The First Team (novel)

The First Team (novel)

The First Team is a 1971 thriller by John Ball. The book is set in a future history of a United States living under a brutal Soviet occupation, at a date which is not specified but seems to be the late 1970's, and can retroactively be considered a kind of alternate history.

Ball is best known for having created the character of the Black detective Virgil Tibbs, who successfully challenges the racist society of the 1950's racist South, which established for this writer a solid liberal reputation quite at variance with the present book.

"The First Team"'s themes reflect the atmosphere at the time of writing, with the realization seeping in of the US having lost the Vietnam War. In the book, this was extrapolated into a far more crucial loss - namely, the Soviets succeeding in taking over the US without a shot being fired. Fictional depiction of the society under occupation clearly shows what the writer thought of various people and phenomena in the actual 1971.


The book begins with a Soviet governor already securely ensconced in the White House, and a young Air Force officer who tried to resist the occupiers being summarily executed on the White House lawn - without explaining exactly how things got to that dire pass. The reader is, however, made to understand that the Soviet takeover was made possible because of widespread cultural malaise. Undermined by Hippies and anti-war protesters, corrupt military-industrial complex producers who created faulty military hardware, weak-willed US Senators, and the super-power that was the USSR's propaganda machine (not to mention the Vietnam War's hangover), the USA was unable to defend against Soviet power. The country finds itself under an iron-willed Soviet bureaucrat, backed up by a vicious Soviet Colonel.

The Soviets embark on blatantly anti-Semitic policies, making no effort to reconcile them with Marxist ideology, and drive hundreds of thousands of American Jews into Israel, where they are housed in makeshift tent camps.

Small-time criminals soon turn into paid informers for the new regime. An unpaid collaborator is a hitherto popular singer, who openly welcomes the occupiers and tells his audience that "things could have been far worse" - whereupon attendance at his performances plummets. Rather than making use of him, the Soviets just ignore him and finally he is killed "by mistake" by a Soviet army unit that misunderstood his wish to welcome them on American soil.

Another character at whose misfortune the reader is invited to smile is an imprisoned radical Black leader, who expects to be set free by the Soviet invaders, only to find that they have no intention to lose such a trouble-maker as himself, and that in fact the new warden (a Russian woman) is far tougher than her American predecessor.

American students try to voice their protest but find the Soviet occupiers' response far more brutal than anything they encountered in the years of the anti-war movement. And a trade union official in an (unnamed) East Coast port, who tries to obstruct the occupiers, is summarily shot.

However, hope is not lost. The main protagonist - US White House interpreter Raleigh Hewitt, kept at his post by the invaders - comes to be recruited into a secret underground resistance organization, "The First Team" of the title.

It turns out that the fall of the United States wasn't altogether unforeseen, and that a very resourceful band of patriots was already in place, with considerable material resources - such as a well-equipped secret control centre - prepared for them carefully in advance.

There are months of careful preparatory work, secret manoeuvrings and counter-manoeuvrings, using especially the classic spying device of a small private brothel sited in a Washington. D.C. suburb - before the brave conspirators are ready to strike. This work includes the political conversion of a formerly-liberal Senator, whose son had been a patriot, killed by the Soviets during a planning session.

Key to ending the Soviet occupation is the "USS Ramon Magsaysay," a fully-armed and fueled nuclear ballistic missile submarine at a Navy yard in the San Francisco Bay. The "Magsaysay" is critical because all other US Navy subs had obeyed orders to put into foreign ports and be taken over by the Soviets, while the "Magsaysay" is readily accessible.

The patriots put a team aboard during a false "reactor emergency" (a subplot later used in Tom Clancy's "The Hunt for Red October") and manage to steal the sub -- without provisions aboard. The last part of the book involves the pressure of both sides not knowing whether the sub and its possibly starving skeleton crew has successfully escaped Soviet forces and reached a place where the missiles could be fired.

imilar Books

"The First Team" appeared more or less simultaneously with "Vandenberg" by Oliver Lange, dealing with the same theme of a Soviet-occupied United States, but far more pessimistically - with resistance (at least as mentioned in the book) restricted to a small group of oddballs in a corner of New Mexico. It is unclear which of the two influenced the other or if they were written independently of each other. They both are clearly part of the genre of Invasion literature, like "The Battle of Dorking" in 19th Century Britain.

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