A Fiery Peace in a Cold War

Nikita Khrushchev’s Cuban gamble in 1962 was a product of the huge imbalance of nuclear weapon capability between the Cold War’s adversaries. In that year the Soviet Union had a mere 20 unreliable intercontinental ballistic missiles compared to the U.S. arsenal of 150 ICBMs, 100 intermediate-range ballistic missiles located in Europe and Turkey, and 50 submarine-launched Polaris missiles. The Soviet Union had 58 Bison jet bombers, restricted to a one-way, Russia-to-America range, and 76 ponderous Tupolev turboprop bombers that were sitting ducks for American fighters and surface-to-air missiles. The U.S. had a fleet of nearly 2,000 heavy bombers which could drop their nuclear weapons on any point in Russia and then fly home again.

Khrushchev thought that placing nuclear-warhead missiles in Cuba would counter this disparity of threat. His gamble brought the world very close to a terrible event; U.S. military estimates of likely casualties in the event of an all-out exchange were that 175,000,000 people would die in a devastated Northern Hemisphere. That was probably an understatement.

But although the USSR’s great lag in the arms race was what prompted that perilous moment, it was also what kept the peace, both then and for the rest of the USSR’s short and inglorious history. The idea of an ultimate weapon to ensure peace by being unusable seems crazy, all the more so for involving tens of billions of dollars to develop and mount; but at least for the duration of the Cold War it was an idea that worked. One of its chief architects was a career U.S. Air Force pilot and engineer officer called Bernard Schriever, a man of organizational genius who presided over the difficult conception, gestation, and birth of the United States’ ICBM force and rose to be a four-star general as a result. Neil Sheehan tells his story, which is also therefore the story of the U.S. Air Forces, its leading personalities, the origins and early history of the Cold War, and the vast technological, scientific, and military endeavor involved in equipping the United States with the its ultimate, all-powerful peacekeeping weapon.

Sheehan’s book is not only a multifaceted history and a technological handbook  but a multiple biography. Almost all the main players in the story of how America came by its ICBM arsenal have their life stories told by Sheehan. The cast is a glittering one, including “Hap” Arnold, whose prescient genius shaped the postwar Air Force, the fiery bombardier Curtis LeMay, such brilliant scientists and engineers as John von Neumann and Edward Hall, and a gaggle of civil servants, politicians, and presidents besides.

The main thread is provided by Schriever’s life and work. He arrived in the U.S. as s six-year-old immigrant from Germany in 1917. His father died not long afterward, and his mother heroically raised him and his brother by running a sandwich stand and working as a domestic servant, though at one point she had to house her sons in an orphanage. By a lucky accident the sandwich stand was next to a golf course; Bennie Schriever became an outstanding player, which at various points in his career proved socially and professionally helpful. He trained as a military airman, learning to fly under the command of three of the most significant figures in the U.S. Air Force: “Hap” Arnold, Ira Eaker, and Tooey Spaatz. In the Pacific Theater  during World War II,  he was taken off combat missions to organize the repair and maintenance of bombers, and his remarkable talent for the task earned him decorations and repeated promotions — and eventually, on Arnold’s personal instruction, the task of developing the USAF missile capability.

It is easy to think that the U.S. was gung-ho in its defense spending from the beginning of the Cold War onward, not least because the handsome profits made by the defense industry during the war had created an appetite for more. Schriever himself recognized that some of the corporations who had done well out of the war were keen to hang on to contracts because their profits were guaranteed, whether or not their research and development work bore fruit. Schriever wanted the fruit, and he wanted it because he believed the safety of the U.S. and the NATO alliance depended on it. Sheehan makes a good case for showing that there was justification for the urgency that lay behind the imperatives of military innovation.

For one thing, U.S. fear of Soviet military power was real, and there was no appetite to underestimate what Moscow’s scientists and engineers were capable of producing. Yet despite this, Schriever and his opposite numbers in other branches of the U.S. military had to struggle to get money for the weapons they regarded as necessary for deterrence and defense. Their battle was waged in part against administrations bent on curbing budgets — Eisenhower, president during the first crucial years of technical innovation, was a particularly reluctant spender — and in part against the senior officers who, in the way of these things, were intent on fighting the last war with the last war’s weapons, and who could not see that the world and its technologies had changed.

This last point was especially true of Curtis LeMay, whose stature in the Air Force made him a huge obstacle to any development other than the invention of bigger, fast, higher-flying, more load-carrying versions of the bombers he had commanded over Japan in 1945. He was sceptical about missiles and saw the money allocated to their development as a diminution of the money he wanted for his bigger faster bombers. When Schriever received his fourth star, LeMay said to him, “If I’d had my way, you wouldn’t have got any stars.”

One of the fascinating aspects of Sheehan’s exhaustively thorough account of the ICBM story is how many failures it experienced in the development stage, and how much persistence and determination was required to carry it through to operational status. Much of that determination flowed from Schriever, and much of the program’s success is owed to his method of finding the right people for the many different jobs that needed doing, and letting them get on with their assignments — a strategy that included letting them fail and try again. As Sheehan describes it, Schriever’s leadership method was to “win the man’s loyalty and then back him up while he does the job.” It worked. Schriever also knew when to employ an individual and when not to. This applied especially in the case of Edward Hall, the man who made the solid-fuel, quickly deployable Minuteman missile a reality. Hall was outstanding as an engineer but incapable of relating to people effectively. He never forgave Schriever for taking him off the Minuteman project once it was under way, but Schriever knew that Hall would be no good at managing the production of what he had invented, and therefore removed him.

If you think that the story of making nuclear-warhead rockets could appeal only to geeks and military historians, think again. The history of how the Cold War started and developed in its early phases is a gripping one, and the personal stories of the men who — in effect — fought the Cold War and kept its fiery peace, is every bit as gripping. The arms race was genuinely a race, run in the half-dark of uncertainty and risk, with the recent memory of hot war and the presence of serious tensions making it a race for life. Sheehan provides copious details concerning everything germane, from the technology of rocketry to the men who developed it, championed it, opposed it, and eventually made it happen. The book is valuable too for the lessons, both intended and otherwise, that it teaches; and these perhaps will be its major contribution apart from memorializing the skill and determination of Bernard Schriever himself as the linchpin of the effort involved.

One of the lessons taught by Sheehan’s book is that inadequate intelligence cost the United States a vast fortune. The impetus for the massive defense budgets of the 1950s was fear of the USSR, resulting from ignorance of Soviet capabilities and intentions. As Sheehan eloquently puts it, “Technology was in the saddle of a horse named Fear in a race of human folly.” If the U.S. had possessed an accurate picture of Soviet military incapacities and weaknesses, it would not have needed to spend so many billions, and would not have driven itself, nor therefore by its vain attempt at emulation the USSR itself, to the arms escalation of those dangerous years. Just one warhead on a single Minuteman had the destructive power of nearly 100 Hiroshima bombs; the amount of overkill was so great that when John F. Kennedy looked at the budgets for the missile force, he was moved to wonder aloud how many times a human being can be killed, and wryly concluded that, surely, “three is enough.” He might further have asked how many millions of dollars it was costing to make each such death possible. If it had been known that the USSR was far less a threat than the hawks feared, those many millions might have gone to something more constructive.

Sheehan is quite clear that advancing the technology of mass death and destruction is, at the very least, a morally equivocal matter. The book does not condone or applaud it. In showing how and why it happened, Sheehan does, however, applaud Schriever’s determination to make the ultimate weapon a guarantee of peace: he reports Schriever telling an audience at the RAND Corporation that “the ICBM was not being built to be used as a weapon. Rather, as an instrument of war the ICBM would have ‘the highest probability of NOT being used.’ ” For organizations like the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, such arguments would not wash; the proliferation of nuclear weapons into too many hands, some of them unreliable, makes Schriever’s early and laudable optimism look shaky.

Another lesson of Sheehan’s book is the way the complex political and bureaucratic machinery of a large democracy both inhibits and assists — this latter in sometimes suspect ways — the spending of huge military budgets. The least detailed aspect of the book is the political story behind the military one; only a small number of Sheehan’s many pages take us into the White House or the committees of Congress where deals were brokered and decisions influenced and made. But when Sheehan takes us there, the narrative is compelling; how many people know that Eisenhower’s vice president, Richard Nixon, was instrumental in expediting Schriever’s work by asking, after a White House briefing, “Why haven’t we started this sooner? What’s been the hold-up?”

Although Schriever’s work was over by the time the ICBM force was fully operational, the further consequences of what he had done were only beginning. Satellites and eventual manned space flight were implicit in the technologies whose development he had presided over, and he was an enthusiast for them. Advances in military technology often have major spin-offs for peaceful applications; in this story they range from computing to metal alloys, from types of fuel to the construction of turbofan jet engines, and much more. Schriever’s achievement was accordingly not restricted to weapon systems of what he himself described as “the New Era” but to the whole domain of aerospace technology and beyond. The tale of his achievement is well worth the telling, because it is an integral part of the foundations of today’s world, its good and bad all included.