History

The strange obscurity of Eugene Burdick

A best-selling author shifting millions of books in the post-war decades, a renowned public intellectual, a friend of celebrities such as Marlon Brando, a highly respected political scientist and famous enough to feature in an advert for Ballantine Ale, Eugene Burdick’s career was tragically cut short when he died of a heart attack in 1965, aged just 46.

He’s now an almost completely forgotten figure, so obscure that the majority of his books do not even have their own Wikipedia pages and the only people I encounter who know of him are those I’ve already shared the mystery of his obscurity with.

The unpopularity of his views on Vietnam – he combined liberalism with fierce anti-communism, making him a public supporter of the US government’s military intervention – don’t really explain this obscurity, especially as they triggered his novel turned successful Marlon Brando movie The Ugly American. Nor does his choice of topics, for three of his novels have themes which should make them frequent contemporary reference points.

The Ninth Wave, published in 1956, follows a political campaign complete with then cutting-edge innovations of opinion polling, computers and the use of campaign consultants. Though we now know – even in a world of Facebook and Obama – that data and numbers can’t quite predict and control political outcomes in the way the book lays out, the world has turned out close enough to Burdick’s picture of the future to make The Ninth Wave a prescient and still relevant story, and one that should be loved by people who are into the mechanics of politics, despite the rather uneven quality of the writing (caused in part by it being ‘written’ via dictation without subsequent editing.)

Loved too should be Burdick’s 1965 novel, The 480. The title is a reference to the 480 different groups the electorate has been divided into by that novel’s political campaign stars – a set of slicing and dicing closely based on the real work done for John F Kennedy’s 1960 Presidential election campaign by Simulmatics Corporation. Burdick had worked for Ed Greenfield, its President, though he didn’t go to work for Simulmatics.

As with The Ninth Wave, we know political campaigning has turned out to have a greater role for art than the pure-science envisaged in the novel, but once again it’s easier to see how the book could have remained a favourite of political geeks rather than one that faded into obscurity, especially given the JFK-approved veneer it gives to modern targeting techniques.

Then there is his 1962 Cold War nuclear drama Fail-Safe, co-written with Harvey Wheeler about a series of mistakes which result in a US nuclear bomber force heading off to obliterate Moscow. Made into a successful film directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Henry Fonda and Walter Matthau, its subsequent obscurity (save for a televised play in 2000 with George Clooney) is at least more understandable in that the year of the film’s release, 1964, also saw Dr. Strangelove hit the cinema.

Fail-Safe may have been a good movie (and you can enjoy the movie trailer below) but Dr. Stranglove, with a similar subject matter, was an all-time classic movie.

Indeed, Fail-Safe was so similar to Red Alert, the book on which Dr. Strangelove was based, that legal action was taken for copyright infringement, with a view to delaying the Fail-Safe movie until after Dr. Strangelove has been released. The result was both an out-of-court settlement and Dr Strangelove indeed getting released first. (Somewhat confusingly, this Burdick work was originally was published in Britain with a different title –Red Alert – and with the author using a different name, Peter Bryant.)

Yet none of that really explains why Eugene Burdick has so firmly disappeared from view. So if you like political thrillers, Cold War dramas or both – take a look at his work and enjoy.

10 responses to “The strange obscurity of Eugene Burdick”

  1. He taught a 2-semester course titled Social Sciences (?) at CAL in the early 1960s . . .changed my major from Engineering. Also drove a Jaguar XKE, (one of the very first)!

  2. Anybody noticed how the Trump phenomenon is almost an exact application of Burdick’s favorite aphorism: “Hate plus Fear equals Power”……

  3. I came across the ninth wave a few years ago thinking it was a surfing adventure story… Which it’s somewhat starts out to be.. anyways I quickly realized it was a political story but his writing style was so good that I finished the book. Since I’m not a fan of politics I looked for other books that he had written and I came across the Blue of Capricorn which is a spectacular expose on the Pacific Ocean. If you want a little break from your politics check it out.

  4. First read The Ninth Wave while in High School in 1970, then loaned it to my Political Science Professor in the the Early 70’s, and the copy was lost among the fellow students who wanted to read the book as it was not in the college library.
    Found a copy in Half Priced Books a year ago and re-read to find the book more relevant than in it’s first publication era.
    Timely then, and more timely now.

  5. I was in the Navy in San Diego when the book was published and, like others, thought it was about surfing and scuba so I bought it. It was a surprise to find it was about politics and very much on point of the then current political climate.
    Over the subsequent years it has proven to be even more relevant to the course of political campaigns and the efforts to manage the outcomes.
    I have recommended it to my friends a number of times and most were surprised at how much it tracks to our present day political issues.

  6. There is a bit of confusion about “Red Alert”.
    It was not written by Burdock at all but by a Welsh author called Peter George who did indeed use the nom-de-plume Peter Bryant. He committed suicide in 1966. Kubrick bought the rights to the book for reputedly very low sum.
    George/Bryant wrote several novels and was also credited with participation in the Strangelove screenplay.

  7. Fail Safe is a haunting book that I read at age 12 (and within the context of, ‘Duck-and-cover” which our 6th grade class had to practice a year earlier). Haunting within the general Cold War climate of, we can get microwaved dead in seconds from a Russian thermonuclear attack. Probably a whole generation of Americans suffering from vicarious Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. We lived in abject fear, 24/7 with the country’s main defense being, ‘mutually assured destruction’ (if Russia makes the first strike they won’t be able to knock out our ICBMs hidden underground, safe to counter attack and wipe-out Russia). I remember our 7th grade History Teacher saying that it would be easier for the US to wipe out Russia because their population is concentrated in only a few cities (whether accurate or not, I don’t know). But this comment illustrates the pervasive underlying sense of imminent doom.
    The Ugly American: My mother frequently referred to the ‘Ugly American’ in comments about then current geo-political events. It referred to America’s bungling of winning the minds of third-world countries susceptible to communist propaganda. I also read The Ugly American as an early teen and my reading it confirmed my mother’s insights. The Cold War construct of the ‘domino effect’ fueled our “police action” in Vietnam Nam resulting in 56,000 dead American soldiers and who knows how many Vietnamese. Ugly… ugly… ugly indeed.
    Here’s wondering how Burdick acquired his writing skills. It is not readily apparent from your report that The Ninth Wave was written by dictation, nor from what little I’ve learned about his educational background (studying Psychology at Stanford).
    Thanks for discussing Eugene Burdick.

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