Adventures in Reading

Fail-Safe by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler

“We became prisoners of our machines, our suspicions, and our belief in logic.”

It has been weeks since I have wanted to watch a movie and the evenings are often my partner watching a movie while I curl up with a book. But after five minutes of watching the film Fail-Safe with Henry Fonda, I was enamored and ditched the book. It is a hypothetical “what if” story unfurling in 1960s America with the Cold War at the heart of it: what if a small technical glitch launched America or Russia into a full-blown war? And the answer is something quite terrifying.

My partner mentioned that we owned (who knew?) the book the movie was based on, Fail-Safe by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler and it immediately became the next title on my list. I could not put it down. I would have read it in one sitting if it were not for work. The movie is very closely based on the book with some clipping of character development and a minute amount of added drama injected. Despite knowing the conclusion, I was just as enthralled by the book as I was with the movie.

The first half of the book does a brilliant job defining the major characters through scattered observations of their life. A college class, experience with their family, goals and ambitions, a father’s influence, but this really does a perfect job in detailing the driving influences of the men in this book. And these men are all in positions of great power and influence and the story unfolds within the confinements of a small office and the War Room.

Fail-Safe is ripe with tension, fear, and suspicion that well defines the Cold War mind set. These traits push the plot line and create a believability and plausibility. With this conceivable mentality in place, the story is scarily accurate. In short, American bombers fly past the fail-safe point towards Russia and lose contact with American air bases. Because of America’s and Russia’s mutual distrust it becomes very dependent that the president, his translator, and the standby advisors develop a plan to take down the attacking planes and warn Russia.

The book jacket describes Fail-Safe as a “shock-thriller novel” and I must agree. I usually do not go in for military suspense books, but in Fail-Safe’s simplicity and perceivable truth there is a gripping story.

Fun facts: The books Fail-Safe and Red Alert both came out around the same time and both of these books would be adapted into movies. Fail-Safe adapted into Fail-Safe and Red Alert adapted into Dr. Strangelove or How I Stopped Caring and Learned to Love the Bomb. Both novels and movies had copyright issues resulting from the similarity. Dr. Strangelove was released in theater’s first and the movie Fail-Safe never lived up to its humorous and campy counterpart.


Right until your last paragraph, I was confused because what you were describing sounded exactly like Dr Strangelove. But now I understand. It’s interesting when things like that happen, isn’t it?

Comment by Christine

I was thinking about Dr Stranglove as well until the very end! It sounds like an interesting book, even though like yourself I don’t usually read military suspense.

Comment by adevotedreader

Christine: While watching the movie Fail-Safe I was positive that Dr. Strangelove must have been a satire of the more serious film. I was amazed to find out at the coincidence of the situations with the published book and movie.

adevotedreader: I was impressed with how much I enjoyed the book. I have tried other suspense novels before but have found them lacking. The suspense and military thrill is seldom enough to make me want to finish a book.

Comment by bookchronicle

[…] fiction, fantasy, or horror and I cannot recall ever reading a mystery or thriller book. (Though the book Fail Safe is a military thriller it is listed as literature.) No Comments so far Leave a comment RSS […]

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