I've been trying to work on a number of different historical projects lately. I know, I really should focus on just one. But I get distracted. Anyway, one of those projects has to do with feature films of the Cold War era. Here's a review of one of my favorites so far. Spoiler Alert! The first half of what follows is a full synopsis:
Seven Days in May
Directed by John Frankenheimer
Novel by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II
Screenplay by Rod Serling
Seven Arts Productions and Joel Productions
Seven Days in May begins with a riot in front of the White House. It's the late 1960s and U.S. President Jordan Lyman (Fredric March) has recently signed a nuclear disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union. Now, demonstrators for and against the treaty are coming to blows. The populace is afraid. The military-industrial complex feels betrayed. And the president’s approval rating has sunk to 29 percent.
In one of the opening scenes, the president talks with a sympathetic friend, Senator Raymond Clark (Edmond O’Brien). He explains his reason for making the pact. Sure, the U.S. could have maintained “a nice, cushy feeling that we’ve got a bomb for every one of theirs. But . . . there’d have come one day when they’d have blown us up, or we’d have blown them up.”
President Lyman’s most forceful opponent is Air Force General James Mattoon Scott (Burt Lancaster). The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Scott is a highly decorated war hero who never misses a chance to denounce the new treaty. In one scene, he tells a congressional panel, “There’s not a single piece of paper in history that’s ever served as a deterrent to a Pearl Harbor.” The next day, at a televised rally with thousands of veterans cheering him on, he rails against “the cynics, the one-worlders, the intellectual dilettantes,” those who believe that “patriotism is old-fashioned” and that “love of country is out-dated.”
Scott’s aide at the Pentagon is Marine Colonel “Jiggs” Casey (Kirk Douglas). Casey admires Scott and shares his mistrust of the Soviets. But unlike the outspoken general, Casey stays clear of any public criticism of the administration. A series of clues leads Casey to an uneasy suspicion about his boss, and he requests a meeting with the president. At the White House, Casey reports what he has recently seen and heard. Finally, when President Lyman presses him to speak candidly, the colonel tells him, “I’m suggesting, Mr. President, there’s a military plot to take over the government.”
The president regards the conspiracy theory as possible, and he calls together a small group of trusted aides and officials, including Casey, to investigate. Casey approaches Scott’s former mistress, Eleanor Holbrook (Ava Gardner). Though he is genuinely attracted to her, he visits Holbrook at her apartment in order to find out what she knows about the general. Casey leaves with a stack of love letters written by Scott, letters that can be used against him. The rest of the team discovers that General Scott is, in fact, planning a coup. The scheme is impressive. Scott has set up a clandestine military base near El Paso where unknowing troops are training for seizure. A scheduled alert exercise in a few days will serve as the pretext for mobilizing the military and isolating the president. The armed forces will commandeer nation-wide communications, including the television networks. Almost all of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a key member of the Senate, Frederick Prentice (Whit Bissell), are in on the plan. A popular television newsman, Harold McPherson (Hugh Marlowe) will manage the media in the replacement government.
At first, President Lyman intends to derail the conspiracy by exposing it. But General Scott’s team, well organized and determined, prevents the president from assembling the evidence he needs in order to make his case to the public. Then he learns that Scott has rescheduled the alert for late Saturday night, instead of Sunday morning. With time running out, the president phones the Pentagon and demands to see the general immediately. At the White House, Lyman confronts Scott, accuses him of treason, and demands his resignation. The general first denies the plan and then defends his motives. As he leaves, the president vows to fight him.
The next day as the president holds a televised press conference, he receives word that a key piece of evidence exposing the junta has been discovered. Soon, he reports that members of the Joint Chiefs have tendered their resignations. On hearing the news, General Scott tells his driver to take him home.
The film ends with President Lyman speaking to the nation. He declares that in spite of the negative national mood, “the whisperers, the detractors, the violent men are wrong.” The United States is still a strong nation, “strong enough to be a peacemaker.” It is still a proud nation, “proud enough to be patient.” He concludes with the rousing prophecy that “we will see a day when on this earth all men will walk out of the long tunnels of tyranny into the bright sunshine of freedom.” As he leaves the podium, the press corps stands and applauds.
One of the truly great movies depicting the Cold War, Seven Days in May captures so well what seems to have been its cultural context, the attitudes and the atmosphere in America at the time. In 1960, Nixon and Lodge, who nearly won the election, had used a slogan that could have been part of the script: “They Understand What Peace Demands.” Two years later, in October 1962, the Cuban missile crisis heightened the nation’s awareness that both the U.S. and the Soviet Union possessed a large arsenal of incredibly powerful nuclear weapons, and that even an accidental first strike would likely result in retaliation leading to full escalation. In 1964, the year the film was released, such fears were the basis of a clever response to a slogan used by the Republican presidential nominee. The Barry Goldwater campaign declared, “In Your Heart You Know He’s Right.” Supporters of Lyndon Johnson responded with, “In Your Heart You Know He Might.”
More than that, the film also editorializes by presenting a vision of the sort of Americans who can guide the nation to survival and even prosperity. The film “takes a side” in a vital debate during the Cold War. But it also attempts to make room for the opposing side. For example, during his televised press conference, President Lyman assures his hearers of their right to dissent. Viewers overhear him say:
Americans traditionally and historically have given vent to their views. On the date that this government does anything arbitrarily to stifle those views, it will have to change form. It will cease to be a democracy. And I can state quite frankly that this day will not come.
Earlier, when he faces off with the general, the president never suggests that his opponent’s militaristic views have no merit. Although he disagrees with Scott, Lyman does not debate the general’s position. What he objects to is Scott’s attempt to circumvent American rules and procedures. When General Scott professes “an abiding concern about the survival of this country,” President Lyman responds:
Then, by God, run for office! . . . You want to defend the United States of America. Then defend it using the tools it supplies you with, the Constitution. You ask for a mandate, General, from a ballot box. You don’t steal it after midnight, when the country has its back turned.
Colonel Casey, a third alternative, personifies a hawkish position that at the same time defends duly elected civilian authority. When the president meets with the colonel at the White House, he asks him what he thinks about General Scott’s militaristic views. Casey answers:
I agree with General Scott, Sir. I think we’re being played for suckers. I think it’s really your business, yours and the Senate. You did it and they agreed. So, well, I don’t see how we in the military can question it. I mean, we can question it, but we can’t fight it. . . . We shouldn’t anyway.
From the vantage point of the film, Lyman and Casey are ideal Americans. They are strong enough to act responsibly and to show respect even while they believe that they are in the right and that others are wrong. Seven Days in May seems to assume that strength and purity of character combined with uniquely-American institutions will always generate a way for the United States to prevail. Thus, the film reflects and encourages the values of that religion or folk philosophy that has been called "Americanism."
Farber, David, and Bailey, Beth. Columbia Guide to America in the 1960s. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.
The Internet Movie Database. “Seven Days in May (1964).” http://www.imdb.com/ title/tt0058576/