The principal characters of Fail-Safe are as follows:
General Black. He is the pilot tasked with carrying out the bombing of New York City, in order to demonstrate to the Soviets that the attack ordered against them was an accident. By doing this, he knows that his wife, in New York, will be killed, and he commits suicide after the bombing is completed.
The US President. Though he is not named, he is very obviously modeled on the actual president at the time, John F. Kennedy.
Buck. The president's translator, who translates Russian for him during the hot-line conversation with the Soviet premier.
The Soviet Premier. At the time of the novel's publication, most readers would have pictured him as Nikita Khrushchev, the premier in the 1950s and early 1960s.
General Bogan. The commander of the SAC (Strategic Air Command) center at Omaha, NE, from which the air attack against the Soviet Union has mistakenly been launched.
Colonel Cascio. A subordinate commander at SAC who goes berserk and attempts to take over the operation of recalling the bombers attacking the Soviets.
Dr. Groteschele. A civilian advisor at the Pentagon. He suggests that if no additional action is taken and the bombers are not stopped in their attack, the Soviets will surrender, and the threat of world communism will be ended.