Among political novels set in Washington, D.C., Seven Days in May holds a special place; it imagines a right-wing military conspiracy to overthrow the president and the Constitution.
Scene from the 1964 film adaptation of Seven Days in May
By Brooke C. Stoddard
Among political novels set in Washington, D.C., Seven Days in May holds a special place; it imagines a right-wing military conspiracy to overthrow the president and the Constitution. Published in 1962 by two Cowles Publications Washington Bureau journalists, Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II, it riffs on the paranoia stirred up by the nuclear arms race, McCarthyism, Gen. Curtis LeMay, and Soviet intentions. And like its predecessor, Pulitzer-Prize winning Advise and Consent by Allen Drury (1959, movie in 1962), Seven Days in May became a successful motion picture partly filmed in Washington (the screenplay was written by a young Rod Serling).
Knebel and Bailey were supposedly inspired by militarist Gen. LeMay and an Army ultra-conservative major general, Edwin A. Walker. Walker distributed John Birch Society literature to his troops; accused former President Truman and Eleanor Roosevelt of being “pink;” and offended both President Eisenhower and Kennedy. Walker resigned his commission in 1961, lectured on anti-communism, and ran unsuccessfully for governor of Texas. The two writers also might have cast an eye on the 1933 right-wing plot to overthrow Franklin Roosevelt chronicled in Jules Archer’s The Plot to Seize the White House. Other sources say Bailey got the idea for the book after interviewing Gen. Curtis LeMay, who made off-the-record critical remarks about President Kennedy for not bombing Cuba during the Cuba Missile Crisis.
Seven Days in May deserves present attention for two reasons: its thriller plot on how a military coup might be accomplished, and its depiction of mores in the Kennedy years, these days, more casually dubbed the Mad Men era.
Briefly the plot is this. President Jordan Lyman (could West Wing’s Josh Lyman’s name have been a derivative?) has negotiated and signed a treaty with the Soviets by which both sides agreed to a schedule of dismantling their nuclear arsenals. Lyman is accused of naiveté and his approval rating sinks to 29%. On Sunday, Marine Colonel “Jiggs” Casey, who works for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, comes across a message from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Air Force General James Scott (with characteristics of real-life LeMay and Walker), to others of the Joint Chiefs about whether they are joining a betting pool for the Preakness seven days hence. The running of the Preakness also happens to be the hour of a top secret military drill testing defense readiness. Only the Joint Chiefs, the President, Casey and a few others know about it. At 7 PM the following Saturday, the President and the Joint Chiefs are scheduled to be in a Blue Ridge Mountains bunker conducting and observing the drill. Casey just happens to see a friend who is stationed at a new and secret military base near El Paso and who wonders why his unit, called ECOMCON, keeps training to take over broadcast stations. That night (still Sunday), at a party in Chevy Chase, Casey learns that Senator Prentice of Georgia, an outspoken opponent of the treaty and an associate of a far-right political television commentator, knows about, but shouldn’t, the coming secret military test. On Monday, Casey learns that troop-carrying cargo planes are meant to fly out of the ECOMCON base early on the morning of the military test. Casey connects the dots: Scott and participants of the Joint Chiefs plan to place the president under house arrest, commandeer broadcast operations to control media, and put themselves in charge of the country, ostensibly to save it. Casey calls his friend, Paul Girard, who is the appointments secretary for the president, and requests an immediate meeting with Lyman. After some concerted persuasion, Casey gets his meeting and presents his suspicions to the president.
Lyman has never heard of ECOMCON or the base near El Paso and calls in four trusted aides, confides in them and sends them – including Casey and Girard — on missions to gather more information. These missions — to El Paso, the Blue Ridge, New York City, and an admiral’s flagship in Gibraltar — occupy the next four days. Casey is the principal protagonist. On Friday, Lyman has a showdown with Scott in the White House.
Knebel and Bailey were more concerned with polity and plot than character and mores. They wrote in brisk journalistic style, with short paragraphs, much dialogue and little descriptive language. Theirs is a potboiler-cum-polemic against fascist fever rising to a flash point. But much of the present relish is a peek through the curtains at Washington of the early 1960s. Knebel and Bailey set their story in the early 1970s, but this is really Washington immediately pre-Beltway: “west wing” is written in lower case; the Treasury Building is “across the street from the White House,” and organized labor is a pressure point on the body politic.
Largely, Knebel and Bailey left technology intact. NORAD tracks aircraft over America. The nation has satellites. The weaponry is scary enough without futuristic fantasy: hydrogen and neutron bombs. Cell phones don’t exist; protagonists rush to pay phones and pick up land lines.
But the most fun is in the mannerisms and attitudes of the characters. Washington power is about men, clubby men who have nicknames for one another and offer cocktails and cigars upon greeting. By comparison, women are few and almost incidental. Wives are dutiful, unemployed, and powerless. Only one of President Lyman’s six confidants during the week is a woman; she is his personal secretary, Esther Townsend, and as loyal as oak. The novel’s only other women characters are two New York Cosmo girls, sirens whose sexuality lights the way to powerful men’s ruin. Elsewhere, typists are “girls” who can’t get their jobs done fast enough. Minorities are nowhere in evidence except that a Filipino serves the president a meal and the CIA Director is Saul Lieberman (who is not brought into the president’s inner circle); nowhere seen or heard are African-Americans or Latinos.
Fletcher Knebel went on to write more than a dozen books, none more popular than Seven Days in May, which topped the New York Times best-seller list for a year; he died in 1993. Charles Bailey wrote another book with Knebel, worked at the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and then moved to National Public Radio; he died in January.
In our present age the President of the United States has been subject to horrific and ad hominem, even irrational attacks from the right. Seven Days in May gives warning that political fervor can lead to self-justified action against the Constitution. During the Kennedy era, Seven Days in May warned that the military-industrial complex was a power rivaling that of the executive branch; in a delightful Mad Men sort of way, the book still does.
Brooke C. Stoddard, an Alexandria writer, is the author of World in the Balance: The Perilous Months of June-October 1940 (Potomac, 2011). He is a former writer and editor at Time-Life Books and National Geographic.