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 He was never caught—but he provided Sheehan with an unpublished memoir in which he confessed the scheme.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.”

 

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