Seven Days in May, John Frankenheimer’s film about an attempted coup against a liberal Democratic President, was pushed into production by none other than John F. Kennedy himself. Kennedy, who had read the best-selling novel, published in 1962 by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II, and who was becoming increasingly concerned about about right-wing extremists like General Edwin Walker, contacted Frankenheimer through White House Press Secretary Pierre Salinger, who assured Frankenheimer that the President would arrange to be away at Hyannisport when he needed to shoot outside the White House. Frankenheimer would also have access to the White House administrative staff and the Secret Service. Arthur Schlesinger, a historian close to the Kennedy family, talks about how Kennedy’s concerns went all the way up to the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
There are are few things to keep in mind when you watch Seven Days in May from the perspective of 2014. In 1964, the national security state and the idea of permanent military mobilization was relatively new. The Pentagon was less than 20 years old. It was at least within the realm of the imagination that the United States could come to terms with the Soviet Union and disarm. John F. Kennedy hinted as much in his speech at American University the previous Summer. Then there was the threat of a nuclear holocaust. For the first time in history, the human race had the capability to destroy itself. Generals like Curtis LeMay occupied prestigious roles within the United States government. They commanded vast resources, billions of dollars, hundreds of thousands of men, and state of the art weapons. But some of them were also belligerent, insecure, and, occasionally, downright insane. Kennedy had removed General Lyman Louis Lemnitzer as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs in 1962, for example, after Lemnitzer had presented him with the plan for Operation Northwoods, the lunatic idea that to discredit Fidel Castro the United States government should mount false-flag terrorist attacks in Miami. Some writers have even gone so far as to speculate about whether or not Lemnitzer was behind Kennedy’s assassination.
Then there’s the figure of General Smedley Butler. All the way back in 1934, a group of right-wing businessmen allegedly approached Butler, who was a veteran of the Marine Corps and a two-time medal of honor winner, with their plans for a coup against President Roosevelt. According to Butler’s testimony in Congress in front of the McCormack-Dickstein Committee, Gerald P. MacGuire, who was supposedly a bond salesman for a company called Grayson M-P Murphy & Co., a group of businessmen, supposedly backed by a private army of 500,000 ex-soldiers and others, intended to establish a fascist dictatorship. They wanted Butler to lead it. JP Morgan, which Butler claimed was behind the plot, would install General Hugh S. Johnson, former head of the National Recovery Administration, as dictator. Franklin Roosevelt would be removed, and the New Deal would be over.
To be honest, even though it’s long been the conventional wisdom on the American left, Smedley Butler’s testimony sounds fantastical. You don’t approach complete strangers and ask them to lead coups. What’s more, Samuel Dickstein, the head of the McCormack-Dickstein Committee, was later alleged to have been a paid agent of the Soviet Union. Whether by Russian intelligence, or a clever American troll, poor old Smedley Butler, I suspect, got played. Nevertheless, there’s no question that a well-organized far-right did everything they could in the 1930s to kill the New Deal and discredit Roosevelt. What’s more, by 1964, these same far right-wing, anti-democratic, movement conservatives, who detested Kennedy almost as much as they detested Roosevelt, were ready to seize control of the Republican Party.
Seven Days in May opens with a charismatic General named James Matoon Scott, a loosely fictionalized Douglas MacArthur, leading an attack against a newly ratified nuclear disarmament. President Jordan Lyman, a liberal Democrat who seems partly John F. Kennedy, party Adlai Stevenson, is understandably worried. Already, there have been riots between pro and anti-war Americans in front of the White House. His approval ratings are hovering around 20%. His one dependable supporter in the Senate is a boozy old Georgian named Ray Clark. The economy has gone into a recession. Lyman is beginning to look like a lame duck President.
But then it gets worse, much worse.
Colonel Jiggs Casey is a well-respected, and very well-connected Marine Corps colonel who works at the Pentagon directly under General Scott. He’s a clear stand in for Smedley Butler. After Scott, a square-jawed, steely-eyed Burt Lancaster, testifies in front of Congress, and gives a rabble rousing, anti-nuclear-disarmament speech at Madison Square Garden, Casey, who’s played by Kirk Douglass, begins to notice that there’s something not quite right at the Pentagon. A junior-intelligence officer translates a coded message. Every member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, save for an Admiral Farley C. Barnsworth, is betting on the same race at the Preakness. Why would the entire high command of the United States military use top secret code to talk about a horse race? When Casey, who first dismisses it as a harmless joke, mentions it to Scott, Scott goes ballistic. He has the junior intelligence officer transferred out of Washington to Pearl Harbor. He orders Casey never to mention it to anybody.
One by one, things begin to add up. Casey goes to a cocktail party. Fred Prentice, a right-wing Senator from California, demands to know his position on the nuclear disarmament treaty. Prentice also reveals an insider’s knowledge about a highly classified military exercise that only the President and the Joint Chiefs are supposed to know about. Has Scott been leaking classified military information to Lyman’s political opponents? Casey then runs into Colonel Mutt Henderson, a good natured, but dimwitted man who unintentionally gives him information about a special division of the military called “ECOMCON.” ECOMCON (or Emergency Communications Control) has a base in the desert outside of El Paso, Texas, and over 3000 soldiers. Casey’s never heard of it. Henderson is chatty enough to give Casey a sense of ECOMCON’s mission, to seize control of the country’s telephone, radio, and television networks. Casey, who’s a conservative, but a man who still believes in civilian control of the military, comes to a horrifying conclusion. The Joint Chiefs of Staff are planning a coup. James Matoon Scott, a man he’s always admired, is contemplating treason.
Reluctantly, Casey decides to go to the White House and warn the President.
John F. Kennedy certainly got his money’s worth with John Frankenheimer. The unmasking of the right-wing coup, and the mission to shut it down, are crisply paced, and full of suspense. Lyman sends Paul Girard, his chief advisor, to confront Admiral Farley C. Barnsworth on his flagship at Gibralter, the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk. Girard bullies Barnsworth into signing a confession. He knew about the plot for the coup, but did nothing. Girard phones the President. The two are jubilant. On the way back to Washington, however, Girard dies in a suspicious plane crash. It’s never a good idea to bully a man with an aircraft carrier. Lyman also sends Senator Ray Clark to investigate the whereabouts of the secret ECOMCON base near El Paso. Clark finds the base, but is discovered, and kidnapped, eventually escaping with the help of Mutt Henderson, who he manages to enlighten about to the real purpose of ECOMCON. Jiggs Casey visits a high-society party girl named Eleanor Holbrook, and manages to steal General Scott’s carelessly written love letters. They’ll be useful to blackmail him if all else fails.
Seven Days in May is more exciting than either Dr. Strangelove, or the Manchurian Candidate, two similar films, but, after the focus shifts from Jiggs Casey to Jordan Lyman, it grinds to a halt. The last 20 minutes of Seven Days in May are dull and unfocused. It’s not that Frederic March, who plays the President, is a bad actor. Quite the contrary. He’s a superb actor. The problem is his character. Jordan Lyman is such a pompous bore that it almost made me feel like organizing a coup to get rid of him. After the American consul in Spain discovers the metal cigarette case Paul Girard had used to hide Barnsworth’s confession, and Lyman realizes that he has Scott and the Joint Chiefs right where he wants them, he gives Scot a way out. Resign, and he won’t be prosecuted for treason. My God, we think, how can Frankenheimer go through so much trouble to build Scott’s character into an effective villain, then deny us the satisfaction of bringing him down?
A good military strategist gives his enemy room to retreat so he won’t fight to the death. But Lyman goes even further. He begins to organize a coverup. Lyman wants to squash the coup, but he doesn’t want the American people to find out it ever existed. If Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon in order to avoid a full impeachment hearing, Bill Clinton shut down the Iran Contra investigation, and John Kerry refused to investigate voter fraud in Ohio, Lyman is almost as bad. If the real truth comes out, he maintains, it will tear the country apart. James Matoon Scott, in his own twisted way, was right. Jordan Lyman is a liberal elitist who doesn’t trust the American people, a neoconservative who’s willing to construct a “noble lie” in order to preserve the social order. Seven Days in May was released in February of 1964. A few months earlier, of course, John F. Kennedy, the man who pushed so hard to get the film made, was murdered in Dallas. Jordan Lyman’s coverup, his refusal to lay the facts about Scott’s attempted coup at the feet of the American people, and let them decide, inevitably makes you wonder.
Is there something about the Kennedy assassination “they” aren’t telling us?