Saturday, 26 October 2013

Seven Days in May by Knebel and Bailey - Book Review

Seven Days in May is a thriller that was published in the U.S. in September 1962. Then it was a work of contemporary fiction working through a scenario in which a group of senior military chiefs plot to remove the President because of his decision to sign a controversial nuclear arms pact with the Soviet Union. Seven Days in May is a good read for two reasons. 
First, it's an enjoyable fast-moving page turner in the Flemming tradition: can a small band of Presidential loyalists thwart the efforts of the U.S. military might hell-bent on sedition? (No spoilers here).
Secondly, and much more interestingly, was the impact year the novel had when it was published. Although the authors place the events of Seven Days in May in (the future) 1973, there is little doubt that the novel was a commentary on the precariousness of the situation in which JFK found himself in 1961-2. Indeed, JFK's military chiefs had expressed concerns about his handling of the Bay of Pigs (April 1961) and the Cold War was heading for the Cuban Missile (October 1962). According to Thurston Clarke, 
Knebel got the idea [for the novel] from an interview with Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay shortly after the Bay of Pigs. LeMay was still furious with Kennedy for refusing to provide air support for the Cuban rebels, and after going off the record accused him of cowardice. Knebel also found inspiration in a 1962 conversation with Secretary of the Navy John Connally. With LeMay's remarks fresh in his mind, Knebel had turned the conversation to the military's unhappiness with the president. Connally acknowledged that some of his admirals disliked taking orders from teh New Frontiersman, and felt that they could express themselves politically. Later in the Conversation Connally mused that the atomic bomb had created the conditions in which "the U.S. might unwittingly be laying the groundwork for a military dictatorship."    (JFK's last Hundred Days, 2013 p.95)
Kennedy read Seven Days in May when it was published and it struck a chord. His private conversations at the time indicated that he himself had considered the possibility of a military coup and, on one occasion, even went so far as to name some generals at the Pentagon who he thought "might hanker to duplicate fiction" (Bergquist and Tretick A Very Special President, 1965, p.15). It is likely to have played on his mind all the more when, in 1963, he, like President Lyman in the novel, embarked on negotiations with the Russian Premier (over  the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty) and then had to battle to persuade both Congress and the military of its good sense.
Kennedy was enthusiastic about plans to make the novel into a movie and even went away on a long weekend to allow for the shooting of crowd scenes around the White House. He thought that it would serve "as a warning to the Republic" and hoped it would "raise the consciousness about the problems involved if the generals got out of control" (Schlesinger Robert Kennedy and His Times, 1978, p.450). The movie of Seven Days in May, starring Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas and Ava Gardner was released in February 1964.
Seven Days in May is an easy entertaining read, but it also has importance in the impact that it had in shaping ideas in wider U.S. society about the relationship between the Presidency, the military and the Constitution.

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