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Fail-Safe (novel)

First edition
Author Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler
Country United States
Language English
Genre Thriller
Publisher McGraw-Hill
Media type Print (hardback and paperback)
Pages 286 pp
ISBN ISBN 0-07-008927-2
ISBN 0-440-12459-X

Fail-Safe is a best-selling 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 popular and critically acclaimed novel, released in late October 1962, 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 extremely similar to an earlier novel, plagiarism, settling out of court.


  • Title 1
  • Plot summary 2
  • Lawsuit 3
  • See also 4
  • References 5


The title refers to the "fail-safe point" used by the Strategic Air Command (SAC) to prevent a 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

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 US bombers being sent into the air to the fail-safe points. From here they can only proceed to their targets 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.

Due to a technical failure at the height of the alert, the attack code is 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 due to Soviet radio jamming, Grady cannot hear them. Concluding that the fail-safe order and the radio jamming could only mean nuclear war, Grady commands 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 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 Kennedy) refuses to consider this 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 "Skyscraper" supersonic fighters (F-106 Delta Dart) in the area engage their afterburners and shoot their rockets in a vain attempt to hit the bombers. The fighters crash into the sea and the pilots are lost.

The President contacts the Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev 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 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. Understanding 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 that "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 copilot agrees, noting "There's nothing to go home to", under the belief that the continental 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; this 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 this is the only way to prevent a worldwide nuclear war which will probably destroy humanity - '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 so as to assume all the responsibility; he then takes his own life.


The book so closely resembled the 1958 novel 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


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