Political Cinema: 'Seven Days in May' (1964)

Duane Townsend

World Socialist Website - June 19, 2020

On Monday, June 1, in an address to the American people delivered outside the White House, Donald Trump declaimed, “I am your President of law and order.” He proceeded to characterize the large-scale, generally peaceful protests in response to the murder of George Floyd and against police violence as “acts of domestic terror.”

If the marches and demonstrations did not cease, Trump promised to invoke the Insurrection Act of 1807 and “deploy the US military” on the streets of America’s cities, including Washington, D.C. Referring to the nation’s capital, the president went on, “As we speak, I am dispatching thousands and thousands of heavily armed soldiers, military personnel and law enforcement officers to stop the rioting, looting, vandalism, assaults and the wanton destruction of property.”

The following day, in a statement posted on the World Socialist Web Site, the Socialist Equality Party (US) explained that by this historically unprecedented threat to suppress political opposition through the use of the military, Trump had “repudiated the Constitution” and was “attempting to establish a presidential dictatorship, supported by the military, police and far-right fascistic militia acting under his command.”

Several thousand National Guard troops from 11 states were eventually brought to the area, to reinforce the 1,200 D.C. troops already called up. Moreover, Pentagon officials warned the Guard, according to the New York Times, that if they could not control the situation, “Mr. Trump would likely call in the 82nd Airborne.”

At this moment, political life in the US teetered on a knife’s edge. In the face of Trump’s dictatorial moves, the Democratic Party said and did nothing. The media largely remained silent. It was only on June 4 that Trump permitted regular troops to be sent home.

In fact, nothing has been resolved. As the SEP subsequently commented, “The conspirators in the White House have not ceased their plotting. The military is biding its time and considering its options. The police remain armed to the teeth.”

These “several days in June” brought to many minds the 1964 American film Seven Days in May, directed by John Frankenheimer and featuring Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, Fredric March and Ava Gardner, which envisions an attempted military coup d’état in the US. Based on the 1962 best-selling novel of the same title by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II, the movie was scripted by Rod Serling of Twilight Zone fame. Received warmly by both critics and audiences, Seven Days in May angered the Pentagon, the FBI and the extreme right. Both the continuities and discontinuities between that period and the present day stand out.

Frankenheimer’s movie, set in 1974, centers on a plot by the chairman of the US military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, James Mattoon Scott (Lancaster), an egomaniacal, authoritarian Air Force general, to overthrow the elected president, Jordan Lyman (March), convinced he must save the nation from a leader who is “soft on Communism.” Scott believes he has chosen an opportune moment: polls indicate only 29 percent of the population approves of President Lyman’s performance and the general mood in the country is sour.

The administration has recently signed a controversial disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union. In the film’s opening sequence, pro- and anti-treaty demonstrators brawl outside the White House gates.

Violently opposed to the agreement with the Soviet government, Scott sets in motion his attempted overthrow, with the aid and assistance of other members of the Joint Chiefs. An aide, Marine Col. “Jiggs” Casey (Douglas), gets wind of the plot and eventually convinces a skeptical president of its seriousness.

Under Scott’s plan, a secret US Army unit known as ECOMCON will seize control of the country's telephone, radio and television networks, while Congress is prevented from implementing the disarmament treaty. Scott has launched his plan with the complicity of Frederick Prentice (Whit Bissell), the powerful Democratic Senator from California, and right-wing television commentator and demagogue Harold McPherson (Hugh Marlowe).

Although personally opposed to Lyman's policies, Col. Casey is appalled by the plot. Alerted to the grave danger, Lyman gathers a circle of trusted advisors to investigate and respond, including the Secret Service’s Art Corwin (Bart Burns), Treasury Secretary Christopher Todd (George Macready), longtime friend and advisor Paul Girard (Martin Balsam) and Sen. Raymond Clark of Georgia (Edmond O’Brien).

Girard is dispatched to Gibraltar to extract a written acknowledgement of the conspiracy from the evasive Admiral Farley Barnswell (John Houseman), while Clark flies out to West Texas to locate the mysterious “Site Y,” the secret base at which the coup’s shock troops are training for the takeover and awaiting final instructions.

At the president’s request, with some reluctance, Casey pays a visit to Eleanor Holbrook (Ava Gardner), Scott’s former mistress, in hope of obtaining incriminating evidence against the general. In fact, he gets hold of some damaging love letters, but Lyman ultimately decides against using a sex scandal to rid himself of the Joint Chiefs chairman.

When Lyman asks Casey, a Marine and an admirer of Scott, what he thinks of the treaty with the Soviet Union, the latter replies that he does not agree with it, adding, however, “I think it’s really your business. Yours and the Senate. You did it, and they agreed so, well, I don’t see how we in the military can question it. I mean we can question it, but we can’t fight it. We shouldn’t, anyway.”

The president interprets this in his own way: “So you stand by the Constitution, Jiggs?” In fact, the US Constitution, appropriately enough, comes up for discussion or reference numerous times in the Knebel-Bailey novel, as well as the film.

The book, for example, describes Casey, in “a modest split-level house in Arlington [Virginia],” rubbing his eyes, turning off the lamp and laying down “a battered copy of the World Almanac. It was the only book he had been able to find in the house that contained the text of the Constitution of the United States.”

Later, Sen. Clark, seated in the White House, “separated from the President by only a wall,” has his feet propped up on a sofa and reads, “carefully, an annotated copy of the Constitution of the United States—something he had not done since law school.”

The opening credits of Seven Days in May roll over an image of the original 1787 draft.

Once having established the reality of the imminent coup attempt and with documentary evidence in hand, the president calls Scott to the White House for a confrontation. Outlining the facts that have come to light, Lyman bluntly and angrily accuses the Air Force general of planning “the military overthrow of the United States government.” He goes on, “I’m prepared to brand you for what you are, General. A strutting egoist with a Napoleonic power complex and an out-an-out traitor.” ...
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