Fail-Safe (novel)

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First edition
Author Eugene Burdick & Harvey Wheeler
Country United States
Language English
Genre Thriller
Publisher McGraw-Hill
Publication date
Media type Print (Hardback & Paperback)
Pages 286 pp
ISBN ISBN 0-07-008927-2
ISBN 0-440-12459-X

Fail-Safe is a best-selling novel by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler. The story was initially serialized in three installments in the Saturday Evening Post on October 13, 20, and 27, 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The popular and critically acclaimed novel, released in late October 1962, was then 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 works have the same theme — accidental nuclear war — with the same plot.

Fail-Safe was extremely similar to an earlier work Red Alert, so similar that Red Alert '​s author, Peter George, sued on a charge of plagiarism, settling out-of-court.


The title refers to the "fail-safe point" used by the Strategic Air Command (SAC) to prevent a SAC bomber from accidentally crossing into Soviet airspace and precipitating a nuclear war. In general a fail safe ensures that, as far as possible, the machine or process will not make things worse in the event of something going wrong. The title's irony lies in the fact that the author contends that the nature of SAC's fail-safe protocols could cause their fail-safe mechanism to make things worse, and cause the event it was intended to prevent.

Plot summary[edit]

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 (the name "Vindicator" is fictional—footage of Convair B-58 Hustler bombers was used in the film to represent the Vindicators). 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 them. Concluding that the fail-safe order and the radio 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 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 Skyscraper supersonic fighters 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 "Skyscrapers" 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 them.

The President of the United States (unnamed but apparently modeled on Kennedy) contacts 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. Understanding instructions 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", under the belief that the continental United States has already been devastated by a full-scale nuclear attack from the Soviet Union.

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 as ground zero; this also involves a grave personal sacrifice, as the First Lady is visiting New York and the President decides not to warn her. On hearing this, the supposedly atheist Communist leader bursts out with "Holy Mother of God!" - he 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. 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.


The book so closely resembled the 1958 novel Red Alert by Peter George (which was adapted by George and Stanley Kubrick into the mutually assured destruction satire Dr. Strangelove in 1964, as well), that George filed a lawsuit for copyright infringement. The case was settled out of court.

See also[edit]