In Liberating Strife

Seven Days in May — Fletcher Knebel & Charles W. Bailey II

Seven-Days

Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey’s 1962’s Seven Days in May is a best-selling political thriller set in the early 1970s.

The struggle over Iran brought the Americans and Soviets to the brink of all-out war. Republican President Edgar Frazier’s decision to accept a divided Iran was reasonable under the circumstances (it averted nuclear war) but it was political suicide for him1.

As his Democratic Party replacement Jordan Lyman discovers, sometimes success is just the opportunity to fail on a more epic scale.


Horrified by his first briefing on the realities of nuclear war—SPOILER: nuclear war turns out to be way bad—Lyman pushes the Soviets and other nuclear powers to sign a treaty agreeing to dismantle all of their nuclear weapons. Lyman selflessly sacrifices all his political capital in the US to push ratification of the treaty. Many people do not trust the Soviets to live up to their end of the bargain; these people are vocal.

If the buyer’s remorse over the treaty was not bad enough, Lyman has alienated the military by deferring a much-needed pay raise for the forces. At the same time he has allowed a labour strike by civilian defence workers to drag on and on; Americans might forgive a foolish President but the strike makes him look unforgivably weak. Lyman’s popularity has plummeted to 29%.

Lyman and his allies think they have two years to rebuild support for their party. He is wrong. Alarmed at the direction Lyman has taken the country, a cabal within the Joint Chiefs of Staff (led by popular officer “Gentleman Jim” Scott), a cabal assisted by an alliance of business, religious, and political figures, is preparing to remove Lyman from office. Better to end the obviously failing American experiment in democracy and revert to a good old reliable dictatorship!

At least, that is what Colonel “Jiggs” Casey thinks is going on, based on fragmentary information he has gained by accident, interpreted in light of his own experience of the personalities involved. Casey is no great Lyman fan, but he does believe in the Constitution and the law. Even though he has his own reservations about the wisdom of the treaty, Casey feels that he has no choice but to present his suspicions to the President.

Casey and Lyman have no proof that a coup is in motion. Lyman lacks the political capital to simply dismiss the treacherous JCS. What they lack most is time: they have just seven days to uncover and prevent Scott’s coup.

 ~oOo~

The novel and the movie adaptation are a nice example of how one can be utterly blind to a future bearing down on one. The problems Frazier and Lyman face are problems that would have been familiar to any American of the 1950s: balancing the demands of the Cold War with the desire not to make the human race extinct; the endless struggle between democracy and home-grown authoritarians. There is not the slightest suggestion that society might change in fundamental ways over the course of the 1960s. There’s no hint of future hippies, Summers of Love, Women’s Lib, or the pushback against the US’s traditional racial hierarchies.

Given the subject matter, this is a remarkably even-handed book. The worst elements of the vast right-wing conspiracy don’t get much screen time; Scott is charming and his congressional ally Prentice no worse than anyone one might see on the Six O’clock News. Over the course of the novel, it becomes clear that it is perfectly reasonable to be concerned about whether the Russians will live up to their end of the deal or will succumb to Chronic Backstabbing Disorder. Because they won’t and they will.

That said, there is a huge “and then what?” factor to the intended coup. Perhaps they expect Scott’s popularity to sway enough people for the junta to control the US. That didn’t even work with Casey. The conspirators seem sunnily optimistic about how easy their little project will be. Had Casey and his chums failed, the coup still might have turned out as successful as the 1991 coup in Russia.

Much the same can be said for Lyman and his bold disarmament plan. Sure, he’s doing his best to deal with Soviet perfidy but all he and the reader can be sure of is that they uncovered one Soviet gambit to break the treaty. That does not mean they know about all of them.

I am sure if this were published today (or if someone remade the film), there would be more fistfights, car crashes, and fiery explosions. This so-called thriller doesn’t even feature a rooftop fist fight between Lyman and Scott. Instead, Casey and Lyman’s subordinates fan out across the US and the world, looking for evidence2 and testing Scott’s allies to see which of them might be a weak link. The protagonists don’t even have the luxury of knowing there’s a conspiracy to uncover. All they have are strong suspicions and a nerve-racking lack of time. The authors eschew what Hitchcock called “surprise” in favour of copious suspense.

I would recommend that you consider buying the novel, but Seven Days in May is a nice example of the fleeting fame of even the biggest best sellers. As far as I can tell, Seven Days in May is out of print, eclipsed by the 1964 John Frankenheimer film of the same name.

Used copies of Seven Days in May may be available here (Amazon). I can see no Canadian source for this book. The movie is available here (Amazon) but again, not at Chapters-Indigo.

Feel free to comment here.

1: A Republican president who sacrifices himself for the good of the country may make this seem like the wildest of futures. In fact it’s just a lost past, a hint of what the Republicans used to be before Nixon snapped the more malevolent elements of American society away from the Democratic Party. The Republicans barely figure into the plot at all. To a fair degree Seven Days in May is a struggle between two factions within the Democratic Party.

2: In the course of the investigation, they stumble across a potentially career-ending tidbit: Scott’s mistress tried to deduct $3000 (close to $24,000 dollars in current dollars, depending on the inflation rate between 1962, when the book was written, and the 1970s, when it is set) of love-affair-related expenses from her taxes. Lyman is a painfully honourable man and he refuses the easy win because it’s a cheat. I am not 100% sure this is a guy you want as Head of State.


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