‘A Fiery Peace in a Cold War’ by Neil Sheehan

In the not-so-very-distant past, when newspapers had staffs large enough to include a variety of talents, there were journalists known mainly for their sure handling of breaking or specialized news and others valued mainly as writers. Among the latter there were always a few who labored so long and intensely over their stories that some colleagues -- and frustrated editors -- derisively referred to them as “stone cutters.”

It was meant to be an epithet, of course, but the metaphorically inclined sometimes would point out that those who work in stone, though they proceed slowly, sometimes produce monuments.

Neil Sheehan is both a giant among the American reporters of his very distinguished generation and, in the best sense of the term, a genuine stone cutter. As a combat correspondent for United Press International and the New York Times, he spent three years on the ground in Vietnam and, later, obtained the Pentagon Papers for the Times. Twenty-one years ago, he produced “A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam,” a meticulously reported, Homeric account of our role in the Southeast Asian war that portrayed the idealism and delusion, the selflessness and self-deception that characterized the U.S. intervention there. The book won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.

“A Fiery Peace in a Cold War: Bernard Schriever and the Ultimate Weapon” has preoccupied Sheehan ever since, and, if the result lacks some of the passion and existential profundity that marked “A Bright And Shining Lie,” it is nonetheless an important contribution to our understanding of those decades when the United States and Soviet Union held each other -- and the world -- in a balance of terror.

Sheehan structured his Vietnam book around the brilliant and, initially, iconoclastic Army Lt. Col. John Paul Vann. “A Fiery Peace” utilizes a similar structure, though here the protagonist is the late Gen. Bernard Schriever, father of the American intercontinental ballistic missile and through it -- the author argues -- the United States’ military and civilian space programs. Like others, Sheehan also contends that ICBM forces were the terrible fulcrum on which the strategic balance between the United States and Soviet Union rested throughout the Cold War.

Ballistic brains

In Sheehan’s telling, Schriever -- who came to America as a German immigrant schoolboy and served with distinction in World War II -- was that rare thing, a scientifically minded visionary of both great personal integrity and bureaucratic savvy. Melding those things, he not only identified the centrality of bomb-bearing rockets to the nation’s continued security but also recognized and promoted whole new systems of weapon development to realize his goals. In the process, he confronted -- and bested -- not only a host of skeptical military superiors and politicians but also corporate fat cats eager for new sorts of profiteering.

While Schriever is at the center of Sheehan’s history, the author surrounds him with a compelling -- indeed, fascinating -- cast of characters whose critical contributions to U.S. security deserve to be honorably remembered. None of these is more mesmerizing and, ultimately, tragic than the great Hungarian-born mathematician and physicist Johnny von Neumann. His formulation of “game theory” would be critical to the Cold War’s nuclear strategy (his mathematical modeling of implosion was a key to the development of the first atomic bomb). As chairman of the committee of scientists and cutting-edge technologists Schriever put together to advise him, Von Neumann would deliver most of the brilliant briefings that convinced then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower to approve the first ICBM program on terms that made its unprecedentedly rapid development possible. A little more than a year later, Von Neumann was dead of cancer. A secular Jew driven from his native land by prewar anti-Semitism, Von Neumann -- terrified of oncoming mortality -- converted to Catholicism on his deathbed only to be denied burial in Princeton’s Catholic cemetery because he’d divorced his first wife.

Lt. Col. Edward Hall, the “rocketry genius” who devised the Minuteman missile that became the cornerstone of U.S. nuclear deterrence, was another fiercely patriotic refugee from another kind of anti-Semitism, the sort that blocked his prewar progress as an engineer and led the New York-born young man to change his name from Edward Nathaniel Holtzberg. His equally brilliant brother was, along with Klaus Fuchs, the most important of the Soviet spies who penetrated the Manhattan Project.

Simon Ramo -- the brilliant scientist-engineer whose last name became the “R” in TRW -- is brilliantly profiled in this book, and the full measure of his invaluable contribution to U.S. defense comes clearly to the fore. You get a taste of the man he’d become when -- as a poor but gifted student hoping to make the most of college -- he gambled and spent all his savings to buy a better violin in hopes of winning a music scholarship. He did, thus enabling him to devote himself full time to his studies rather than working through school. He later would make one of the most critical contributions to Schriever’s project by developing a revolutionary means of designing and producing high-tech weaponry.

Gen. Curtis LeMay, the flinty -- some would say half-mad -- proponent of strategic bombing and preemptive war, emerges chillingly from these pages as Schriever’s main theoretical and bureaucratic antagonist.

On the other hand, Eisenhower -- who, as a young staff officer, had written a paper warning that the need for industrialized military productions would confront the country with unprecedented political dangers -- comes across as both open-minded about the strategic necessity of the ICBM initiative and supremely sane about its implications. Similarly, the implications of John F. Kennedy’s remarkable sobriety and steadiness during the Cuban Missile Crisis seldom have been as well recounted as they are here.

Missing parts

The Cold War was a conflict of immense complexity fought out on ideological, economic, diplomatic, aesthetic, tactical and strategic fronts. Sheehan has given us an engrossing account of the strategic front, though it suffers to a certain extent from the absence of critical nuclear war-and-deterrence theorists like Bernard Brodie and Albert Wohlstetter, to name just two. That lends to some parts of “A Fiery Peace” a feeling of gee-whiz-let’s-put-on-a-show, as the protagonists here concerned themselves with the weapons and not their potential consequences.

Kennedy dealt with that in the acrimonious meeting he had with his military advisors in which they -- particularly LeMay -- violently dissented from his adoption of quarantine rather than military action against Cuba. As Kennedy said afterward, “These brass hats have one great advantage in their favor. If we listen to them, and do what they want us to do, none of us will be alive later to tell them that they were wrong.”