A Fiery Peace in a Cold War: Bernard Schriever and the Ultimate Weapon

A Fiery Peace in a Cold War is the biography of a man, Bernard A. Schriever, who has profoundly affected the United States and the rest of the world since the early 1950s (he was the “Father of the Air Force’s Ballistic and Space Programs,” as his tombstone pithily notes), and yet before reading this book I had never heard of him, and I suspect that most Americans have never heard of him. Neil Sheehan puts his considerable journalistic skills in the service of doing justice to the man and his career. The results are, I’m sorry to say, often frustrating, but there is nonetheless a noteworthy—and nightmarish—subtext to be gleaned from this work.

Bernard Adolph Schriever (1910-2005) was born in Germany and brought to this country when he was seven. His father died a year later and Schriever, his mother, and brother had to survive grim circumstances in Texas; the boys even spent six months in an orphanage while their mother searched for work. In 1938 Schriever became a second lieutenant in the Army Air Corps and in 1941 the Army sent him to Stanford for a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering. Schriever was proficient in technology and administration, talents that would prove extremely useful both to his branch of the armed forces and his own vocation. During the Second World War he served in increasingly responsible positions as an engineering officer in the Pacific theater; when the conflict ended he was a full colonel.

The postwar years were not a happy or stable period for important members of this nation’s political, military, and scientific establishments: After defeating two heinous regimes, the United States now confronted Stalin’s totalitarian USSR. Sheehan is caustic about the anti-Communism evinced by American leaders of that era: “[W]here Communism and the Soviet Union were involved,” he writes of Dean Acheson, who served as undersecretary and secretary of state in the Truman administration, “he was an intellectual primitive.” (From my vantage point, a resolute skepticism of Stalin, one of history’s great monsters, and his thuggish successors seems justified.) Nevertheless—and somewhat oddly—Sheehan endorses the national security state that emerged in this country to impede Soviet power, a state that Bernard Schriever was an integral part of. In any case, when the Soviet Union exploded an atomic bomb in 1949 (the Soviets were aided in the construction of the weapon by the treachery of American spies), America’s rulers faced what they felt was an unprecedented threat to the safety of their nation and its allies.

In 1946 General Henry “Hap” Arnold, Schriever’s revered mentor, told Schriever that science and technology would be vital to the future ability of the Army Air Forces to protect the United States. Schriever agreed and was appointed to take charge of a new unit, the Scientific and Liaison Branch within the Army Air Forces’ Research and Engineering Division. Arnold had already initiated studies of the feasibility of various kinds of guided missiles. (During World War II, Germany had fired rockets at London and other cities, and “had worked out the drawings and computations for a two-stage rocket that would throw a warhead 3,000 miles, the first step in building a missile that could fly even farther to reach the United States.”) Sheehan writes that some years later Schriever had a Cold War epiphany:

The thought that propelled the United States into the race for the ultimate weapon—nuclear-armed ballistic missiles hurtling across continents at 16,000 miles per hour through the vastness of space—occurred to Bernard Schriever toward the end of March 1953. . .Many men would have found the thought fantastical, but not Schriever. His mind was receptive because he was so caught up in the opening years of the sinister arms competition between the Soviet Union and the United States, a rivalry that would help to bankrupt and dissolve the immense Soviet empire and bequeath America a national debt of colossal proportions.

Land-based Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) were vital to America’s defense, Schriever believed, because the nation’s bomber fleet, however formidable, wouldn’t forestall Soviet aggression. (Submarines armed with missiles weren’t even in the planning stage yet.) In 1954 the so-called Tea Pot Committee, an august government panel chaired by John von Neumann, a brilliant mathematician and super-hawk who urged launching a “preventive war” against the U.S.S.R., declared that an ICBM with a hydrogen bomb warhead—an apparatus that didn’t then exist—could be a viable weapon and could be deployed in sufficient numbers by 1962-63 to counter any Soviet belligerence. Later in 1954 Schriever accepted command of the Air Force unit charged with overseeing the development of America’s ICBM system.

The bulk of A Fiery Peace in a Cold War details—and I do mean details—how Bernard Schriever brought his assignment and vision to fruition. The difficulties Schriever and his team had to overcome were so immense as to seem mind-boggling. There were myriad technical challenges involving engine design, navigation components, fuel choices, telemetry (sensors) to relay information about flights. Infrastructure had to be constructed for launching missiles and monitoring missile tests (during a number of these tests, missiles exploded on their launching pads) and subsequently, sites for housing missiles and personnel had to be built in this country and overseas. Civilian contractors had to be supervised.

Complementing the technological hurdles were bureaucratic obstacles, rivalries (the highly influential General Curtis LeMay, the Air Force’s great champion of its bomber force, disdained ICBMs in general and Bernard Schriever in particular), and also coping with the press (Schriever appeared on the cover of Time in 1957), Congress, and especially President Eisenhower. And, as if administering the ICBM enterprise wasn’t enough for one person, Schriever was also in charge of the Air Force’s Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile and space satellite projects.

Despite the multitude of problems Schriever faced, by 1959 he would have been able to declare “mission accomplished” (more or less) when the first Atlas ICBMs—which could travel over six thousand miles—were installed at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Schriever retired from the Air Force in 1966 as a four-star general and died in 2005 at the age of ninety-four. He had lived his version of the American dream by providing his country with a weapons arsenal of astonishing efficiency and killing power.

Neil Sheehan is a highly regarded writer who acquired the Pentagon Papers for the New York Times in 1971 and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1989 for a book on Vietnam, A Bright Shining Lie. I respect the exceptional research and fairness he brings to his latest work, which is why it grieves me to report that A Fiery Peace in a Cold War is a grueling reading experience. This is a biography in which the subject disappears for long stretches and which fails to provide much of a sense of his personality and inner life. I also lost track of the plethora of other individuals in the book who were deeply involved with the U.S. missile venture. Compounding these travails for the reader is a narrative that is smothered under the weight of bureaucratic and technological minutiae.

Sheehan does provide a valuable service, I think, by focusing a light on a little-known peculiar and perverse world: the nuclear weapons kingdom of the 1950s and ’60s. During those decades, Americans encountered the Beats, rock ‘n’ roll, the counterculture, and the civil rights movement. In a parallel society untouched by those phenomena, intelligent, serious, purposeful individuals built and manned devices that, if used, would have obliterated our planet. The deeply disturbing inherent madness of that nuclear domain makes the military idiocies in Catch-22 and Dr. Strangelove and the techno-Liebestod of Gravity’s Rainbow seem trivial.

We are, of course, still living with the fallout (so to speak) of the nuclear arms race: the United States and Russia still brandish their nuclear toys while others clamor to join in the game.

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