Updated: Mar 22
In the 1970 movie, Colossus: The Forbin Project, a cool, dystopian mediation on the nature of automated Mutually Assured Destruction, Eric Braeden as Dr Charles Forbin struggles to defeat a supercomputer of his own making which has plans of its own on the future of humanity.
Joseph Sargent’s Colossus: The Forbin Project is a satire, of sorts, and is both more challenging and chilling than Sidney Lumet’s earlier Fail Safe (possibly because it is less blousy than Lumet’s self-consciously meaningful cinematic would-be opus).
Colossus: The Forbin Project’s premise, that the threat of nuclear war and the world’s protection from it is so complicated that only a supercomputer can protect humanity from itself, had, in effect, been fully realised by the time the movie was released. In the eight years between the Cuban Missile Crisis and Colossus: The Forbin Project, the Cold War, dominated by the economic and technological power of the US, had shifted from being predicated on fleets of bombers carrying nuclear payloads (the premise of Lumet’s grim, stagey, Fail Safe) to a superficially simpler strategic balancing act predicated on the power of missile silos.
The seeds of this technological power shift were sown in the Cuban Missile Crisis, during the bargaining between US President Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev over the stationing of US PGM-19 Jupiter missiles in Turkey and Italy, with their reach deep into the Soviet Union (in theory, as at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis these missiles were considered by the Americans to be essentially obsolete) and the stationing of Soviet R-12 Dvina missiles in Cuba.
The threat that Khrushchev, through his actions, posed to the United States was real and immediate, for the first time bringing almost the whole of the United States within reach of Soviet missiles.
It is important at this point to be clear about what the balance of missile power between the US and USSR was at the time when the Soviet missiles were first arriving in Cuba. By October 1962, the total amount of nuclear weapons in the stockpiles of each country numbered around 26,400 for the United States and 3,300 for the Soviet Union, spread out between ICBMs, in bomber deployments and submarines - an imbalance that was recognised by Kennedy himself.
As Historian Robert Dallek recounts in the Kennedy episode of the Presidential podcast, when Kennedy becomes president he instructed Bundy to establish with the Pentagon what the nuclear war pan was. Kennedy and Bundy were then briefed in the White House on this, with the Pentagon officials demonstrating that the US could kill 270 million Russians and Eastern Europeans with the nuclear weapons they had.
On leaving the briefing, Kennedy remarked to Secretary of State Dean Rusk, “And we call ourselves the human race?”
After the Soviet Union and the United States drew to the edge of nuclear conflict on 28 October 1962 at the height of the volatile crisis, and then pulled back (leading to the removal of missiles from Cuba, as well as from Turkey and Italy), the age of the bomber carrying nuclear devastation, together with the whole Fail Safe culture was effectively over, regardless of what the movie of the same name would later suggest.
The experience of both superpowers during the crisis and the testing of its respective defensive and offensive military forces during it shifted both nations to a stance of missile-led and automated escalating and response systems. Within a few years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, long-range bomber forces would effectively be history and highly sophisticated and partly-automated missile deployment networks would be established in silos and submarines within the US and USSR, all supported by radar and satellite tracking systems around the world, on-station 24 hours a day.
The shift to Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), freezing the Cold War in place with few stops between conflict and thermonuclear annihilation, would remain largely untroubled by detente or SALT talks, finally only coming apart with the rise of Reagan and the economically exhausted collapse of the Soviet Union at the close of the 1980s. Between 1962 and 1989 missile predicated MAD, despite the near-misses during that time and the Star Wars distractions of the 1980s, effectively held together as a strategy.
At no point during the Cold War years did the world find itself again in the hands of two group of men balancing incidents and weapons, guessing on what the other side was doing and why. Automation and regulation worked in removing the human element from this balance of terror.
At the time, this cold, complex, overbearing nuclear and automated infrastructure seemed terrifying and beyond human influence, the potential horror scenarios conjured up by it apparently and effectively confirming Sargent’s nightmarish 1970 satire.
Compared to the violence and confusion that came afterwards, however. as the bizarre, oppressive Cold War mechanics were dismantled and resigned to history, this historical epoch seems like a wonderland of comfort and security.