1962 political thriller is no seven days’ wonder

The White House in Washington D.C.
The White House

Seven Days in May is a thriller by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II, a pair of newspaper reporters whose knowledge of the mid-twentieth century Washington political realities infuse every page.

One May Sunday, Marine Colonel Martin J. Casey uncovers what he thinks could be a plot by his boss, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. James Scott to overthrow the President. Putting his job on the line, Casey discloses his suspicions to the President.

President Lyman takes some convincing, but as evidence mounts, he decides to act. He will act secretly, with help from just a few trusted men and his long-time secretary.

The characters are drawn in broad outline, recognizable as types rather than individuals.

Knebel and Bailey’s strong point is plot. Fifty years after first publication, the story sounds even more plausible than it did against the landscape of the 1960s. If anything, the fictional President’s observation that a frustrated electorate, feeling unable to influence events has “seriously started looking for a superman” rings more true today than it did in 1962.

As to the rest of the setting—a President the people are not quite sure of, high unemployment, economic insecurity, apprehension over potential foreign attacks—sounds like the morning news to me.

Seven Days in May
Fletcher Knebel & Charles W. Bailey II
Harper & Row, 1962
341 pages
My grade: B+
1962 Bestseller #7
Photo of The White House by Edgar0587
© 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Cold War thriller packs contemporary message

Nuclear Warning
Nuclear Warning

During a military exercise, American bombers armed with nuclear weapons streak off past the fail-safe point, headed for Moscow.

Watching blips on the air command’s radar screen blink are a congressman and a manufacturer whose equipment went into the complex system intended to make the nuclear deployment program accident-proof. All hope fervently that the radar reports are wrong.

Russians watching their radar screens are also convinced the problem is in the display: nothing has prepared them for an attack or an American accident.

The President calls Krushchev.

To prevent an unprovoked attack on Moscow, the President first tries to shoot down the US planes. When that does not work, he seizes the only option available to avert World War III.

With that material to work from and their taut prose, Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler could not help turning out a thriller.

Fail-Safe, however, is not just a few hours’ entertainment. It’s a reminder that in any complex, untested system, the occurrence of several statistically improbable errors can bring the whole system crashing down. Perhaps if that lesson had been learned from this novel, the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico might not have come as such as shock to the American public.

Fail-Safe
Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler
McGraw-Hill, 1962
284 pages
1962 Bestseller #6
My grade: B+
Illustration Nuclear Warning 2 by Flaivoloka
© 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni