I have just finished reading Seven Days in May. This is the first time for me, and perhaps good that I can see it with fresh eyes.
It’s sometimes mentioned along with other Cold War fiction. It’s very much a product of its time, but there are resonances sixty years on.
The book was written in 1962. Before the Cuban Missile Crisis. Before John Kennedy’s assassination. Before the Civil Rights Act. The action takes place in 1972, but little is different from 1962.
There are all the superficial things of its time: cigarettes and cigars, the latter clearly used to denote masculine power; hard-wired telephones with extensions and telephone booths; typewriters, no computers; a fascination with air travel. Not so superficial is the vast power differential between men and women. There is a Black cabinet secretary, but he (of course) is quickly discarded as a part of the plot.
The plot is about an attempted military takeover of the government, which is (spoiler!) foiled. The authors are good at setting up suspense, although the correlation of coincidences is overdone.
The world situation is interesting – the US and the USSR have just fought a war over Iran, which has been partitioned. This was before Iran’s Revolution of 1979, so the Shah was on the US’s side. Thus the war was a loss for the US. But somehow a treaty (Republicans still voted for them then) was arrived at to disassemble all nuclear weapons. People were worried about nuclear weapons in 1962.
The treaty has divided the US and is the proximate cause for its opponents in the military to want to take control of the government from a weak president in their view. The leader is driven by both ideology and personal vanity – of course he could do a better job. Anothergeneral involved is hard rightwing. They have teamed up with an all-too-familiar rightwing radio personality, who will make the announcement on captured relevision and radio stations.
The plot contains the usual twists and turns, along with reasonably well-done suspense. It’s the nature of the resolution that speaks to today’s situations.
The President confronts the rebellious General. He has two damning pieces of evidence: a statement from an admiral that the General tried unsuccessfully to enlist, and income tax information about the General’s affair with a New York fashion editor. The President rejects using the second piece of evidence because that is the General’s private life, not to be touched. A number of the cast, perhaps including the President, have similar incidents in their lives.
The President agrees with the General that he will destroy the admiral’s statement if the general will resign, along with his co-conspirators. After putting up an admirably stone-faced pretense of innocence, the General agrees to resign. And the President actually burns the Admiral’s statement in a White House fireplace! The President’s less scrupulous allies accost the General after the President’s talk to tell him that if he tries to publicly rally support, the evidence of the affair will be used against him.
The President makes a speech to the nation, minimizing the reasons for the top-level military resignations. An epilogue in the form of a press conference with the stereotypically raucous male reporters shows how the President and press will gloss over the details.
To my cynical 2022 eyes, both the President’s speech and the press conference are transparently dishonest. But they are in a tradition that was still valued in 1962: the Wise Ones – white males of course – will take care of us peasants, and we needn’t know the details. Information about those men’s sex lives is to be held within the male group. In biographies of presidents written since 1962, we have seen how prevalent both of these male-supremacy attitudes were.
Or should we take the present tense of that verb? The President’s refusal to completely destroy a man who plotted a coup against him resonates with Mike Pence’s unwillingness to say anything against the man who would have seen him killed.
Over the weekend, Adam Davidson tweeted about Jeffrey Epstein in a couple of threads.
Everybody who had anything to do with Epstein knew what he was doing with young girls, Davidson says. Bill Clinton. Bill Gates. Major universities whitewashed Epstein for pay.
Men’s sex lives are something to be kept among themselves, the President, characterized as an honorable man, tells us. That seems to have been the rule for Epstein’s many guests and recipients of his philanthropy.
Reporters in 1962 enjoyed a wink and nod relationship with the President. They would press him, but they also knew the limits. Some were thoroughly on board with him. Reporters still like to play the inside game. A knowing straddle that doesn’t mind having one foot on authoritarianism.
Seven Days In May highlights the understandings that have contributed so much to what we face today. Congress and the media haven’t given them up. The nation desperately needs better.
Cross-posted to Nuclear Diner