(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Peter Buck goes to work at his office at the White House. It is an ordinary day until the red phone, which has never rung before, rings. The president is on the phone, requesting Buck’s immediate presence at the White House bomb shelter.

Meanwhile, at the Strategic Air Command (SAC) war room, General Bogan and Colonel Cascio are giving a tour to Congressman Raskob and Mr. Gordon Knapp. Bogan explains to his visitors how the room works, including explaining the Big Board, which projects large maps indicating the movements of submarines, ships, and airplanes. Suddenly, the war room goes to Condition Blue: An unidentified flying object (UFO) is heading toward the United States from the Soviet Union. Six squadrons of six Vindicator nuclear bombers each are ordered to their fail-safe positions.

Bogan explains the fail-safe system to Raskob: It is meant to ensure that retaliatory measures will be taken against a Soviet first strike, even if the strike destroys all U.S. command and control capabilities. Raskob worries about mistakes triggering a war, but Cascio reassures him the system is foolproof. However, in a neighboring room, a small capacitor in Fail-Safe Activating Mechanism number six blows out unnoticed. The UFO turns out to be an off-course commercial jet with engine trouble, and the alert is cancelled. Five of the Vindicator squadrons turn back from their fail-safe positions. Because of the capacitor malfunction, Vindicator Group Six continues to fly toward Moscow.

Buck leaves his office and joins the president and his staff in the White House bomb shelter. In Omaha, Bogan and Cascio place the war room at Condition Red. At various U.S. bases, bombers, fighter jets, and ballistic missiles are prepared for action.

In New York City, General Black awakes from a recurring nightmare in which he is a bull being flayed alive. He flies to Washington to attend a briefing at the Pentagon with the secretary of defense and Professor Groteschele. During the flight, he recalls a cocktail party the night before where Professor Groteschele argued to Emmett Foster, editor of Liberal Magazine, that a nuclear war could be winnable. Foster countered that peace is the only way for humanity to survive. Black thinks nuclear war is inevitable.

In Bomber Group Six, Colonel Grady receives the fail-safe signal. He unseals the group’s orders and learns that their target is Moscow. He attempts to verify the fail-safe signal with Omaha, but finds that his communications are being jammed. This causes Grady to believe that the Soviets are attacking.

Black enters the Pentagon’s big board room for the scheduled briefing. They discuss the fail-safe system and different nuclear attack scenarios. Groteschele worries that the Soviets may be able to move their missiles into space, which could reduce the reaction time to a Soviet attack to a level impossible for humans to achieve. However, everyone in the room ignores him, because the big board is indicating Condition Blue. Shocked, they watch as a U.S. bomber group flies past its fail-safe point. The president calls Omaha and orders Skyscraper fighter planes to go after the bombers. Unfortunately, the fighters had turned back after the all-clear was given and may now be too far from the Vindicators to overtake them. The president orders Bogan to tell the Skyscrapers to use their...

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(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Further Reading

Hook, Sidney. The Fail-Safe Fallacy. New York: Stein & Day, 1963. Criticizes the plot and arguments of Burdick and Wheeler’s novel.

Lipschutz, Ronnie D. Cold War Fantasies: Film, Fiction, and Foreign Policy. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001. Discusses dominant Cold War literary and cinematic conventions and narratives, as well as the foreign policy of the period.

Piette, Adam. The Literary Cold War, 1945-Vietnam: Sacrificial Logic and Paranoid Plotlines. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009. Survey of the subgenre of Cold War fiction, placing Fail-Safe’s thematic interests in both sacrifice and paranoia in their cultural and historical context.

Seed, David. “Military Machines and Nuclear Accident: Burdick and Wheeler’s Fail-Safe.” War, Literature, and the Arts 6, no. 1 (March, 1994): 21-40. Excellent beginner’s source for discussion of Fail-Safe. Places the novel within the political context of the time. Examines literary influences on the novel. Analyzes structure and themes.