Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler’s Fail-Safe explores the complex moral and ethical decisions that arise out of a dangerous situation. Published in 1962 the novel draws heavily on the fear of the Cuban missile crisis. It utilizes the shared fear of an accidental nuclear attack to present a hypothetical situation demanding of a near impossible decision. Fail-Safe remains a novel worthy of study because of the ethical and moral complications of the decision faced by the President. Fail-Safe attempts to offer a decision that has no perfect or easy solution. These decisions require a deep and personal knowledge of morals, in order to have the ability to make the correct decision. When no easy ethically correct solution stands out the decision becomes dependant on knowledge of metaphorical “line that cannot be crossed.” When all possible solutions require compromise on morals, it becomes necessary to know at what point it becomes impossible to compromise any further without losing the soul or meaning of the person. Fail-Safe aptly creates a situation that stresses this compromise onto a grand scale to evaluate the moral compromise more effectively.
Eugene Burdick (1918-1965), born in Sheldon, Iowa, and moved to Los Angeles at the age of 4. He studied at Stanford university and participated in the Rhodes scholar program to study at Oxford where he earned his Ph.D. in psychology. He returned to California to teach at the University of California where he took an interest in political science. His interest in political science led him to investigate the Cuban missile crisis and publish Fail-Safe with Harvey Wheeler. His interest in the possibility of accidental global nuclear war echoed the fears of the population during the stressing times around the missile crisis.
Harvey Wheeler (1918-2004) began his college studies at Wabash but took a break from his studies to serve in the European Theater of WWII. Upon returning he utilized the GI bill and finished his education at Indiana then moved on to Harvard where he received his Ph.D. He later taught at Harvard, Johns Hopkins, and Washington and Lee. After writing professional articles for multiple scholarly journals on many separate topics including the Cuban missile crisis he collaborated with Eugene Burdick to write Fail-Safe.
The carefully designed characters in Fail-Safe exist to supplement the focus of the novel on the difficulties of the impossible choice by offering contrasting views and beliefs. Each character has a carefully crafted back-story and over the course of the novel the authors attempt to create sympathy with many of the characters and the difficult position in which the world has placed them. By taking the time and energy to focus diligently on the characters, the authors create a believable group that work well together and succeed at creating suspense and wonder over the results of each action. Through the careful...