A Fiery Peace in a Cold War by Neil Sheehan

Jim Landers
The Dallas Morning News (MCT)

Schriever seems to have given Sheehan more of a good story than a good portrait.

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

Publisher: Random House
Length: 560 pages
Author: Neil Sheehan
Price: $32.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2009-09

On a hot July afternoon four years ago, nine of the 10 four-star generals of the U.S. Air Force marched up a hill at Arlington National Cemetery. Ahead of them was a caisson carrying the remains of a 94-year-old Texan who oversaw the creation of a missile that threatened to annihilate much of humanity while enabling the United States to stare down the Soviet Union.

The man was Gen. Bernhard A. Schriever, a German immigrant who grew up tall, lean and cool in San Antonio. He was an expert golfer drawn in the hard times of the '30s to the silk-scarf glamour of military aviation.

In World War II, he showed a knack for sorting through the layers of difficulty in engineering, supply and maintenance, and for finding creative personalities. In 1946, Gen. Henry "Hap" Arnold, the father of the Air Force, told Schriever that the First World War was won with brawn, the second with logistics and that the third would be won by brains. He charged Schriever with keeping the service close to the academics needed for the weapons of the emerging Cold War.

It was a mission Arnold considered crucial, and Schriever knew it. "Bennie Schriever said goodbye and left Arnold's office not just as an airman with an assignment. He left as an apostle with a calling," writes author Neil Sheehan.

It's a promising start for an ambitious story. Sheehan tells it well, particularly in his description of the Soviet and American policy struggles to define and understand each other. This theoretical structure of the Cold War was precarious, with each side hovering dangerously near the trigger-lines of the other. This brinksmanship makes for chilly reading.

The American monopoly on nuclear weapons ended in 1949, thanks to treachery that carries some irony in this story. Ed Hall, a brilliant, prickly engineer who designed the quick-launch, unstoppable Minuteman missile, was the brother of Ted Hall, a Los Alamos physicist who gave the Soviets crucial information about the atomic bomb.

The next race was for hydrogen bombs, then for aircraft to deliver them. This was the heyday of Gen. Curtis LeMay, architect of the Strategic Air Command. He and Schriever clashed over the use of a bomber fleet as the Soviets developed air-defense missiles. In Sheehan's telling, LeMay was Schriever's nemesis in a battle of bombers vs. missiles as America's nuclear spear point.

Schriever won those battles, but LeMay is the character who comes to life in their story. Schriever personifies the Organization Man in Air Force blue rather than a gray flannel suit. He brings brilliant men together to solve warhead targeting, satellite guidance and solid fuel propellants, but Schriever the man hovers in the background throughout much of this book.

In an epilogue, Sheehan talks briefly of Schriever's first marriage dissolving because of an affair, and how he met and later married singer Joni James. These might seem small moments in a life absorbed in nuclear Armageddon, but they tell more about his personality than his steadiness under the sarcastic fire of LeMay or his triumph over Pentagon bureaucracy.

Sheehan is an accomplished reporter. He obtained the Pentagon Papers with their secret history of the war in Vietnam while working at The New York Times. His history of that war, A Bright Shining Lie, won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction in 1989.

Sheehan writes that he interviewed Schriever 52 times during the years that he researched A Fiery Peace in a Cold War. Schriever seems to have given Sheehan more of a good story than a good portrait.

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