Rocket Man

An epic tale of men, missiles, and bureaucratic maneuvering

Humanity is now some sixty years into the nuclear age and has, somehow, yet to extinguish itself. How that somehow came to be is the question that drives Neil Sheehan’s new book, A Fiery Peace in a Cold War: Bernard Schriever and the Ultimate Weapon.

Sheehan has written the best kind of biography, one that tells history through a central character. While Bernard “Bennie” Schriever is a compelling man—an independent-minded Air Force officer who foresaw and then built the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM)—the real story is of the bureaucratic hand-to-hand combat that led to that missile finally taking flight. Of course, crafting an engrossing five-hundred-page account of a bureaucratic tussle is no easy task. Yet Sheehan makes it work, employing some of the same depth of reporting and detailed storytelling that made a hit of his Vietnam epic, A Bright Shining Lie.

There are enough books on the atomic race—which turned out to be a two-country competition, the Nazis having given up early—to fill a bomb shelter top to bottom. The race to make the device that could deliver that bomb has been relatively ignored. This is surprising. For unlike the nuclear derby, this was a real competition, which began with the Soviets in the lead.

The budding military-industrial complex plays the role of antagonist in Sheehan’s tale, flatly unable to make a working ICBM but unwilling to let an upstart company edge its way in. Schriever, in pursing the missile, takes on the top ranks of that complex, from generals to the former-generals-turned-CEOs and the senators they bankroll.

The ICBM became feasible only when American scientists learned they would be able to make an extremely powerful hydrogen bomb weighing less than a ton by the late 1950s. Its explosive range would allow it to miss its target by a wide margin but still achieve its destructive purpose; its relatively light weight would allow it to be placed on the tip of a rocket and fired from thousands of miles away.

As Schriever saw it, the advance of anti-aircraft technology would soon prevent American bombers from reaching their targets in the Soviet Union. Perhaps just as soon, the Soviets would have a missile capable of hitting American cities in thirty minutes, with only fifteen minutes of advance warning. Left with no deterrent, the U.S. would be subject to either annihilation or nuclear blackmail. Conversely, if the U.S. produced a battery of ICBMs, Soviet destruction would be assured in the event of a Russian attack.

Such weapons, Schriever argued in a 1955 briefing to the RAND Corporation, would have the “highest probability of Not [sic] being used.” Since the Soviets would be “unlikely to miscalculate our capability to retaliate,” they would be kept in check. Indeed, if both nations possessed ICBMs, mutual destruction was assured—thus forging, through fear, the “fiery peace” of Sheehan’s title.

Schriever’s first bureaucratic knife fight was one that, by rights, should have left him bleeding out in an alley. His foe was the ferocious Curtis LeMay. During the firebombing attacks on Japan in March 1945, the iconic general had wanted to torch the country himself, Sheehan reports. He was denied the mission only because he had recently been briefed on the atomic bomb, and there was some fear that he might be shot down, tortured, and then reveal nuclear secrets.

Having crossed this moral threshold during World War II, LeMay was indifferent to the number of civilians (estimated in the tens of millions) who would die in a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. Nor did he realize that such an attack would kick nuclear dust into the atmosphere, bring about a nuclear winter in the Northern hemisphere, and effectively end life as we know it. For LeMay, the atomic bomb was merely a more efficient means of slaughter. It wasn’t something new entirely and it certainly didn’t need to be delivered by a missile. What, then, would be the point of the Air Force?

LeMay wanted it done, as it had always been, by his bombers. Schriever, ranking well beneath the legendary general, had already concluded that Soviet anti-aircraft technology would render LeMay’s bomber squadrons impotent. It was a prediction confirmed by the 1960 downing of a U-2 spy plane flying above sixty thousand feet, a height LeMay insisted would always be safe.

Convinced throughout the 1950s that the answer was simply to make better bombers, LeMay called on the defense industry to build faster planes that could fly at higher altitudes, repeatedly overruling Schriever. The friction took a toll on both men. At one point, fed up with his dogged underling, LeMay assigned him to South Korea. Luckily, Schriever managed to get the orders rescinded.

Sheehan has divided the biography into seven “books”—much as he did with Shining Lie. The first book covers Schriever’s experience of World War II and his singular logistical achievements. It also recounts one of the clever ways he moved through the ranks: Schriever was an amateur golfer before the war (reporters gave him the nickname “Bennie”) and aging officers were always happy to take him out on the links, where he worked his way into their good graces.

Schriever was lucky. As an officer on the way up when the war began, he quickly rose to command thousands of men. He was also skilled. Logistics, in the end, won World War II, and Schriever’s accomplishments are the kind that victory was built on. Studying his climb through the ranks gives hope that the military bureaucracy is, once in a while, capable of promoting its most talented officers and getting the best out of them.

Schriever was swiftly recognized for his logistical genius and pulled from bomber duty, where he had already been decorated for bravery. As the island-hopping Americans worked their way toward the Japanese mainland, Schriever fought his own private battles with his superiors, ensuring, among other things, that the troops had enough toilets and fuel.

In wartime, these bureaucratic battles were life-or-death. In the postwar world, they were still life-or-death—but in an abstract way, more difficult to explain to outsiders. Bureaucratic wrangling, in Sheehan’s tale, is war by other means.

Schriever, meanwhile, didn’t just oversee the construction of the ICBM—he thought it up. After hearing a Princeton professor give a briefing on the likelihood of a hydrogen bomb weighing less than a ton, he immediately conceived the future missile program. Why send a bomber if you can just send the bomb?

His epiphany leads to one of the book’s most poignant moral moments. In a waiting room at Princeton, preparing for a meeting with the professor who had delivered the briefing, Schriever sees Albert Einstein walk by. The two swap small talk, and Sheehan wonders what the famous scientist would have thought if he had known he was shaking the hand of a man doing the diametric opposite of what Einstein thought was right. (After the war, Einstein had grave regrets about his decision to back the creation of the atomic bomb.)

A good idea and a bus ticket, however, will get you to the gates of the Pentagon. Between there and execution stood more than just LeMay, although that speed bump alone was sufficient to drastically slow down the ICBM. There was also the old guard of the defense industry to reckon with. Boeing and the like were just fine at building workable bombers, but had no aerospace skills to speak of. That didn’t prevent them from lobbying at the highest levels to get the missile contracts.

It took Schriever years to outmaneuver the complex of interests in his way. He relied on every bureaucratic tool in the book, commissioning reports, stacking blue-ribbon commissions, working backdoor channels to the president, defying outright orders, and playing lots and lots of golf. (For the up-and-coming administrator, Sheehan’s volume is quite a primer.)

In one case, a man who would later become his trusted subordinate went far, far beyond the standard bureaucratic shenanigans. As Sheehan recounts, Col. Edward Hall fabricated designs for a Soviet rocket engine and had a friend slip them into intelligence channels as a legitimate report. With good reason, Hall feared that Eisenhower would cut the program’s budget in favor of Korean War spending, and wanted to up the ante. He was never caught—but he provided Sheehan with an unpublished memoir in which he confessed the scheme. (Incidentally, Hall’s treachery, however patriotic its motivation, seems to have been a familial trait: his brother, Ted Hall, provided the Soviets with key intelligence during the creation of the atomic bomb.)

None of this struggle over the ICBM came to light at the time. Quite the opposite. In the spring of 1957, Bennie graced the cover of Time, then at its zenith. Dubbing him “Missileman Schriever,” the magazine suggested that team spirit ruled the day at the Pentagon: “The history of the missile has little record of military unwillingness to accept it as the weapon that must be developed at top speed.”

Sheehan has corrected the record, and has clearly written a book for the ages—many years and more than a hundred interviews in the making. True, the sheer bulk can be something of an obstacle, just as it was in Shining Lie, or David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest. No detail seems to have been left on the cutting-room floor. Each new character is given several pages of background: how he met his wife, how close he crops his hair, etc.

It’s a Catch-22. The casual reader simply wants the story to get moving. The detail, though, is crucial, because bureaucratic battles are a clash of personalities and agendas, and a reader unfamiliar with those personalities and those agendas will never understand why one guy won and another lost. (By the way, this book is pretty much all about guys, an unavoidable fact given its time period and subject matter.)

A casual reader, too, might get lost on occasion. Take Sheehan’s explanation for the explosion, on the launching pad, of one of the first intermediate-range missiles: “The answer turned out to be not a complicated technological treatise, but once again an explanation as simple as the hot-box metal cupboards on the SAC bombers that had been destroying the vacuum tubes in the navigation and bomb release systems.” He’s referring to a logistical problem Bennie had worked out about a decade and three hundred pages earlier.

Schriever, we learn, was hardly immune to confusion himself, being obliged to deal with forty-two separate agencies and offices for each step of his program. Eliminating that approval process was one of his many accomplishments—and a typical triumph for a man who was driven to do things differently, to cut through it all. In the end, Sheehan’s story is a celebration of that great American icon, the loyal maverick. “Colonel, do you have any experience in test operations?” Schriever asks a man he’s interviewing. No, comes the reply. “Do you know anything about testing?” Again, no. “Good,” Schriever tells him. “You’re my director of tests.”

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Ryan Grim is a congressional correspondent for the Huffington Post. He is a former staff reporter with and Washington City Paper and is the author of the forthcoming book, This Is Your Country On Drugs.