Sometimes a television documentary can be more than mere informational entertainment: It can perform a major public service. Such a program airs this week on ABC.
The appalling nuclear shell game betwen the USSR and the USA is the topic of what may prove to be the most important documentary of the year: "The Apocalypse Game" (ABC News Closeup, Friday, 10-11 p.m., check local listings). It is frightening and distributing enough to make viewers want to dom something about it.
Produced and directed by Richard Gerdau, under what has developed into the solidly innovative supervision of executive producer Pamela Hill and senior producer Richard Richter, this "Closeup" has the added positive factor of host-writer Marshall Frady, who may well be a permanent fixture on future ABC Closeups.
And for goos reason: Mr. Frady has managed to bring home to TV audiences, for the first time in my memory, a program that pinpoints in both human and technological terms the danger of the scientific breakthroughs which have resulted in a further escalation of the nuclear arms race between Russia and the United States. Mr. Frady points out the troubling fact that there are elements on both sides of this life-or-death shell game who believe that a nuclear war would not only be survivable but winnable.
a recent study was cited at Senate hearings last June which revealed, according to Mr. Frady, what would happen to the Boston area if the city were hit by a 20-megaton nuclear warhead. One million people would be killed immediately. All buildings within a mile and a half of the blast would be destroyed. The final human toll would exceed 2 million dead, 2 million more sick or wounded.
And that would be the toll of only one bomb dropped on the center of Boston. In case of nuclear war, there would probably be hundreds of such bombs dropped on both American and Russian cities.
Even more appalling than the horror of these figures, according to the show, is the fact that there are people in government who still harbor the belief that the actual confrontational use of the bomb is still a viable alternative to admittedly difficult negotiation.
"The Apocalypse Game" traces the history of the atom bomb, the development of the MX missile system, the doves and hawks on both sides of the controversy in both countries involved. Certainly the Russians realize that it is madness to think that they could actually fight a nuclear war, just as we realize it. But, according to Mr. Frady, "the peril still of that happening arises out of our perceptions of each other's intentions. Both the US and the Soviet Union see the other expanding its nuclear arsenal not to maintain a balance but to gain a strategic edge. And this tension is deepened by by the recent diplomatic estrangement between the US and the Soviet Union."
Mr. Frady -- and Leslie Gelb (former State Department official and SALT negotiator) -- worry that there are so few avenues for contacts open now between our government and theirs. Says Mr. Gelb: "The reason is, there's very little disposition is our government to want to communicate with them -- that's regarded in some quarters of this administration as a sign of weakness."
Says Christoph Bertram, director of the International Institute of Strategic Studies: "Nuclear doctrines are not just a piece of paper -- they are a central declaration of intent of what one wants to do with the most deadly weapons at one's disposal."
Mr. Bertram is aware of the recent Carter administration controversy about whether or not to make public certain of the United States's secret nuclear alternatives.
However, Mr. Bertram -- and the producers of this important documentary -- are also aware of the recent words of one of Ronald Reagan's advisers, Sen. Paul Laxalt of Nevada, who says: "We have no option now, it seems to me, but to attempt to keep pace with the Soviets. Sometime within the next 10 to 20 years when the Soviet comes to the point that they recognize that this country has the resolve, has the military capability to back up that resolve, maybe we can sit around a table and arrive at a sensible strategic-arms reduction. . . ."
Not for another 20 years, asks reporter Mike Connor?
"I wouldn't be any more optimistic than that," Senator Laxalt responds.
That's a pretty grim scenario, reporter Connor says.
"It sure is," responds the senator.
Writer Frady sums it up: "If one thing should have emerged during this past hour, it should be that, whether or not the MX missile system is ever actually built, the headlong acsystem is ever actually built, the headlong acceleration in nuclear armaments seems certain to plunge on. The answer to one threat becomes the new threat to be answered. That is the self-perpetuating plot."
"But the real author of this scenario is technology. Simply by the momentum of technology we have been conducted to a new level of uncertainty and danger. By targeting weapons instead of people, nuclear action has somehow come to seem less unholy, more allowable -- which threatens to loose the beast we have managed to keep in the cellar for three decades now."
Asks Mr. Frady: "Will we ever be able to wrest back our destiny from this blind propulsion of technology?"
Certainly there is no more important question in our time. And ABC Closeup deserves the gratitude of a nation, searching for the right -- and moral -- answer, for posing the question so vividly.