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Fail Safe

A book by Eugene Burdick

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Cold War Archeological dig

  • Apr 17, 2011
I previously read and reviewed Little Big Man, which might seem to have no connection to a slim novel of Cold War paranoia about accidental nuclear war, except these:

1.  Both books I read as a high school student and remembered them as classics, so i was curious how my 50+ self would feel about these same books reread decades later.  Little Big Man struck me as not as comic, perhaps, but more deeply serious.  See my thoughts on Fail-Safe below.

2.  I bought both in original paperbacks at the same book sale recently, and I was struck at the similarity and differences of the editions.  The 1964 Little Big Man was $1.25 cover price, and included an ISBN.  The 1962 Fail Safe was only 75 cents, and had no ISBN.   Both books carried on the last page a list of other bestsellers available by mail order from their publisher, but the 1962 "handling and postage" price was only 10 cents, not the 15 cents required only two years later.  Even at such ridiculously low prices, inflation was creeping in.

3.  Both were made into "major motion pictures".  I mentioned in my review of Little Big Man that the only indication of this was the inclusion of a still from the movie of Dustin Hoffman in the title character role, but on both the front and back of the Fail Safe the movie is mentioned--above the title on the front, and with two stills from the movie on the back.  

So, what is Fail-Safe, and how does it read today?  Frankly it hasn't survived well as a novel because from its original intent it was basically framed as an argument starter summarizing the hawk (use nuclear weapons first to win the next war no matter the consequences) and the dove (never use nuclear weapons under any circumstances) positions.  At this point in history, after the breakup of the Soviet Union and in the midst of a twenty-year pattern of nearly-continuous war in the Middle East, not only were these two positions both proven wrong, but they were proven based on faulty assumptions

1).  The enemy would always be communist Russia.  In fact, the United States under the brilliant political leadership of Ronald Reagan, drove Russia to collapse economically, not militarily--a positive outcome, but perhaps to the long-term detriment of peace and prosperity in the world/.  In its place as "The Other" now stand an array of nations which war with each other, with the prosperous economies of the world, and with the United States as the representative of the imperialist arrogant capitalists.  While not characterized by the quick-strike devastation assumed by Fail-Safe, it is quite possible that the aggregate affect and devastation may be greater.

2).  The next war would certainly be nuclear, and probably be the last.  Sadly, it has been proven that human beings will fight with every weapon at their hands, whether rocks, guns, tanks, or missiles--even if nuclear weapons aren't involved.  The assumption that the biggest weapon in the arsenal would always be used, that it would render the world mostly if not completely unlivable, and that it would cure mankind of war forever, has been conclusively proven false.

So Fail-Safe really reads like Cold War archeology, and doesn't stand up well as a novel.  The scenario is that an equipment malfunction not caught because a casual conversation distracted the human oversight (the readers know this by the way, but the decision makers do not, and just to make sure we get the point, the authors provide this information in italics) has triggered a flight of bombers loaded with nuclear weapons on a path to Moscow.  Every attempt to turn back the bombers fails because of "fail-safes" built into the system.

Along the way, Burdick and Wheeler are able to frame the arguments from every possible angle:  
  • hawk vs dove
  • career politician vs. career military
  • industry vs. government
  • male vs. female
  • Washington political insider  vs. New York academic ivory tower
  • American culture and language vs. Russian culture and language

The result is not bad, but dated, like an archeological artifact that no longer has a purpose in today's world, but provides a lesson in how people used to live.  And the novel certainly reads quickly.  In fact, it might perhaps have value to the younger generation of readers (say under 40) today, who never lived through this period of history.  

Another necessary part of the education of this generation on the paranoias we faced then can be had at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base Air Museum, a fascinating museum.  But when I visited there about a decade ago the most chilling exhibits were the train car and the tractor and trailer, each with a missile and launcher on it.  Early in the Reagan administration, the proposal was floated, but finally defeated to have nuclear weapons loaded on these vehicles and kept in constant motion on the roads and railways across the US so that Russia would not know where to attack to destroy our first-strike capability!  Fail-Safe is a reminder that this grim and haunting environment was once the world we lived in.

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April 18, 2011
Probably won't want to read this one, but I enjoyed your review.
About the reviewer
Todd Stockslager ()
Ranked #36
I love reading and writing about what I have read, making the connections and marking the comparisons and contrasts. God has given man the amazing power to invent language and the means to record it which … more
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About this book


Something has gone wrong. A group of American bombers armed with nuclear weapons is streaking past the fail-safe point, beyond recall, and no one knows why. Their destination -- Moscow.

In a bomb shelter beneath the White House, the calm young president turns to his Russian translator and says, "I think we are ready to talk to Premier Kruschchev." Not far away, in the War Room at the Pentagon, the secretary of defense and his aides watch with growing anxiety as the luminous blips crawl across a huge screen map. High over the Bering Strait in a large Vindicator bomber, a colonel stares in disbelief at the attack code number on his fail-safe box and wonders if it could possibly be a mistake.

First published in 1962, when America was still reeling from the Cuban missle crisis, Fail-Safe reflects the apocalyptic attitude that pervaded society during the height of the Cold War, when disaster could have struck at any moment. As more countries develop nuclear capabilities and the potential for new enemies lurks on the horizon, Fail-Safe and its powerful issues continue to respond.

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ISBN-10: 088001654X
Author: Eugene Burdick
Publisher: Harper Perennial

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