Michael KreponSeven Days in May

Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb gets all the attention, but there are other great cinematic period pieces about the Bomb.

My suggestion for wonkish Netflix lists is Seven Days in May (1964).

Frederic March plays a wise and tired President – think of Ike, but without military service – up against a politically ambitious, spell-binding Burt Lancaster, wearing four stars. The President has somehow gotten the Senate to consent to a treaty eliminating nuclear weapons – artistic license, given that President Kennedy struggled mightily to persuade two-thirds of the Senate merely to stop atmospheric testing — an act that Burt Lancaster and his allies believe to be treasonous. Kirk Douglas plays the executive officer torn between his admiration for Lancaster’s wartime heroism and his duty to the Constitution. Ava Gardner plays the sloshy but somehow noble love interest. I loved the screenplay and the book, both by Fletcher Knebel and Chuck Bailey.

A treaty or convention banning nuclear weapons is not in the cards. Its pursuit adds more resistance than lubrication to the goal. Setting a time limit for this end state is like dictating levels of precipitation. Dates and numbers matter in this business, but trend lines matter more, and the trends that progressively devalue nuclear weapons the most are the absence of battlefield use and testing. I have long advocated the pursuit of zero nuclear weapons – without the hubris of setting an end date. We have a long way to go before reductions increase, rather than decrease, nuclear dangers. The pursuit of zero will therefore remain, for a good, long while, far less dangerous than the pursuit of larger nuclear arsenals. Those who argue that deep cuts engender proliferation also argue the exact contrary proposition – that outliers will go for the Bomb regardless of what those with a surplus of nuclear weapons choose to do. You can’t have it both ways unless you are implacably opposed to nuclear arms control.

A naturally regulating, atomic Archimedean principle seems to be at work here: nuclear reductions proceed to levels permitted by intertwined political and security concerns. False buoyancies will produce impermanent and disappointing results. The hard work involved in moving toward zero is never ending. Rewards include reducing nuclear dangers along the way and providing essential glue that maintains the global nonproliferation regime.

The most recent wave in support of zero has crested, leaving behind an altered nuclear landscape. The Gang of Four deserves heartfelt thanks. Messrs. Shultz, Kissinger, Nunn and Perry have much to be proud of. They have walked a fine line undermining nuclear theology without trashing nuclear deterrence, and they have encouraged lots of high-credentialed company. This wave provided President Obama the running room he needed to champion zero and to secure New START despite a Republican caucus in the Senate that sees little value in treaties. Zero will always be in the picture now, with periodic reminders like that given by the President to the British Parliament on May 25th: “And while we hold others to account, we will meet our own obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and strive for a world without nuclear weapons.” The difficult agenda that lies ahead is far less about zero as an end state than about the incremental, near-term steps required to get there.


  1. Daryl Kimball (History)

    Michael: Yes, “Seven Days In May” is an overlooked nuclear age classic with echoes of the present day debate on nuclear policy and disarmament. I wonder if there are any Kirk Douglases at the Pentagon today watching the president’s back?

    As you say, the course ahead will be tricky. Perhaps the big wave we been riding toward nuclear abolition over the past couple of years has crested for the moment, but its now our task to catch the smaller waves, avoid the rocks, and get ready for the next big one.

    • LOL (History)

      Generals today are too gutless, liberal, and careerist to mount a coup.

  2. Mark Lincoln (History)

    It is little known that Baily and Knebel modeled Col. ‘Jiggs’ Casey upon Major General Smedley Darlington Butler USMC who exposed a plot by the Liberty League to use the American Legion to remove Franklin Roosevelt in a coup.

    Butler, a quaker, won two medals of honor. He once said ‘Pacifist? hell, I’m a pacifist, but I always keep a club behind my back.”

  3. krepon (History)

    Chuck Bailey began his career as a reporter for the Minneapolis Tribune in 1950, rising through the ranks to become editor, a position he held until 1982. He got hooked on Washington, and some of us got hooked on his sage advice. Chuck served on the Borads of the Carnegie Endowment and the Stimson Center.

  4. Joe (History)

    I completely agree, Michael. I often cite this film as an example of how deeply felt and how now out-of-date are the arguments of those who would have us carry the burden and risks of a massive nuclear arsenal.

  5. Joe Cirincione (History)

    Clarification: I agree about the movie, not about this:

    “The difficult agenda that lies ahead is far less about zero as an end state than about the incremental, near-term steps required to get there.”

    The nuclear policy moment that we anticipated and worked so hard on for the last three years is indeed closing, as we enter the presidential election season. But it is not closed yet, and even during this period this is much to be done. Incremental steps and more for the next 18 months, and preparation for the possible re-opening of the policy moment in 2013.

  6. Reginald Van (History)

    I have been reading Hoffman’s Dead Hand and surprised how pro-arms control Reagan actually was. Great read.

  7. Reginald Van (History)

    What do folks here think is the major obstacle to nuclear arms reduction at the moment?

    • John Schilling (History)

      At the moment, I think the major obstacle to nuclear arms reduction is the lack of any percieved urgent need for nuclear arms reduction – excepting perhaps special cases like North Korea. But the Great Power nuclear arsenals are no longer seen as a great threat; the prospect of nuclear annihilation seems (justifiably, IMHO) remote.

      At the same time, as Michael Krepon notes, the prospect for Global Zero seems similarly remote. Which leaves us in the middle ground where it almost doesn’t matter whether the US and Russia have five thousand nukes each or only five hundred or any number in between. And for the other generally accepted nuclear powers, the numbers are similarly irrelevant – it is by now pretty clear that nobody outside of China really knows to within a factor of two how many deliverable warheads the Chinese have, and nobody laments this ignorance because there is no plausible circumstance under which it would really matter.

      Non-proliferation, that matters. And is a matter of some urgency to many people, for good reason. But if there is a real coupling between reducing established nuclear arsenals, and preventing the emergence of new ones, that case has not been strongly made.

    • Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

      I think the major obstacle to nuclear reductions is the lack of a real vision for the disposition of conventional arms in a nuclear free world. The disarmament community also does not address what happens when a former nuclear nation goes to war in a fight for its life.

      But that said, “Seven Day’s in May” has to be the best political thriller ever made. I first watched it as a teen in the 80’s and watch it at least every 10 years to see how I react to it. That movie, and Eisenhower’s “Farewell Address” leave me stunned with how each work still reflects the current reality over my past 30 years of observing American politics.

      When my mother used to nag me about who I’d finally marry, I’d kid back that I’ll marry the first woman who does not fall asleep when I put “Seven Days in May” on the DVD. ….. I’m still single.

    • kme (History)

      “But if there is a real coupling between reducing established nuclear arsenals, and preventing the emergence of new ones, that case has not been strongly made.”

      The maintenance and expansion of the existing nuclear arsenals by its very nature legitimises nuclear weapons possession, and conversely reductions serve to delegitimise them. Events like the nuclear disarmament of South Africa significantly boost the non-proliferation norm; events like the rounds of testing by France, Pakistan and India in the 90s serve to undermine it.

    • John Schilling (History)

      The possession of nuclear weapons by the Great Powers, by its very nature legitimises nuclear weapons possession. When the United States, or the United Nations Security Council, says to Iran or Brazil or whomever, “We have nuclear weapons and we say you should not have any nuclear weapons”, I do not believe the exact non-zero value of X plays any significant role in the response.

      A case like South Africa, where X actually went to zero, that’s a strong precedent for non-proliferation. Even a credible near-term prospect of such would do wonders. Actual growth of Great Power arsenals, would set a different precedent.

      But, “In exchange for your agreement to not have any nuclear weapons, we will reduce our arsenals from to “, is I suspect not seen by anyone as really persuasive. Nor is, “In exchange for your agreement to not have any nuclear weapons now or ever, we will agree to try and not have any nuclear weapons at some undefined time in the far future”. And those are the only credible arguments nuclear arms reduction can currently bring to the non-proliferation table.

      Nuclear arms reduction, worth doing but not seen as a high priority. Nuclear non-proliferation, a mostly distinct problem that comes down to finding a way to say, “We have nuclear weapons and we say you should not have any nuclear weapons”, and make it work. Preferably not the obvious way…

    • kme (History)

      It is not the value of X that is important so much as the first derivative of X with respect to time. A negative dX/dt is generally supportive of non-proliferation, and the converse is true for non-negative dX/dt. For example, if the UK were to decide that it could do without a replacement Trident, then it ought to be significantly easier to convince Brazil that it doesn’t need an equivalent, either.

  8. Mark Gubrud (History)

    Certain people in the peace movement rail against “minimal deterrence” because it fails to assert that nuclear deterrence is a myth, and against “arms control” and “the Beltway crowd” for proposing halfway measures and compromises with the Devil (e.g. a shiny new bomb-plex in exchange for a status quo SALT, er, excuse me, START treaty), instead of proclaiming the need for Abolition Now.

    Seems to me it is equally counterproductive (as well as infuriatingly smug) for well-funded arms controllers to disparage the call for abolition and a nuclear weapons convention with a clear program for disarmament and a date certain for achieving global zero.

    You say the latter is “not in the cards.” Well again, if so, I want a new deck, even if that requires some new dealers.

    Of course the current powers that be in Washington and elsewhere, for that matter, are not about to embark on an NWC. Of course what abolitionists are seeking is nothing short of a political revolution, a change in the regime which currently makes an NWC “not in the cards.”

    Is that so impossible to imagine, or to imagine working for? Look at what has happened with nuclear power: whether it has a future in any country is now uncertain. In Japan, plans for new nuclear construction have been suspended, and in Germany, a right-wing government has committed itself to zero nuclear power by 2022. Whatever you think of that decision, it is a true revolution, but it did not come only in the wake of the Fukushima disaster. It is no accident that Germany is the country to have taken the decisive step, after the antinuclear movement there built for decades and previously came close to victory as the country built the world’s strongest wind and solar infrastructure.

    Let’s hope the world does not need even one more use of a nuclear weapon in war before the revolution that will make abolition as inevitable as the ace of spades. But even if some further dramatic event will need to happen, the movement for abolition should be building today, and the idea and ideology and brain trust and advocacy of abolition should be supported, even as “halfway measures” are taken and plain old arms control continues its good work.

    For me, the great disappointment was that the revolution did not come automatically with the collapse of the “iron curtain.” In hindsight, of course, it was naive to have expected that, but still, revolutions do come, and they don’t come out of nowhere.

    A commitment to zero nuclear weapons, with a date certain, would be a revolution. Nobody who claims to want it should say anything disparaging against it, and all who are ready should work toward it.

  9. anon (History)

    “What do folks here think is the major obstacle to nuclear arms reduction at the moment?”


  10. Micah Morrison (History)

    “Dr. Strangelove,” “7 Days in May”–any other candidates for classics on the Bomb–cinema, fiction or non-fiction?

    • krepon (History)

      Betraying my age bracket, there’s also Sidney Lumet’s Fail Safe (1964), but Walter Matthau is woefully miscast.

    • JP (History)



      So horrible (i.e., realistic) I could only watch it in small doses.

      I guess “On the Beach” and “Testament” might also qualify.

      Damn those “classics” are demoralizing though. =)

  11. Wramblin' Wreck (History)

    Fail Safe – a movie that gave me nightmares when I first saw it. I remember the squeal of the telephone in Moscow and its ramifications. It still gives me chills.

    Interesting topic. Thanks!

  12. bobbymike (History)

    Now that The State Department has released deployed weapons counts I find it curious that New Start will only see the US remove warheads and launchers while the Russians can actually build up strategic forces and still be compliant. Seems like quite the treaty, not!


    Nuclear Zero, right, I’m still waiting for the Kellogg-Briand Pact to kick in.

  13. Heisbourg (History)

    “Wargames” (1983), a good Reagan-era film on the fragilities of nuclear command and control at NORAD. Conversely, I remember that a private screening in Paris of the “Day After” (which came out at around the same time) drew some sarcastic laughs from a selected group of survivors of conventional World War 2 bombings in Europe : the film’s portrayal of nuclear destruction looked pretty tame to them in comparison to some of what they had witnessed in their carpet-bombed cities.
    In a completely different vein,one can cite the whole Japanese ‘Godzilla’ series inspired by the “Happy Dragon” fallout incident post-test ‘Bravo’ at Eniwetok in 1954.

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