Though Fail-Safe is a book about technology and its imperfections (ones that can lead to disaster) the primary message is that human beings are the ones who control that technology and are responsible for the consequences of it. The backgrounds of the military men in the story are significant. Col. Cascio, a subordinate commander at the SAC (Strategic Air Command) base from which operations are directed, is a troubled man with dysfunctional parents. When Cascio's superior Gen. Bogan comes to the parents' apartment, Cascio's embarrassment is palpable. Bogan observes of Cascio's father that
He had the pinched, furtive, crabbed look of the long-time drunkard. He looked like an older, ruined version of his son. (30)
Cascio later loses his emotional control at the Command Center. The authors carefully sketch out the characters who take part in the story, all of whom come under the enormous stress of dealing with an apocalyptic situation. The President's translator Buck
was aware that the others in the division [ of OCS, Officer Candidate School] had reservations about him, and he knew why. Everyone else in the division was deeply interested not only in the Russian language, but in Russian politics, personalities, weaponry, economic conditions, and even Russian gossip. Buck did not conceal the fact that he was enormously bored with Russia. (18)
Yet his astonishing ability with languages puts him into the middle of a crisis in which the fate of the world is to be decided. Of the President, Buck observes,
Despite the President's toughness Buck had a lingering doubt about the man. Being the scion of a wealthy family, having easy access to politics, and marrying a beautiful woman did not, Buck thought, really equip him to deal with his adversary in the Soviet Union. (22)
The fictional President is, of course, modeled directly on the actual president at the time, John F. Kennedy.
What we see when the confrontation over the hot-line occurs is that the president and the Soviet premier are just two men, stuck in the circumstance of having to save the world from total destruction. Probably the most telling quote from the entire book occurs when the Soviet Premier reacts to the situation with the words
Holy Mother of God.
The irony is that the Soviet Union was officially an anti-religious state. But the expression underscores the basic message of the story that, regardless of our differences in ideology, we are all simply human.