Fail-Safe (novel)

Fail-Safe (novel)

infobox Book |
name = Fail-Safe
title_orig =
translator =

image_caption = First paperback edition
author = Eugene Burdick & Harvey Wheeler
cover_artist =
country = United States
language = English
series =
genre = Thriller, Novel
publisher = McGraw-Hill
release_date = 1962
media_type = Print (Hardback & Paperback)
pages = 286 pp
isbn = ISBN 0070089272
ISBN 044012459X
preceded_by =
followed_by =

"Fail-Safe" is a novel by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler, published in 1962.

The popular and critically acclaimed novel was first adapted into a 1964 film of the same name directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Henry Fonda, Dan O'Herlihy, and Walter Matthau. In 2000, the novel was adapted again for a televised play, broadcast live in black and white on CBS. All three future history works have the same theme — accidental nuclear war — with the same plot.

Explanation of the novel's title

The title refers to what could be called an "engineer's commandment": "fail safe", meaning to take account of the ways things can go wrong—fail—and ensure as far as possible that the machine, process, etc. will not make things worse. The title's irony is that, in this case, it is assumed failure is caused by enemy attack, and that the "safe" response is to follow the last authenticated orders at all costs.

Plot summary

An unknown aircraft approaches North America from Europe. American bombers of the SAC are scrambled to meet the potential threat. As a fail-safe protection, the bombers have standard orders not to proceed past a certain point without receiving a special attack code. The original "threat" is proven to be innocuous and recall orders are issued. However, due to a technical failure, the attack code is transmitted to Group Six, which consists of six Vindicator supersonic bombers. Colonel Grady, the head of the group, tries to contact Omaha to verify the fail-safe order (called Positive Check), but due to Soviet radio jamming, Grady cannot hear Omaha. Concluding that the fail-safe order and the radar jamming could only mean nuclear war, Grady commands the Group Six crew towards Moscow, their intended destination.

At meetings in Omaha, at the Pentagon, and in the fallout shelter of the White House, American politicians and scholars debate the implications of the attack. Professor Groteschele, who is loosely based on Henry Kissinger and Herman Kahn, suggests the United States follow this accidental attack with a full-scale attack to force the Soviets to surrender.

Following procedures, the military sends out six "Skyscrappers" in an attempt to shoot down the Vindicators. The attempt is to show that the Vindicator attack is an accident, not a full-scale nuclear assault. This involves turning on afterburners to increase thrust and speed. Without tanker refueling, the "Skyscrappers" will run out of fuel and crash, dooming the pilots to die of exposure in the Arctic Sea. The Vindicators are too far away, and all six fighters shoot their rockets and fail to hit the Vindicators. The President of the United States (unnamed but apparently modeled on Kennedy) contacts the Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev and offers assistance in attacking the group. The Soviets decline at first; however, they soon decide to accept it.

At SAC headquarters, General Bogan attempts to stop the attack. However, his executive officer, Colonel Cascio, wants the attack to continue. Cascio attempts to take over command of SAC, but is stopped by Air Police. However, precious time has been wasted.

Meanwhile, the Soviet PVO Strany air defense corps has managed to shoot down two of the six planes. The Soviets accept American help and shoot down a third plane. Two bombers and a support plane remain on course to Moscow. General Bogan tells Marshal Nevsky, the Soviet commander, to ignore Plane #6 (the support plane) because it has no weapons. Nevsky, who mistrusts Bogan, instead orders his Soviet aircraft to attack all three planes. Plane 6's last feint guarantees that the two remaining bombers can successfully attack. Following the failure, Nevsky collapses.

As the two planes approach Moscow, Colonel Grady opens up the radio to contact SAC to inform them that they are about to make the strike. As a last-minute measure, the Soviets fire a barrage of nuclear-tipped missiles to form a fireball in an attempt to knock the low-flying Vindicator out of the sky. The Vindicators shoot up one last decoy, which successfully leads the Soviet missiles high in the air. However, one missile explodes earlier than expected; the second bomber blows up, but Colonel Grady's plane survives.

With the radio open, the President attempts to persuade Grady that there is no war. Under standing orders that such a late recall attempt must be a Soviet trick, Grady ignores them. The Vindicator's defensive systems operator fires two missiles that decoy the Soviet interceptor missiles to detonate at high altitude. Grady tells his crew that "We're not just walking wounded, we're walking dead men," due to radiation from the burst. He intends to fly the aircraft over Moscow and detonate the bombs in the plane. His copilot agrees, noting "There's nothing to go home to."

When it becomes apparent that one bomber will get through Soviet defenses and destroy Moscow, the American President states that he will order an American bomber to destroy New York City at the same time, with the Empire State Building being ground zero. The Soviet leader is appalled but realizes that this is the only way to prevent a worldwide nuclear war which will probably destroy humanity; 'others' (presumably the Soviet military) would not accept the unilateral destruction of Moscow, and would depose him and retaliate. It was earlier revealed that the President's wife was in New York City while the events of the book transpired, meaning she would be killed in the blast. The bomb is dropped by a senior General within Strategic Air Command, who orders his crew to let him handle the entire bombing run by himself so as to assume all the responsibility; he then takes his own life.

Allusions/references to actual history, geography and current science

The novel was published in October 1962 at the same time as the Cuban missile crisis. It influenced popular debate on the controls used by the United States on nuclear weapons.

ee also

* "Red Alert"


*cite book | last=Tuck | first=Donald H. | authorlink=Donald H. Tuck | title=The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy | location=Chicago | publisher=Advent | pages=76 | date=1974|id=ISBN 0-911682-20-1

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