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Robert Frye on the Campbell Conversations

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Robert Frye
Robert Frye

Program transcript:

Grant Reeher: Welcome to the Campbell Conversations, I'm Grant Reeher. My guest today is Robert Frye. He's a longtime film and news producer with many documentaries to his credit and an extensive resume as a producer for ABC News and other outlets. He's also a product of the Syracuse area, having graduated from Fayetteville-Manlius High School. He's here with me today to discuss his new documentary film on the threat of nuclear arms and ways to mitigate it titled, “In Search of Resolution”, which airs on PBS channels beginning in August. Bob was previously on the program to discuss the first of the movies in that trilogy titled, “In My Lifetime”. Bob, welcome back to the program, it’s good to see you again.

Robert Frye: Grant, thank you very much for the invitation and good to catch up with you.

GR: Yeah, great. Well, let me just start with a very basic question about the film and then we'll get into some more details. But the film is, as I mentioned, in the introduction, it's the third part of a trilogy, the entire project being called the Nuclear World Project. I want to start, even though I interviewed you before about the first film, listeners won't remember that. So let me start with the first two films and then we'll get into the current one. But tell me a little bit about how you got the idea to start this project and what the first two films are about in my lifetime. And then the second one being the, “Nuclear Requiem”. Tell me about those two and the project itself.

RF: Well, I came up with the idea as a result of my life experience beginning with the fact that I was in the Army in Germany in 19, I'm going to date myself 1959 and 60 in Germany, Stuttgart. I went over as a chaplain's assistant, I was an enlisted man. But unbeknownst to me, although I had applied for another job, I had a highly secretive clearance. And after the first year, I ended up being assigned as a clerk typist to the unit dealing with nuclear weapons. It was a unit of five people, including myself. That really began my journey, if you will, in telling the story and appreciating the reality of nuclear weapons. Although I hasten to add, there are no secrets that are going to be spoken today or I ever have talked about because I realize the value of secrecy and how I, as an individual, am not going to reform the world in that respect. But that led to my going into network television. I ended up doing as an executive producer of World News Tonight at ABC a ten part series called “U.S. / USSR: A Balance of Power”. That was on ABC in the mid 80’s. Again, another touchstone on the way to this project. And I have a file full of ideas and I one day in 2006 pulling out of the file an image of the explosion of Hiroshima and it said, “Do something about nuclear weapons”. Ironically, as a result of that, I met two authors in 2007 and also had a conversation with the first funder of this project. 2008 I started filming in Norway at a conference in Oslo, and then we went to Reykjavik. We being Richard Rhodes, the writer and myself, we filmed there, came back to the United States. Dick wrote me after that. he said, look, I've got too many projects, I'm not going to be able to continue this journey. And so I decided to go ahead and continue with some of the contacts he gave me and then as I picked up along the way. So I filmed through the year of 2008, going from Europe through the United States to Japan. And we filmed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki that year. It led to a whole bunch of other things, but it took me another three years to finish the film. First of all, there was the financial crisis in 2009, I think it was. Anyway, the point of it is in my lifetime is really the story of how this all unfolded. And I don't know if you've had a chance to see the Oppenheimer film yet, but I would recommend it to anyone listening, including yourself. It's a very interesting story, well told. But as a result of that, the film was distributed in my lifetime, was distributed, and then I went and took a rest from it. And a couple of years later I was talking with Alain Kremski, the composer of, “The Nuclear Requiem”, which was sort of what I would call a mid-stream film, talking about the dynamic between the United States and Russia. At that time in 2015, I filmed 2015 to 2017. I had to update it because the story was changing as a result of the election of Mr. Trump. The Iran deal, if you will. North Korea was starting to make a lot of noise, if you will. And so that led to the Requiem, which was distributed in 2018. So here we are in the year 2023 and of course COVID came along and as a result of that I was sort of held back. But I said I'm going to do another film which turns out to be the one we're talking about today. The story of searching for resolution. Is it possible, is a question that I ask in this film. And I was able to connect with young people as well because I think it's very important to say, this story is not going away and there are individuals in the United Nations and other places where young people, who I encourage to get involved in the story, in whatever way they can. And so that's really what this story is about, searching for a resolution, is it possible?

GR: You're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher, and I'm speaking with Bob Frye, whose new documentary film, “In Search of Resolution” begins to air on PBS stations in August. So about the new film, “In Search of Resolution”, Bob, you just mentioned young people, and I did want to ask you about that because it does seem to be an important feature of this. And you note that one of your aims in this entire project is to remind younger generations of the dangers of nuclear proliferation, since in part, they don't have the direct generational experience of the Cold War that you and I have. You know, the experience of doing the drills and so on. And so I'm curious to hear a little bit more of your reflections about that. I mean, tell me more about your encounters with younger citizens regarding this nuclear threat.

RF: You just did a very good summary, Grant, of the idea, because my feeling is, look, I'm at a certain age where I want to hand the story off in whatever way is possible. And I will say the website will have more information on it. It's www.thenuclearworld.org. There's also a lot of material on there already. But between the three films and the web site, my idea is to pass it on to the next generations because you and I, as you referred to a moment ago, have experienced this. And for me from the get go, I mean, I was alive when the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I was young at the time, of course, very young. But I still remember the moments and went through the late 40’s and the 50’s. And I remember reading a book called, “On the Beach”.

GR: Oh, yes.

RF: Which struck me. And then only a few years later, I was, as I told you, the story of being in a double door safe room dealing with nuclear weapon planning. But, you know, the thing is, this story doesn't go away, it's gotten more complicated. And although the number of weapons has been reduced to, say, around 13,000 from the high point in the mid 80’s of 70,000 weapons and the nine nuclear states, the burden of them were primarily the United States and Russia, at the time the Soviet Union. But you know how that's changed is although the number of weapons that have been cut dramatically, the kinds of weapons that have been developed, and unfortunately this continues to become more, shall we say, progressive in terms of how the weapons are created and built, they're much more powerful. And I remember, I think I wrote this in their director's notes that I shared with you, a British officer saying, and this was, he said this in 1983, I think it was, that if all the weapons were thrown away, except for those on board submarines in both the United States and Russia, they both have enough of these weapons to fire one every 30 seconds for 24 hours. I mean we wouldn't get past the first 15 minutes when the world would be totally changed. And so I think the reason I tell this story is at least to make people aware of it. What they do with the information is their choice, not mine. And we live in obviously a highly politicized environment now.

GR: Yes.

RF: But and my, my job, I feel as a documentary producer and a former network news producer, this is not an advocacy film to advocate a particular point of view. It is the film to tell the story so everyone can receive it in their own way and whatever their viewpoints are. But that's another discussion. But so I really feel it's important for the younger generations to clue into this and get a sense of what it is. Although I remember having a screening a few years ago, the second film, and after my little presentation was over, a young man said, well, that's all very good, but why do we care? Because it's not a problem. Of course, that's not the issue of course, it is a problem. And the United States and Russia still are on a high alert system. I mean, there are so many different complicating factors in terms of sort of brushing it aside and saying, well, this doesn't matter any longer. And of course, this is illustrated in the beginning of this film by the idea that in January of 2022, the five nuclear powers who are members of the Security Council at the U.N. said there shall be no war between the nuclear weapons states. Of course, there are four other weapon states as well, and the five being the United States, Russia, France, the UK. And one more I'll get to it in a moment. But four and then the other four…

GR: …China, right? It’s China, wasn’t it?

RF: Thank you very much. It was the last of the five, actually. So you have that plus the four that possess nuclear weapons, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea. And there are stories that weave through the film that tell the different dynamics. They're all individual stories, but they're also all linked by the idea that they all possess nuclear weapons.

GR: You're listening to The Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher and I'm talking with Bob Frye, a documentary filmmaker and news producer who has a new film coming out on nuclear arms titled, “In Search of Resolution”, and it airs on PBS channels beginning in August. About this new film, Bob, I wanted to ask you, is there is there one story or one person from your experience making this documentary film that has stuck with you the most since?

RF: Well, there actually are several individuals that were involved in the creation of these films. But I'm going to take an easy answer on this. I just saw the new film, “Oppenheimer”.

GR: Right.

RF: Which is getting a lot of play around the country, indeed around the world. And of course, as the scientific director of Los Alamos, he, in very large part, was the man that drove the creation of the bomb, if you will, with the explosion, the Trinity site in New Mexico and then it goes on from there. There are many other people that were around him, in fact, some who were against the idea of dropping bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. So if you if you have the time, go see the film, “Oppenheimer”. Although there are many points in it that one can discuss or debate, it still is the underlying factor of how this happened. And there are many people who were involved in that decision to drop the two bombs, one on Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the test explosion at the Trinity site. But his influence obviously drove a lot of it. And, of course, as he got older, he went through a lot of serious, serious changes about the idea and the complexities. And that's one of the things that I find interesting about this story. There are many complexities to it and how to understand how the bomb itself, by the way, is an inanimate object. Individuals, human beings make the decisions whether they will ever be used. And of course, with all of the underlying treaties that have been created over the course of the last 77 years now, going (on) 78, there have been many attempts to try and forestall any other use of the bombs. And of course, what happened, and this is illustrated at the beginning of this film, after the announcement by the five that thou shall not use any of the bombs and there will not be a nuclear war, five, six weeks later, Mr. Putin declared war on and invaded Ukraine. And of course, the idea of that, you could go into many different declarations about how that changed the underlying thought of the statement made in January. But it brought back, I think, into the public view, the reality of nuclear weapons and the threat of them being used as Mr. Putin did. So here we are, we're in another cycle. And I suppose one refers to the Cuban Missile Crisis as another example of how this unfolded. But we're still in that cycle because of the war in Ukraine.

GR: Yeah, I wanted to ask you a question related to that, which is, it kind of goes back to in my lifetime. But, you know, you've seen the whole arc of this and you mentioned the renewed concerns about this, given some of the things that Vladimir Putin has said. Do you think overall the danger from nuclear weapons is higher today or has it lessened in recent years? Does that young person that you quoted earlier saying this isn't a problem, is there some, you know, legitimate point buried in there? What's your sense of the danger level?

RF: As another individual in the previous film that I talked about, the, “Nuclear Requiem” said, the fact that we have them, you can never discount the danger of their being used, is the real answer. But this conversation is not to have everybody go dig hole in the backyard and go into a bunker because we just don't know, Grant. We have, I mean, I'll ask you the same question, what's your feeling about it, given your distinguished background and how you look at this? Because I think everyone has a point of view about the possibilities. And the reason I do these projects and have, thank God, been able, been fortunate enough to get the third film done, is to present the story in a way that people can contemplate the underlying realities. And as I said before, for younger people, they should at least be aware of this as an ongoing threat. Because combined with climate change, nuclear weapons and name whatever else you want to name, the challenge to democracy around the world, this is another one of those stories that should at least have an awareness level for the younger people because they're the folks that are going to pick it up and carry it forward. And one can hope that they will come up with ideas, as I said, in search of what is the resolution. So far, we've not been able to find it.

GR: Well, I wanted to ask you another question exactly about that. And you've sort of spoken to it already, but, you know, it's certainly possible to dream of a nuclear arms free world in the abstract. It's very hard for me to imagine how it will come about, absent, God forbid, some terrible disaster and perhaps not even then. So I wanted to get your sense of how do you see the long term future of nuclear arms? Do you think we're just going to kind of muddle along with this?

RF: Good (question), complicated answer. The change from the second film, “The Nuclear Requiem”, at the end of, “The Nuclear Requiem” production phase, there was the beginnings of what turned out to be the TPNW, the treaty to prevent nuclear weapons. So that story is presented in this film. So that's the change that's taken place since 2015, 2017. So, there is another effort, if you will, to change the underlying dynamic to bring the nuclear weapon states into a dialog. That's really the challenge here. And that point is made in the film, as anyone watching the film will see, by individuals that tell that story. You know, who is going to change that dynamic? Where is the shift going to take place? At least there is, quote,” a vehicle”, “a treaty” where the attempt is being made to change the underlying dynamic. But against that is the fact that there are nine nations that have these things, have the weapons, and they're invested not only in terms of preserving them, but also in making sure that others don't get them. I mean, the story of Iran is interesting. Iran still, and apparently new dialogs are taking place to make sure that Iran will not go ahead and produce their own nuclear weapons, although they now have the knowledge and the material. Will other countries come into that play? There's another challenge there as well.

GR: If you've just joined us, you're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. And my guest is film producer and director Bob Frye. I got to ask you a little bit of a curveball question now. And you mentioned Iran, it's related to that. But I'm wondering, do you think there's any relationship between civilian nuclear power and nuclear weapons? Is it possible to have a nuclear arms free world while we still have nuclear power? Nuclear power is back on the agenda in the United States. And certainly it's heavily used in Europe. Any thoughts on that?

RF: Yes. You want to do another program?

GR: (laughter) Yeah, it's complicated, again, yes.

RF: Because there are no snappy one answer to this. The challenge is if you go back into the history of this story, which is told actually in the first film. Nuclear Power in the beginning was created to produce plutonium and uranium for the bombs. There was no such grand plan to have nuclear power plants for any other purpose. In the early 50’s, Dwight Eisenhower declared whatever for peace, you know, it was a matter of they had to come up with a reason why they were building these nuclear power plants. The one in the South and the Hanford plant in Washington, the state of Washington. Because they were still producing massive amounts of our material to build bombs. As they continued to build more bombs they had to have the material. So in a way, the dichotomy that was taking place between the power plants and the production of the materials for the bombs were running parallel tracks. But there had to be a reason why how to develop nuclear power. And in my second film, I think there are 141 countries that have nuclear power. Most of them, of course, are not using it for anything other than electricity. So there is this kind of dichotomy that's taking place as a result of that. I mean, the argument about having nuclear power as part of the electric grid, of course, is a good argument. But it's also, well, what happens - because we still have this nuclear challenge when it comes to the production of the materials for… and that's where it all takes place around the fact they continue to look at all nuclear power plants around the world to make sure they're not producing the materials that would go into bombs. That's strictly for nuclear power electricity.

GR: That's the issue with Iran, yeah. We've only got about two minutes or so left but I wanted to squeeze in one last question on a different topic, actually. I was very intrigued by something I read in your bio that you have a long standing interest, and obviously it's reflected in your film here that we're talking about, “In Search of Resolution”. But you have a long standing interest in the media's role in conflict resolution. And it seems to me these days that the media is on balance, more a force for division and resolution right now in our society. And do you see that, do you see what I'm seeing? And if so, what do you think went wrong and in two minutes or less. (laughter)

RF: That's the third hour we're going to have a conversation about. Because, look, I've been around this business for long enough to have experienced the shifts that have taken place. I mean, when I started off at NBC, as a researcher, Frank McGee in 19, I can't remember the decade now, 1962, 1963, we believed in serious journalism. My job was to fact check everything that we put on the air. I mean, I spent a six month project, who would be the successor to Nikita Khrushchev? I got to a point, ironically, about four or five years before that I'd been in the Army, but I got to a point where I was pretty knowledgeable about the topic. I went to the State Department in Washington, and I ended up in a double door think tank room with the two top criminologists that the United States had. Kermit (last name unintelligible) and Paul Cook. And so I had this book that I put aside after getting all this information. And my choices based on the research was that he would be succeeded by Kosygin and Brezhnev. That didn't come, just pull it out of my hat. So I think that the fact is and then when I was an executive producer and a producer of broadcast research was a very important component. And I'm now going to say it's been a pleasure having this conversation with you, and I look forward to an ongoing dialog not only with you, but the audience, because they should pay attention.

GR: And I want to remind our listeners of this before I close out that your film again, the new one is titled, “In Search of Resolution”. And our listeners can find out more about that film and other works related to this by going to www the nuclear world dot com, right?

RF: Dot org.

GR: …Dot org, okay, www.thenuclearworld.org

RF: And also because of the good works by you and others, the word is getting out and American Public Television actually is the distribution of it, takes care of the distribution of the film.

GR: Great. Okay, thank you for that piece of information. That was Bob Frye. And Bob, thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me as obviously an important topic.

RF: Thank you for taking the time to have me on your show.

GR: You bet. You've been listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media, conversations in the public interest.

Grant Reeher is Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute and a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He is also creator, host and program director of “The Campbell Conversations” on WRVO, a weekly regional public affairs program featuring extended in-depth interviews with regional and national writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals.