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.