Saturday, August 7, 2021

Nukes on the Screen

 Seven Decades of Atomic Danger

Numerous films, some of them based on novels, feature nuclear war, its potential impacts, and the extreme threat these weapons pose. One of the first was Godzilla, a 1954 Japanese production re-released in the US two years later with Raymond Burr in a key role. The title monster is widely considered an analogy to the nuclear weapons dropped on Japan. But films about the danger of nuclear weapons actually began to appear years before with a fictionalized docudrama. The Beginning of the End (1947) focused on the Manhattan Project and nuclear bombing of Hiroshima — which had happened only two years earlier.

The mutant monster genre’s beginnings coincided with the McCarthy era, a time when paranoia wasn’t an unreasonable response to what was happening. Nuclear-spawned giant ants prowled the Los Angeles sewers in Them, while The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, with special effects by Ray Harryhausen, revolved around a dinosaur thawed from frozen hibernation by a atomic test in the Arctic Circle. 

        The most effective film of that genre’s early years may have been The Incredible Shrinking Man, based on a novel and featuring groundbreaking effects. The 1957 movie opens with the irradiation of Scott, an average guy vacationing with his wife when a strange mist covers him. This sets off his gradual descent into a very different and threatening world. Scott does ultimately experience an existential liberation at sub-atomic size. But the Japanese fisherman whose irradiation by a bomb test inspired the story wasn’t as lucky.

        The treatment of nuclear weapon detonation turned more serious as the decade ended with On the Beach. Based on a popular 1957 novel, the film, released in 1959, was an effective melodrama with A-list stars that followed the travails of nuclear war survivors in Australia as they confront death and the end of humanity. 

       In the 1960s, films began to seriously address how a nuclear conflict could start and how people might react. In Panic in the Year Zero (1961), starring Ray Milland, a family on a camping trip flees a nearby nuclear attack, encountering looters and other violent people as society breaks down. Released the same year, The Day the Earth Caught Fire suggests that nuclear tests could throw the Earth off course. The planet is doomed unless scientists figure out how to reverse the change. Spoiler: the outcome isn’t clear. The final sequence shows two newspaper front pages. One declares "World Saved," the other "World Doomed." 

Two of the most enduring films about the possibility of ending up in a nuclear war by accident were released in 1964. Both were based on novels. Fail-Safe takes an intellectual approach, chronicling how politicians, scientists and the military handle the accidental bombing of Moscow when command and control systems fail. To save the rest of the world, the US president, sympathetically portrayed by Henry Fonda, decides to balance the scale of tragedy by nuking New York. 

Dr. Strangelove (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb), directed by Stanley Kubrickopted for black comedy. Based loosely on Red Alert, a 1958 novel, it features the idea that a hypothetical Doomsday Machine would be beyond human control. It also suggests that sexual and mental problems could put the fate of humanity in the hands of one deranged general.

Around the same time, the James Bond franchise was launched, and subsequently used the threat posed by nuclear weapons falling into the “wrong” hands as the super-spy’s motivation in ten films over three decades. Some focus on theft or threatened use by criminal groups, others on a showdown between the superpowers. Bond always saves the planet, of course. But Polaris missiles are used to destroy a stolen nuclear sub in The Spy Who Loved Me. Defying both science and reason, only the bad guys are killed.

In Goldfinger (1964), the gold-obsessed villain plots the collapse of the West’s economy to enrich himself, with Chinese and North Korean accomplices, by irradiating the gold reserve at Fort Knox. In Octopussy (1977), another installment with convenient Cold War villains, a renegade Soviet general joins forces with Afghan and Indian smugglers to derail disarmament talks and invade Western Europe by detonating a nuke at a US base in Germany.  In Goldeneye (1995), the threat is a hypothetical nuclear satellite weapon that can disable electronics with an EMP attack.

Other Bond films with plots involving nuclear weapons include Thunderball (1965), You Only Live Twice (1967), Diamonds Are Forever (1971), The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) and The World is Not Enough (1999). By this time, using nuclear weapons as a plot device had become so common that Mike Myers’ spy spoof Austin Powers turned it into a punchline. Assessing various criminal options, Bond-like villain Dr. Evil eventually settles on the obvious. "Let's just do what we always do,” he proposes, “steal a nuclear bomb and hold the world to ransom."

        Fact-based accounts have been more rare. But the Manhattan Project was soberly dramatized in Fat Man and Little Boy and Day One, both released in 1989, while The Missiles of October  (1974) and Thirteen Days (2000) explore the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. In 1983, The Day After, made for television, sparked a national debate by realistically showing the effects of nuclear weapons. It depicts both how a war could happen and the potentially devastating aftermath.

Nuclear films by the decade

The 1950s also included Split Second (1953), in which an escaped killer and his partners hold people hostage in a ghost town slated to be destroyed by a nuclear bomb; and The Atomic Kid (1954), focusing on a man in the danger zone of a nuclear test when the bomb is activated.

Beyond Dr. Strangelove and Fail-Safe, the 1960s featured Ladybug, Ladybug (1963), also set during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis; A Carol for Another Christmas (1964), in which the Ghost of Christmas Future provides a tour of the ruins of a once-great civilization that looks like Hiroshima; and The Bedford Incident (1965)based on a 1961 novel, depicting a stand off in the North Atlantic between a destroyer and a Soviet submarine caught violating Greenland’s territorial waters. The novel ends with the destroyer accidentally firing a missile at the submarine, and the Soviet submarine responding with four nuclear torpedoesIn the film, the final image is a mushroom cloud.

The War Game (1965), a BBC release, was a mockumentary about the effects of nuclear war on England after a conventional war escalates. And let’s not forget the Planet of the Apes franchise, which also launched in the 1960s. It is set in a future ruled by apes, who take over after a nuclear war destroys mankind. Beginning as a novel, the original film spawned four sequels, and more recent remakes that shift the cause of the ape takeover to biotechnology.

        Battle Beneath the Earth (1967) posits a discovery that Communist China, using futuristic vehicles, has tunneled under the US to place nuclear bombs in strategic locations, resulting in a struggle to foil the plan. In the black humor category there is The Bed Sitting Room (1969), an absurdist, post-apocalyptic, satire set in the ruins of London and featuring John Lennon. 

The 1970s started slowly, but eventually produced some memorable additions. Two were released in 1977. Damnation Alley, adapted from a Roger Zelazny short story, features a chilling launch and destruction sequence. After the surprise attack, it follows the efforts of some California survivors to reach another group in New York. And Twilight’s Last Gleaming follows a renegade Air Force general who escapes from a military prison and takes over an ICBM silo near Montana. Once there he threatens to launch missiles and jump-start World War III unless the president reveals a secret document about the Vietnam War. 

Two years later The China Syndrome had a significant real world impact. A gripping drama about the dangers of nuclear power, its effect was intensifed by a real-life nuclear accident at the Three Mile Island plant only weeks after the film opened. Jane Fonda plays a TV reporter who personally witnesses the risk of a meltdown (known as the "China syndrome") at a local nuclear plant. Tragedy is averted by a quick-thinking but troubled engineer. The film suggests that corporate greed and cost-cutting have led to potentially deadly faults in the plant's construction. Less serious but equally popular, the Mad Max franchise also began in 1979, leading to four more film in which a heavily-armed loner patrols a bleak post-nuclear wasteland.

        The 1980s could be called the golden age of nuclear movies, marked by dozens of popular productions. The decade began with two memorable 1982 films. The Children’s Story, based on a 1960 short story by James Clavell and originally aired on TV, is a short film depicting the indoctrination of an elementary school classroom by a new teacher when a totalitarian government takes over the country. Another is The Atomic Cafe, which effectively explores 1940s and 1950s government propaganda films that were supposed to reassure audiences that nuclear weapons weren’t a threat to their safety.

The next year was even bigger. Special Bulletin was a made-for-TV movie about anti-nuclear activists who detonate a home-made nuke in South Carolina. It’s shot in a live breaking news style. War Games featured a young computer hacker who nearly starts World War III when he inadvertently breaks into a fictional NORAD supercomputer to play the latest video games. In The Dead Zone a teacher, played by Christopher Walken, acquires psychic powers, then learns that a political candidate, portrayed by pre-West Wing Martin Sheen, will order a nuclear strike at some point in the future. Testament, from PBS, depicts the after-effects of a nuclear war in a town near San Francisco. Silkwood, inspired by the true story of Karen Silkwood, who died in a suspicious car accident, dramatizes her struggle to investigate wrongdoing at the Kerr-McGee plutonium plant where she worked. And Barefoot Gen is an anime film depicting the terror of the Hiroshima bombing and its aftermath from the perspective of a child. 

Nuclear paranoia went big time in 1984 with the start of The Terminator  franchise, featuring a post-apocalyptic future in which artificial intelligence becomes self-aware, identifies humans as a threat, and uses the world’s nuclear arsenal to destroy mankind. All of James Cameron films from 1986 to 1994 featured nuclear explosions. Just as paranoid but more right-wing, Red Dawn revolves around an invasion and occupation of the US by Soviet, Nicaraguan and Cuban forces after a surprise limited nuclear strike. 

  The docudrama Countdown to Looking Glass dramatizes an international incident, the breakdown of diplomacy, and the escalation of international tensions leading up to a nuclear crisis. One Night Stand, an Australian film, focuses on four teenagers in the Sydney Opera House when news breaks of a US-Soviet conflict in Europe that goes nuclear — first in Europe, and soon in Australia. And Threads, a 1984-85 BBC production based on a British government exercise, shows the effects of an all-out nuclear war on the town of Sheffield

        In 1986, Manhattan Project wasn’t actually about the bomb’s invention, but instead about how, using stolen plutonium, a high school student builds an atomic bomb for a science class project. Two other significant productions that year were When the Wind Blows, an animated film about an elderly British couple in a post-nuclear war world, and The Sacrifice, a philosophical Swedish drama about nuclear war.

In 1987, The Fourth Protocol, Frederick Forsythe’s 1984 novel, was adapted for film. It follows a plot by extreme Soviet elements to encourage unilateral British disarmament. Meanwhile, they smuggle the components of a tactical nuclear bomb into the country for eventual detonation near a US nuclear base the week before an election. Other 1987 releases include Project X, dealing with the testing of lethal exposures to nuclear radiation on how specially-trained chimpanzees perform in computerized flight simulators — based on a real Air Force biomedical research program; Amazing Grace and Chuck, in which a 12-year-old boy becomes anxious after seeing a Minuteman missile on a school field trip and protests by refusing to play baseball; and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, in which the Man of Steel rounds up all the nuclear weapons and hurls them into the Sun, resulting in unintended consequences.

As the decade ended, Miracle Mile (1988) followed a musician who visits the famous Los Angeles shopping zone, gets a wrong number phone call, and overhears a conversation about an imminent nuclear attack. Struggling against fear, denial and panic, he scrambles to save himself and a woman he just met. 

Despite the collapse of the Soviet Union, By Dawn’s Early Light (1990) dramatized an accidental limited nuclear exchange between the two Superpowers after a "false-flag" attack on Soviet territory. Rogue Soviet military officials frame NATO in order to spark a full-blown nuclear war. Based on Tom Clancy's 1984 bestseller, The Hunt for Red October was released the same year, and involves a Soviet naval captain who wants to defect with his crew and his country’s most advanced nuclear missile submarine.

A few years later Matinee, which is mainly a comedy, revisits the Cuban missile crisis, showing the fears of Americans who think they are about to meet their doom. As the Cold War faded, films like Crimson Tide (1995) and Broken Arrow (1996) turned back to the threats posed by human error and private greed. In the former, the problem is mutiny on a nuclear sub; in the latter, it’s the theft of two thermonuclear weapons by a rogue bomber pilot. The Peacemaker (1997) combines emerging concerns about rogue Russian officers with access to nukes and Eastern European terrorists who want the US to suffer as they have. In Deterrence (1999) the possibility of dropping of a nuclear bomb on Baghdad is dramatized.

        In the last 20 years, the threats dramatized on film have ranged from terrorists to tornados. In The Sum of All Fears (2002), also based on a Tom Clancy novel, neo-Nazis attempt to spark a nuclear war between the US and Russia by detonating a nuke during a baseball game attended by the president. In Dirty War (2004) radioactive material is smuggled into England, turned into several dirty bombs, and detonated in London. Dirty bombs are also detonated in Right at Your Door (2007), a thriller set in Los Angeles after their use. On the other hand, it’s just a close call in Atomic Twister (2002) when a automated nuclear power plant is in the path of a tornado.

A few recent films have revisited actual events. K-19: The Widowmaker (2002) covers the actual Soviet submarine nuclear accident, and Chernobyl (2019), an HBO mini-series, details the 1986 disaster. Others opt to speculate. In The Divide (2011), survivors of a nuclear attack struggle to survive in the basement of their apartment building as fears and dwindling supplies undermine their behavior and relationships. In Outside the Wire (2021), a near future story, a drone pilot sent into a war zone must work with an android officer to stop a nuclear attack.

Nuclear weapons even play a role in modern superhero sagas. All of Gotham City is held hostage in The Dark Knight Rises (2012), part of the recent Batman series, when mercenaries take control of an armed neutron bomb. And in Watchmen (2009), based on a DC comic book, a super-powered Dr. Manhattan acts as America's nuclear deterrent in an alternative 1985, while a Soviet invasion of Afghanistan takes the world to the brink of nuclear conflict. 

Some things don’t easily change.

Sunday, July 11, 2021

Destabilizing Haiti: Why It Keeps Happening

Study Guide (PDF)
Most policy-makers, journalists and analysts suggest that the U.S. originally occupied Haiti in 1915 after the assassination of its president only to restore stability. Few admitted that a revolution was underway; even those who did invariably described the situation as chaotic. In the aftermath of another assassination, the same kind of distortions are circulating again.

Story and photos by Greg Guma

What really happened on the night the president of Haiti was assassinated? We may never know the true story. According to initial reports, the home of Jovenel Moise was invaded at around 1 a.m. on July 9 by more than two dozen armed men, mostly of them Colombian nationals, plus at least two U.S. citizens. So far, about 20 suspects have been detained. But some of the hitmen have evaded capture, and three so far are dead. At the moment, the fragile government is being headed by acting Prime Minister Claude Joseph. 

Breathless news reports call the events shocking, bordering on unprecedented. But they also note that Haiti has bordered on being a “failed state” for some time. In fact, it crossed that border long ago, and more than 20 heads of state have been assassinated since World War II. The list of countries on that list, just the Western Hemisphere, includes Bolivia, Nicaragua, Dominican Republic, and Grenada.

In 1946, Bolivian President Gualberto Villaroel was killed by a lynch mob in La Paz. Dominican Republic strongman Rafael Trujillo Molina was gunned down in 1961; his assassins included one of his generals. Nicaraguan President Anastasio Somoza was murdered in 1980. And Grenada's Prime Minister Maurice Bishop was killed by local militants in 1983. Six days later the U.S. led an invasion and ousted the regime that had attempted to replace Bishop.

Other prominent heads of state who have died violently since 1945 include Indian leader Mohandas Gandhi, Iraq’s King Faisal, Pakistani Prime Minister Liaquate Ali Khan, South Vietnam President Ngo Dinh Diem, South African Prime Minister Henrik Verwoerd, Iranian President Mohammed Ali Rajai and Prime Minister Hojjatoleslam Mohammed Javad Bahonar, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, Lebanon President-elect Beshir Gemayel, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme, and, of course, U.S. President President John F. Kennedy.

Still, Haiti does have an especially violent past. In July 1915, for example, its head of state, Vilbrun Guillaume Sam, was cornered in the French embassy by rebel forces. The insurgents had widespread popular support. This also was no shock, since Sam was known as a rampaging, vindictive thug who had seized the government by force and murdered hundreds of his political enemies before running for cover. When a mob finally found him cowering in an attic, they hacked their president to pieces. 


The island nation, once known as the "pearl of the antilles," had been through seven presidents in four years, most of them killed or removed prematurely. The rural north was under the control of the Cacos, a rebel movement that adopted its name from the cry of a native bird. Although widely portrayed as a group of murderous bandits, the Cacos were essentially nationalists, and were attempting to resist the control of France, the U.S, and the small minority of mulattos who dominated the economy.

But a Haiti run by rebels and peasants was not acceptable to U.S. interests, which considered the nation an endangered investment property. The National City Bank controlled the country's National Bank and railroad system, and sugar barons viewed the country's rich plantations as promising takeover targets. Thus, on July 29, 1915, after several weeks of observation from cruisers anchored offshore, two regiments of Marines landed. Their initial objective was to make certain that the U.S. choice, Senator Philippe Sudre Dartiguenave, was installed as head of state. A snap-election was staged less than two weeks later.

"When the National Assembly met, the Marines stood in the aisles with their bayonets until the man selected by the American Minister was made President," recalled Smedley Butler, the Marine hero who led the decisive military campaign and administered Haiti's local police force during the following two years. "I won't say we put him in," Butler wrote later. "The State Department might object. Anyway, he was put in."

April 1978 feature story, Vanguard Press

Few journalists were on hand in 1915, and most newspapers were willing to accept the official version. According to President Woodrow Wilson, establishing a protectorate was part of a grand effort to halt a radically evil and corrupting revolution, support the slow process of reform, and extend his policy of the open door to the world.

But that was just the official story. Actually, Wilson saw the island nation as a geo-strategic pawn in the build up to World War I; specifically, he was worried that Germany might take advantage of the local political turmoil to establish a military base in the hemisphere. He also had other, largely economic reasons to seize control of the country. Haiti was an endangered investment property. 

During the early years of the U.S. occupation, the Cacos continued to resist, under the leadership of their own Sandino, an army officer turned guerrilla leader named Charlemayne Peralte. Murdered by an American Marine in 1919, Peralte became a symbol for the democracy movement of the late 1980s that ultimately led to the election of the liberation theology priest Jean Bertrand Aristide.

In the 1990s, it happened again. Seven months after Aristide’s 1991 election, he was overthrown in a military coup. It took three years, but by 1994 Haiti's plight was big news. The coverage was highly selective, however, never mentioning CIA support for those who conducted the coup or the Haitian military's involvement in drug trafficking. Prior to this U.S. occupation, the media was also suspiciously silent about, as Aristide put it, a sham embargo that squeezed the poor but exempted businesses. Although an oil embargo was imposed, fuel was easily smuggled into the country from the Dominican Republic. Meanwhile, a smear campaign against Aristide was launched.

Just as President Wilson had veiled his autocratic actions on behalf of US economic interests with rhetoric about stability and democracy, President Clinton talked about upholding democracy. In fact, the central objective of the 1990s occupation was to maintain effective control of the country until Aristide's term expired. Media coverage tended to obscure the obvious: the U.S., never comfortable with Aristide, had entered into an agreement with the Haitian military for national co-management until the next elections.

Looking back, most policy-makers and analysts suggested that the U.S. had entered Haiti in 1915 only to restore stability. Few stressed that some sort of revolution was underway; even those who did invariably described the situation as chaotic. According to conventional wisdom, the US remained in Haiti for 19 years in the early 20th Century because the Haitian people could not effectively govern themselves or sustain democratic institutions. They weren't ready in 1915 and, some skeptics claimed, they still weren't in the 1990s.

At a September 1994 rally, Ross Perot echoed this popular prejudice in his own know-nothing style. "Haitians like a dictator," he announced, "I don't know why." The implication, underscoring his opposition to U.S. intervention, was that he also didn't care what happened there, and neither should most people.

The Bush administration may have counted on a similar reaction when it embraced a violent uprising against Aristide beginning in late 2003, or even after it reportedly forced him to sign a resignation letter on at 2 a.m. on Sunday, February 29, 2004. According to the "ex-president," he was kidnapped at gunpoint, and flown without his knowledge to the Central African Republic. This should not be so hard to believe, since Aristide never had the Bush administration's support, and his inability to maintain order in an atmosphere of U.S.-backed destabilization provided an excellent pretext for another exercise in "regime change."

In early February, a "rebel" paramilitary army crossed the border from the Dominican Republic. This trained and well-equipped unit included former members of The Front for the Advancement of Progress in Haiti (FRAPH), a disarming name for plain clothes death squads involved in mass killing and political assassinations during the 1991 military coup that overthrew Aristide's first administration. The self-proclaimed National Liberation and Reconstruction Front (FLRN) was also active, and was led by Guy Philippe, a former police chief and member of the Haitian Armed Forces. Philippe had been trained during the coup years by U.S. Special Forces in Ecuador, together with a dozen other Haitian Army officers. Two other rebel commanders were Emmanuel "Toto" Constant and Jodel Chamblain, former members of the Duvalier era enforcer squad, the Tonton Macoute, and leaders of FRAPH.

Both armed rebels and civilian backers like G-184 leader Andre Apaid were involved in the plot. Apaid was in touch with US Secretary of State Colin Powell in the weeks leading up to Aristide's overthrow. Both Philippe and Constant had past ties to the CIA, and were in touch with US officials.

On February 20, 2004, US Ambassador James Foley called in a team of four military experts from the US Southern Command, based in Miami, according to the Seattle Times. Officially, their mandate was to assess threats to the embassy and its personnel. Meanwhile, as a "precautionary measure," three U.S. naval vessels were placed on standby to go to Haiti. One was equipped with Vertical takeoff Harrier fighters and attack helicopters. At least 2000 Marines were also ready for deployment.

After Aristide's kidnapping, Washington made no effort to disarm its proxy paramilitary army, which was subsequently tapped to play a role in the transition. In other words, the Bush administration did nothing to prevent the killing of Lavalas and Aristide supporters in the wake of the president's removal. In news coverage of the crisis, both Haiti’s dark history and the role of the CIA were ignored. Instead, so-called rebel leaders, commanders of death squads in the 1990s, were recognized as legitimate opposition spokesmen.

The Bush administration effectively scapegoated Aristide, holding him solely responsible for a worsening economic and social situation. In truth, Haiti's economic and social crisis was largely caused by the devastating economic reforms imposed by the International Monetary Fund beginning in the 1980s. Aristide's 1994 return to power was conditioned on his acceptance of IMF economic "therapy." He complied, but was blacklisted and demonized anyway.

Which raises a key question: Why does this keep happening? One reason may be basic geopolitics. Hispaniola (the island that contains Haiti and the Dominican Republic) is a gateway to the Caribbean basin, strategically located between Cuba to the North West and Venezuela to the South. Thus, having a military presence on the island, or at least leverage with whatever regime emerges, can help to sustain political pressure on other countries nearby, while providing a base to step in as part of any regional military operation deemed necessary in the future.

Diary kept during 1977 visit

Greg Guma has been a writer, editor, historian, and progressive manager for half a century, leading businesses and campaigns in Vermont, New Mexico, and California. His early work with Bernie Sanders led to The People’s Republic: Vermont and the Sanders Revolution. His other books include novels, Spirits of Desire and Dons of Time, and non-fiction like Fake News: Journalism in the Age of Deceptions and the forthcoming Restless Spirits & Popular Movements: A Vermont History.