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Literature / Seven Days in May

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Seven Days in May is a Conspiracy Thriller about an attempted Military Coup in the United States. The story first appeared as a 1962 novel by Washington journalists Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II. It was adapted by Rod Serling into a 1964 Film of the Book, directed by John Frankenheimer and starring Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, Fredric March, and Ava Gardner.

President Jordan Lyman (March) is about to sign a treaty with the Soviet Union for the complete disarmament of both countries' nuclear weapons. This has caused a record slump in his popularitynote  and the public opposition of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the charismatic and respected USAF General James Mattoon Scott (Lancaster). Lyman is determined to proceed with the treaty regardless, but then a Pentagon officer, USMC Colonel Martin Casey (Douglas), approaches him with a shocking revelation. He believes that General Scott is planning a Military Coup, to be staged during a troop mobilization exercise at the end of the week. Although his staff are skeptical, President Lyman is not so sure. He now has only seven days to find proof that the most popular general in the country is planning treason, and stop him.


When the movie was being filmed, President John F. Kennedy gave the producers special access to the White House. The President would even conveniently arrange to visit Hyannis Port for a weekend when the film needed to shoot outside the White House. The Pentagon, in contrast, refused to cooperate at all, leading to the filmmakers doing a bit of covert filming outside the building with star Douglas in costume.

JFK — who was assassinated shortly before the film's release — considered the film so important because he believed the events in the book and movie could very well happen. After the spat between Douglas MacArthur and President Harry Truman, as well as JFK's own problems with his generals, he was well aware that there were those in the military who felt they should be in control of the country instead of him.


The story is said to have been influenced by the right-wing anti-Communist political activities of General Edwin A. Walker after he retired from the military. The authors got the idea for the book after interviewing then Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay.

Seven Tropes in May:

  • The Alcoholic: Senator Clark. At one stage when he's being 'detained' on a military base, the conspirators send in a bottle of his favorite bourbon every hour to keep him quiet. Clark has to keep pouring them down the toilet, which doesn't improve his disposition.
  • Alas, Poor Villain: General Scott walks out to his staff car and finds his military driver crying. Scott pretends not to notice, slumps back in his seat, and dejectedly asks the driver to take him home.
  • Background Halo: One scene has Colonel Casey standing in front of a US flag, and General Scott standing in front of a display of missiles.
  • Blatant Lies: General Scott claims that the president himself gave him the authorization (on a day when they covered a large number of issues) to create ECOMCON and the secret base they're being trained at when the president confronts him directly about the coup. Justified as Scott is too smart to directly admit to anything even though they both know he is lying.
  • Cannot Spit It Out: Colonel Casey can't bring himself to actually say the unthinkable — that there's a coup planned — and starts waffling until the President tells him to stop screwing about.
  • Chekhov's Gun: White House aide Paul Girard gets a signed statement from an admiral who was approached but refused to take part in the conspiracy. Worried about it being stolen on the way back to Washington, Girard hides the statement in his metal cigarette case. Thus it survives his death in a plane crash and gets returned to the US embassy with his other personal effects, Just in Time to save the day.
  • Day of the Jackboot: Unlike other fiction based on the same concept, Seven Days in May goes to great lengths to portray its subject realistically. There are no gunfights or car chases, both sides are operating covertly with only limited personnel, and an essential condition for any successful coup — the public relations factor — is an important part of the planning.
  • The Deep South: Lyman's ally Raymond Clark is a senator from Georgia (U.S.A.). In the novel, he can go between a Southern drawl and his normal voice at will.
  • Discreet Drink Disposal: Senator Clark has seen that a Colonel Henderson might know something about the coup. When he turns up at a secret military base demanding to speak to Henderson, the conspirators place Clark under temporary detention, sending in a bottle every half hour so he'll be too drunk to talk sense. Clark has to keep pouring his favorite bourbon down the toilet, which doesn't improve his disposition when Henderson does turn up.
  • Driven to Suicide: The novel implies that this is the fate of Senator Prentice, one of Scott's co-conspirators, who crashes his car when he learns that the coup has failed.
  • Empathy Doll Shot: A Spanish policeman finds a doll in the wreckage of a plane crash.
  • Engineered Public Confession: Averted. Even when the President confronts him with a direct accusation, General Scott never admits to anything.
  • Gullible Lemmings: Colonel William "Mutt" Henderson, part of the secret ECOMCON strike force, has no idea why he's training to seize communications assets rather than defend them until Senator Clark informs him of the plot. He then helps the Senator escape.
  • Hollywood Law: In the remake, The Enemy Within, the President, discussing with Col. Casey the coup that the military and members of the President's cabinet are plotting, says that the coup-plotters will have to do something to give the coup "the illusion of legality". They then realize that they plan to use Section 4 of the 25th Amendment to the Constitution, which allows a majority of the cabinet to remove the President temporarily by sending a letter to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives saying that the President is unable to discharge the duties of his office; permanent removal requires a vote of two-thirds of Congress. It eventually comes out that the conspirators are banking on the fact that the President has become so unpopular that two-thirds of Congress will go along with his removal. The problem is that that's not the "illusion of legality", that's actual legality. That is, what the "coup plotters" in the movie are doing is perfectly legal. In point of fact, there is no reason whatsoever to involve the military. In the original film and in the novel on which it was based, both of which, incidentally, came out before the 25th Amendment was ratified, the military was planning a straight-up coup.
  • Honor Before Reason: After seven days the President still doesn't have firm proof of the conspiracy, but he does have letters Scott wrote to his mistress, which his colleagues urge him to use to force Scott to resign. For a moment it looks like the President will use them, but he refuses to stoop to crude blackmail. However, in the novel Secretary of the Treasury Chris Todd and Senator Clark aren't so particular, warning Scott against seeking a Presidential nomination in the next elections. Todd: "The President is a gentleman. I am a trial lawyer; a mean son of a bitch."
  • Hypocrite: Scott at the end accuses Casey of being a traitor for warning the President about the planned coup. This from a man who was actively plotting high treason. Even from the standpoint of a personal betrayal it is hypocritical, as Scott kept Casey out of the plot even before he confirmed to himself that Casey would be against it. Casey throws it back in his face.
  • My Country, Right or Wrong: Colonel Casey also disagrees with the President's disarmament treaty, but has sworn to defend the Constitution.
  • A Nazi by Any Other Name: General Scott at the American Veterans rally.
  • Not So Different: At the end, hoping to bring Scott onto his side (or at least dissuade him from being his enemy), President Lyman asks him what he would do about the possibility of the Soviets cheating on the treaty if Scott were in power. After Scott replies, Lyman says that is exactly what Lyman is planning to do. Scott doesn't believe him.
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: For once this helps the good guys. When an Air Force general (CINC-NORAD, General Barney Rutkowski) complains about 'classified' flights that he hadn't authorized, the President realizes he's not part of the conspiracy and orders him to ground the aircraft at once.
  • Oddly Small Organization: The President and a few of his advisors, along with Colonel Casey, have to investigate the conspiracy themselves because they don't know how far the conspiracy spreads, or even if there is a conspiracy or just a plot to discredit the President by making him look like he's gunning for General Scott. However on seeing Scott's aide conducting a reconnaissance of the President's residence, they realise the conspirators are under the same constraints, given that they also don't know who to trust.
  • Reassigned to Antarctica: Averted when a Pentagon communications officer tells Colonel Casey about a seemingly-innocuous bit of gambling by some high-ranking officers (it's actually a code indicating their willingness to join the coup). Instead of a heavy-handed punishment detail, General Scott wisely has the blabber shipped off to a highly-desirable post in Hawai'i, and orders Casey to take a few days leave so he won't be in a position to observe anything else suspicious. This turns into a Brick Joke at the end of the novel, when the officer, now working in Hawaii, hears about Scott's resignation and thinks that President Lyman sure must hate gambling.
  • The Remake: By HBO as The Enemy Within in 1994, with Sam Waterston as the President, Jason Robards as the General, and Forest Whitaker as the Colonel. Updated for a post-Cold War world, and the conspirators planning to use the Twenty-Fifth Amendment to declare the President incompetent to serve.
  • Revealing Cover Up: Averted Trope. There's only one death under suspicious circumstances (of a White House aide carrying absolute proof of the conspiracy) and that's never shown to have been anything other than an ordinary plane crash. Two people who look like they've been 'disappeared' turn out to have been merely detained on various pretexts. The closest we get to this trope is when a conspirator angrily tells Colonel Casey to shut up about the gambling signal — it's this overreaction that first raises Casey's suspicions.
  • Rousing Speech: General Scott was to give this once communications had been seized. Even when the coup is foiled Scott still believes he can force the President's impeachment by arranging an interview with all the major networks. Instead it's President Lyman who gets the standing ovation at the end.
  • Shut Up, Hannibal!:
    General Scott: I asked you a question — do you know who Judas was?!
  • Strawman News Media: Type 3, with a dash of Type 5. The only member of the media given both a face and a name is a member of the conspiracy.
  • Tragic Villain: General Scott and presumably the other conspirators genuinely believe in the necessity of what they're doing. By the end, their military careers are destroyed, and Scott is left feeling that he has failed his country.
  • Treachery Cover Up: President Lyman decides that what happened must never become public knowledge, in order to preserve the idea that a military coup against the United States government is simply unthinkable.
  • 20 Minutes into the Future: The novel on which the film is based (published in 1962) is set in May 1974, after a stalemated war in Iran. The motion picture is set in 1970 and features the then-futuristic technology of video teleconferencing.
  • Video Phone: The President uses a video phone to communicate with Scott, and later with another Air Force general.
  • Waving Signs Around: The film opens with two groups of people picketing outside the White House—one group holding signs protesting the disarmament treaty, and the other group holding signs supporting the treaty. Fisticuffs ensue.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: General Scott believes he's acting in the best interests of his country, as he thinks the Soviets intend to deceive them about reducing their nuclear weapons. Although he's popular enough to run for office against the incumbent President, he thinks by election time it will be too late.
  • Wild Card: Vice Admiral Barnswell is approached to take part in the coup, but thinks it's too risky and declines. Knowing this the President sends his aide to force him into providing a signed statement about the conspiracy, which is lost when the aide's plane crashes on its way back to Washington, whereupon Barnswell claims he knows nothing about any such statement.


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