1 October 2009
By Michael Beschloss
The New York Times
A Review of: "A FIERY PEACE IN A COLD WAR - Bernard Schriever and the Ultimate Weapon" By Neil Sheehan, Illustrated. 534 pp. Random House. $32
When we think about how America won the cold war, our attention tends to fasten on grand, public moments of presidential leadership, like Truman’s decision to resist Stalin’s designs on Europe, Kennedy’s settlement of the Cuban missile crisis or Reagan’s realization that he could “do business” with Mikhail Gorbachev. This is not wrong, but it elides other pivot-points, invisible to Americans even as they were happening, that, in retrospect, loom almost as important. The C.I.A.’s hidden success in assessing the Soviet war machine is one example. Another consists of the crucial Pentagon decisions, unheralded at the time, that ensured our ability to match Soviet power and enforce an armed stalemate between the two superpowers until, as George Kennan had forecast in the late 1940s, the Soviet empire collapsed from within.
A Fiery Peace in a Cold War,” Neil Sheehan’s deeply researched, compulsively readable and important book, is about one of those decisions. It reminds us that, as the founders warned, the survival of the United States depends on our ability not only to choose wise presidents, but also to maintain a federal government that attracts extraordinary talent at all levels. As Sheehan shows us almost cinematically, this was particularly true in the 1950s, when American leaders had to decide whether to keep resisting Soviet power mostly with strategic bombers, or to build an awe-inspiring force of nuclear-tipped missiles.
Those years constituted a historical epoch that is mainly important for the nuclear war that did not happen. The problem is how to dramatize a nonevent. Telling a tale that unfolded in conflicts behind Washington’s closed doors is more difficult than recounting the boom and bang of battlefields. But Sheehan succeeds by using the same technique he employed in his splendid book “A Bright Shining Lie” (1988), which focused on one man, Lt. Col. John Paul Vann, to tell the larger history of America’s tragic experience in Southeast Asia.
In the early 1950s, the champion of strategic bombers in the United States was the famous, truculent, imperious Gen. Curtis LeMay, the chief of the Strategic Air Command, who, during the last months of World War II, had tried to break Japan’s will and avert the necessity of an American invasion by dropping 150,000 tons of firebombs on Japanese cities. After the war, LeMay built a bomber force that for years ensured American military pre-eminence. It had the potential to drop nuclear weapons on targets across the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and China, killing, if necessary (in a 1954 classified estimate), as many as 60 million people.
As Sheehan describes it, the problem with LeMay was that by the mid-1950s, he “was no longer willing to hear anything that did not fit his preconceptions.” And he was convinced that the key to prevailing in the cold war would remain his bombers, which he touted as “the best delivery vehicle” in the “battle against Soviet air power.” LeMay even argued that the United States should “cease stockpiling of conventional weapons,” which he considered “obsolete,” and go all-nuclear, because America should “always use the best weapons available in either general or limited war” — a view that made many Americans ridicule and fear him when he publicly expressed it as George Wallace’s independent-party running mate in 1968.
In the Pentagon of the 1950s, LeMay was “king of the mountain,” as one colleague put it, known for pulverizing those few men who tried to stand in his way. Fortunately for us all, he met his match in the hero of Sheehan’s book, Gen. Bernard Schriever. Sheehan calls him “the handsomest general in the United States Air Force.” Born in 1910 in northern Germany, Schriever was brought by his mother to the United States in 1916 in order to reunite with his father, an engineering officer for German passenger liners, who had been stranded at the start of World War I. The family settled in the German-speaking part of the Texas hill country. After studying at Texas A & M, Schriever began his career in the Army Air Corps.
Lacking LeMay’s blinders, Bennie Schriever realized that the Soviets planned to rest their future defense not on bombers but on intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of striking the United States with only 15 minutes of advance warning. The Kremlin was also fast improving batteries of surface-to-air missiles that could knock LeMay’s beloved bombers out of the sky. Schriever feared that unless the Pentagon immediately shifted its ambitions from bombers to missiles, the Kremlin would within just a few years be able to threaten the world. Despite LeMay’s brutish efforts to marginalize him, Schriever became, as Sheehan writes, “the indispensable man in the creation of the intercontinental ballistic missile during the cold war and the enormous consequences that were to flow from it.”
Schriever’s new way of thinking began in 1953, when he was still a colonel. During a briefing on intermediate-range bombers at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama, he had a fateful conversation with the legendary refugee scientists Edward Teller and John von Neumann. They predicted that by 1960, the United States would be creating hydrogen bombs so lightweight that missiles could carry them. The following year, Schriever, by then a general, was asked to supervise, on highest priority, the creation of some kind of ICBM force. “I’ll take the job,” Schriever replied, “provided I can run it — completely run it — without any interference from those nitpicking sons of bitches in the Pentagon.”
On a matter like ICBMs, there was only so much that could be decided down the chain of command from the White House — especially when the sitting president of the United States had been the World War II Allied commander in Europe and was an expert allocator of existing resources to shape (or reshape) American military forces. In July 1955, along with von Neumann and others, Schriever had an audience with President Eisenhower in the West Wing. He explained not only the paramount importance of ICBMs and the “radical” new organization he had established near Los Angeles to develop them, but also why he had not handed the project over to commercial aircraft contractors, which was so often the custom of the time. This was all “in the interest of compressing time,” he said, “our most critical commodity.”
“Most impressive!” Ike declared. “There is no question this weapon will have a profound impact on all aspects of human life . . . in every corner of the globe — military, sociological, political.” One of Schriever’s colleagues observed that they had “introduced the president . . . to the nuclear missile age.” Eisenhower secretly ordered the Pentagon to build ICBMs with “maximum urgency.” That same summer, Schriever learned from intelligence sources how little time they had: the Soviets were already testing intermediate-range ballistic missiles.
Sheehan describes Schriever’s buccaneering techniques, his many bureaucratic struggles and shrewd collaboration with von Neumann and other scientists like Wernher von Braun, his public emergence (a 1957 Time magazine cover story called him “Missileman Schriever”) and his coolheaded reaction to the troubling “left punch” of the early misfires at Cape Canaveral. This was at the time of Sputnik, when Nelson Rockefeller, John Kennedy and other politicians were making wrongheaded claims that the United States was suffering from a “missile gap.” Schriever’s ultimate success can be counted in weaponry: by December 1962, the United States could boast 132 Atlas ICBMs to defend it against the Soviet Union. By then, too, four stars gleamed from Schriever’s shoulder. By that time, as Sheehan writes, “no Soviet statesman with a vestige of sanity could risk a surprise attack.” “We beat them to the draw,” Schriever later said.
Although he is mainly interested in his protagonist, Sheehan brings the other characters to life as well, and fully sets Schriever’s career in the historical context of the early years of American-Soviet confrontation. One complaint: Sheehan lists the most important sources he used to write each chapter in backnotes, but there is no excuse for a book of this quality to forgo footnotes or some other kind of annotation that tells us the precise source for each of his facts and quotations. This would be more of a problem if Sheehan did not have such a reputation for care and accuracy.
As for Schriever, who married a onetime pop music star and died in 2005, he proved to be a prophet with little honor. Before the publication of this excellent book, few Americans would have recognized his name. Indeed, he was pushed down the path to oblivion as early as 1961, when Robert McNamara and his self-confident “whiz kids” took over the Pentagon. Looking on Schriever as a relic of what they considered the somnolent, misguided Eisenhower years, they made it very clear that they did not want or need his services.
Michael Beschloss is the author, most
recently, of “Presidential Courage: Brave
Leaders and How They Changed America,