Seven Days in May: The Cuban Missile Crisis Meets Watergate

The 1964 movie Seven Days in May in a fictional way combines the concerns raised by the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Watergate break-in. Seven Days in May is about a plot by the joint chiefs of staff to launch a coup because the president has signed a disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union under which both nations will simultaneously destroy their nuclear weapons under international supervision. Fletcher Knebel, the author of the novel on which the film was based, drew a portrait of the belligerent disloyalty of the military leadership that was inspired by Generals Edwin Walker and Curtis LeMay. (We have seen LeMay previously both as Robert McNamara’s mentor and as the inspiration for General Buck Turgidson in Doctor Strangelove.)

Predating the Watergate events by a decade, it incorporates the same story of disloyalty to the constitution at the top of an important American institution – the military – that is ultimately thwarted both by lower-ranking staff who resist orders to break the law and by the quick thinking of the civilian executive authority.

The movie has three particularly fine performances, Fredric March as the uncharismatic but strategic president Jordan Lyman, Burt Lancaster as James Scott, the charismatic but treasonous chair of the joint chiefs of staff, and Kirk Douglas as the colonel one level below the joint chiefs who discovers the plot and exposes it to the president.

The screenplay was written by Rod Serling, creator of the television series The Twilight Zone, and displays the tension and eeriness – heightened by black and white photography — for which The Twilight Zone became famous.

The best aspect of the film is the strategic intelligence and loyalty to democratic values displayed by President Jordan Lyman. When convinced that the plot was serious, he set out to trick the plotters by cancelling a trip to a vacation retreat where they had intended to kidnap him and, for good measure, ensuring that loyal staff secretly recorded them in action.

Ultimately President Lyman confronts General Scott, man to man, in the Oval Office, accuses him of treason, lectures him about the appropriate subordination of the military to the elected leadership, and demands his resignation. Scott refuses; the President does not resort to calling in a praetorian guard waiting in the corridor, but rather tells Scott that he will give a press conference the next day announcing the resignation of all the joint chiefs. The President is able to force the resignations of the other chiefs because he has a signed statement from a loyal admiral, and, with his support collapsing, Scott too resigns.

President Lyman displays calm restraint in his actions. Aware that word of an attempted military coup in the US would give the Soviets a pretext for breaking the treaty, he forces the military leadership to resign over disagreement with the President’s policy, rather than publicly accusing them of treason and exposing the plot. Similarly, he has evidence of an extramarital affair Scott has been conducting that could readily be used to blackmail or disgrace Scott, but ultimately destroys the evidence.

The movie’s best legacy is a portrait of political leadership acting intelligently, strategically, with restraint and with respect for democratic values. It looks back to Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis – his finest hour – and in narrative fiction, it is a precursor to the heroic presidency of The West Wing. Forty years after its debut, Seven Days in May is still a rewarding experience.

I won’t be blogging for the next two weeks – a bit of holiday – and look forward to resuming the second week of July.

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