John Frankenheimer’s “7 Days in May” (1964) may be a Hollywood movie but it is also an incredibly insightful account of the problem with Cold War thinking, based off of the book by the same title. At the time it was meant to be a lesson and warning to those who allowed themselves to be governed by fear and a fanatic belief that force was the only solution out of the Cold War stalemate, not irrelevant to our present day situation.
John F. Kennedy was very adamant that he wanted this movie made as quickly as possible and ensured Frankenheimer that all possible resources would be made available to the director and his crew.
The overall premise of the story is that General James Mattoon Scott (played by Burt Lancaster), who is a very highly respected figure within the American military, is deeply upset and disturbed over the President’s decision to sign a nuclear disarmament treaty with the Soviets in order to end the Cold War. It is believed by General Scott and certain members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that the Soviets cannot be trusted to honor such a treaty and that the President is being played as a fool. General Scott believes that there can be no resolution to this conflict except to show greater military strength against the Soviets.
Colonel Martin ‘Jiggs’ Casey (played by Kirk Douglas) is the General’s right hand man and is responsible for briefing the General on a daily basis on matters of high security. The Colonel has been working for the General for years and has much respect for the man. He tends to agree with the General that the President’s decision to sign such a treaty with the Soviets seems very risky. However, the Colonel’s overall perspective in the matter is that it is ultimately not up to him or anyone in the military to call the shots, but rather the elected officials of the country; which are the President, the Congress and the Senate. As a military man, he is to uphold the honor code, and ultimately the constitution, but not to make decisions for the future course of the country which is left to the people and those elected by the people.
For those who have not seen the movie and intend to do so, which I very much recommend, I will warn you that there is a spoiler alert after this point and you should watch the movie before continuing to read the rest of this review.
Very quickly into the movie, Colonel Casey (aka Jiggs) is confronted with numerous people coming up to him and referring to things that they assume he is aware of, since he is the right hand man of Gen. Scott, but he has actually never heard anything about. One particular striking reference is to a military base named ECOMCON and when Jiggs verifies this with the President who looks into the matter, it is revealed that there is no trace of such a base. At this point Jiggs has only been putting things together from hearsay, he does not have any hard evidence to present the President. Nonetheless he shares his concerns over what this could mean in the worst case scenario….a planned military coup of the government that is to occur that Sunday, only 4 days away. And that this military coup could be orchestrated by Jiggs’ hero General Scott. Despite Jiggs’ great admiration for the General, and his own uncertainty over the treaty, Jiggs understands the decision does not lie with him or the General, but rather the President and the Constitutional process. The President is put in a difficult situation of investigating the matter without letting it out to the wrong people that this is a suspicion.
A group of 3 trusted men are brought together by the President, along with Jiggs to investigate certain avenues. During their investigations into the matter they are able to solidly confirm that there is indeed a military coup under way, however, the evidence to this is thought to be destroyed in a plane crash (almost certainly by foul play).
The President intends to meet with Gen. Scott, to which one of his advisors states “I think it is time we face the enemy Mr. President.“
The President responds “He is not the enemy. Scott, the Joint Chiefs, even the very emotional very illogical lunatic fringe, they are not the enemy. The enemy is an age. A nuclear [weapons] age. It happens to kill man’s faith in his ability to influence what happens to him. And out of this comes a sickness, out of the sickness a frustration, a feeling of impotence, helplessness, weakness. And from this, this desperation, we look for a champion in red, white and blue. Every now and then a man on a white horse rides by and we appoint him to be our personal god for the duration. For some men it was a Senator McCarthy, for others it was a General Walker, and now it’s a General Scott.”
The President meets with Gen. Scott and asks for his resignation to which the General refuses to comply. The General knows that there is no evidence in hand of his planning a coup and he also knows he has a certain portion of popular support amongst the people who agree with a stronger military stance and are opposed to the treaty.
However, the President does not back down and there is an argument that ensues between the two on what the true democratic process is, and thus the true upholding of the Constitution. The President states”I am prepared to brand you for what you are General, a strutting egoist with a Napoleonic power complex and an out-and-out traitor. I know you think I am a weak sister General, but when it comes to my oath of office and defending the Constitution of the United States...”
General Scott interrupts: “Nobody has to teach me how to salute the American flag!”
President: “Somebody has to teach you on the Democratic process that that flag represents!”
Gen. Scott: “And don’t you presume to take on that job Mr. President…because frankly, you are not qualified. Your course of action in the past year has bordered on criminal negligence. This treaty with the Russians is a violation of any concept of security. You are not a weak sister Mr. President. You are a criminally weak sister. And if you want to talk about your oath of office, I am here to tell you face-to-face that you violated that oath when you stripped this country of its vessels, when you deliberately played on fear and fatigue of the people and told them that they could remove that fear with a stroke of the pen. And then when this nation rejected you, lost its faith in you and began militantly to oppose you, you violated that oath by simply not resigning from office and turning this country over to someone who could represent the people of the United States. ”
President: “And that would be General James Mattoon Scott, wouldn’t it? I don’t know whether to laugh at that kind of megalomania or simply cry.“
Gen. Scott: “James Mattoon Scott, as you put it, hasn’t the slightest interest in his own glorification but he does have an abiding concern about the survival of this country.“
President: “Then by God run for office! You have such a fervent, passionate, evangelical affection for your country, why in the name of God don’t you have any faith in the system of government that you’re so hell bent to protect? You say I have duped the people General, I built them, I misled them, that I have stripped them naked and left them defenseless. You accuse me of having lost their faith, deliberately and criminally shut my ears to the national voice.”
Gen. Scott: “I do!“
President: “Where the hell have you heard that voice General? In freight elevators? In dark alleys? In secret places in the dead of the night? How did that voice seep into a locked room full of conspirators? That’s not where you hear the voice of the people General, not in this Republic. You want to defend the United States of America? Then defend it with the tools that it supplies you with, it’s Constitution. You ask for a mandate General from a ballot box, you don’t steal it after midnight when the country has its back turned.“
Gen. Scott: “Are you serious Mr. President? Are you honest to God serious? Well I could walk out of here tonight and offer myself as candidate for the office of presidency and by tomorrow morning be sitting at that desk [the President’s desk] with precisely the mandate you hold so dear. And what’s more Mr. President you know it and I know it and this country knows it, so don’t say that I’d have seized an office tomorrow without the benefit or support. If you really had the guts to call for a show of hands, you’d be on an airplane right now back to Ohio.“
President: “You can ask for and get your show of hands General, just wait a year and nine months for something called election.“
Gen. Scott: “A year and nine months from now I don’t think there will be an election. I think we will be sitting on our own rubble, a minimum of 100 million dead and on the gravestone we can carve ‘They died for Jordan Lyman’s [the President] concept of peace‘. “
President somberly states: “General…General, did it ever occur to you that if you took over this government by force, you wouldn’t have to wait a year and nine months for the funeral? If the Soviet Union saw our government being taken over by a military dictatorship, how long do you suppose it would take them to break the treaty? Possibly even attack us? I think perhaps a question of days, perhaps hours, certainly weeks. I want your resignation General. I want it tonight, I am expecting it. Along with the other members of the Joint Chiefs who were involved in this treason. I’ll tell you quite unequivocally, I’ll not tell the reason for your resignation, if that were ever made public this country would go down the drain. Will you resign General?“
Gen. Scott: “I will not resign.”
The General states that he will take this to the people and let them decide. The President responds that he will be holding a press conference tomorrow to which he will publicly announce his call for the resignation of the members involved in the coup plan based on the reason of their differences over the treaty. The General responds that without proof he could never dare to say otherwise, to which the President responds “I will fight you.”
Gen. Scott goes on to brief the three other members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in on the coup plot. He tells them of the President’s plan to hold a press conference in order to support a position that Gen. Scott describes as wholly insupportable. Gen. Scott plans to also appear on television during the President’s press conference to appeal to the people to reject their President and support Gen. Scott’s takeover. The other members of the coup plot start to become nervous. One of them states, evidence or no evidence if the President accuses them of sedition it is serious. Gen. Scott responds that the President’s position over the treaty with the Soviets is so insupportable that he predicts the President will be impeached over this in a matter of weeks. That is, Gen. Scott believes that the President’s move to organise a joint disarmament of nuclear weapons with the Soviets and to potentially end the Cold War, is grounds for impeachment because in Gen. Scott’s view it is a violation of ‘security’. Let the relevancy of this not be missed to the present day situation.
Fortunately, the very beginning of the press conference is put on pause and the President is briefed that the evidence they thought they lost in the plane crash has been recovered. It is a signed testimonial from an Admiral about the coup plot to which he was offered to join but had bowed out. This was the hard evidence they needed. The President asks for copies to be sent to the four military members involved in the coup plot so as to push for their resignations.
The President resumes the press conference and is asked by a reporter to comment on the rumour of a mass resignation that is to be demanded of the Joint Chiefs of Staff over the treaty issue. The President answers: “In a democracy, once the President and the Senate as responsible authorities make a decision then debate and opposition amongst the military who, as you know, have opposed this treaty from the outset, must come to an end. This is the way in war, so it also must be in the councils of government here in Washington. I have had no choice but to ask for the resignation of General James Scott. At the same time, I have asked for the resignations of three other officers; General Hardesty, General Diefenbach, Chiefs of Staff of the Air Force and Army and General Riley, Commandant of the Marine Corps.”
Half way through the President’s press conference, broadcasted live on television, he announces that he has received 3/4 resignations, the only one remaining being Gen. Scott, who eventually does have reality sink in that all the support he thought he had within the government and military has buckled under the President’s public denunciation of their opposition to the treaty. The offensive opposition was made public and they didn’t even need to wait for the response of the people, the secret conspirators of the plot scattered in shame when exposed to the light of the public eye and all confidence in their actions towards a coup and a toppling of the government crumbled, showing itself to in fact be much weaker in the daylight than in the dark with its secret threats.
The President goes on to state “The point of this treaty, and I’ve reiterated this on a number of occasions, is that in every true sense we force ourselves gradually to step away from an offensive posture, that we gradually move away from, well, that moment of madness, where by sure accident or design someone would push that button… There has been abroad in this land in recent months a whisper that we have somehow lost our greatness. That we do not have the strength to win without war the struggles for liberty throughout the world. This is slander, because our country is strong, strong enough to be a peacemaker. It is proud, proud enough to be patient. The whisperers, the detractors, the violent men are wrong. We will remain strong and proud, peaceful and patient. And we will see a day when on this earth all men will walk out of the long tunnels of tyranny into the bright sunshine of freedom.”
And here the story ends, but for us it continues. Let us remember in our time where true strength lies.