Michael Dobbs Reviews Neil Sheehan's 'A Fiery Peace in a Cold War'

Sunday, September 27, 2009


Bernard Schriever and the Ultimate Weapon

By Neil Sheehan

Random House. 534 pp. $32

Less than six months after the end of World War II, Gen. Henry "Hap" Arnold, the father of the U.S. Air Force, remarked that the first world war had been won by "brawn" and the second by "logistics." The next war, he announced, would be "won by brains."

The stage was set for a global high-tech struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union, recent allies in the war against Japan and Nazi Germany. Unlike any war that had ever been fought, the Cold War was a battle of ideas as much as brute military force, in which victory would go to the side that was more technologically inventive and appealed to the largest number of people.

In his new book, "A Fiery Peace in a Cold War," former New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan describes one strand in this four-decade conflict, the race to build and deploy the ultimate weapon: the intercontinental ballistic missile.

The book comes two decades after the appearance of Sheehan's Pulitzer Prize-winning "A Bright Shining Lie," which told the story of the Vietnam War through the prism of Lt. Col. John Paul Vann, an adviser to successive U.S. military commanders. Sheehan uses a similar technique in his new book, focusing on a single Air Force general, Bernard Schriever. The son of German immigrants, Schriever was to the ICBM what Gen. Leslie Groves was to the atomic bomb. He was the organizing genius who mobilized the industrial resources needed for such a huge enterprise, picking the right people, enforcing a hectic schedule and lobbying the government for the necessary funds.

The intercontinental ballistic missile was different from all other weapons in the history of warfare. There was no known defense against a missile that could fly across continents at 16,000 miles an hour. An ICBM was armed with a one-megaton warhead, roughly 80 times as powerful as the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. It could reach its target in just 30 minutes, barely enough time for the leaders of the rival superpower to decide how to respond. Half a dozen such weapons would inflict more destruction than all the firepower of World War II. Whichever nation succeeded in deploying such a missile first would be able to blackmail the other.

Initially, it seemed that the Soviets had the edge in this race. The launch of Sputnik in 1957 shocked the American military establishment: The rocket used to fire a satellite into space could also be used to fire a nuclear warhead at the United States. But by the time of the Cuban missile crisis, in October 1962, the positions were dramatically reversed. The Soviets had 36 ICBMs on 15-minute alert, compared with 240 on the American side. According to Sheehan, much of the credit for engineering this turnaround should go to Schriever.

Unfortunately for Sheehan's purposes, Schriever is a less compelling, less tortured figure than Vann. The power of "A Bright Shining Lie" came from the mix of Vann's charismatic personality and Sheehan's personal involvement with the Vietnam story over many years; both elements are missing in "A Fiery Peace." Schriever, "the handsomest general in the United States Air Force," who died in 2005, comes across as an exceptional administrator almost colorless in his rectitude.

That said, Sheehan does an excellent job of describing, in terms that a layman can follow, the technical challenges involved in developing an ICBM and how they were overcome. His secondary cast of characters includes Curtis LeMay, father of the Strategic Air Command; the Hungarian mathematical genius John von Neumann; and the combustible Col. Edward Hall, designer of the first solid-fueled ICBM, the Minuteman, whose brother Ted was one of two key spies for the Soviets at Los Alamos.

Sheehan is also good at tracing the origins of the military industrial lobby and the twisting of intelligence for political (and commercial) purposes. He describes how candidate John F. Kennedy wildly exaggerated Soviet military strength in the 1960 election with his claims of a "missile gap" favoring Moscow (the United States already had a commanding lead at that point), and he credits Dwight D. Eisenhower with being "the last American president to believe that military spending which was not absolutely necessary was money wasted."

In the end, the nuclear arms race was self-perpetuating. According to Sheehan, weapons "were created simply because they were possible and the other side might create them if the United States did not." Once each superpower acquired the ability to inflict unacceptable damage on the other, there was little point to this competition. As President Kennedy remarked after the Cuban missile crisis, the prospect of even one Soviet nuclear missile landing near an American city was sufficient to deter him from ordering an attack against the Soviet Union. But fear trumped reason.

The meaninglessness of victory in a nuclear war had the salutary effect of shifting the superpower competition to other areas, in most of which the United States enjoyed a comparative advantage. Countries that had resisted U.S. military might ended up adopting free-market economic systems and opening up to the outside world. In Sheehan's words, the real contribution of the nuclear weapons designers was to help "buy the time needed for the Soviet Union to collapse of its own internal contradictions." In that sense, the ICBM was the first weapon in history that won a war without ever being used.

Michael Dobbs is a former Washington Post reporter and the author of "One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War."

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