Charles W. Bailey II, a journalist who co-wrote gripping books of military history and political intrigue such as the Cold War potboiler “Seven Days in May,” about a right-wing general scheming to oust the president, died Jan. 3 at a nursing home in Englewood, N.J. He was 82.
He had complications from Parkinson’s disease, said his daughter Victoria Bailey.
Mr. Bailey spent much of his career with Cowles Publications, eventually becoming top editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune before quitting in 1982 to protest staffing cuts. He achieved national recognition for three books he wrote in the 1960s with Fletcher Knebel, a Cowles colleague.
Their most commercially successful collaboration was “Seven Days in May.” It concerned a megalomaniacal general on the Joint Chiefs of Staff who plots a coup against the commander in chief for making an overture of nuclear detente with the Soviets.
The book spent months on the bestseller lists, sold millions of copies and became a taut 1964 film starring Burt Lancaster as the general, Fredric March as the president and Edmond O’Brien in a colorful supporting role of an alcoholic Southern senator. Rod Serling, creator of the TV series “The Twilight Zone,” wrote the screenplay.
“Seven Days in May,” like the nuclear fallout novel “Fail-Safe” by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler, derived its power from its timeliness. Published in the era of the Cuban missile crisis and amid fears of Communist world dominance, “Seven Days in May” offered a page-turning tale of conspiracy at the highest political levels.
The story resonated widely with its themes of nuclear disarmament and patriotic chest-thumping and remains an enduring warning about would-be saviors of democracy who cloak themselves in the American flag.
“The enemy is an age, a nuclear age,” says the president in the film. “Out of this comes a sickness. And every now and then, we look for a man in red, white and blue.”
Knebel said he developed the idea for the book while interviewing Gen. Curtis LeMay, the Air Force chief of staff and nuclear hawk who made strong off-the-record criticisms of President John F. Kennedy for not bombing communist Cuba. As he later walked by the White House, Knebel wondered why the military didn’t stage a coup.
The two journalists — Mr. Bailey and Knebel — had long been intrigued by the gravest danger of their age, nuclear confrontation. Their first book, “No High Ground” (1960), was a briskly written but comprehensive history of the Allied atomic bomb project during World War II. Among reviewers, it won favorable comparisons to author John Hersey’s classic volume “Hiroshima.”
Although the historical files about the bomb remained top secret and inaccessible to Mr. Bailey and Knebel, “No High Ground” offered what New York Times reviewer and military authority S.L.A. Marshall called “revealing side glimpses” of the project.
For example, they wrote that efforts by atomic scientists, including Leo Szilard, to oppose using the bomb on Japan were brushed off by politicians who needed to show something for their $2 billion investment in the weapon.
Mr. Bailey and Knebel’s final partnership was the melodramatic fiction “Convention” (1964), in which a presumptive Republican presidential nominee ignites a firestorm when he favors a limit on nuclear stockpiling. Critics dubbed the book “Seven Days in August.”
Charles Waldo Bailey II was born in Boston on April 28, 1929; his father was secretary to the corporation and board of overseers at Harvard University. He graduated in 1946 from the private Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire and in 1950 from Harvard University, where he wrote for the Crimson newspaper.
After college, he joined the Minneapolis Tribune and became a Washington correspondent in 1954 for Cowles publications, which included the Tribune and the now-defunct Look magazine.
He was the Tribune’s Washington bureau chief from 1966 to 1972 and subsequently spent a decade as the morning paper’s top editor through its merger with the afternoon Minneapolis Star. He then returned to Washington, where he served four years as an editor at National Public Radio. He moved to New Jersey from the District in summer 2011.
His wife of 60 years, the former Ann Bushnell, died in 2010. Survivors include two daughters, Victoria Bailey of Brooklyn, N.Y., and Sarah Bailey of West Hartford, Conn.; a sister; and two grandchildren.
His writing partner Knebel, suffering from cancer, committed suicide in 1993. Mr. Bailey wrote one novel alone, “The Land Was Ours” (1991), a multi-generational saga centered on a Midwestern newspaper.
He told the Los Angeles Times in 1992 that some of his most gratifying moments of his career were at NPR, where he worked with a series of hard-charging women reporters such as Cokie Roberts and Nina Totenberg.
“One of the things I enjoyed so much about supervising so many women at NPR was that they told you what they thought, how they felt and what they were angry about,” he said.
“There’s a premium in journalism in not revealing your feelings,” he added. “It’s a corollary of objectivity, the disinterested approach to the story we’re working on. But we all know we have feelings. Men just suppress them.”