Cold War thriller packs contemporary message

Nuclear Warning
Nuclear Warning

During a military exercise, American bombers armed with nuclear weapons streak off past the fail-safe point, headed for Moscow.

Watching blips on the air command’s radar screen blink are a congressman and a manufacturer whose equipment went into the complex system intended to make the nuclear deployment program accident-proof. All hope fervently that the radar reports are wrong.

Russians watching their radar screens are also convinced the problem is in the display: nothing has prepared them for an attack or an American accident.

The President calls Krushchev.

To prevent an unprovoked attack on Moscow, the President first tries to shoot down the US planes. When that does not work, he seizes the only option available to avert World War III.

With that material to work from and their taut prose, Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler could not help turning out a thriller.

Fail-Safe, however, is not just a few hours’ entertainment. It’s a reminder that in any complex, untested system, the occurrence of several statistically improbable errors can bring the whole system crashing down. Perhaps if that lesson had been learned from this novel, the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico might not have come as such as shock to the American public.

Fail-Safe
Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler
McGraw-Hill, 1962
284 pages
1962 Bestseller #6
My grade: B+
Illustration Nuclear Warning 2 by Flaivoloka
© 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Ugly American Is Alive, Well, and Living Abroad

The Ugly American is less a novel than a series of related stories of Americans in Asia during the era of the Korean and Viet Nam conflicts.

William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick contrast the American foreign service staff in Asia with the Russian foreign service, basing their tale on actual people and events.  The novel’s goal isn’t entertainment, but persuasion.

America’s diplomatic core in Asia don’t speak the language, don’t know the customs, stick to themselves, never get outside the cities where their embassies are housed.

Worse, they reject advice from Americans whose language skills and willingness to interact with the locals give them expertise.

The Russians, by contrast, train their foreign service staff thoroughly before deploying them. As a result, the Russians win the hearts and minds of the people.  The Americans are despised.

The great — and horrific — thing  about The Ugly American is that it still feels real today. You have only to see newscasts of President George W. Bush shrugging off  the Iraqi shoe-thrower to see that Americans still have no appreciation of the cultures in which they have troops stationed. And post 9/11,we’ve seen how effective Mao’s embedded insurgents can be.

I hope you will read this novel— and that you won’t like what you read one bit.

The Ugly American
by William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick
W. W. Norton, 1958
285 pages
My grade C+
© 2009 Linda Gorton Aragoni