A Fiery Peace in a Cold War

A retro review from October 28, 2009 …

Review: A Fiery Peace in a Cold War: Bernard Schriever and the Ultimate Weapon, Neil Sheehan, 2009.Fiery Peace

Sheehan started out to write a history of the Cold War and its attendant arms race and then came across the story of Bernard Schriever, a man largely forgotten though he arguably played as large a role in space development – manned and unmanned, military and civilian – as many more celebrated figures such as his fellow German immigrant Werner von Braun (though Schriever immigrated when he was six). Fortunately, many of the major figures were still alive to interview when Sheehan started his project in 1993, and their personal recollections – as well as the traditional sources of the historian like other books and government documents – make this story of how America’s intercontinental ballistic missiles were developed fascinating.

What Schriever contributed to that task was not so much technical expertise – though he did have formal training as an engineer – but a knack for human engineering, for finding and leading and retaining the right people in his quest to develop the ultimate deterrent. His people developed new rocket fuels, scrapped von Braun’s designs for missile bodies, retooled Air Force procurement policies, developed new methods of project management and design, convinced a president to make their job the highest national priority, and, in one instance, produced fake intelligence to overcome Pentagon inertia. Schriever’s leadership also laid the groundwork for the manned exploration of space by NASA – literally in the development of Cape Canaveral.

Sheehan strikes about the right balance in going when giving the details of all these innovations – enough to get a sense of their significance and not a boring surplus. (Though there are bits of over explanation. For instance, did Sheehan or an editor really think we needed a definition of concrete?) Along the way, Sheehan sort of sneaks in an abbreviated version of his original plan. He covers not only major events of the Cold War like the Berlin Airlift and Cuban Missile Crisis but the deployment of intermediate range nuclear missiles in England and Turkey as well as some of the development of nuclear warheads small enough to put on those missiles. Sheehan makes all of his characters interesting and tries to put them in their historical context. For instance, though he is unkind to the later Curtis LeMay, he covers his early courage and contribution to the strategy of airpower.

And, while he sometimes pulls away from Schriever to talk about larger historical events or other figures, we still learn why the American Air Force never forgot Schriever and gave him its first Space Command badge. By the time the book ends with Schriever’s 2005 death, we know why he was buried with the military’s highest honors.

However, when he talks about the larger context of the Cold War, particularly Soviet intentions and aggression, Sheehan is less convincing. Sheehan’s contention that Stalin’s Russia was not bent on world conquest seems hard to square with a regime which ordered NKVD death squads into Spain, promoted subversion through the Comintern, and tried to subvert local communist movements. And, even if he had some notion of the capitalist West falling on its own or engaging in civil war, are we really to believe that the USSR wouldn’t have taken advantage of a communist Western Europe after WWII – something Sheehan acknowledges was a possibility?

Still, despite Sheehan’s unconvincing portrayal of the threat the USSR posed, this is still a story of a great, unsung American and his contribution to not only our security but the fabric of our modern life.

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