Film / First Strike
You don't want to get a "strike" on these bowling pins.

Since the Second World War, the ultimate security of the United States has depended on the awesome destructive power of its strategic nuclear forces to deter thermo-nuclear war. The strength of this deterrence was based on the calculation that we would inflict terrible destruction in retaliation for a nuclear attack.

This doctrine of assured destruction is dependent on the certainty in the mind of an aggressor that we have the will and ability to retaliate. To always maintain this ability, a sufficient portion of our strategic forces must be able to survive any nuclear exchange, even a surprise FIRST STRIKE.

Whether America's strategic forces will be able to survive such a disarming preemptive attack is today a matter of increasing uncertainty.

First Strike is a 1979 documentary produced by the United States Air Force, first airing on PBS, that explored the potential for the contemporary threat posed by a nuclear surprise attack by the Soviet Union and then recommended a number of then-up and coming defense projects to guard against that threat. All of which were in the purview of the Air Force, of course.

It's important for modern viewers to understand the historical context of this documentary. First Strike was produced at the start of the "Second Cold War," in which the Soviet Union underwent a massive buildup of its own military forces, resuming an aggressive expansionistic political stance after the period of détente that followed the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Aside from its historical value, the documentary is noteworthy because portions of the dramatization, as well as unused clips, were part of the Stock Footage employed in the 1983 Made-for-TV Movie The Day After.

The documentary's producer, Fleming "Tex" Fuller, has uploaded it in full on YouTube, viewable here.

Not to be confused with the Halo novel, Jackie Chan's movie, or the Call of Duty: Black Ops DLC.

First Strike provides examples of:

  • Acceptable Breaks from Reality: Military historians generally agree that the scenario depicted in the first part of the film is extremely unrealistic. For one, the Soviet Navy would never have been able to get to the America coast undetected, mainly because Soviet submarine technology in 1979 could never breach American sonar detection. Also, the president surrenders a bit too easily; in real-life, the Soviet strike would have been met by the full mobilization of all conventional NATO forces in Europe; the Warsaw Pact's superior conventional numbers would not be an issue to the NATO invaders, as it is well-known that Soviet equipment was often defective, plagued by maintenance issues and malfunctions, making the Soviet Army a "paper tiger". Also not taken into account are the British and French nuclear arsenals, nor the NATO arsenal shared by Belgium, Italy, Greece, Canada, and West Germany, which the Soviets didn't bother dealing with and would most likely come back to haunt them in the form of a decapitation strike on Moscow that would certainly destroy or severly cripple the Soviet government and liberate the United States, not to mention the high probability of a nuclear strike and/or conventional invasion from China, which is a whole other can of worms.

    For the Air Force's purposes, however, all of this was an acceptable break from reality. After all, part of the point of this documentary was to convince policymakers to fund the service's strategic projects.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The Soviets destroy all of the United States' nuclear forces before they could strike, and the president orders all forces to stand down, effectively surrendering to the Soviets. Surprisingly, though, only eight million are killed because the strike was completely targeted at military targets (this isn't even 25% of America's population circa 1979), but the survivors will certainly suffer under Soviet tyranny and oppression, and undoubtedly, scores of American civilians will die of starvation and radiation poisoning, or be rounded up and executed by the Soviets to allow American land to be occupied by their own citizens, or simply for the crime of being an American and a capitalist.
  • Chuck Yeager: Major General Reinhardt of SAC Airborne Command Post never shows any sense of distress, even as reports come in that the Soviets are wiping U.S. strategic forces off the map and it becomes clear the Soviet Union is going to win the war and execute him and many other American military officials.
  • Curb-Stomp Battle: As part of the opening dramatization. The narrator puts it best—
    34 minutes into the attack, the strategic forces of the United States have suffered a crippling blow. Of the 1000 Minuteman missiles, only 45 remain operational, of the 330 B-52 Bombers, all but 22 have been destroyed on the ground, of the 41 ballistic missile submarines, 17 have been destroyed in port and an unknown number are presumed lost at sea. The attack has been restricted to strategic military targets. 8 million Americans are dead.

    The United States is given an ultimatum: Any attempt at retaliation will result in the certain annihilation of America's urban population.

    9 minutes later, the President orders all surviving U.S. forces to cease fire.
    • This effectively means that the Soviets have won what many assumed was an unwinnable war, and they will get away with annexing the United States, which will undoubtedly bring much suffering and death to the American people, especially if the Soviets view the Americans the same way Hitler viewed the Jews (though not likely, as the Soviets would likely not want to associate themselves with the Nazis, having experienced their brutality first-hand in World War II). Worse still is that America's NATO allies can do nothing or risk destruction themselves, though the Sino-Soviet Split in 1960 could be a Hope Spot, as China could align itself with NATO to launch a war against the Soviet Union and liberate the United States.
  • Crippling Overspecialization: The documentary brings up a contemporary proposal to retire the bomber and ICBM fleets, relying on submarines only. Dr. Schlesinger invoked this trope in response:
    Dr. James R. Schlesinger: If one becomes dependent on any single arm, such as submarines, the Soviets can devote a much higher percentage of their budget to solving their problems in anti-submarine warfare.
  • Distinguished Gentleman's Pipe: Dr. James R. Schlesinger is shown holding one during a shot.
  • Fighter-Launching Sequence: Ever wondered if a bomber squadron could scramble like a fighter squadron? Wonder no more! Too bad they get nuked in the opening dramatization.
    • A traditional Fighter Launching Sequence is shown when the documentary discusses ways to defend against the Soviet Union's then-new bombers.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • Dr. William J. Perry hints at the existence of the Advanced Technology Bomber program—which gave birth to the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber—in his interview. It's now known that he played a major role in the development of American stealth aircraft technology through funding the related programs.
    Dr. William J. Perry: There's a pretty high level of interest in the Air Force in a new manned bomber, but I'd want to distinguish between a airplane that would be capable of penetrating modern active air defenses, and an airplane whose only function would be to deliver cruise missiles from the exterior of the air-defense system. Those are two quite different functions.
  • Mutually Assured Destruction: First Strike's purpose was to highlight problems that might have unraveled this assurance.
  • Narrator: Martin Sheen. Martin Sheen, people.
  • Necessary Drawback: American (and Soviet) nuclear forces were built on a triad of weapons platforms, each with their own advantages and disadvantages:
    • ICBMs were the only arm of strategic forces that had both the speed and accuracy to threaten "hard" (well-protected) targets, but as stationary silos, were highly vulnerable to attacks themselves. The Soviets rectified this somewhat by having a good portion of their ICB Ms launched by truck or train, a practice that is continued by modern Russia.
    • Bombers had mobility and the ability to accurately deliver nuclear weapons, but wouldn't be fast enough to hit time-urgent military targets. The types of nuclear bombers used by the USAF and the location of their bases in 1979 also made them highly vulnerable to submarine-launched ballistic missiles. Also an issue for bombers were anti-air weaponry and faster, more maneuverable fighter jets, as well as the fact that Russian broadcast signals could be quickly switched to confuse bomber crews using radio signals for navigation (the basic premise of the American CONELRAD system in use between 1951 and 1963).
    • Submarines could land nukes on enemy targets in mere minutes, since they could launch right off of the enemy's coast. As submarines, they were also the most well-protected of the three strategic arms—but their lack of accuracy (in 1979 at least) made them only useful for destroying "soft" targets (such as bomber airfields—or, as Dr. Schlesinger put it, "city busting"). There is also the ever-present threat of mines, anti-submarine ships packing depth charges, and anti-submarine aircraft.
  • Next Sunday A.D.: Aside from the dramatization which posited a surprise attack during the time in which First Strike was produced, most of the discussion among the experts plots out upcoming projects and problems for the U.S. in The '80s (and in some cases, The '90s).
  • Red Scare: First Strike certainly reflects the unease and tension of the time period. As Dr. Schlesinger put it—
    Dr. James R. Schlesinger: The Soviets, in contrast to the United States, over the last fifteen years have been serious about defense. They have been deadly serious about defense. At the moment, they are not only procuring more defense hardware than the United States by ninety or a hundred percent, they are outspending the entire free world in the area of military investment—and one must assume that they have some calculation and some motive for that behavior.
  • Reporting Name: The Tu-95 "Bear," M-4 "Bison," and Tu-22M "Backfire" bombers are mentioned.
  • Sitting Duck: Discussed at length, and depicted in the opening dramatization—none of the B-52s on alert at March AFB are able to fly away before they're nuked.
  • Stock Footage: The rights to footage shot for First Strike was purchased by ABC for use in The Day After; in addition, there's a few clips obviously meant for First Strike in The Day After that weren't actually used in the documentary.
  • Talking Heads: Most of the documentary is devoted to interviewing various contemporary experts in the military, government, and defense industry. Among them, with the credentials they held at the time of filming:
    • General Richard H. Ellisnote 
    • Dr. William R. Van Cleavenote 
    • Dr. James R. Schlesingernote 
    • Dr. William J. Perrynote 
    • Dr. William R. Grahamnote 
    • Dr. Edward Luttwaknote 
    • Walter Slocombenote 
    • Dr. Robert K. Squirenote 
    • Dr. Francis P. Hoebernote 
    • Major General Warren C. Moorenote 
    • Paul H. Nitzenote 
  • Whack-a-Monster: The plans for the MX ICBM (later called the LGM-118 Peacekeeper) was a rare non-game example of the trope. To strike a balance between having easily viewable missiles for the purpose of strategic arms reduction and the ability to conceal the missiles so that they wouldn't be easy targets for Soviet nukes, each missile was planned to have multiple shelters and launch sites, up to 23, in which they would be shuffled around randomly via underground railways. This would force the Soviets to commit much more of their nuclear arsenal just to destroy America's own.