SURPLUS ORDNANCE Episode 17: Seven Days in May

Rich Stephens
Food Safety Microbiologist with a minor in History

Seven Days in May
Fictional attempted coup d'état during the Cold War

Historical Context:

First, let me just say "wow!" I had never heard of this film, and it was spectacular. It needs to be more well known. I think it should be viewed as a companion piece to Dr. Strangelove; and like Strangelove the viewer should try to put themselves in the place of the audience at the time it was released. During this period of the cold war there was a genuine fear that war with the Soviet Union was inevitable, and that it would turn nuclear.

The film takes place sometime in the "not too distant future" at the height of the cold war. While there is obviously no historical precedence for the event in the film, it does mirror/allude/reference some actual events taking place in the late 50's and early 60's that film goers of the time would have undoubtedly seen as parallels. Since there is no real historical event to research, I have focused my research on the Cold War of the late 50’s early 60’s, and the themes present.

Several high-profile events of the “cold war” had taken place within 5 or 6 years prior to the release of this film. All of which were newsworthy and in the public sphere. A short timeline of cold war events:

1953 – Khrushchev become leader of the Soviet Union after the Death of Stalin (I couldn’t resist starting here!)
1957 – October- SAC (strategic air command) initiates 24/7 nuclear alert, to prevent soviet surprise ICBM attack. SAC is led by General Curtis Lemay from ’48 – ’57. Lemay become Chief of the Air Force in ’61 – ‘ 65.

1959 – January - Castro wins Cuban Revolution
1960 – May - Francis Gary Powers is shot down in a U-2 spy plane over Yekaterinburg (then known as Sverdlovsk.)
1961 – January - JFK Inaugurated.

1961 – April – Failed CIA-organized invasion of Cuba by expats at the Bay of Pigs. JFK does not allow CAS (close air support) during the invasion out of fear it would embolden the Soviet’s against Berlin. Soviet Foreign Ministry official Arkady Shevchenko reported that the Bay of Pigs “gave Khrushchev and the other leaders the impression that Kennedy was indecisive.”

1961 – August – Construction of the Berlin Wall begins.

1962 – October – Cuban Missile Crisis – See Friendly Fire episode 13 Days.
1963 – June – US/USSR establish a “hotline” in response to the Cuban Missile Crises in an effort to prevent future incidents.

1963 – June – JFK “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech.
1963- August – US, United Kingdom and Soviet Union sign the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (later opened up to other governments.)

In August 1963 the US and USSR signed the partial nuclear test ban treaty. Not as strong as the agreement discussed in the film, but divisive none-the-less. The Cuban Missile Crises was a year earlier, and really brought the threat of nuclear war to the forefront of people throughout the world. Viewers in 1964 would have had opinions on trusting the USSR to abide by any nuclear treaty.

Several times the camera focuses on an aide-de-camp carrying a briefcase - this is of course the “nuclear football.” Officially the Presidential Emergency Satchel. It is to be used by the president to issue the release of nuclear weapons in the event the President cannot get to a fixed command location. Interestingly (scarily) the procedure to release nuclear weapons in the United States is fixated on the authentication of the order and that it is coming through the National Command Authority. That is to say, the order to use nuclear weapons is focused on ensuring the order is coming from the correct source and is legitimate. In 1973 Major Harold Hering was discharged from the Air Force for posing the question, “How can I know that an order I receive to launch my missiles came from a sane president.”

Toward the end of the movie there is a great speech by President Lyman:

"The enemy is the nuclear age. It happens to have killed man’s faith in his ability to influence what happens to him. Out of this comes a sickness, and out of sickness a frustration, a felling of impotence, helplessness, and weakness. From this, desperation and we look for a champion in red, white, and blue. Every now and then a man on a white horse ride by and we appoint him to be our personal god the duration. For some it was Senator McCarthy, for other it was General Walker. Now it’s General Scott."

Senator McCarthy is of course famous for McCarthyism and accusing liberals of totalitarian, fascist, communist or subversive leanings during the second red scare – fear that communists were infiltrating and subverting US society and the Federal government.

General Edwin Walker was a conservative found to be in violation of the Hatch Act of 1939 for attempting to influence the votes of those under his command. After he resigned, he began a political career promoting McCarthyism. On April 10th, 1963 he survived an assassination attempt at his home – a bullet hit the window frame in his dining room, and he was injured by the fragments. The bullet was fired by – wait for it – Lee Harvey Oswald. Oswald’s wife attested (at the Warren Commission) that her husband told her about his plan to shoot Walker.

personal commentary follows
I feel that the line from McCarty to Walker to the fictional Scott echoes today. We see ideologues who cloak themselves in the flag and wear the badge of uber-patriotism who prey on peoples fears to get elected. I don’t want to mire the show in a myriad (for Liam) of hate mail, but it was chillingly poignant to hear this fear expressed in a movie from 1963 considering we still deal with this today – from a sitting president hugging the flag, to the myriad (again, for Liam) of far-right political commentators.

There’s an apocryphal quote – often attributed to Sinclair Lewis – that goes “when fascism comes to America it will be draped in the American flag and carrying a cross." This film really hit home for me; thinking about the previous 4 years, the events of Jan. 6th, and just wondering how we got here. Seven Days in May demonstrates that this is not a new fear, and we must be ever vigilant.

Interesting Facts:

President Lyman states his 29% approval rating is the lowest ever recorded. In reality Truman has a 22% approval rating in February 1952.

At one point Jiggs is directed to take a vacation and go to “White Sulfur Springs.” This town was a resort destination for the elite since the nineteenth century. The most exclusive resort in the area – the Greenbrier – was built in 1913. Unbeknownst to the public until 1992, during the Cold War the resort was the site of an underground bunker complex known as Project Greek Island. The site would be used for continuity of operations (primarily for the legislative branch) in the event of a crisis were Washington D.C. had to be evacuated.

General Scott is an amalgam of hawkish Joint Chief's at the time, and his role as Chief of Staff of the Air Force echoes General Curtis Lemay who was critical of the Kennedy administration during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

A soldier at ECOMCON is wearing the shoulder sleeve of an arrowhead with a sword crossed by three lightening bolts. This is the insignia of the 1st Special Forces Group – which had only recently been reconstituted (1955) following its WWII roots.