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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 215

Fail-Safe , by Eugene Burdick, tells a chilling story of nuclear warfare in the age of the Cold War, and it begins with the discovery of a security crisis. The President has gotten word of an unidentified flying object over Alaska, and concerned with the threat of a nuclear attack,...

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Fail-Safe, by Eugene Burdick, tells a chilling story of nuclear warfare in the age of the Cold War, and it begins with the discovery of a security crisis. The President has gotten word of an unidentified flying object over Alaska, and concerned with the threat of a nuclear attack, American bombers and fighter planes have been deployed to thwart the attack and are heavily loaded with nuclear weapons. One group of six bombers flies past what is called the fail-safe point, a designated point in the sky that the bombers cannot cross without specific orders. The bombers crossed the fail-safe point because a technical glitch sent orders to the group’s commander to bomb Moscow, although the White House is unaware that this happened.

After an attempt to shoot down the bombers fails, the president contacts Premier Khrushchev, and the Americans and Russians together destroy four of the bombers in an attempt to prevent nuclear war. Two bombers, however, get through to Moscow, and the Americans are unable to stop what appears to be a certain nuclear attack. The American President informs Khrushchev that, to avoid global nuclear war, if Moscow is bombed, he will bomb New York. Both actions are carried out. Global nuclear war is thwarted, but Moscow and New York are destroyed.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1382

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 afterburners—effectively ordering them on a suicide mission, since the fighters will burn up all their fuel reaching the bombers, leaving them unable to return to their base.

Cascio is uncomfortable with the president’s decision and argues with Bogan, wasting valuable seconds. Meanwhile, the president calls the Pentagon and asks Swenson and his group to figure out what should be done if the fighters cannot shoot down the bombers. They set up a conference call with Omaha. Cascio feels the situation is a Soviet trick, despite the fact that surveillance can find no evidence of aggressive action by the Soviets. Groteschele thinks the Soviets, having more to lose in a war, would surrender if attacked because they know that the United States has a system of Doomsday tapes that will allow U.S. missiles to retaliate against them even if everyone in the United States is killed.

The big board displays the action as the Skyscraper fighters shoot at the bombers, fail to bring them down, and then—their fuel spent—crash into the sea. Raskob knows Khrushchev will have no choice but to retaliate from a nuclear attack. Swenson tells the president that they are sure that two of the Vindicators will be able to make it through all Soviet defenses.

The president then calls Premier Khrushchev. He tries to convince the premier that the attacking bombers are not following his orders. Some of the premier’s advisers think the president’s call is a trick and that they should retaliate. Both sides agree to set up a second conference line between SAC and its Russian counterpart.

With conflicting feelings, the Americans watch seventy Soviet fighters try to intercept Group Six. The Russians shoot down two Vindicators but lose sixty-five of their fighters. Khrushchev calls, and again the president tries to convince the premier of his sincerity. Khrushchev tells the president he will call again, once he is a safe distance from Moscow. The president then calls General Black, asking him if he remembers the story of Abraham. He orders Black to Andrews Air Force Base.

The president, the premier’s personal staff, Bogan, Nevsky, the American ambassador to Moscow, and the Soviet delegate to the United Nations join a conference call. The president orders Bogan to communicate with Marshal Nevsky to coordinate efforts in shooting down the remaining Vindicators. The president hangs up. Cascio refuses to answer Nevsky’s questions. Cascio still does not trust the Soviets and argues that the military command should override the president. The president calls back and asks if the remaining Vindicators will break radio silence as they near their target. Bogan says that they will.

Nevsky asks for the position of the three remaining planes. Just as Bogan begins to answer him, Cascio strikes him with a heavy ashtray. Cascio takes command of the war room. At the same time, Grady breaks radio silence. The president orders Grady to abort the mission. Grady ignores him, thinking it is a trick. Cascio’s mutinous command is short lived, as two Air Force guards take him into custody. Bogan gives the Vindicator positions to Nevsky, but valuable time has been lost.

Bogan tells Nevsky to ignore Vindicator Six, as it is a defensive plane carrying no bombs. Nevsky ignores the advice. Through a last-ditch diversionary move, Vindicator Six sacrificially draws off the Soviet fighters, while the other two remaining bombers fly as close to the ground as possible. Realizing the bombers will now make it through to Moscow, Nevsky collapses and Koniev takes over. Koniev decides to fire nuclear missiles at the Vindicators, hoping to take them out before they can reach Moscow. Grady launches his remaining air-to-air missiles straight up as decoys. The ruse works, as the Soviet missiles strike the American missiles instead of the bombers. However, the crew is fatally irradiated by the nearby explosions. Since they cannot survive long anyway, the bomber’s crewmen decide the best way to assure the success of their mission is to fly low and detonate their bombs inside their planes.

Back at the White House bomb shelter, a conference line is set up between the president, Khrushchev, the American ambassador to Moscow, and the Soviet delegate to the United Nations. The president proposes to Khrushchev that to prevent all-out war, as soon as the ambassador’s phone shrieks—indicating that it has melted in a nuclear blast—he will order a SAC squadron to drop the same number of nuclear bombs on New York City that were dropped on Moscow. Each country will have lost an important city, but each country will survive. Khrushchev is shocked but accepts the plan. The Vindicators make it to Moscow and detonate their bombs. The president orders Black to bomb New York City, where Black’s family lives and the president’s wife is visiting. Black tells his crew that he will handle the bombing alone. After dropping the bombs, he kills himself with his suicide kit.

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