Seven Days in May

Hard to believe that it is half a century since the film Seven Days in May (1964) was released.  Directed by John Frankenheimer with a screenplay by Rod Serling based on a novel published in 1962, the movie posits a failed coup attempt in the United States, with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Air Force General James Mattoon Scott, played by Burt Lancaster, being the would be coup leader.  Kirk Douglas plays Scott’s aide Marine Corps Colonel Martin Casey who, while agreeing with Scott that President Jordan Lyman’s nuclear disarmament treaty with the Soviets is a disaster, is appalled when he learns of the proposed coup, and discloses it to the President, portrayed by Frederic March.

The film is an example of liberal paranoia in the early sixties and fears on the port side of our politics of a coup by some “right wing” general.  The film is unintentionally hilarious if one has served in our military, since the idea of numerous generals agreeing on a coup and keeping it secret, even from their own aides, is simply ludicrous.  Our military leaks like a sieve, and general officers almost always view each other as competitors for political favor, rather than as co-conspirators.

Ironies abound when the film is compared to reality:

The film is set in the 1970s.  Richard Nixon, the arch bogeyman of liberals, negotiated SALT I with the Soviets in 1972, with not a murmur from the military.

Rather than a war mongering military opposed by a pacifist President, in 1964 LBJ, the great liberal hope, was gearing up the war in Vietnam, in the face of a fair amount of skepticism by admirals and generals.

The film received encouragement from the Kennedy administration, JFK, having read the novel.  When asked by a friend if such a coup as depicted in the novel could happen, Kennedy replied:

“It’s possible. But the conditions would have to be just right. If the country had a young President, and he had a Bay of Pigs, there would be a certain uneasiness. Maybe the military would do a little criticizing behind his back. Then if there were another Bay of Pigs, the reaction of the country would be, ‘Is he too young and inexperienced?’ The military would almost feel that it was their patriotic obligation to stand ready to preserve the integrity of the nation and only God knows just what segment of Democracy they would be defending if they overthrew the elected establishment. Then, if there were a third Bay of Pigs it could happen. It won’t happen on my watch.”

While the film was in production a coup against a civilian government by that country’s military did happen, President Diem of South Vietnam being murdered in the process, and JFK helping to instigate the coup.

The film itself isn’t bad, Lancaster, Douglas and March giving fine performances.  An interesting artifact of Cold War liberal paranoia in an entertaining package.

More to explorer


  1. I remember reading the book as a teenager. One thing that struck me about it was that it seemed to not regard American society as very resilient. As I recall, the conspirators set up a secret base in the New Mexico desert and train a unit there to take over the five locations on American soil that will allow them to impose a military government. Five!

    The novel too was set in the 1970’s. It totally missed the Sino-Soviet split (Allen Drury’s novel Advice and Consent was a much more accurate predictor in this regard), and so it did not predict the end of the U.S. opposition to Korean-Vietnam ‘wars of liberation’. As I recall a North Iran – South Iran war was just winding down in the novel; it was presented as a fact of life.

    Don, I don’t think that LBJ really received much opposition from his generals on Vietnam, not in the sense that they wanted to avoid it. My recollection of the history is that Matt Ridgeway did a study at the time of the Battle of Dien Bien Phu which showed that victory in Vietnam would take the allocation of 2 million men for 20 years. Eisenhower read the study (he knew how to, after all) and thus resisted pressure to intervene. Ten years later the only military misgivings were over White House decisions on Laotian and Cambodian sanctuaries, slow bombing escalations, and micromanagement (in all of which the military was correct, BTW).

    I think that a liberal society (and we are that in the classical sense of the word) does need to once in awhile to engage in this fantasy, as long as we realize that is what it is. There is a good scene in the novel which I don’t think made it into the movie, where General Scott has been confronted by the President and admits to the conspiracy, and justifies it due to the latest Soviet treaty-breaking. The president asks the general what he would do as president, the general takes charge and creates a list of action items, and then the president shows the general his list: it is virtually the same. This exchange was perhaps the major factor in getting the general to back down.

    In the novel the generals are not fascists, they are just classical liberals gone bad, good conservative men made desperate by seemingly desperate times. Rewrite for today’s deranged audiences and you would get fascists, and the commies would probably be the good guys in cloaks. It is still possible to see the novel with a certain nostalgia.

  2. “Don, I don’t think that LBJ really received much opposition from his generals on Vietnam, not in the sense that they wanted to avoid it.”

    Typical of the skepticism of the generals was Lyman Lemnitzer who was chairman of the joint chiefs until 1962. He did not want to commit ground troops to Vietnam unless all assets were on the table including nukes.

    Many generals suspected that Vietnam would be a half hearted effort as it turned out to be. While they were fighting it they fought to win, but most of them had few illusions that the administration back in Washington was willing to do what it would take to win.

  3. I recall that Admiral Arthur Radford wanted nukes on the table for the possible 1954 intervention. Matt Ridgeway didn’t think much of it. The JCS went through a similar debate during the Chinese intervention in Korea, with Omar Bradley saying “what if they just keep coming?” Properly dispersed, mass infantry units would have not been particularly affected by the blast effects of the early atomic weapons, and such units would still have been combat effective until the delayed radiation effects set in. Of course, this all changed with thermonuclear weapons, so Lemnitzer was more justified than Radford was. But there was still an element in the U.S. military that viewed nuclear weapons as a terror weapon that was closely tied to the Japanese experience, and this element was afraid that if the weapons were used in different settings with different results the fear of them among U.S. adversaries might diminish.

    Another interesting story is General George Marshall’s reaction to the immediate aftermath of the Nagasaki bombing. Marshall concluded that the first two bombs had been wasted because the Japanese government had still not surrendered. He advised against dropping the third bomb (the core was being readied for shipment) on a city and favored saving them for tactical use in the invasion. A week later, of course, events proved Marshall’s judgment to have been premature. See for more details.

  4. Don

    The quote I remember from the novel, the guard refusing entrance to an unauthorized person. “PFC is not a policy level position.”

    The plot is rather hackneyed, but presented a place for starting discussions.

    The way the US military is set up, except for self selection, officers are recruited form all across the political spectrum. While there would be little support anywhere, my unscientific observant ones who would be most likely to object strongly to a coup attempt are politically conserative.

  5. “ones who would be most likely to object strongly to a coup attempt are politically conservative.”

    They would tend to be the ones who take an oath to the Constitution most seriously. In addition everyone in the military has the concept of civilian control of the military drummed into them. I remember in Army ROTC training that was part of lesson one on the first day.

  6. What I could perceive happening is that Obama could invent a self-inflicted coup against himself and his administration and then use the honest American citizen to raise him up.

  7. There is a story that Nixon met with the Joint Chiefs a few weeks before he resigned, and in a very roundabout way attempted to feel them out on supporting him in office in a post-impeachment trial situation, which in effect would have been a passive coup. Apparently the Chief’s commitment to civilian rule plus Nixon’s evasive language caused the comments to go right over their heads. One Chief did pick up on the feeler and later, outraged, brought it up with his fellows. The rest said, no, Nixon never said such a thing. It’s hard to say whether there is much truth to this story, but if true it again shows the U.S. military’s true commitment to the American constitutional order. They couldn’t even see a coup plot unless their noses were rubbed in it.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: