Fail-Safe (novel)

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First edition
AuthorEugene Burdick
Harvey Wheeler
CountryUnited States
GenrePolitical thriller
Publication date
October 22, 1962 [1]
Media typePrint (hardback and paperback)

Fail-Safe is a bestselling American 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 novel was released on October 22, 1962, and 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 purported to be so similar to an earlier novel, Red Alert, that Red Alert's author, Peter George and film producer Stanley Kubrick, sued on a charge of copyright infringement,[2] settling out of court.[3]


The title refers to the "fail-safe point" used by the Strategic Air Command (SAC) to prevent an 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 is that the nature of SAC's fail-safe protocols could make things worse, causing the event it was intended to prevent.

Plot summary[edit]

A US Air Force command center receives information that an unknown aircraft is approaching from Europe. The alert status of the Strategic Air Command's (SAC) bomber forces is raised, a standard precaution against a sneak attack. The unknown aircraft then disappears from radar, causing the alert status to continue to increase, eventually leading to the bombers being sent into the air to the fail-safe points. From there, they can proceed to their targets only if they receive a special attack code. After a short time, the unknown target is re-acquired and identified as an airliner. The threat level is immediately reduced, and the SAC fleet is sent a recall order.

A technical failure at the height of the alert allows the attack code to be accidentally transmitted to Group Six, which consists of six Vindicator supersonic bombers (footage of Convair B-58 Hustler bombers is used in the film). Colonel Grady, the head of the group, tries to contact Omaha to verify the fail-safe order (called Positive Check), but Soviet radio jamming prevents Grady from hearing them. Concluding that the fail-safe order and the radio jamming could mean only nuclear war, Grady orders 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, a civilian adviser, suggests that the United States follow this accidental attack with a full-scale attack to force the Soviets to surrender. The President of the United States (unnamed but apparently modeled on John F. Kennedy) refuses to consider such a course of action.

Instead, the President orders the Air Force to shoot down the bombers. Air Force brass protest, stating that the fighters cannot easily catch the bombers and will run out of fuel over the Arctic Ocean in the attempt. The President orders them to try anyway, and the six "Skyscrapper" supersonic fighters (F-104 Starfighter-like aircraft) in the area engage their afterburners and fire their rockets in an attempt to hit the bombers. The fighters crash into the sea, and the pilots are lost.

The President contacts the Premier of the Soviet Union and offers assistance in attacking the group. The Soviets decline at first; however, they soon decide to accept it. At SAC headquarters, a fight breaks out over the very idea of working with the Soviets to shoot down their own aircraft. Air Force General Bogan attempts to stop the attack, but his executive officer, Colonel Cascio, wants it to continue. Cascio attempts to take over command of SAC, but is stopped by the 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. 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 uses 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 channel still open, the President attempts to persuade Grady that there is no war. Believing that such a late recall attempt must be a Soviet trick, Grady ignores them.

The nearby explosion of the Soviet missiles has given the bomber crew a huge radiation dose, and Grady tells his crew, "We're not just walking wounded, we're walking dead men." He intends to fly the aircraft over Moscow and detonate the bombs in the plane. His co-pilot agrees, noting, "There's nothing to go home to" under the belief that the 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; that 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 it is the only way to prevent a worldwide nuclear war which will probably destroy humanity as "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 SAC, who orders his crew to let him handle the entire bombing run by himself 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]



  1. ^ "Books Today". The New York Times: 26. October 22, 1962.
  2. ^ Scherman, David E. (March 8, 1963). "in Two Big Book-alikes a Mad General and a Bad Black Box Blow Up Two Cities, and then— Everybody Blows Up!". Life Magazine. p. 49. Retrieved August 18, 2017.
  3. ^ Schlosser, Eric (2014). Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety. Penguin. p. 297. ISBN 9780143125785.

Other sources[edit]