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.