Cinema History from the Cold War!

Seconds for Survival

Bell Telephone Company
The Royal Canadian Air Force

Two factors in preventing a minor problem from turning into a major catastrophe are adequate warning and quick and effective reactions.  This is the message The Bell Telephone Company presents in Seconds for Survival, a 1959 production designed to highlight Bell's contribution to America's civil and national defense networks.  Hosted by Raymond Massey, a prolific actor perhaps best known for his role on television's Dr. Kildare, the film begins by demonstrating how quickly small difficulties like a rough ocean or a carelessly tossed cigarette can swiftly evolve into calamities like a hurricane or house fire.  As Massey explains, with forewarning (hurricane flags raised in harbors) and a timely response (the fire department) disaster can be averted.  Massey further asserts that Bell Telephone is providing America with both a warning and a response to the problems of the Nuclear Age.  The warning comes in the form of the massive radar stations erected at strategic points across the Arctic and Canada which utilize Bell technologies.  The response can be found in Bell's development of surface to air missiles.

When the United States began experimenting with guided missiles after the Second World War, the laboratory division of Bell Telephone became the principal contractor to develop such technology.  Dubbed the Nike Project after the Greek winged goddess, Bell first produced the Nike Ajax and the Nike Hercules, small missiles designed to destroy enemy bombers before they could reach their targets.  Beginning in the early 1950's, Nike missile bases were established in protective rings around large cities and military installations.  By the latter half of the decade, however, the threat to American cities lay less with hostile aircraft, and more with intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMS).  To address the rapidly advancing threat of Soviet ICBM potential, Bell Labs commenced work on the Nike Zeus, a larger, faster guided missile.


Because it was still in the development stages by 1959, Seconds for Survival offers a hypothetical demonstration of the Zeus' capabilities.  Forewarned of approaching missiles by Bell's extensive radar system, military personnel track and destroy each one while civil defense officials usher panicked citizens into underground shelters.  In the film, the missiles are destroyed and crisis is averted.  In reality, many questions remained about the efficacy of the Nike Zeus.  Even after testing showed a relatively high success rate in stopping missiles in flight, the mounting cost of each Zeus unit eventually led to the project's demise.  In 1963, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara permanently suspended its development, arguing the defensive projectiles were more expensive than the ICBM's they were meant to stop.  For the previous two years, Nike Ajax bases across the country had been gradually decommissioned as well.  Not long after, Seconds for Survival was also declared obsolete.  Claiming the subject matter was no longer valid to due ever changing threats and advances in weaponry, by 1965 the Office of Civil of Defense suggested screenings of the film be halted.