Based on the novel by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II and directed by John Frankenheimer, because the President and Senate have made a disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union, the Joint Chiefs of Staff plot to take over the government during an alert.
Outside the fence of the White House people carrying signs are demonstrating for and against a disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union. A fight breaks out between the two lines, and after a while motorcycle police come to break it up and arrest people.
Inside the White House while Paul Girard (Martin Balsam) is circling a news article that Lyman’s approval rating has dropped to 29%. President Jordan Lyman (Fredrick March) sitting in an easy chair is dictating that in jurisdictional strikes there is the 90-day cooling off period. If industry tries to invoke Taft-Hartley, his support will not be voluntary. Lyman asks Girard how many men are involved, and Girard says the entire industry is affected from coast to coast. Lyman tells the doctor Horace an hour is enough and to leave him alone now. Horace says his blood pressure has been going up with each letter he dictated. Lyman sits behind his desk and says he has a riot going on outside. He sees the article on the Gallup Poll and notes how few people approve of him now. He says he has not had a vacation since he was six months old, and his doctor believes it. Girard reminds him of his CIA appointment at two. The doctor orders him to go away for two weeks and take few phone calls. Lyman says he will compromise by taking a quick swim. Senator Raymond Clark (Edmond O’Brien) walks in and asks what is new and then notes the mob scene outside. Horace asks why they elect a man President and then see how fast they can kill him. Clark pours liquor from his flask into a glass and says Vice President Gianelli showed discretion by going to Italy for a vacation. Lyman asks Clark to accompany him on his swim.
At the pool Lyman is drying off as Clark, who is still wearing his suit and drinking, tells him that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Scott, will be going before a committee Clark is attending today. He asks if the Gallup Poll shook him up. Lyman admits he has felt more popular. Clark says he knew there would be dislocations because you can’t gear up the economy for war for twenty years and then try to slam on the brakes and expect the transition to be quick. He says they have a whole psychology of how they have screwed up, and they have been hating the Russians for a quarter century. Suddenly they are signing a treaty that says both sides will dismantle their bombs. He believes the country may live as though peace is as big a threat as war. Lyman says they could have had a paradise with full employment and a large gross national product with the satisfying feeling that we have a bomb for every one of theirs, but one side would have blown up the other. The doctor is worried about his blood pressure. He points to the man with the black box. There are five of them, and one sits outside his bedroom at night. The box carries the codes by which he can give the orders to begin a nuclear war. He thinks Horace should worry about his sanity. Clark says that riots and unemployment notwithstanding he is an exceptionally good President. Lyman asks him to mention that to General Scott today. He takes the empty glass from Clark and advises him to try tea sometime. Clark says he will and leaves.
In the committee room General James Mattoon Scott (Burt Lancaster) tells the members that he visited the President and showed him a documented case listing the concerns. Three weeks before the treaty was ratified, three of them sat in committee and urged a re-evaluation of the treaty. Senator Frederick Prentice (Whit Bissell) interrupts and asks if he feels the treaty is inadequate, but Clark speaks over him. They argue, and the chairman says he would like to hear what the general has to say. Scott says he believes that signing a nuclear disarmament pact with the Soviet Union is at best naïve and at worst negligent. They have built up an arsenal and kept the peace because the enemy knew they would use it; but now a piece of paper will replace missiles and submarines, and an enemy, who has not honored any treaty in its history, will now do that. He says he has doubts. Clark tells Scott that he is interested in his military analysis, but they can dispense with his political advice. Scott says he is talking about the survival of the United States and asks if his uniform disqualifies him. Clark asks if his alternative to the treaty is continuing to build more bombs, bigger bombs, and better bombs until the time when some idiot presses the button, and they all go down waving the American flag. Prentice says he prefers that to a Pearl Harbor. Scott suggests that not one piece of paper in history could deter a Pearl Harbor. He asks why they have not learned that by now, but every twenty years they have to pay for that mistake. He reminds the Senator that those mistakes are paid for by peace-loving men with the lives of other men in uniform. Clark asks if they have ever forgotten to thank them.
Afterward Scott tells his aides that they listened, and Col. Martin “Jiggs” Casey (Kirk Douglas) says it was the most effective testimony he ever heard. They agree to go out for a drink, and Scott tells him that the alert on Sunday must be secret and as deep and dark as they can make it. Casey says he noticed that no one from Congress is on the list.
Casey goes into the Pentagon and his office with the Joint Chiefs of Staff. His aide Grayson hands him a Top Secret folder and urges him to read about the betting pool on the Preakness. He learns it came from Scott’s aide Murdock early this morning. Casey says his hero turned out to be a bookie, and he asks who it went to. Grayson lists several commanders around the globe, and he shows him a reply from an admiral declining to bet.
Casey goes into another office and is glad to see Col. William “Mutt” Henderson (Andrew Duggan) who says he is the exec of Ecomcon at Site Y. He has a house in El Paso and invites Jiggs to visit him. Casey tells him about a party tonight. Mutt says he can’t go because he is only staying in town until Col. Broderick briefs Scott. Casey thinks he is only good for armies that goosestep. Casey asks if his unit is fully staffed yet, and Henderson says it is with 100 officers and 3,600 enlisted men. He says it is odd that they spend more time training for seizure than for prevention as if the Commies already had the stuff, and we had to get it back. Scott’s aide Col. Murdock (Richard Anderson) comes in and tells Henderson that Col. Broderick is waiting for him. Henderson says goodbye to Jiggs and goes out. Murdock reminds Casey that the alert on Sunday is secret and makes sure he did not tell Henderson about it. Casey mentions the Preakness pool, and Murdock asks how he found out about that. Casey says Grayson is excited about race horses. Murdock says that kid had better learn to keep his mouth shut. Casey asks how he was supposed to know that the security of the nation rests on Admiral Barnswell betting $10. Murdock says that was the General’s personal business, and Casey asks why he is getting so hot. Murdock goes out, and Casey asks the operator for a listing for Ecomcon, but he finds there is none.
At the cocktail party Girard tells Casey why his boss Scott acted at the committee meeting as if he were Saint George, and the President was the dragon. Casey says they are getting sensitive, and Prentice thinks they are getting too sensitive. He says the President trusts Russia, but the American people don’t; they don’t believe the Russians will take those bombs apart on July 1. Girard explains that if the Russians renege, the deal is off, and they resume immediately without any danger. Prentice asks Casey about Russia’s ability to destroy us, but he steers clear of politics. Prentice asks Casey to give his opinion of the treaty. Casey says people do not like income tax, but they pay it. Prentice implies that Casey’s decorations are for neutrality and evasiveness, and Casey replies that the Senator excels at cocktail courage and dinner-table heroism. Casey excuses himself. Eleanor Holbrook (Ava Gardner) speaks to Casey who says he did not know she was back in town. She says he never looked. She is surprised at his voice of reason coming out of a military man. He says he has hidden talents. She suspected that since her ex-lover introduced them. She asks how General Scott is, and he says he is busy. She notes that many people think he is the savior of the western world. She tells Jiggs to take care of him and make him rest on the seventh day. She comments on military stoicism, and he asks why she is drinking. She asks what business it is of his, and he takes the drink from her. He takes her aside and asks if it is Scott. She says it is her whole life. He says she is not the first dame to end up on the bottom of the deck, but what matters is how one lives with it. He advises her to stop boring people with her tragic stories because sober she is a bright woman worth having around. She smiles and asks him to drive her home, and he agrees. Casey gets his coat, and Prentice asks him to forgive him for his outburst brought on by martinis. They step outside, and Prentice says he wanted him to say what he believes because the man he works for is the one who can get them out of this mess. He assures him that many on the hill will stand by him especially on Sunday. Casey watches Prentice get in his car in the rain and drive off. Eleanor comes out, and he tells her he has to drive out to Fort Meyer to see the general. He says it is very important. She says he is a great crutch, but it is too bad he only is available for twenty minutes at a time. He says sometimes he is available for an entire evening. He asks for a rain-check and says he will prove it. He says good night.
Casey drives his car in the rain and inside Fort Meyer. He sees Prentice’s car park at Scott’s house and sees it is 11:45.
Casey comes to work at 9 on Tuesday morning. Broderick sees him and asks if he is still protecting the great unwashed. He thought he would be a civil liberties lawyer by now and might make it yet. He hears he is doing a fine job as director of the Joint Chiefs. Casey goes into Scott’s office, and Scott asks how the party was. Casey says Girard and Prentice were there, and Scott says they must have quarreled over the treaty. Casey says Prentice was candid and complimented Scott. He mentions that Ellie Holbrook was there and that it was nice seeing her again. Scott tells him to get on with it. Casey shows him films of ships at Pearl harbor 12 minutes after a threat warning. Scott complains most of the fleet is still sitting there like over-fed ducks. Casey shows airplanes at Wright field 22 minutes after the alert, and Scott says half the aircraft aren’t even scrambled. Casey shows helicopters in the air 34 minutes into the alert, and Scott says the President is right out in the open. Scott stops the show, and Casey says there are thirty more shots. They hope Sunday’s alert will be better. Casey asks him to change his mind and invite some Congress people to observe the alert. Scott says none of them are to know about this. He says he persuaded the President to come down without the press. Scott puts on his jacket and tells Jiggs he wants to see him after this meeting.
Military officers go into the conference room. Later Casey goes in, and only Scott is still there. Scott tells Jiggs to keep the Preakness pool to himself and Admiral Barnswell’s reply as well. Casey notes that the Navy was not here today. Scott asks if Grayson is a gossip, and Casey says he means well. Scott says he is leaving for the AVO convention in New York, and he suggests that Jiggs listen in and tell him what he thinks. Casey wishes him good luck, and Scot goes out. Casey has picked up a crumpled piece of paper and sees that “Airlift Ecomcon” is written on it.
At 11:20 Grayson shows Casey his transfer to Pearl Harbor. He says Barnswell was the only one who did not come through on the racing form.
At home Casey turns on his television and sees people applauding Harold McPherson (Hugh Marlowe) who says his only interest is symbolized by their flag. He introduces and praises General Scott. They are in a stadium, and people chant, “We want Scott.” They become quiet, and Scott thanks the Senator. He says patriotism may be old-fashioned, but he says God will have to help them if the intellectuals ever convince them that these things have passed them by. He says patriotism and loyalty are the United States. While listening, Casey walks over to his phone and dials, asking for the White House.
Casey walks down a corridor and into an elevator. He is told that the President is expecting him in his study. He knocks, and Girard opens the door and tells him that this had better be very important. Casey goes in, and Lyman offers him a drink. Casey asks for a Scotch, and Lyman joins him. Lyman asks about the matter of national security. Casey asks if he has ever heard of a military unit called Ecomcon. He says no and asks what it means. Casey says he is not sure, but in military terms it could stand for Emergency Communication Control. Lyman and Girard have not heard of it. Casey asks Lyman if he has ever authorized any secret unit that has anything to do with securing television, telephone, or radio. Lyman says he has not. He asks if he knows of a secret unit near El Paso, and he says no again. Lyman and Girard sit down, and Casey says this is difficult because it involves a superior officer whom he admires and respects. Lyman tells him to get on with it. Casey sits down and says that yesterday he learned that his friend Col. Henderson is the exec officer of Ecomcon, and his superior officer is Col. Broderick. They are both from the signal corps in communications. They have 100 officers and 3,600 men training secretly at a desert base for six weeks near El Paso. What struck him was that Henderson said they were training more for seizing than for preventing. Lyman asks who set up this outfit. Casey says Henderson and Broderick both report to General Scott, and he assumes it must be him. Lyman notes that he works directly under Scott, but Casey says he must have been cut out for some security reason. Casey shows him the paper he picked up and says it is in General Hardesty’s handwriting. Lyman does not understand it. Casey explains that it stands for Air Force jet transport of this entire command from Site Y on Sunday before the alert to take those troops to Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, and Utah. Girard asks why Utah, and Casey says the telephone company has a large relay facility for its long lines in Utah. Lyman asks what he is leading up to. Casey says that General Scott has a pool going for the Preakness race on Sunday, and he sent orders to every prominent field commander to get their bets in on time. Admiral Barnswell was the only one who declined to participate. Lyman says General Scott’s interest in horses is not classified. Casey believes those messages have nothing to do with horses, but it is a code. General Scott wants those messages kept secret. The JG who decoded the messages is being shipped out to Hawaii. He says there are other things. At the party Senator Prentice indicated his awareness of the Sunday alert. Lyman says no one on the hill is supposed to know about that alert. Casey says Scott lied to him because he said he went to bed at 8, but he went to Fort Meyer to tell Scott that the Senator had found out about the alert. He saw Prentice arrive at his house at 11:45. Casey says Congress recessed yesterday, and Vice President Gianelli is in Italy, and this Sunday the President is going to be completely alone at an underground command post at Mount Thunder without even any press. Lyman says General Scott asked him to come alone. The President asks him to sum it up. Casey says there are capabilities, and Lyman tells him to speak plainly. Casey says there may be a military plot to take over the government on Sunday. Girard tells Jiggs he could be broken out of the service for what he said tonight. Casey says he thought about the consequences. Lyman asks Girard to comment, and he says it is incredible that a secret base could have been constructed without their hearing about it with all the people and supplies involved. He says it is not logical. Lyman says it can be checked out. Girard says he will call Conden at the Bureau of the Budget right now, and he goes out.
Lyman says he knows what Scott thinks of the treaty, and he asks Casey what his view is. Casey says he agrees with Scott that we are being played for suckers, but he thinks it is the President’s business. He did it, and they agreed. Casey says the military can question it, but they should not fight it. Lyman asks Jiggs if he stands by the Constitution, and he says that is all they have. He thinks it has worked so far, and he does not want to be the one who says it should be changed. Lyman agrees and asks if he has any bright ideas about what to do. Casey says no; he is just a buck passer. Lyman thanks him for coming to see him, and he tells him to call his secretary in the morning and keep her informed where he will be. Casey says it was a pleasure to get it out of his gut. He hopes he is wrong, and the President agrees with that.
Casey comes out and says goodnight to Girard. Lyman comes out, and Girard says that Conden says no money was ever used for something called Ecomcon. He concludes that Casey has a hell of an imagination. Lyman says he is not going to disregard his story. If it is true, they have only four days before Sunday. He says they need to make a list of people that he can trust. He needs the head of the Secret Service and Chris Todd. He asks for Senator Clark too.
At the meeting Christopher Todd (George Macready) says to believe in this plot they have to believe in Ecomcon which no one has heard have. He asks what makes them think it does exist. Lyman shows him the Hardesty note that refers to it and to Site Y. Todd says these are military games, and the multiplicity of our secret bases confuses us more than the Soviets. Secret Service Director Art Corwin (Bart Burns) says that Army intelligence checked on Col. Broderick, and his views are more than just extreme; they border on fascism. Girard and Todd say that is suspicious but not evidence. Senator Clark asks Casey about the communications center at Mount Thunder, and Casey says whoever controls it controls communication across the nation. Todd calls it rubbish. Lyman says the JC for the Navy was left out of the Joint Chiefs meeting, and there is the Hardesty note. Todd says that flying troops to big cities is prudent because during a Soviet attack they would need troops in the metropolitan areas to keep order. He doubts the logic that converts a betting pool to a plot to take over the government. Clark says he heard Scott’s speech last night and says he is obviously a dedicated politician. Todd says that is not proof of a military junta. Lyman calms them down and says they have exhausted their information and themselves. He believes there is enough evidence to proceed as if it could be true. He tells them his plan. Chris is to stay here to coordinate things. Art’s job is to watch the joint chiefs with men who can handle anything that comes up. He tells Clark to go to El Paso with the phone number that Casey will give him and find that base. Lyman says he does not have anyone else he can trust on this, and Clark says this may be his chance to do something important. Lyman tells Girard to take a note to Admiral Barnswell in Gibraltar and get his answer in writing. Girard says it is Wednesday evening, and he feels next week they will be laughing about this. Lyman tells Casey he has to be an informer, and he is to find out everything he can about General Scott. Todd objects, and the President says he is aware of his view, but he adds that if he is wrong, they are in for a nightmare.
Casey in the office is looking at a large projected map of the El Paso area. Scott comes in and asks if he is working late. Casey says he is checking some things so that there won’t be any foul-ups on the alert. Scott asks if there are problems in Texas, and Casey says no. He asks about the convention, and Scott says it was like a rat race with luncheons and dinners. He asks Casey if he heard the speech, and Casey says it was impressive. Scott asks if he is holding anything back. Casey says he thought McPherson was over-ripe. Scott agrees but says he provides a platform for him to state his views. He uses him and does not have to like him or trust him. Scott says the country is in deep trouble, and they can handle it in two ways. They can sit and ask for divine guidance, and he asks Jiggs what else they could do. Casey says they are a nation of laws and rules, and as military men they have taken an oath to uphold the Constitution. Scott calls that the democratic way, and Casey says he agrees with doing your duty and asking for divine guidance. Scott says he is absolutely right. He says Jiggs has been working too hard on this alert, and he looks tired. He suggests he take the rest of the week off. Casey says there are too many details on the alert, and Scott says Murdock will handle that. Casey says he should be with him at Mount Thunder on Sunday, and Scott says he will be. He is to check back in on Sunday, and he tells him to enjoy his three-day pass. Scott tells him to leave now, and Casey goes out.
At the airport Casey gives Clark the home phone number of Henderson and wishes him good luck. Clark advises Casey that Ellie knows more about Scott than almost anyone. He urges him to see her because there are many ways to protect the President of the United States. Casey gets into a car and sees McPherson come out and get into General Scott’s car. Casey’s driver says he has just been impressed into the Secret Service. They follow the car which lets him off by an alley. Casey and the agent follow him down the alley. They find Senator Prentice’s car in a space reserved for him. They hear footsteps and hide by that car. Scott walks by without seeing them.
A blackboard in the press room shows that all the President’s appointments on Thursday have been cancelled.
President Lyman has called General Scott early in the morning and sees him on a video phone. He tells Scott that he is not going to participate in the alert because he is tired. He is going to his own place at Blue Lake to fish for a few days. Scott says he does not like it because orders can only be given by him as commander-in-chief, and he does not think the Russians will be impressed if he goes fishing. Lyman says his decision is final. Scott asks when he is going there, and Lyman says probably late Friday. Scott wishes him good luck, and Lyman says goodbye.
Scott tells his secretary to hold his calls. He asks an operator for Col. Broderick.
Clark at a pay phone asks Mrs. Henderson if he can talk to her husband even though it is secret. He asks her to tell him that Ray Clark called. Clark is drinking, and a pretty woman sits down at his table. He declines to dance because he had a hernia operation. She was hoping that he was in the Army. She says Charlie bought the place because they were putting a new base here. She asks if he sees any soldiers. He asks how long the base has been here, but she does not know. She wonders what the country is coming to with all those guys sitting out in the desert never seeing any girls. He asks how far the base is from here, and she says about fifty miles. She says planes go in and out, but they never see any pilots. He asks how he would get in there. She says you can’t even see the place.
Clark is driving a car on a highway in the desert. He turns off the road, and a helicopter lands near his car. A man with a rifle gets out and approaches him.
Girard goes on to an aircraft carrier. Admiral Barnswell (John Houseman) says he is glad to offer him Mediterranean weather. Girard says he heard that he is not a betting man. Barnswell says it depends on the game. They talk about horse racing, and Girard asks about the Preakness. Barnswell says he only bets on sure things. Girard says he has one for him. He says the bet is that there are members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who are involved in treason. They know who they are and the essence of their plan. He wants a signed statement from the Admiral indicating when he first heard of this operation and his complicity in it. Barnswell wishes he had more time. Girard agrees and tosses him a pen, saying fortunately he doesn’t.
Ellie answers her door and lets Jiggs in. He is in a suit and tie and says he was in the neighborhood. He admits that is a lie and says he thought the country could spare him for an evening. She says she is fine. He accepts a martini. She asks what he has on his mind. He reminds her that she invited him. He suggests that they could talk about nuclear disarmament or other things. She suggests they could fall back on talking about Jim Scott. He says he does lock up the office sometimes. He says she is a beautiful woman, and she asks if he is finally making a pass at her. He says she could scream. He puts his drink down, and she asks if this is when she screams. He asks if she wants to scream. She admits she is vulnerable now particularly when it is an old friend she likes. He kisses her, and she asks him not to complicate her life right now and gets up. She asks if he wants another martini. He has followed her and gives her a prolonged kiss. He suggests they go to dinner, but she offers to cook something here. He says he has a good deal. She offers him a rare steak and the truth which is very rare.
A small Navy ship delivers Girard to land, and he uses a phone booth.
Lyman confirms that it is in writing, and he asks Girard when he can get back. He writes down the information and says he will see him for breakfast.
Casey looks at the picture of Scott, and Ellie says she does not remember his name. He asks why she keeps a photograph of a man she can’t remember. She drops the framed picture in a waste basket. He says that is an easy way to get rid of a ghost. He asks if she has any remaining symptoms. She says none she knows of. He says there is an easy test. She can talk about it and see if it hurts. She says she was in love with him and found excitement in his strength. She did not mind about the back street and sneaking time to be together stolen from his wife. She laughs and calls herself an emancipated woman. He tells her to go on. She does not know when it changed, but she came to realize that he did not really feel anything. She says he is a very careful man, and she doubts he ever took a real chance in his life or really felt anything. He was so sure of her that he even wrote letters. He says a careful man does not incriminate himself in writing. She says he is wrong about that. If he is sure enough, he can do anything to amuse himself. She gets the letters out of a drawer and says she told herself that she could use them to get revenge. She tosses the letters in the waste basket and says she was low but not that low. She kneels in front of him and asks if that is what he wanted and if that proves anything to him. He puts his hand on her shoulder and says he is sorry. She says he wanted her to bring it out into the open, and now it is. She asks if they can go from there, and he says sure. She gets up to repair the damages and to get back to that steak. She tells him not to go away. She walks out of the room, and he picks up the letters from the floor and waste basket. She comes back to that room, watches, and says it is a funny thing. She is not surprised at Scott. Casey stands up and looks at her. She says what cuts is that he sent Jiggs. He says he needs the letters, and the reason does not matter. She says he tried to soften her up with preliminary love-making. That was dirty pool because he did not come here to salvage her. She thinks he came to salvage Scott’s good name. He says if he could tell her, she would understand. She admits that she was a stupid, impressionable female who let an Air Force general use her. She knows she does not rate any applause. She feels that Scott did not want to dirty his hands collecting those letters; but Col. Casey is always ready to clean up the general’s privy. She slaps his face.
A film made for the President on Friday at Blue Lake is being shown in the White House, and Casey points out that Scott’s aide Murdock and Col. Broderick are in the boat with another man. Lyman says the rabbit laid bait for the fox. He believes if he had gone up to Blue Lake, they would have tried to kidnap him. Todd admits he no longer has any lingering doubts. Lyman says Chris is a good man, and he thanks Art for the work his group did this morning. Art says if Scott had to send Broderick from El Paso, he does not have many men he can trust either. Todd is looking at Scott’s letter, and he tells Casey he has unearthed dynamite that reveals Scott’s extracurricular love life. Todd says the taste of victory is largely because of Casey, but he says the taste in his mouth is unmentionable. Todd calls Scott a jackal, and Casey tells him of his many medals and high rank. Todd notes his sensitivity and asks if he stepped on his old school ties. Casey says he is like many civilians who want to put them away in mothballs after each war is over. Lyman stops them from quarreling and tells Jiggs he has a right to resent what he had to do. He knows it was a thankless job, and he deeply appreciates what he has done. He hopes he will never have to use these things against Scott. Todd says it may come down to bare knuckles. Lyman says he does not have to answer that now, and he believes that for the first time they are on top of it. The secretary Esther Townsend (Helen Kleeb) comes in and hands him a message. He says that Paul Girard is dead. She says his plane crashed in mountains outside of Madrid. Lyman walks slowly into another room and sits down. Todd joins him and closes the door. He says the President has to give out some statement, and he offers to draft one for him. Lyman asks what, and Todd says about his being away. Lyman tells him to say he was abroad on a vacation and nothing else. Lyman says he had two close friends in his life—Paul Girard and Ray Clark. One helped him to become President, and this man helped him to remain President. He cost Girard his life, and he asks where Clark is.
Clark is on the telephone and tells Senator Prentice he has been stuck in this oven for 24 hours. He warns him to be ready with a long list of answers. He says he heard him right, and he hands the phone to the soldier wearing a beret. The soldier agrees with Prentice and hangs up. He tells Clark that Prentice assured him that his committee was notified of the existence of this base. Clark says that story does not cut any ice. He says there is no record of any Ecomcon base or anything like it. The soldier pours him a drink and suggests he finish his dinner. Clark asks for the tour of the base now, but the soldier says they will wait until it is cooler. Clark sees the headline that Girard died in a plane crash. Clark talks to himself and Lyman that he is not going to make things worse by getting drunk on the job, and he pours the liquor in a toilet.
At the plane wreckage on a mountain a helicopter lands, and an American tells a Spanish officer that he is from the embassy. The officer tells him there were only two Americans on board. They have found no effects from the Americans.
Clark is lying on a bed, and Col. Henderson comes in and turns on a light and says he is Col. Broderick’s adjutant. Clark says Broderick must have a bartender who keeps bringing the bottles. Henderson says he got the message that he called his home; but he did not connect him to the message until he found out he was here. He is sorry he has to stay in his room, but the orders were very specific. Clark says he was calling for Jiggs Casey, and Henderson asks how he knows Casey. Henderson offers to get him a drink, and Clark asks if that is part of his orders to get him drunk. Henderson says no, but Clark says the bottles have been coming in every hour. Clark stands up and asks Henderson to sit down and hear him out. Clark assures him his mind is sound even though he has been cooped up there for a day and a night. He asks Mutt if he trusts Jiggs Casey, and Henderson says he would believe him. Clark says that when Henderson told Jiggs about Ecomcon on Monday, he had never heard of it before. He went over all the JCS orders for the last year, and there was no record of it. Henderson says that is impossible because Broderick goes to Washington often to brief the brass. Clark says not all of them. The briefing is very selective and does not include the President or himself. He says the government of the United States is as precarious as if it were on the top of the Washington monument and could fall at any time. He says only a few men can prevent that, and Henderson is one of them. He tells him to listen because he is going to tell him the damnedest story he ever heard.
Henderson comes out of that room and tells the sergeant in the hall that he is relieved. He is taking Senator Clark back to the barracks. They walk down the hall, and the sergeant calls Broderick’s office.
Henderson and Clark walk outside and get in an Army vehicle. Henderson drives it toward a plane. Another vehicle heads them off, and a sergeant says he has orders that the civilian is not leave the base. Henderson says he is countermanding those orders and is escorting the civilian into town. They hear a siren, and Henderson grabs the sergeant’s rifle and hits him in the stomach with it. Henderson holds the gun on the other soldier and tells him to eject the cartridge belt on the ground. He keeps two other men away and drives off into the desert.
At the airport Clark tells Henderson to wait while he calls the White House. Henderson gives him a dime to stop a revolution, and Clark goes to make the call. After talking happily he comes out and sees that Henderson is gone. He asks people if they saw the soldier.
Clark is in the office with Lyman who on speaker phone learns from Art that Henderson was brought into the Fort Meyer stockade this morning and is being held there incommunicado. Lyman takes a call from Admiral Barnswell who says he came on board with the President’s greetings and then left without giving him anything to sign. He denies signing any paper and says Girard took nothing with him. Lyman tells him if anything revitalizes his memory, he would appreciate a phone call. Lyman tells Clark and Todd that it is 2:20 on Saturday and that by this time tomorrow General Scott will be on all the television networks explaining to the American people why this crucifixion is an act of faith. He asks if it is sponge-throwing time. Todd asks what he is waiting for and urges him to fire Scott, Hardesty, Defenbach, and Riley for sedition. He should close down Mount Thunder and declare a state of martial law. Lyman asks then where will he stand as a lunatic who is paranoid because the evidence is scattered on a mountain in Spain, disappeared in a Washington airport, and remains only in a dipsomaniac senator. Clark says he has one last alternative, and that is to use the letters that Casey got from the girl. Todd says they are at the bottom of the barrel, and they have to use expedience.
In a television studio General Scott orders the network cutoff, and ABC, NBC, and CBS show only the symbol of civil defense. They return it to normal, and Scott tells him to try it again. Position B is Ecomcon at Site Y, and position C is Site X at Mount Thunder. Scott says that is good. An officer comes in and tells Scott that Witkowski at Air Defense is screaming bloody murder about those twelve troop carriers going to El Paso. They checked for El Paso and then were lost on the radar screen. He wants to know where they went and why. He also wants to know why thirty more are at Bragg with the same destination. Scott asks what he told him, and he says he told him it is classified and to forget it. He warns Scott that he will not stop at this and will go up to the President.
Witkowski tells President Lyman on a video telephone that he has been getting the big stall. There is some secret base out there, and he should have been notified about it. Lyman tells him to go on. Witkowski says thirty more of those transports are due there at 7 tomorrow morning, but now he heard it has been moved up to 11 tonight. Lyman orders him to ground all those aircraft and have them stand down. Witkowski says he understands, and Lyman tells him to phone in and tell him where he is. Lyman tells Chris he will like the next step. Lyman tells Esther to call the Pentagon and tell General Scott that the President wants to see him right away. Todd says they have to face the enemy, but Lyman says Scott is not the enemy. Even the lunatic fringe is not the enemy. He believes the enemy is the nuclear age because it has killed man’s faith in his ability to influence what happens to him. From this comes a sickness of frustration, helplessness, and weakness. From this desperation people look for a champion in red, white, and blue. Every once in a while a man rides by on a white horse, and people appoint him to be their personal god for the duration. For some it was Senator Joseph McCarthy; for others it was General Walker; and now it is General Scott.
Lyman is alone in his office, and Esther buzzes him that General Scott is here. He tells her to send him in, and Scott comes in. Lyman tells him to sit down, and he walks over and sits near him. He tells Scott not to worry about the papers he brought. They don’t need them tonight. He says they are not going to have an alert tomorrow. Scott asks if he wants the alert cancelled and asks why. Lyman says certain facts have come to his attention, and he won’t tell them all now; but he wants his resignation and those of Generals Hardesty, Riley, and Defenbach also. Scott sits back and says he must be joking, or he has taken leave of his senses. He says he knows of no reason why he should remove his name or that of any other of the joint chiefs from the active list. Lyman says he could give him the reasons; but if he wants him to list them, he can do so. He says Scott used without his authority substantial funds from the Joint Chiefs Contingency Fund to establish a base and train a special unit of troops whose purpose and existence was kept secret from him and officials responsible for the budget and members of Congress. Scott asks the name of the unit. Lyman says he knows it, and its designation is Ecomcon. Scott says his memory fails him because he gave him verbal authorization for the base and the unit. He says they covered many items that day, and he may not have noticed. He assumed he informed the director of the budget. Lyman asks the date of that meeting, and Scott says he can’t recall but that it was in this office last fall in November. Lyman asks if he has a record of the date and subject of that meeting. Scott says he does in his office, and he offers to drive over to the Pentagon and get it. Lyman says it won’t be necessary, and Scott agrees and says his aide Murdoch outside sat in on the meeting and will substantiate his memorandum as to the date and discussion. He says he will bring him in, but Lyman says no. He accuses Scott of keeping Senator Clark forcibly detained at this base, but Scott says he did not know that Clark ever visited the base. Lyman says Clark will also testify as to the collusion between the commander of the base and Senator Prentice who was one of the few who knew of the existence of the base.
Scott puts his papers in the briefcase and asks the President if he has any other charges. Lyman asks if he wants them in chronological order. He says he selected a man to command that base who is contemptuous of civilian authority over the military. Scott says he does not discuss politics with his officers, but he demands the highest competence. He says Broderick has an excellent combat record. Lyman asks about his travel record and what he was doing cruising in a boat around his home on Blue Lake, and he has him on film. Lyman asks about the kidnapping of Col. Henderson at the airport this morning. Scott says he knows about that. He says Henderson struck an enlisted man and left his post, and he is being held for disciplinary action. Lyman says he is being held incommunicado so that he will not tell what he knows. Lyman mentions his wagering activities especially the betting pool on the Preakness. Scott laughs and stands up. Lyman says it was his private code for the military overthrow of the United States Government. Scott asks if he is prepared to back up that charge. Lyman says he will brand him for what he is, a strutting egoist with a Napoleonic power complex and a traitor. He knows Scott thinks he is a weak sister; but when it comes to his oath of office and defending the Constitution—. Scott interrupts and says no one has to teach him how to salute a flag. Lyman says someone has to teach him about the democratic processes. Scott tells him not to presume to take on that job because he does not think he is qualified. Scott says Lyman’s actions in the last year have bordered on criminal negligence. This treaty with the Russians has no concept of security. Scott says he is a criminally weak sister. He accuses the President of violating his oath when he stripped this country of its defenses and played upon the fear and fatigue of the people and told them that they could remove that fear with the stroke of a pen. When the nation rejected him and began to oppose him militantly, he violated it by not resigning and turning the country over to someone who could represent the people of the United States. Lyman asks if that would be General Scott. He does not know whether to laugh at that megalomania or cry. Scott says he does not care about his own glorification, but he is concerned with the survival of the country. Lyman says then by God he should run for office. He asks why he does not have any faith in the system of government he wants to protect.
Lyman says he accuses him of duping the people and stripping their defenses and of having lost their faith and criminally refusing to hear the voice of the people. Lyman asks Scott where he has heard that voice and was it in dark alleys and secret places in the dead of night. He asks how that voice seeped into a locked room of conspirators. That is not where you hear the voice of the people, not in this republic. If he wanted to defend the United States, then he should defend it with the tools it supplied for him, the Constitution. You ask for a mandate from a ballot box; you don’t steal it after midnight when the country has its back turned. Scott asks if he is serious. He stands up and says he could walk out of here tonight and offer himself for the office of President, and by tomorrow night he would be sitting at that desk with the mandate he holds so dear. He says they both know it and that the country knows it. So don’t tell him he does not have any support. If he had the guts to call for a show of hands, Lyman would be on an airplane back to Ohio. Lyman tells him to wait for a year and nine months for the election. Scott says by then there will be no electorate. He thinks they will be sitting in their own rubble with at least one million people dead. On the gravestone it will say they died for Jordan Lyman’s concept of peace. Lyman gets up and walks over to Scott. He asks if he took over the nation by force, how long it would be before the Soviet Union broke the treaty and maybe even attacked. Lyman believes it might be only days or hours. He walks behind his desk and says he wants his resignation tonight along with the other Joint Chiefs. He tells him openly he will not tell the reason for his resignation. If that became public, he believes this country would go down the drain. He asks Scott if he will resign, and Scott says he will not. Lyman says he can demand it. Scott says he will not resign voluntarily nor will any of the others. Scott says he will take this issue to the people and demand a public platform. Then they will see which one the people will follow. He gets his briefcase and asks if there is anything else. Lyman opens a draw and picks up the letters. He says he has called a press conference for tomorrow. He puts the letters in the drawer and closes it. He says he will use as the reason their differences over the treaty. Scott says without proof he could not say otherwise; he wouldn’t dare. Lyman says he will fight him. Scott goes out.
Scott sees Casey and walks by him. President Lyman comes out, and Casey walks over to him. Lyman gives Jiggs the letters to return them to Miss Holbrook.
On Sunday afternoon at 3:36 three generals come into Scott’s office. Scott tells them he will be taping his speech in one hour, and it will be broadcast at 9 on all the networks. A general says this is strong stuff, and Scott thanks him. Another asks if the President will use his press conference to make accusations. Scott says he will use it support a position that is totally indefensible. The third officer says if he accuses them of sedition, this could be a sticky business. Scott says Jordan Lyman is finished no matter what he says in his press conference nor what he does after. He estimates that within a week there will be a movement for his impeachment. He says they are welcome to stay there and watch while he is at the studio. He says Col. Murdock will be there if he is needed. He says good day and goes out.
At the press conference reporters stand up as President Lyman comes in. The first question asks about his unpopularity because of the treaty. Lyman says his reasons for ratification have been stated and restated. They have reached a point on this Earth. A man comes and whispers to him, and Lyman asks them to excuse him for a moment.
Lyman goes into an office, and Casey hands him the cigarette case he gave Girard that was brought from Madrid by Whitney. Lyman finds the paper inside and reads it. Whitney says he is the only one who read it. Lyman tells him he is not to tell anyone anything about what he read. He tells them to delay the press conference for a half hour. He hands it to Clark and asks him to have it copied. Lyman tells Casey to see that Scott and the others get copies right away.
Scott and Casey happen to meet at the indoor entrance to the office of the Joint Chiefs, and Casey hands him a copy of the signed statement by Barnswell. Scott calls Casey a night-crawler and peddler who sells information. He asks Casey if knows who Judas was, and Casey suggests he read the letter. Scott orders him to answer the question. Casey says Judas was a man he worked for and admired before he disgraced the four stars on his uniform. Casey goes into the office.
At the press conference a reporter asks about the rumors that there will be a mass resignation of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Lyman says in a democracy once the President and Senate have decided as responsible authorities, then opposition among the military must come to an end. This is the way of war. He has asked for the resignations of General Scott and those of Hardesty, Riley, and Defenbach.
Senator Prentice and Harold McPherson go to Scott and tell him the President has asked for his resignation. Prentice says that Lyman got Admiral Barnswell’s statement that implicates all of them with names, dates, and everything. He asks how they are going to get out of this. Scott asks McPherson if he got his speech and asks when they tape. McPherson says he got calls from five network vice presidents. Scott asks if he gets on the air. Prentice says the last thing they want is publicity. Scott tells him to shut up. McPherson says it is out of his hands. Scott says he is going to Mount Thunder, and he will cut in on those broadcasts. Prentice says he has asked for their resignations. Scott says he won’t get them because Hardesty, Riley, and Defenbach are made of sterner stuff than they are. He tells them to go to hell and walks off.
Clark and Todd are watching the President’s press conference on a television backstage, and some papers are handed to Todd. He takes them to an aide who hands them to Lyman. He says the papers are the resignations of Hardesty, Riley, and Defenbach. Lyman says the purpose of the treaty is to step away from an offensive posture.
Scott gets into a car, and the driver has the press conference on the radio and asks him where he wants to go. Lyman is saying they will be able to avoid a nuclear war by accident or design. Scott tells him to take him home.
Ellie opens her door and tells Casey that his general has just been shot down. He has her letters and offers them to her. She asks if those were the bullets. He says they might have been, but they weren’t. She takes them, and he asks for another rain-check. She tells him tuck it somewhere safe so that he won’t forget.
Lyman says there has been abroad a whisper that they have lost their greatness, that they do not have the strength to win without war the struggles for liberty throughout the world. This is slander because the country is strong enough to be a peacemaker. It is proud enough to be patient. The detractors and violent men are wrong. They remain strong and proud, peaceful and patient, and they will see a day on this Earth when all men will walk out of the long tunnels of tyranny into the bright sunshine of freedom. He walks off the stage as the reporters applaud.
This political drama made during a dangerous period in the Cold War depicts the conflict over a disarmament treaty. The liberal President believes in democracy and peace agreements to avoid war while the right-wing generals believe in massive military force which enable their nation to prevent war with another power and dominate other nations. The story shows that the way of force violates the democratic processes and thus would take away freedom from the people while the ways of peaceful change allow freedom of discussion and free choices.