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

A Fiery Peace in a Cold War: Bernard Schriever and the Ultimate Weapon by Neil Sheehan. Random House, 2010, 576 pp.

The oft-used phrase “American Dream” aptly describes not only one of the historical leaders of the modern Air Force but also a period of American history—the 10 years after World War II and the first decade of the Cold War. To cover both subjects, Neil Sheehan has written two big stories in one book. First he opens with the biography of Bernard Schriever, the Air Force general who helped initiate his service’s massive effort to develop the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and then structure the Air Force’s entire research and development program into a major command. Schriever made this organization the driving force that developed, deployed, and managed the military space program from its beginnings.

To say that the future general came from humble origins is an understatement. Schriever’s working-class German parents immigrated to America when young Bernard was six years old, arriving here just months before the United States entered World War I. After the family moved to an established German community near San Antonio, his father died young in a workplace accident, and his impoverished mother had to place her two little boys for a time in a Catholic orphanage. At this point, his was a sad story, but his mother got a job working as a laborer for a country club that granted golf privileges to its employees and their families. Young Bernie learned to play golf—and he learned well, winning a golf scholarship to Texas A&M University. There he joined ROTC, studied engineering, graduated, received his commission as a second lieutenant, and went to an Army Air Corps flying school—all of this occurring in the mid-1930s, during the Great Depression. By December 1941, he was in place as an experienced officer, aviator, and engineer when his country needed all of his talents.

Young Schriever served in World War II as a wing maintenance officer and pilot. After the war, he remained on active duty and rose in rank, using his engineering education to help the rest of the Air Force understand and manage the multiple new postwar projects that were intimately connected to both the Truman and Eisenhower administrations’ handling of the onset of the Cold War.

Sheehan then shifts to a history of the Cold War and the evolution of an enormous Air Force research and development effort in the 1950s and 1960s. Because the United States could not match the Soviet Union man for man, tank for tank, and gun for gun, it had to use technology to gain a competitive advantage. This emphasis on technological quality rather than quantity is the book’s larger story. To Schriever and his team, the cornerstone of that technological advantage was the ICBM along with its precision targeting.

Corralling the development and deployment of long-range missiles for the Air Force was Schriever’s doing. The Army, Navy, and civilian agencies had their own missile programs, but Schriever wanted the Air Force to lead in this arena—and his efforts proved successful.

The many substories within the main narrative include one about competition with the US Army for missile and rocket development. The Army lost. Schriever and the Air Force won. He also endured a tough competition with Gen Curtis LeMay, commander of Strategic Air Command. LeMay resented the allocation of any money to a missile program when he needed it for his bomber-tanker force. Schriever won again.

The Cold War paranoia of the time, yet another crucial substory, was not just a part of the American political game. Real concern about a Soviet threat—based on fragmented intelligence combined with the recent history of Soviet bombast, threats, actual military conquests, and occupation of Eastern Europe—permeated all levels of government, civil and military. Sheehan notes that this threat and America’s lack of raw military manpower to stop it motivated Schriever and his team to develop long-range missiles. With their development came all the industries that supplied component parts, including solid-state electronics, miniaturization, and computers—the foundation for the “consumer technology” we play with today.

Sheehan describes the defense-contractor relationships, now taken for granted, that first developed during the 1950s. He offers fascinating details about how Simon Ramo, a civilian science adviser to Schriever, along with scientist colleague Dean Wooldridge and a manufacturing firm started by Charles Thompson formed the firm Thompson, Ramo, Wooldridge, now known as TRW, builder of rockets and satellites. Clearly, this was an amazing and intensely busy period in America’s history of science and technology.

Yet, the 1950s has different connotations to different people. This reviewer associates that time with childhood, Truman, Eisenhower, US-Soviet tensions, the Vanguard rocket, the Jupiter and Thor missiles—all part of growing up during the Cold War and all detailed in A Fiery Peace. Younger readers, however, may find themselves overwhelmed by the substantial amount of history between World War II and Vietnam that Sheehan presents. Nevertheless, he does a good job of bringing out the personal, sentimental, and human parts of a story based on rockets and missiles. For example, we learn that Air Force colonel Ed Hall, Schriever’s manager for the Minuteman missile program in the 1960s, found out only after 1996 that his younger brother Ted, a former physicist at the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos during World War II, was a Soviet spy.

This book offers a wealth of such interconnected anecdotes and “gee whiz” stories. The occasional error in technical descriptions of things military or aviation does not detract from the narrative. Sheehan has provided readers with an eye-opening discussion of foundational events that occurred during a crucial yet underappreciated period of time—events that defined today’s Air Force and the nation. A Fiery Peace leaves readers with the sense that America is a global military force today largely due to the efforts of Gen Bernard Schriever and his emphasis on the leverage afforded by technology.

Maj Thomas F. Menza, USAF, Retired
Colorado Springs, Colorado

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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