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.
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....
(The entire section is 1,743 words.)