The death of Kirk Douglas this week sent me searching through scores of his movies to see which ones were streaming online. This morning I downloaded my favorite, Seven Days in May, and watched it over coffee on my tablet.
The 1964 film, based on the novel of the same name by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II, was directed by John Frankenheimer and written by Rod Serling. It starred Burt Lancaster as a charismatic four-star general and Kirk Douglas as the Marine colonel who serves as the General’s loyal aide.
In both the book and the movie, President Jordan Lyman (Fredric March) has signed a disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union that would dismantle the nuclear arsenals on both sides. The treaty has alarmed the military industrial complex and right wing politicians who don’t trust the Russians, and the president’s public approval ratings have plummeted. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General James Matoon Scott (Lancaster), enlists the support of the Joint Chiefs to organize a secret exercise to overthrow the president. The plot is detected by Colonel “Jiggs” Casey (Douglas) who reports it to the President. For the next several days, the President and his aides work feverishly to gather proof of the plot so the President has sufficient grounds to fire the treasonous plotters.
It’s probably not a spoiler to report that in the end the coup is averted. Lancaster, March, and Douglas are superb, and so is the supporting cast: Ava Gardner, Martin Balsom, and Edmond O’Brien. There’s even a cameo appearance by the legendary John Houseman who plays a Navy admiral who refuses to support the coup. When I saw the movie in 1964, I thought Ava Gardner looked old. When I saw it again this morning, my view had changed dramatically. (What the hell was wrong with me, apart from being 18 at the time?)
President John F. Kennedy read the book in a single night in 1963, according to his friend Paul B. Faye, then under secretary of the Navy. Faye asked the president if he thought anything like the fictional coup could happen in real life.
“It’s possible,” Kennedy said, Faye reported in his biography of JFK. “It could happen in this country, but the conditions would have to be just right. If, for example, 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, but this would be written off as the usual military dissatisfaction with civilian control. 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.”
In real life the Air Force general who abhorred the president was Curtis E. LeMay who was furious when Kennedy refused to allow air support for the abortive Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961. But in real life there was no planned overthrow of the sitting president – unless you believe that is what happened on November 22, 1963.
When I re-watched the movie this morning, I found it more than a little disturbing. Here was a Cold War thriller that illuminated the times through which we boomers lived – times when the threat of nuclear war was constant, and when there was always a danger that the generals would push us to the brink.
What disturbed me was the film’s unintentional reminder of how much our times have changed.
In 1964, there was a possibility that the generals might be tempted by a weak president to thwart the Constitution and civilian authority.
In 2020 we have the opposite scenario: a wildly mercurial president who threatens belligerent nations with preemptive nuclear attacks while dismissing the horrified generals as “a bunch of dopes and babies.”
The Cold War may have been scary. But, in many respects, not as scary as the fourth year of the Trump administration.