the early 1960’s – a possibility that some in Washington apparently have not taken off the table.  The recent installation of a missile shield in Romania aimed at undermining Russia’s capability for a retaliatory nuclear strike, despite Washington’s implausible denials, only feeds into this dangerous notion.


Even the 19th century advocates of Manifest Destiny in all its expansionist flavors had their ideological opponents, those who challenged the notion that American righteousness was a self-evident truth and that it justified imposing its way on other parts of the world.  Instead, they argued that the wisest path was for America to focus on solving its own problems, being the best country it could be and to, hence, serve as an example to others.

The story of being exceptional, with the implication that others are less and in need of reform, conversion or even destruction if they refuse American demands to figuratively “come to Jesus”, is a dangerous one.   Where are those today who can offer a valuable alternative narrative that is needed more than ever in a nuclear-armed world?


The Dulles Brothers: The Genesis of the National Security State Today

Image result for stephen kinzer public images

(Publisher: Times Books; 1st edition (October 1, 2013);

In this presentation, journalist Stephen Kinzer talks about his book, The Brothers, about Allen Dulles and John Foster Dulles.  Allen was the head of the CIA from its inception, pursuant to the National Security Act of 1947*, under president Truman, through Eisenhower’s administration and into Kennedy’s.  John Foster was Secretary of State for a good portion of his brother’s reign at the CIA (Dulles Airport is named after him).  Kennedy fired Allen Dulles in 1962 for the Bay of Pigs debacle in which the CIA tried to mousetrap the president into invading Cuba.  In this presentation, Kinzer discusses the three factors that influenced the Dulles brothers’ ideology and how it has carried over in our national security policy and philosophy.  (57 minutes)


*The creation of our current national security apparatus, including the CIA, can be traced back to the National Security Act (NSA) signed by President Harry Truman in 1947 designed to “contain” the Soviet Union, which Truman and his staunchly anti-Communist advisors had decided was going to be the next enemy after WWII.   Truman’s Secretary of State George Marshall had warned him at the time of the potential unaccountability and abuse of the agencies being created by this legislation, stating that it especially granted the CIA powers that were “almost unlimited.”  The particularly egregious sentence cited by most critics of the NSA of 1947 is one that allows a president to direct the CIA to “perform such other functions and duties related to intelligence affecting the national security….”

Russians’ Vital Statistics Show They’re Edging Closer to Europe (Infant Mortality, Suicide, Murder Rates)

St. Basil's Cathedral, Red Square, Moscow; Photo by Natylie S. Baldwin, 2015
St. Basil’s Cathedral, Red Square, Moscow; Photo by Natylie S. Baldwin, 2015

As I’ve shown with other posts, Russia is doing a lot better than what a lot of western corporate media, and even some of our most senior politicians, claim.   As the below excerpt of an article by demographics expert Mark Adomanis shows, Russia still has a ways to go on some mortality and quality of life issues, but the progress that has been made in the Putin era in certain areas is remarkable and deserves to be acknowledged:


As I hope the graphs demonstrate, a decade or two ago Russians were living in a totally different universe. The rates of death from various kinds of social ills were so much higher as to be essentially incomparable. However, quietly and with little fanfare Russia has seen significant improvements, which have not abated since the start of the economic slowdown at the end of 2014. Indeed, in early 2016 the evidence suggests that improvements to Russian public health have actually accelerated, with overall mortality plunging by around 5%.


Yes, there is still a lot of work to be done. The murder rate, in particular, is still a lot higher than it is in Europe. But the differences are increasingly differences of degree, not of kind. The suicide rate, for example, is currently about 76% higher in Russia than in the EU. That sounds absolutely terrible until you consider that, back in 2001, the Russian suicide rate was 340% of the EU’s.


Full article with graphs and charts here:


Harvard’s Belfer Center Concludes Russia is Not in Decline; Soft Power Increases; Poll Reveals Europeans Don’t See Russia as Major Threat

Monument of Peter the Great, St. Petersburg, Russia
Monument of Peter the Great, St. Petersburg, Russia; photo by Natylie S. Baldwin, 2015

Reports of Russia’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.

That’s the conclusion of Simon Saradzhyan,  a researcher with the Belfer Center at Harvard University, who analyzed Russia, from 1999 to the present, using several different models of performance.   These models take into consideration GDP, energy consumption, steel production, urban population density, and military strength.

[It should be noted that these models didn’t take into consideration other significant markers in which Russia rates well, such as levels of education and infrastructure – Natylie]

According to Saradzhyan:

Taken together, these measures suggest strongly that Russia has either risen or retained its position relative to its five competitors [U.S., U.K., France, Germany, and Italy] and the world as a whole so far in the 21st century.

It is well known that the Russian economy stopped growing in 2014 and started declining. The World Bank estimates that Russians GDP shrank by 3.7 per cent in 2015 and that it is poised to shrink by up 1.9 per cent in 2016, before starting to grow again next year. However, the losses of these three years will not erase the cumulative gain in Russia’s power as a nation since 1999.

Looking forward, Russia faces a number of long-term challenges, including an obsolete and inefficient economic model, poor quality of governance, pervasive corruption, demographic fragility, instability in neighbouring countries and separatist threats to Russia itself.

We don’t know yet whether and when these challenges may acquire such an acute character that they may reverse the resurgence of Putin’s Russia described above. One thing is certain, however: Russia’s size, resources and military might all ensure that it remains a global player that will continue to affect the western world and the global order as a whole in profound ways for years to come, and should be treated accordingly.


Note:  the original article, which appears at the Financial Times, is behind a pay wall, but you can read the full article here:



The British PR firm Portland Communications has determined that Russia has increased its soft power and has now made it into their top 30 ranking of countries with respect to soft power, noting specifically:


The highest place that Russia took in an individual category was that of “engagement” (8th out of 30 countries), which primarily implies diplomacy and influence in the international arena. The study’s authors point out that, along with the U.S., Russia has played a key role in efforts to achieve a peaceful settlement in Syria.


….Listing the other strengths of Russia, the study’s authors noted the wide coverage of its state-owned media among international audiences and the preservation of some of its economic power in spite of the country’s financial crisis over the last few years.


Portland Communications placed a specific emphasis on Russia’s rich culture.


“Russia’s global cultural appeal draws in more than 29 million tourists annually,” it said. “Whether it’s history, art or literature, Russian culture is widely appreciated and studied.”


Meanwhile, a poll conducted by Pew has revealed that, despite hysterical claims by some western politicians and corporate media, most Europeans do not consider Russia to be a major threat, citing instead ISIS, climate change, the influx of refugees and economic instability as far greater concerns, as reported by EU Observer:

More than half of Europeans said climate change, economic instability and cyber-attacks were “dire” threats. A little less than half also named the number of refugees coming from Iraq and Syria as a “major” challenge.


But just one in three EU nationals put “tensions with Russia” in the same category.


Pew interviewed 11,494 people in April and May from France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain, Sweden, the UK and the US.


The 10 European countries account for 80 percent of the EU population and 82 percent of its combined GDP.


The results indicated a divide between EU leaders and public opinion.


Full article can be read here:

Western Media – Don’t Forget: Russia is a Backwards Hellhole (Satire)

These people outside of Red Square are contemplating a mass suicide right now.
These people outside of Red Square are contemplating a mass suicide right now.

Everyone knows that westerners have a short attention span these days.  So, just in case you, dear western reader or viewer, may have forgotten since yesterday, here’s another daily reminder:  Russia is a backwards hellhole.

Got it?

Nothing good ever happens there.  Not ever.

Everyone is miserable beyond belief.  Everyone.

Don't let those coy smiles fool you; these ladies are so miserable, they can't even frown anymore.
Don’t let those coy smiles fool you; these ladies are so miserable, they can’t even frown anymore.

Except maybe president Putin, as he frolics with his 365 different girlfriends and counts his billions of stolen rubles that he keeps stashed in the underground bunker of his opulent mansion at an undisclosed location.

This was my thought as I read Boyd Tonkins’ review of Svetlana Alexievich’s Second Hand Time, a book that reportedly follows 10 families in the post-Soviet era.

I haven’t yet had the pleasure of reading the book, but the portrayal by Tonkins in his review (titled “The Hopeless Wasteland of Modern Russia”) pretty much fits the now hackneyed caricature of Russia presented in the corporate western media.

Russians in St. Petersburg...going off to get drunk.
Russians in St. Petersburg…going off to get drunk.

I couldn’t help but wonder how a book might portray the U.S. to a foreign audience if it followed this same formula:  only talk about the worst aspects of life in the U.S., magnify it greatly, add in some cheesy melodrama and soap suds, and repeat ad nauseum.

Perhaps it would look something like this:  half of the population has committed suicide and the other half would probably like to; Obama is personally responsible for every bad thing that happens in every corner of the U.S., from sea to shining sea; 90% of Americans are currently drowning their sorrows in methamphetamine or Oxycontin; every single person of color is killed by the police; everyone is homeless; all Americans, to show how noble and philosophical they are in their misery, go around quoting Theodore Dreiser and James Baldwin.

Some choice quotes from long-suffering Americans may include:

“You can’t buy democracy with loads of corporate cash…you needed free elections and we didn’t have them.”

“Yes, we stood in line for Black Friday at WalMart…but it was America and we loved it.”

“Hillary the Democrat is our shortest joke.”

“From the genocide of the Native Americans and slavery to recent massacres in Iraq and Libya, blood soaks the pages.”

Now, I’m not suggesting that anyone whitewash any country’s history or leadership.  However, most Americans – if the shoe were on the other foot – would probably get tired of seeing their country, despite its many faults, constantly talked about only in this light, with no nuance, no complexity and no context.  This would be especially true if the one engaging in this kind of depiction had such a hard time seeing the mote in their own eye and spent more time haranguing about someone else’s supposed faults than they did fixing their own myriad problems.

But I guess that’s the benefit of being exceptional and indispensable.

(To read the original review by Boyd Tonkins that inspired this satirical post, go to

Stephen Cohen’s Analysis of Anaconda/NATO Exercises on Russia’s Borders

040711-N-4308O-066 North Atlantic Ocean (July 12, 2004) - A multinational formation of ships operates in the North Atlantic Ocean as part of Majestic Eagle. Majestic Eagle is a multinational exercise being conducted off the coast of Morocco. The exercise demonstrates the combined force capabilities and quick response times of the participating naval, air, undersea and surface warfare groups. Countries involved in the NATO led exercise include the United Kingdom, Morocco, France, Italy, Portugal, Spain, and Turkey. Truman's participation in Majestic Eagle is part of her scheduled deployment supporting the Navy's new fleet response plan (FRP) Summer Pulse 2004, the simultaneous deployment of seven carrier strike groups (CSGs), demonstrating the ability of the Navy to provide credible combat across the globe, in five theaters with other U.S., allied, and coalition military forces. U.S. Navy photo by Photographer's Mate Airman Ryan O'Connor (RELEASED) For more information go to:


Apologies for so many posts, but this is a period of more tensions between US/NATO and Russia since the Cuban Missile Crisis and we need to pay attention to this issue since Americans seem to be distracted with the presidential election and other items.

Listen to Stephen Cohen’s latest interview with John Batchelor for more on NATO’s military exercises in the Black Sea – the equivalent of China or Russia’s military conducting exercises in the Gulf of Mexico, how the Kremlin perceives these provocative actions, and politics toward Russia of Poland and the Baltic nations.


The Wisdom of JFK’s American University Speech & Why it’s Still Relevant Today


(President Kennedy delivers the commencement address at American University, Monday, June 10, 1963.

Although John Kennedy had shown some liberal and anti-colonialist leanings on certain issues throughout his political career, he began his presidency as a firm believer in the Cold War narrative.   He had even campaigned on the promise of fixing the reported missile gap the U.S. had with the Soviet Union – a gap he found, after taking office, did indeed exist but very much in the U.S.’s favor.

Early in his presidency, Kennedy was flabbergasted to hear the head of his Joint Chiefs of Staff, Curtis LeMay, and other military advisers talk seriously of a first strike nuclear attack on the Soviet Union during meetings in which estimated casualties of over 100 million Soviets and tens of millions of Americans in reprisal attacks were cavalierly tossed around.  This no doubt led to Kennedy’s decision to have meetings with his advisers during the Cuban missile crisis secretly tape recorded.  Those tapes were released and transcribed in the 1990’s, offering a window into the demented mindset of those at the highest echelons of power during the most dangerous moment in human history.  Several of those same advisers encouraged the president to escalate.  Fortunately, Kennedy had both the wisdom and the courage to resist such pressure.

Due to secret back channel correspondence that had existed between Khrushchev and Kennedy from 1961, the president had developed somewhat of a rapport with the Soviet premier.  Despite their obvious political differences, they were each aware of the pressures the other faced from hawkish factions in Washington and the Kremlin.  Nevertheless, there were many missteps and errors in judgment that led to the crisis.

Khrushchev interpreted comments made by Kennedy in a March 1962 interview with The Saturday Evening Post as a first strike threat.  This, combined with Washington’s continued actions aimed at overthrowing Soviet ally, Fidel Castro in Cuba, prompted Khrushchev to place nuclear missiles on the Caribbean island.

One of the worst moments of the crisis, when a nuclear war seemed imminent – at one point, Khrushchev ordered Soviet ships to halt just miles away from breaching the US blockade in order to de-escalate the dangerous game of chicken – actually served as a strange but powerful bonding experience for the two leaders in the sense that both men were terrified of their glimpse into the abyss and resolved to negotiate a subsequent end to the Cold War and to ensure disarmament.

This was the backdrop to Kennedy’s speech at American University the following June.  The President wanted to set the world on a path toward peaceful co-existence and believed he could work with Khrushchev toward this end.  However, he was keenly aware of both Khrushchev’s humiliation before the Kremlin hawks who saw the premier’s “retreat” during the crisis as a defeat and those in Washington who would obstruct such a policy.

Meanwhile, a nuclear test ban treaty had stalled due to disagreements over the number of inspections the Soviets would allow, fearing inspections would be used as a cover for espionage.  Kennedy realized he needed to extend an olive branch to the Soviets while also appealing to the American public, which he sensed had drawn the same lessons from the crisis and would be receptive, thereby sidestepping powerful elements who would oppose such a peace initiative.

Kennedy tapped his assistant, Theodore Sorensen, who had been with him since his days in the Senate, to draft the speech while Kennedy reviewed and advised the process.  Only a few select members of Kennedy’s staff were even aware that Kennedy planned a momentous speech as the president had learned by this point not to trust his military advisers, the CIA or the State Department.

What Sorensen and Kennedy created was a speech of great elegance and wisdom.  It has continuing relevance to U.S. foreign policy today, particularly as it relates to Russia.

Several important points were made in the speech:  First, that pursuing peace had not been treated with the same allure and fascination in our culture as war (e.g. guts and glory).

Second, he challenged the notion that pursuing peace was quixotic or too abstract.  He made the point that it could, in fact, be broken down into concrete and manageable steps if the political will was there. Indeed, if practical steps were taken toward peaceful conflict resolution, then such actions would develop a momentum of their own.

Third, he warned against self-righteousness and a superiority complex toward Russia. Furthermore, regardless of differences over politics or government, we should never dehumanize the other, but acknowledge the others’ culture and accomplishments.  This warning would prove to be particularly prophetic after the U.S.’s perceived “victory” in the Cold War and subsequent attitude and policy toward Russia.

Fourth, he recognized that we will never see the end of conflict, but we can have peaceful methods of resolving conflict.

Kennedy let the Kremlin know beforehand of his impending speech. Khrushchev’s response was very positive, allowing the speech to eventually be heard and read uncensored throughout the Soviet Union, which normally spent significant resources jamming all western broadcasts.  Unfortunately, the speech was largely ignored or ridiculed in the U.S.

Watch the speech here:

Or read the transcript here:

Russia Scholar Richard Sakwa Discusses Danger of NATO Exercises on Russia’s Borders; Paul Robinson on What Factors into Russian Foreign Policy

American Embassy in Moscow; photo by Natylie S. Baldwin, 2015
American Embassy in Moscow; photo by Natylie S. Baldwin, 2015

As the Polish-led Anaconda military exercises were underway as part of NATO’s continuing military moves, on the heels of the recent installation of a controversial missile defense shield in Romania, The Real News Network interviewed British Russia scholar Richard Sakwa about the potential for dangerous consequences if the pattern of escalation continues between NATO and Russia.

Sakwa also discusses the unresolved nature of the historical grievances of Poland and the Baltic states in relation to Russia and how this plays into the dangerous (and unnecessary) rhetoric, which is contributing to a re-militarization of Europe, while NATO politics is enabling rather than preventing peaceful resolution.  Lack of dialogue between NATO and Russia, suspended on the part of NATO in 2014, also contributes to a dangerous atmosphere where a small incident could turn into a flashpoint for war.

Listen to the interview here:

Note that this is a 2-part interview and the second part will automatically load after the first part is finished.  Total time is approx. 20 minutes.

Also, Paul Robinson discusses the nuanced interplay of several factors that best explain Russia’s foreign policy.

Read the article here:

Explaining Russian assertiveness



Russia Amends Foreign Agents Law to Exclude Charities & Cultural Organizations


Meeting of Public Council in Krasnodar

(Meeting of Public Council in Krasnodar, Russia; October 2015; photo by Natylie S. Baldwin)

It is my understanding that it is not unusual for Russia to draft a law attempting to address some problem or issue, only to realize once it has been passed that it is problematic or not being implemented.  In cases like this it is often discovered that such a law is viewed by local bureaucrats as so vaguely worded that they don’t bother implementing it.  Or, conversely, it is abused by local bureaucrats.   The Russian government often has to review and amend such laws.

The Moscow Times reported on May 18th that the Russian government has amended the controversial foreign agents law to exclude charities and cultural organizations:

“Charities are no longer to be classified as “foreign agents” if they receive money from abroad, according to a new amendment approved by the Russian State Duma.

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working in areas such as art and culture will also be exempt from the “foreign agent” label, the Interfax news agency reported Tuesday.”

About a year from now, I intend to follow up with the civil society activists I interviewed in Krasnodar and see how the change in the law is playing out on the ground.

Read the full article here:



“Fail-Safe”: How a Classic Cold War Novel Still Resonates Today



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 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 – 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)

The president has allowed Groteschele to be present and offer his opinions at his teleconferences with his national security team during the crisis.

And there is General Warren Black, a reflective warrior tormented by a recurring nightmare of brutality in which the perpetrator’s identity is elusive, who worries about the implications of conflict in the age of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), and is also an old college friend of the president.  He is ultimately (and ironically) tasked with an unimaginable responsibility.

Perhaps the most disturbing difference between 1962 – when Fail-Safe was first published, with the Cuban Missile Crisis fresh on everyone’s mind – and today is that a book like this could be an instant bestseller, with the film version released two years later in competition with Dr. Strangelove.  Unlike Dr. Strangelove, Fail-Safe makes a serious and unflinching examination of the insanity of confrontation between two nuclear superpowers, with the psychological, ideological and technological factors that can still converge in Armageddon more easily than many care to realize.

Unlike half a century ago, we are now bombarded with a popular culture that often seeks to normalize torture, never-ending warfare and militarization of society, rather than provide a space for thoughtful reflection or questioning of these phenomena in its story-telling.  It is difficult to imagine Hollywood coming out with a film like Fail-Safe today or a show like the original Twilight Zone, tackling similar issues every week in a thoughtful way that didn’t rely on gratuitous sex and violence to titillate and attract viewers.

As for the subject matter of Fail-Safe, in reading it today, one can’t help but feel this all sounds too eerily familiar to today’s renewed tensions between Washington and Moscow and the escalations in Eastern Europe with all they could portend.  Both nations still have a ridiculous number of nuclear weapons, with many on hair-trigger alert and fewer lines of communication open as during the original Cold War.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this.  Many rejoiced when the Cold War ended and hoped for a more cooperative approach to international relations and a peace dividend at home.  Indeed it sometimes feels as though the fates of the US and Russia are bound together in a strange never-ending dance of fear, fascination, competition and contempt.  Whether that fate is inevitable or is being intentionally driven by ideological madmen, drunk on power and messianic visions, holding the fate of humanity in their hands is a matter I have discussed in other articles.

But, unlike articles, which attempt to marshal facts and logic, story-telling is what tends to move people.  Our need and capacity for story-telling is perhaps one of the most essential aspects of being human.  A film, book or other work of story-telling art for a contemporary mass audience that can convey, like Fail-Safe, on such a visceral level, what is at stake in terms of the continuing dangers of geo-politics in the nuclear age is desperately needed.



Analysis & Book Reviews on U.S. Foreign Policy and Russia

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