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.