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Something has gone wrong. A group of American bombers armed with nuclear weapons is streaking past the fail-safe point, beyond recall, and no one knows why. Their destination—Moscow.

In a bomb shelter beneath the White House, the calm young president turns to his Russian translator and says, "I think we are ready to talk to Premier Kruschchev." Not far away, in the War Room at the Pentagon, the secretary of defense and his aides watch with growing anxiety as the luminous blips crawl across a huge screen map. High over the Bering Strait in a large Vindicator bomber, a colonel stares in disbelief at the attack code number on his fail-safe box and wonders if it could possibly be a mistake.

First published in 1962, when America was still reeling from the Cuban missile crisis, Fail-Safe reflects the apocalyptic attitude that pervaded society during the height of the Cold War, when disaster could have struck at any moment. As more countries develop nuclear capabilities and the potential for new enemies lurks on the horizon, Fail-Safe and its powerful issues continue to respond.

288 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1962

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About the author

Eugene Burdick

33 books23 followers
Eugene Burdick was an American Political Scientist and co-author of The Ugly American (1958), Fail-Safe (1962) and The 480 (1965).

He was born in Sheldon, Iowa. His family moved to Los Angeles, California, when he was age 4. Burdick attended Stanford University and Oxford University where he earned a Ph.D. degree in psychology, and he worked at the department of Political Science at the University of California. In 1956, his critically acclaimed novel The Ninth Wave, a Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship winner, was published. At the end of the 1950s, he was among the first members of the Society for General Systems Research. He died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 46.

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Profile Image for Jeffrey Keeten.
Author 3 books248k followers
October 7, 2020
“The world is no longer man's theatre. Man has been made into a helpless spectator. The two evil forces he has created- science and the state- have combined into one monstrous body. We're at the mercy of our monster...”

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The Big Board from the 1964 movie.

As I was making my way through the public school system in the 1970s, they were still doing duck and cover drills. In retrospect, of course, these drills were absolutely worthless except as an effective way of convincing all of us that our lives were dangling at the fingertips of madmen. Getting under our desks and covering our heads with our hands as a way to survive an atomic blast is about as effective as holding up a tissue in front of a speeding bullet heading towards our heart.

It took me years and much reading on my own to undo most of the brainwashing that was just part of our normal psychotic relationship with the Soviet Union. My impression of Russians were that they were deranged lunatics and that our strong military was the only thing standing between them and world domination.

The Cold War.

The Nuclear Weapon Buildup.

Gazillions of dollars were spent by both countries. Paranoia was behind the wheel with the gas pedal mashed to the floor. Both militaries used inflated numbers of the other’s strengths to keep blackmailing their politicians for more and more money.

This book came out in 1962. The timing could not have been better. The Cuban Missile Crisis in that same year gave the world a very genuine taste of what had previously just been academic conjecture.

The end of the world was very real.

This book was an instant best seller. The copy I appropriated from the library was a fifteenth printing. I’m sure it went into many more printings than that. Frankly, the book depicts a terrifying scenario. Being a child of The Cold War, it certainly pressed all the right buttons for me. To those who have grown up with illusions of safety, it is ludicrous for most of them to even think that something as crazy as a Nuclear Exchange could ever happen. To those who don’t understand the historical significance of this novel, they could think this scenario to be...well... unbelievable. To those of us who lived through it and felt the haunting spectre of war hovering over every international crisis, this book confirms every worse fear that we experienced while living in a nuclear unstable world.

In the book they talk a lot about Fail-Safe. ”Fail-safe means that a device will not endanger lives or property when it fails.” The plot begins with a blown fuse that sends an errant message to a bomber group hovering in the designated “Fail-Safe” area. Computers have replaced men, and protocols are in place that are based off those same paranoias that sustained the whole Cold War. Once the GO signal is given it is almost impossible to stop the process from proceeding.

I watched the excellent 1964 movie right after reading the book. Being a natural optimist, even though I knew the ending from the book, I was still hoping for an eleventh hour reprieve. The book and the movie (it follows the book very closely) both left me shaken. The decisions of the world leaders, I can guarantee, will shock and surprise you. The book is compelling especially in the last hundred pages, but the movie might even be more so from start to finish. The dark, stark black and white footage lends a feeling of desolation to the actions of the characters. The director snaps close ups of eyes widening, of sweat glistening on skin, and of lips saying words that are devastating in their impact.

One of the more interesting and abhorrent characters in the book is Professor Groteschele (played very well by Walter Matthau in the movie), who shares end of the world scenarios at cocktail parties with the intention of leaving those listening to him shocked and disturbed. The prospect of war is a punchline for him.

”Knowing you have to die, imagine how fantastic and magical it would be to have the power to take everyone else with you.” Groteschele said. “The swarms of them out there, the untold billions of them, the ignorant masses of them, the beautiful ones, the artful ones, the friends, the enemies...all of them and their plans and hopes. And they are murderees: born to be murdered and don’t know it. And the person with his finger on the button is the one who knows and who can do it.”

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Walter Matthau conveys smug very well.

He is smug in his objectivity. War is a series of calculations that ignore the human cost as long as more of us survive than those who oppose us. When soldiers follow orders, even immoral orders, they have to become less than human. Groteschele fears our best intentions the most. ”'What frightened us was not so much the madman problem, ' Groteschele was saying, 'but its opposite: at the last moment someone might refuse to drop the bombs. A single act of revulsion could foil the whole policy of graduated deterrents.'”

With six United States Vindicator bombers flying towards Moscow with a large enough payload of atomic bombs to wipe six cities the size of Moscow off the map, the tension continues to ratchet up as the President tries to keep Nikita Khrushchev, The Soviet Premier, from launching all out war.

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Henry Fonda as the President in the movie.

It may have just been an accident, a horrible accident, but still with paranoia flowing freely it is difficult for both sides to convince themselves that this is not just a trick perpetrated to create an advantage in war. Everyone involved is trying to decide what exactly is true and what is subterfuge. As the bombers approach Moscow, the President orders his military advisors to tell the Russians the weaknesses in the Vindicator’s defenses. ”General Bogan felt his finger tips shaking against his trousers. He felt for a moment as if he were being exposed to some strange torture; some spikelike split of his allegiance; some rupturing of his life.”

As the Vindicator planes score victories, it is hard for the United States military men not to cheer, even though the fate of the world rests on the ability of the Russians to shoot all the planes down. The ballooning tension kept my gut churning and my mind spinning with all the potential outcomes. The ending was not what I expected at all. The book was good. The movie was even better. I felt like the experience was enhanced by reading the book and watching the movie, but I would highly recommend anyone who is interested in this era or fascinated by human behavior under pressure to, at the very least, watch the movie.

If you wish to see more of my most recent book and movie reviews, visit http://www.jeffreykeeten.com
I also have a Facebook blogger page at:https://www.facebook.com/JeffreyKeeten
Profile Image for Fergus, Quondam Happy Face.
1,029 reviews17.7k followers
August 9, 2023
Last Night, I told a friend how this 1962 still-very-relevant bestseller chilled me to the marrow of my young bones when I was 12.

My memory being best likened to a plastic veggie colander in my dotage, my younger friend corrected me on the details of the fiendishly cool, inhuman plot.

Even now an Arctic wind slices my self-composure!

So I'm not going to divulge any details on that too-plausible plot, for you may still chance upon a loose copy in your shopping trips.
"Aflatus and deflatus..."

This morning I read an incisive book review in the New Yorker about Cormac McCarthy's two recent novels, and those two Latin words were used to describe McCarthy's dominant literary personas.

The first means a literary ego that is expansive. That's our more Assertive ego.

The second means McCarthy's ego also sometimes deflates for long periods. The contrite ego.

But doesn't that apply to us all?

It did for me when my friend reminded me how Fail-Safe ends.

Yikes. "Blow, blow, thou Winter Wind" as the Bard puts it! Why do we let our thrillers spirit our souls away to such dark places? Dunno, but we all do it.

Deflating into my own dark side got me into heaps of trouble when I was younger, and I no longer want to go there. But today I saw a way out...

Did you hear of that self-produced Prince Harry-Megan Markle series on Netflix? Well they can't yet Heal, because their assertive ego gets in the way of their non assertive healing - just like the rest of us.

So they risk a very political suicide, like Samson in the temple.

But the ego is foreign to the natural world. Self-protection? Maybe. But animals forgive and forget. They live in the Pure Present! And thus they are emotionally healed quickly.

Now, I thank Heaven for the nonassertive present-tense small miracles wrought by our great writers, such as McCarthy. Literature is one of those rare priceless benefits - an exotic orchid, perhaps - of our civilization.
But Burdick and Wheeler?

Mere capitalizing on JFK's unflinching standoffs with Krushchev, maybe... and a money grab. Assertive Ego.

And a Trip Down the Garden Path to our own Worst Dark Fears.

Three Very Dim Stars, folks!

Don't go here.
Profile Image for Carlex.
534 reviews99 followers
September 11, 2019
I assume that you know this story more by the two films (released in 1964 and 2000 respectively) than by this novel, which in my opinion is excellent.

“Fail-Safe” is a classic political fiction novel set in the Cold War but it can also can be considered as a thought experiment about the limits of the military menace between two superpowers (today, you can think for example in India & Pakistan, or of course about Mr. Trump and China).

To emphasize in this book, written in an effective "bestseller style", I think that the tension of the atomic threat in the political and military levels in the US is very well described. In this regard I must indicate the fascination that causes me that the development of the plot happens in about an hour, from the first and insignificant failure to the end. About the characters, correct in their respective roles.

Written in 1962, the plot is set in 1967, so I assume the novel has a bit of technology fiction, for example in the defense systems of the impressive bomber Convair B-58 Hustler; but this does not detract the merit of being a great warning about the political and military irresponsibilities of contemporary national states.
Profile Image for Philip.
985 reviews264 followers
June 24, 2011
duck and cover

Thank you demotivationalposters. I couldn't have said it better myself.

Fail Safe was originally written in 1962 - a time of terrible uncertainty when it comes to nukes and the cold war. That's the same year as the Cuban Missile Crisis... This was also the height of the MAD doctrine and while maybe classroom teachers were betting on the desks, I think I'd be betting on the bomb.

It's difficult to recreate feelings in history. We resort to relying on our own experiences and perspective and casting them on past events. Not having lived through the Cold War, I apply a muted post 9-11 fear over the entire era to capture the mood. But they can only be similar. Not having lived through it, I can never know.

Knowing the outcome of the Cold War, it may be easy to trivialize its place in history as inconsequential - but that's just Monday morning quarterbacking.

Fail Safe does a fantastic job of realizing and capturing the fears of the moment in the moment as well as outlining the consequences for humanity.

The authors of the book were both Poli-Sci professors at various prestigious schools - i.e. Harvard, University of California, Johns Hopkins, etc... you get the point. They probably knew what they were talking about. BUT Fail Safe wasn't written in some intellectual prose mumbo-jumbo that the Average Joe layperson *ahem* *me* couldn't understand. It was fast-paced and riveting.

Profile Image for Julio Pino.
1,072 reviews52 followers
September 13, 2022
A frightening novel from one half of the dynamic liberal duo who brought you THE UGLY AMERICAN. This time the screed is against global nuclear war and what a bad thing it would be. An American air fleet, all planes armed with 20-megaton bombs, is accidentally sent on course to bomb Moscow due to a computer malfunction at NORAD headquarters in Nebraska and Soviet radar jamming. The POTUS (President of the United States), if he cannot recall the planes, must make the ultimate sacrifice to avert thermonuclear war. A nice cameo appearance by a professor who sounds just like 1960s pro-nuclear war guru Herman Kahn: "I believe if our bombers get through the Russians will not retaliate. They will surrender rather than inherit rubble."
Profile Image for Dwayne Roberts.
385 reviews41 followers
September 17, 2020
What can be done when an accidental nuclear attack is launched against the USSR? How can a world-ending war be avoided or mitigated?

Many people have been spellbound by Sidney Lumet's movie by the same name, starring Henry Fonda, Larry Hagman, and Walter Matthau. The movie follows the novel very closely.
Profile Image for George K..
2,433 reviews318 followers
September 4, 2015
"S.O.S. Πεντάγωνο καλεί Μόσχα", εκδόσεις ΒΙΠΕΡ.

Πριν τρεις μέρες πέτυχα το τρομερό αυτό θρίλερ στο Μοναστηράκι, ενώ δεν ήξερα καν ότι είχε μεταφραστεί στα ελληνικά. Ο τίτλος μου θύμισε κάτι (είναι ίδιος με τον ελληνικό τίτλο της ταινίας Dr. Strangelove), είδα τον τίτλο πρωτοτύπου (Fail-Safe), και αμέσως χτύπησαν δέκα καμπανάκια μαζί και θυμήθηκα ποιο μυθιστόρημα είναι. Έπαθα την πλάκα μου. Λοιπόν, πρόκειται για ένα από τα πιο κλασικά ψυχροπολεμικά θρίλερ εκεί έξω και την χρονιά που κυκλοφόρησε έκανε πραγματικό πάταγο.

Δεν χρειάζονται πολλά στοιχεία για την πλοκή: Έξι αμερικάνικα βομβαρδιστικά που φέρουν πυρηνικές κεφαλές, τα οποία ανήκουν σ'ένα σμήνος, δέχονται εντολές μέσω ηλεκτρονικών συστημάτων για επίθεση στην Μόσχα. Η εντολή αυτή όμως δεν δόθηκε από κανέναν και είναι αποτέλεσμα σοβαρής βλάβης στους υπολογιστές. Η επικοινωνία με τα αεροπλάνα είναι αδύνατη λόγω παρεμβολών. Η συνέχεια πραγματικά αγωνιώδης και τρομακτική... Την εποχή που κυκλοφόρησε το βιβλίο, ο ψυχρός πόλεμος ήταν στα ντουζένια του και δεκάδες σενάρια με πυρηνικά ολοκαυτώματα και ολοκληρωτικούς πολέμους ήταν στην ημερήσια διάταξη. Το βιβλίο αυτό εξετάζει ένα τέτοιο σενάριο. Ο τρόπος αφήγησης είναι τέτοιος που βάζει σιγά-σιγά τον αναγνώστη σε αναμμένα κάρβουνα και τον αγχώνει για το πως θα εξελιχθεί το όλο δράμα, μέχρι να φτάσει στο συγκλονιστικό φινάλε. Το βιβλίο δεν γίνεται ιδιαίτερα συναισθηματικό, περιγράφονται όλες οι πολιτικές και στρατιωτικές διαδικασίες, καθώς και οι ενέργειες που ακολουθούν οι υπεύθυνοι, και βλέπουμε πως μπορεί να εξελιχθεί μια τέτοια τραγωδία.

Σίγουρα δεν είναι το πιο καλογραμμένο θρίλερ που υπάρχει, σε μερικά σημεία πλατειάζει και σε άλλα κουράζει λίγο με τεχνικές λεπτομέρειες, στο σύνολο του όμως πρόκειται για ένα άκρως ιντριγκαδόρικο μυθιστόρημα, το οποίο κατάφερε να με συγκλονίσει με την ρεαλιστική εξέλιξη της πλοκής του. Σίγουρα είναι ένα βιβλίο που δίνει μπόλικη τροφή για σκέψη, ακόμα και πενήντα χρόνια μετά την πρώτη κυκλοφορία του. Ήδη κατέβασα την κλασική ταινία του 1964 και λίαν συντόμως θα την δω.

Υ.Γ. Η (σχεδόν) σαράντα πέντε χρόνων μετάφραση των εκδόσεων ΒΙΠΕΡ μου φάνηκε πραγματικά πολύ καλή για τα χρόνια της.
Profile Image for Natylie Baldwin.
Author 4 books39 followers
June 1, 2016
I don’t know what the President is doing, but whatever it is he’d better be right. Khrushchev isn’t going to sit around forever and watch those planes move in on Moscow. The whole thing rests on the President’s ability to persuade Khrushchev it was an accident. If he doesn’t, then we’re going to have all-out, 100 per cent, slam-bang, hell-bent war. That’s right, isn’t it, General?

-Congressman Raskob, “Fail-Safe,” page 206

For those who are familiar with the story of Fail-Safe due to the 1964 film directed by the legendary Sidney Lumet and starring Henry Fonda in an unforgettable performance as a U.S. president who finds himself in a nuclear crisis with the Soviet Union, the book is much like the film but delves deeper into the central themes as well as some of the main characters’ psyches and background.

The story explores not only the ideological foundation of the Cold War conflict of 1945 – 1989 and its contribution to creating the immediate crisis but also the related political, psychological and technological foundations. On the political level, the question is implied throughout: why do ideological differences in how to organize one’s society have to mean confrontation that puts all of humanity at risk as opposed to a “live and let live” approach? As the US president and Soviet premier (openly referred to as Khrushchev) attempt to deal with the crisis, it is clear that a psychological spiral of long-standing mutual distrust and perceived escalations have made the situation worse, creating circumstances that compound the crisis as it is learned that an understandably suspicious Soviet military leadership has already jammed radio communications on the US nuclear bombers that are on their way to attack Moscow as the result of a mistaken “go” order. The jamming has prevented the US leadership from communicating the error and an abort mission order to the pilots.

This poisoned atmosphere of distrust leads directly to the horrendous decisions made to resolve the crisis later on.

Continue reading review at:

Profile Image for Judy.
1,709 reviews295 followers
December 27, 2015
This novel was the #6 bestseller of 1962. It was originally serialized in three weekly issues of the Saturday Evening Post in October, 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis. It was an eerie and discomforting read covering a possible breakdown of technology leading to nuclear war.

Of course, that was the fear I lived under in high school. That some mad man would "push the button" and within 24 hours we would all be fried and gone.

The book is liberally loaded with technical terms and nuclear gear, systems, etc. Much was made of the psychology behind military commanders. It gives a look into the secret bunkers and procedures for dealing with threats, attacks, and technical hitches. All of that was as fascinating to me as it must have been to the American public at the time.

The scenes where the President (obviously Kennedy though his name was never used) and Krushchev are on the top secret phone line working out a deal required a lot of suspension of disbelief on my part. It was pretty far from what I read in the Kennedy biography last year. The King Solomon-like deal that Kennedy made in this book was as melodramatic a climax as I have ever read.

I gained a new appreciation for what every President since Truman has had hanging over his head like a Damocles sword. Imagine holding the power to bring about the end of the world! I am still a pacifist, I still believe in nuclear disarmament, but I have got a more realistic idea about the possibilities of my dreams for our planet and mankind coming true.

Hands down the most relevant book I have read this year.
73 reviews15 followers
July 29, 2010
Read the book, as with a few others, shortly after seeing the movie the first time it was shown on TV in the 60's. As usual there was a bit more in the book than would fit on the screen and parts that are nearly unfilmable. It is certainly a striking premise that a president would do what the fictional president does in this book to avert an all-out exchange, a prospect that only continued to grow in horror for the next twenty years or so after the book came out as the stockpile of warheads rapidly grew and increasingly sophisticated methods of delivery were developed with more and better submarines in addition to ICBM's and all combined with MIRV technology. The story line here is a proper use of literary license but I do not believe even under circumstances exactly equivalent to the setting here (allowing that now it is nearly all about missiles, the B-58's being long retired) that the chief executive on either side would solve the problem as is done in Fail Safe. But it gives a strong story line while actual aspects of the cold war threat of large scale nuclear war are examined and the dramatic plot highlights the sort of bind we could easily find ourselves suddenly facing if something important goes wrong or even our opponent just a bit jumpy that day (there was an episode that was too close for comfort in 1983).

The movie was remarkably faithful to the book even attempting to represent the most unfilmable of all the books threads, the matador dream of General Black, with great visual skill but without narrative success. If I had not read the book I would never have figured out what the dream meant from the movie. Still the sacrifice made by Black is still very clear in both book and movie. The main thing missing was some extra detail about the cold war and about the supporting characters, in particular, the civilian expert (played by Walter Matthau in the movie), a Jew in the U.S. army who took pride in intimidating the captured Nazi soldiers he interrogated and held the passivity of European Jewry (the Frank family in particular) in contempt (for him Warsaw was too little too late), who is the main hard liner recommending that the accident be exploited to launch a long overdue all-out first strike, in his view, making the best of the situation in the face of inevitable war in the future.

There are some who have posted online who think the portrayal of right wing characters in this book to exaggerated or preachy. I disagree. They decent composites of a few well placed real life figures of that time who genuinely believed, and sometimes said so publicly, that a first strike while a large numerical and delivery advantage was still in hand was overdue and that if in the smoking ruins of civilization there were two of them for every one of the enemy it was a victory, and one well worth winning. Unfortunately, the book was not indulging a joke, a satire, or much of an exaggeration or caricature.
Profile Image for Erik Graff.
5,030 reviews1,165 followers
November 4, 2020
I saw this as a motion picture with my dad at Park Ridge's Pickwick Theatre when it came out in 1964. Soon thereafter I purchased the text at the downtown bookstore on Prospect Avenue, read through it once, then, impressed and having a new tape recorder, read it through again, aloud. This wasn't all that long after the Cuban Missile Crisis, a series of events I'd followed closely. The threat of nuclear holocaust was present throughout childhood. This text has served as the basis for at least two movies, the first of which is far superior to its remake.
Profile Image for Stuart Dean.
587 reviews3 followers
July 23, 2018
An epic anti war novel that builds tension from the beginning and maintains it to the very brutal end. Set in 1967, a computer malfunction in the infallible fail safe device sends a rogue flight of nuclear bombers toward Moscow. What follows is the story of how soldiers and politicians react, how they try to stop the bombers from accidentally starting World War III and what they plan to do if the planes can't be stopped. Immensely suspenseful.

The major characters are each given a chapter to show that they are supremely logical men, but each has flaws so they are not automatons just unthinkingly following orders. Each reacts to the potential end of the world in his own way. There are some technological reaches in the novel, mainly the idea that 6 B-58's could evade the entire Soviet defense mechanism and shoot down some 5 score Soviet aircraft considering they couldn't possibly carry that many missiles. But Burdick's predictions concerning spy satellites were spot on.

Practically all of the characters are either rich socialites or Ivy League intellectuals. The President, identified only as "The President", is obviously JFK, for whom the author obviously has great admiration. Nikita Khrushchev is named, but he as basically the only real person identified. Everyone is portrayed in a good light so that the conclusion can be seen as believable. There is even a token mental breakdown to show that not everyone can take the strain.

To prove it's anti war point the novel takes some liberties, not unlike "Dr. Strangelove" or "War Games". It defies reason to believe that the people who created the technology that could deliver a "Go" command without fear of it being intercepted or falsified could not also build a box that could deliver a "Recall" command. Or that the President could not have a special "stand down" code that he could give to the pilot over the radio that is changed daily in the same way that the fail-safe code does. It is highly unlikely that every person involved would sit around talking baseball after the President announces his solution to the insoluble dilemma, or that he could get them to carry it out. Or that Nikita Khrushchev, though more Trotskyite than Stalinist, would take the actions he does. This is the same Khrushchev who presided over many of Stalin's purges, sent missiles to Cuba, crushed the Hungarian revolutionaries, built the Berlin wall, was present at Stalingrad, and was such a fervent Marxist that he would not allow his wife's casket to be taken inside a church. He was a born peasant with the unshakable belief that the Soviet people could withstand any hardship. He sent fewer people to the gulag, but the internal exile of being expelled from the Party was just as effective at shortening people's lives. Not likely to be a pragmatist when facing the end.

An excellent cold war novel from a time when the threat of nuclear annihilation was a clear and present danger. Burdick creates a Kobayashi Maru scenario and even finds a clever way to come out of it. There is much said about the policy of Mutual Assured Destruction, and much about the increasing presence of computer automation in the military. It is even pointed out that having human intervention over the computers is no solution, since just as no machine is infallible no man is infallible as well. A cerebral novel well worth discussing.
Profile Image for Brian Bess.
342 reviews8 followers
February 28, 2020

The ultimate global dilemma

The 1962 novel ‘Fail-Safe’ is, in addition to hundreds of other TV shows, films, and books from that time, a product of the Cold War. However, ‘Fail-Safe’ is the novel that was serialized in three installments in the Saturday Evening Post on October 13, 20, and 27. These days coincide with the dates of the Cuban Missile Crisis occurring October 16-28. So, in a sense, while the events were unfolding, readers could console or frighten themselves with a nightmare happening in an alternate universe. ‘Fail-Safe’ is the ultimate Cold War myth.

The authors in their introduction state that they have not had access to classified information; however, they have derived certain conclusions freely from unclassified files. The novel takes place in 1967. Having been written before the Cuban Missile Crisis it was ironically fortuitous that a real-world crisis that alluded to the very concerns, possibilities, and probabilities posited in the novel was placed in the path of the authors. In ‘Fail-Safe’ Khrushchev is named but the president is not. However, based on his physical description and easily identifiable New England accent we can accept that this John Kennedy lived to be re-elected for a second term. In our world neither of them holds the position of power in that year that they do in this novel. The makers of the extremely faithful 1964 film version wisely steered clear of any Kennedy impressions, casting one of our ultimate film heroes of the Everyman, Henry Fonda, as the president.

‘Fail-Safe’ is very strong in characterization. These people are not chess pieces in a plot. They are people with back stories and personal dramas that all influence their behavior in this ‘accidental war’. Regardless of particulars, this global error is entirely plausible as presented in the novel. We have the president and his translator going into their fallout shelter hundreds of feet below ground, an Air Force command center in Omaha, and a meeting of high echelon military personnel in the Pentagon, all wired in through telecommunications to make decisions as the events unfold.

An unknown aircraft has been detected coming from Europe. Bombers are directed to fly toward the area where it is traveling, going to the Fail-Safe points, where they will stay unless they receive a direct alert ordering them to proceed to their targets. “Fail-Safe” means that if something fails it is still safe. Bombers will not go to war except by a direct order. One group of Vindicator bombers accidentally receives the attack code. Once they travel within range of detection, Russia jams their radio signal so they cannot receive a recognizable signal from their command center. The president orders bombers to pursue the Vindicators to shoot them down. However, they all run out of fuel before they reach them and fall into the Atlantic Ocean.

As the situation escalates, the president contacts the Soviet premier and explains what has happened and that the U.S. will do everything in their power to take them down. The Soviets are obviously wary, thinking this must be a ploy or a trap, but are finally convinced that the president is sincere. The scenario in which the U.S. intentionally tries to prevent its own aircraft from succeeding in its bombing mission is highly ironic and leads the players into unique positions in which they are conflicted by opposing inclinations. When the president finally makes radio contact with the last surviving Vindicator, he tells the commander, Colonel Grady, who he is, what has happened, and what he is ordering Grady to do. Grady thinks this is the voice of a Soviet imposter trying to trick him and he cuts off radio contact.

Aside from the president, the major characters are General Black, an old friend and classmate of the president’s, an Air Force pilot who has been having nightmares lately that he can’t make sense out of but which he interprets as portents of some upcoming disaster. Another classmate of Blacks’, a political analyst, Professor Groteschele, is in the meeting at the Pentagon. He has advised that the U.S. follow this accidental attack with a full-scale attack forcing the Soviets to surrender. The president dismisses this course of action immediately. Black’s assistant, Colonel Cascio, has been conflicted from the beginning. When Cascio sees that the American aircraft are going to destroy the Vindicators, he mutinies and takes brief command before he is subdued. His brief coup has used up some valuable time.

When the last Vindicator jet survives all the attacks from the Soviets and the Americans, it successfully bombs Moscow. What the president decides to do to prevent full escalation into nuclear retaliation is something I’m not sure that Kennedy, or any other president from then to now, would be willing to do. He is faced with an unthinkable, tragic decision and decides to order General Black to drop a nuclear bomb on New York City. Black’s family is there as well as the First Lady. Both men know they are there and so the sacrifice is deeply personal for them. “An eye for an eye, a city for a city” as one character states.

Perhaps the overriding theme of the novel is expressed by Black’s wife Betty at a cocktail party earlier in the novel at which the Blacks as well as Groteschele were present:
“The world,” Betty continued, her voice now edged with despair, “is no longer man’s theater. Man has been made into a helpless spectator. The evil forces he has created—science and the state—have combined into one monstrous body. We’re at the mercy of our monster and the Russians are at the mercy of theirs. They toy with us as the Olympian gods toyed with the Greeks. And like the gods of Greek tragedy, they have a tragic flaw. They know only how to destroy, not how to save. That’s what we’re now watching in our cold war: a Greek tragedy in modern form with our godlike monsters playing out the last act of their cataclysmic tragedy.”

This perfect nuclear storm seemed constantly likely as ‘Fail-Safe’ and other nightmare scenarios emerged in our culture in the 1960’s. At one point, General Bogan, the commander of the Omaha center, says, “What we would do is make sure that the single plane did not have a runaway pilot who wanted to commit hara-kiri on New York or Montreal”. This brings to my mind the previously unconsidered possibility that a fanatic of some extremist cause would actually concoct a plan in which hijacked passenger planes fly into skyscrapers. So that is one disaster that has already happened in the almost sixty years since ‘Fail-Safe’ was first published. Here we are in 2020 in which a statement that General Black makes at another point, worrying about the possibility of a paranoid schizophrenic becoming president that it is “Not likely, for American politics ruthlessly screened out the unstable personalities, but a possibility” has indeed become a possibility and a certainty. The fears of the Cold War have multiplied into other fears inconceivable in 1962. Nevertheless, ‘Fail-Safe’ is a myth that has retained its potency. Technology has changed enormously, but human nature has remained indelibly the same.

Profile Image for Seth Heasley.
319 reviews10 followers
February 2, 2021
If I were rating this based on the last 100 pages, it'd be an easy four stars, maybe five. Unfortunately, the preceding 140 pages are a slooooog. The book rabbit-trails to give a detailed dossier to every major character in the sloppiest kind of exposition dump. Why do I need to know that a character gets up and shaves at the same time every morning and is the manliest of manly men? (Hint: I do not need to know that.)
Profile Image for Kat Orton.
149 reviews1 follower
December 27, 2018
I think that On the Beach, Alas Babylon, and Fail Safe, are, in essence, a bit of a trilogy. You have the beginning, the middle, and the end.

I liked Fail Safe, it gives you a lot to think about, and although it was written in the 50’s I still think it’s relevant. We do put entirely too much faith in machines, and more recently we have had the advent of social media to throw into the mix. We bow down to our technological gods and worship our iPhones and Alexas.

The idea of a nuclear war being started by technological error seems more likely today than it ever would in the 50’s, so I think this book only really becomes MORE relevant. As technology becomes more advanced and more complex it just leads to more things that could go wrong. I wonder how many times so many things have gone wrong at once that something like this could have happened?
Profile Image for Jocelyn.
248 reviews1 follower
June 2, 2019
Holy shit.

I don't think I could write a coherent review if I tried. Not many books actually have me gasping or yelling "Oh my god!" out loud. For a book written nearly 60 years ago, it's still packing a hell of a punch.
Profile Image for Jose Moa.
519 reviews68 followers
September 27, 2016
Tis novel written short time after the cuban missile crise ,when the USA president was Kennedy and the Soviet Union premier was Kruschev, is a early warning on the danger of a excesive confidence in computericed systems over the decisions in the use of nuclear weapons.

Is a page turner novel,a bestseller in its time,well written and structured with a plausible accidental nuclear war plot,makes a relatively deep insight in the MAD doctrine and its logic contradictions,also makes insight in the militars psicology,where some men are so well trained that are almost automatons very efficient for the good but also for the bad and exposes the personal ,ethics and logical contradictions in high officers.A striking thing is to see how some people talks abou hundreds millions of casualties without to become disturbed.As a anecdote i think doctor Grostechele, a hawk ,has inspired doctor Stangelove (very fitted name) of the movie Dr.Stangelove by Kubrik.
On this novel were made two very good movies ,Fail Safe by Sidney Lumet and Fail Safe by Stephen Frears
For those that like movies, in the cold war were made several good movies:On the Beach,the dulcified The Day After and the more hard and realistic Threads

Where ,for me,the novel is rather weak is in the in some way happy utopic end.Is for me not realistic,because a similar situation surely will drive to extremely strong diferent opinions inside goverment and army, creating political caos and possibly a coup (Kennedy had said he even feared a militar coup in the cuban crise) and very probably ending in a massive nuclear exchange.

The book has not aged at all,in fact the worries expresed in the book has worsened, because to day after the end of" official" cold war, the hardware and software are much more complex,there has been several very near real close calls after the book was written (the Minot Mistake incident,colonel Petrov incident,Able Archer incident,norweggian rocket incident,war games tapes incident and surely many others we dont know) and incomprehensibly in a world without blocks,with only a economic ideology and Fukuyamas end of histhory, there are yet more that 3000 nuclear warheads of near a megaton (a several timemes overkill capacity) in high trigger or launch on warning in ICBM and SLBM in several nuclear powers and superpowers ,that left few minutes to take decisions not hours as in the book.

But oddly very few people seem worried, few people seem understand the enormous gargantuan extreme destructive power and terrible consecuences of a single one megaton nuclear warhead explosion ,the only explanation is ,in my personal opinion,a passive censorship :a blanket of silence, no subject of newspapers articles,televission debates,almost no books,no social moves and so on, and the extreme power of the nuclear lobby (a thing about president and general Eisenhower has warned).
Aside a very real danger this policy costs to the world many billions dollars that could be used for much better things.

Another interesting recomendable book for those that had forgotten that the nuclear weapons yet exist and ready for fast use
Profile Image for Mike (the Paladin).
3,144 reviews1,847 followers
August 11, 2010
I read this way, way, way back...high school I believe, late 60s. This was and, if you let yourself get into it and the times it was written, still is, the proverbial white knuckle, nail biter. There are times the frustration level at humans and our almost pathological self destructiveness will cause you to want to beat your head (or possibly a character's head) against a wall. You'll wish that the characters would just for an instant use some common sense. And the whole acting sort of like the U.S. and the Soviets are opposing football teams or something by the forces who are supposed to be trying to prevent an accident from turning into WW3 will also get you. A good book and thought provoking, for that time and for now as certain "other nations" are arguing they should "be allowed" to have nuclear weapons.
Profile Image for Bob Mayer.
Author 185 books47.9k followers
January 4, 2011
Most people think we are relatively safe from nuclear weapons. That couldn't be further from the truth. There are way too many nukes floating around out there. And the United States has the most. Having been in Special Operations I applaud those whose duty it is to defend our country, but it is inevitable that a nuke will go off, most likely inside a container in a port city. Since they exist, they will be used.
There is also the possibility of a mistake as outlined in this book. Yes, mistakes happen. It's the rule of seven-- it takes seven things to go wrong for a catastrophe to occur, as I teach in Who Dares Wins. How many times we've been to six with nukes will never be known.
But we'll know when we hit seven.
Profile Image for YoruHara.
58 reviews
May 27, 2018
Al principio un poco aburrido pero el final es impactante. No tenía muchas expectativas, pero sin duda fue una buena experiencia. en las partes de tensión, puedes escuchar tu corazón latiendo y piensas: "Oh Dios, ¿de verdad?. Lo pueden leer, al principio es aburrido pero sin duda se vuelve emocionante al final
Profile Image for mkfs.
274 reviews24 followers
March 31, 2016
Surprisingly not too dated. Sure, the Cold War is over and the chance of a mechanical malfunction triggering global thermonuclear war is minimal -- but the world hasn't changed that much.
Profile Image for Rick.
50 reviews
July 12, 2019
Written in the height of the Cold War, the book is in many ways still relevant today. Nuclear warfare is still a distinct reality as more nations develop the technology to sit at the nuclear table. In fact, it may be even more dangerous today then when the book was written because of the fact that nations with leadership that follow an idealogical style of government, be it religious or paranoid megalomania, may not hold back from launching an attack like a Soviet Russia.

Another aspect that is alarmingly close to reality is the role of automation and our reliance on machines to control these weapons.

electronic gear was becoming so complex that it was outstripping the ability of men to control it; complexity of new generations of machines was increasing the danger of accidents faster than safeguards could be devised.

We have become dependent on computers to gather, analyse, and control many weapons. While they make it easier for modern soldiers to track and attack the enemy, and allow realtime command and control from remote areas, the risk of accident increases where a minor issue can cascade to a major incident in a flash. There is an even greater risk of critical systems getting hacked into through zero-day exploits then there was during the cold war.
The story is well written, although the author did spend a lot of time giving background flashbacks with characters that really didn't contribute significantly to the overall plot. I believe they were mostly to allow the author to give his anti-nuclear views, but it bogged the story down with unnecessary details.
Profile Image for Leongin.
15 reviews
April 8, 2022
Romanas apie atsakomybę, pareigą, stiprybę, garbę, sunkius sprendimus, nepakeliamą skausmą, pasiaukojimą ir aukas, kurias neįmanoma įkainoti.

Spėju, kad šiandien (2022 m. pavasarį) daug kam atrodo, jog pasaulis kaip niekad arti bedugnės krašto. Trūksta vieno neatsargaus atodūsio ir nugarmėsime į branduolinį pragarą. Turbūt būtent dėl to šis romanas taip drasko tave – herojų ir tavo paties vidiniais prieštaravimais, o nei akimirkai neatlėgstanti siužeto įtampa, dramatizmas, neviltis ir bejėgiškumo jausmas prieš lemtį, kurios negali pakeisti ne tik šio pasaulio galingieji, bet ir Pats Viešpats, verčia tave neatidėti knygos tol, kol paaiškės, ar Abraomui vis dėl to teks paaukoti Izaoką.

Skaitydamas šį romaną suvokiau, jog tarsi senovės egiptiečiai statantys piramides – vieną bloką tobulai parinktą, pritaikytą ir nugludintą dedant prie kito, taip užtikrinant savų monumentų tvirtumą, stabilumą, matematinę estetiką ir amžinybę, akmuo po akmens, eilė po eilės iki dangaus, iki saulės, – geras rašytojas privalo preciziškai išmatuoti kiekvieną žodį, meistriškai nušlifuoti kiekvieną sakinį, parinkti jiems vienintelei įmanomą vietą ir laiką, ir tik tuomet jo mintis pasieks skaitytojo protą ir širdį. Noriu pasakyti, kad, mano galva, šiame romane nėra nei vienos nebūtinos, nereikšmingos ar beprasmės pastraipos, rašytojai, būdami dar ir profesionaliais politologais, akademiškai konstruoja reikšmingą ir kiekvienam suvokiamą turinį. Už tai labai dėkingas Eugene Leonard Burdick ir John Harvey Wheeler.
Profile Image for Thom.
1,591 reviews47 followers
January 17, 2018
This new era of duck-and-cover suggested a reading of this classic book, first produced as a magazine serial during the Cuban Missile crisis. The book doesn't start well but ends strong, with a powerful message to beware complete automation. The human element saves the world.

"What if the president went mad?" Black asked abruptly... "Then we would have trouble," Groteschele said with a laugh.

As new characters are introduced in the early chapters, a flashback brings them to the current day. These slow the tension down, and would have been better as a standalone first chapter. The early chapters are also jargon heavy, giving name to the technology of the time. The middle chapters ramp up the tension and work well, and the finish is perfectly revealed at the last moment.

From what I remember of the classic film, the tension is higher and Groteschele (played by a very serious Walter Matthau) was perfect. I did not see the remade film, but have put both on hold to watch and compare. Seattle is one of the closest large mainland cities to North Korea.
Profile Image for stormhawk.
1,384 reviews30 followers
August 3, 2018
I grew up with the Cold War being a real, active, living thing. Duck and cover drills, discussions of mutually assured destruction, and eventually the Star Wars program. Then it all went away. The dangers became smaller, individuals and small groups became the enemy, rather than an entire nation half the world away. The fears of Failsafe were once very real. This is a short, intense novel about the failures, and in this case, unfortunate successes of systems designed to take the human factor out of the decisions of power and nuclear destruction.
Profile Image for James.
256 reviews
August 15, 2021
There's the seed of a really great novel in here, but it's bogged down by excessive backstory exposition and way too many characters. It's a bit of a shame, because judging by the premise this is easily a four star book, but something gets lost in the execution.
Profile Image for Mike.
13 reviews
May 7, 2022
Dr. Strangelove - humor + Jackie O. = Fail-Safe

An enjoyable, quick read with a shocking twist ending. However, most of the characters blurred together, and there were far too many character descriptions.
Profile Image for Wes Spence.
132 reviews8 followers
June 8, 2021
What a ride. I read this all in one sitting at the airport, having read about it as novelette with a surprising twist. I audibly gasped, startling my wife when that occurred.

Written during the Cold War, about how precarious the tensions, and government procedures could be during the Cold War, was very interesting to read. The sheer mechanisms that could be in place, to ensure each Nuclear Power was ready to strike back, was startling and troubling to read about. I couldn't help but imagine what our current leadership would do in the situation, I certainly wouldn't want that job. Well worth a read!
Profile Image for J. Shimotake.
47 reviews
November 6, 2007
While reading this book, it's hard not to smell Burdick's cigarette burning and the clack-clack-clack of his typewriter. Anyway, it's an awesome read and beats the shit out of the teleplay CBS did in 1999...

Also, this is the first in a series we have dubbed "The Kedzie Classic." To become a "Kedzie Classic," Brandon, Marty and I must all have a turn of it within 72 hours. It's a pretty exlcusive club. So far it's this book, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and Linda Davenport.

Then again, I didn't finish with Linda...ba-zing!
Profile Image for Erth.
3,623 reviews
October 17, 2018
now i am hooked. This was such a great, easy and creative book. i was hooked after the first page.

The characters were easy to fall in love with and follow, along with the story. the author made the mental visions so easy and vivid of the surroundings and the characters actions felt so real.

i would highly recommend this author and this book.
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