Book Review: A Fiery Peace in a Cold War, Neil Sheehan

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

The American space program, like its Russian counterpart, was largely an epiphenomenon of the ballistic missile program. A great deal has been written about the space programs; regarding the missile programs themselves, not so much. This book remedies that gap by using the life of General Bernard Schriever, who ran USAF missile development programs, as the centerpiece for a history of the Cold War’s defining weapon. Although Schriever is the central character, the book describes the roles played by many other individuals, including:

–John von Neumann, the Hungarian-American mathematician–an implacable enemy of the Soviet Union who advocated a strong American military posture and perhaps even a nuclear first strike

–The bomber general Curtis LeMay, who to put it mildly was not a Schriever fan. After Schriever received his fourth star, LeMay glared at him and said, “You realize if I had my way, you wouldn’t be wearing those.”

–Simon Ramo, who as a high school student withdrew all his savings to buy a violin in the hopes of winning a college scholarship in a music contest…he did win, and as a young engineer was chosen by GE over another job candidate because the Schenectady orchestra needed a good violinist! Ramo went on to co-found the Ramo-Wooldridge Company (later TRW) which basically created the discipline of systems engineering and was used by Schriever to address some of the most difficult technical challenges facing the missile program.

–Colonel Ed Hall–a brilliant designer of missile engines, a hard-driving project manager, and in the opinion of many associates a complete jackass to work with. To call Hall “assertive” would be putting it mildly–when his wife was giving birth (in England during WWII) and the obstetrician was in Hall’s opinion acting indecisively, Hall pulled out his revolver and gave the doctor highly specific orders as to exactly what to do.

Schriever himself was a boy from a not-very-well-off family of German immigrants in the Texas hill country, who joined the air force after first considering a career as a professional golfer. He became a protege of Hap Arnold, and after Pacific-theater service during WWII focused on the leadership of R&D efforts rather than operational command. Throughout his career, Schriever demonstrated an unwillingness to fit his views on important issues to the opinions of those in higher authority–even when higher authority was represented by someone as intimidating as LeMay, with whom Schriever clashed soon after the war on the issue of high-level versus low-level attack tactics for bombers, or Secretary of the Air Force Harold Talbott, whose order to relocate certain missile facilities (from the west cost to the midwest) Schreiver flatly refused, citing his “prior and overriding orders” to get the program done in the shortest feasible time. By then a general, Schriever stuck by his position on this even when Talbott threatened him that “Before this meeting is over, General, there’s going to be one more colonel in the Air Force!”

In the late 1940s, the idea of an intercontinental ballistic missile was pure science fiction. Even the brilliant Vannevar Bush, who made immense contributions to WWII research programs (and envisaged the idea of hypertext long before the web) mocked the idea of “a 3,000-mile, high-angle rocket, shot from one continent to another, carrying an atomic bomb, and so directed as to be a precise weapon, which would land exactly on a certain target, such as a city” and suggested that Americans could safely leave the idea of such a weapon out of their defense planning. Schreiver was one of a small group of officers, scientists, and government officials who saw the real potential of the intercontinental missile earlier than most, and he was placed in charge of the USAF efforts in 1954.

One of Schriever’s challenges lay in the management of certain valuable but difficult subordinates. In parallel with the development of the long-range ATLAS missile, Ed Hall was given the program management responsibility for THOR, an intermediate-range weapon which would be able to threaten Moscow from bases in England. As THOR development moved into the testing phase, there were numerous problems and the personality conflicts between Hall and others became increasingly painful. Schriever decided that a change in THOR leadership was required, but still viewing Hall as an essential contributor to the overall program, he assigned the colonel to the development of solid-fuel rockets. This resulted in the MINUTEMAN system, which in the author’s opinion (and that of many others) greatly stabilized the nuclear situation between the U.S. and the Soviet Union by eliminating the “use them or lose them” dependence on liquid-fueled rockets. Unfortunately, Hall’s leadership of MINUTEMAN encountered many of the same management/relationship problems as had his THOR experience, requiring Schriever to once again take him out of the job–something for which Hall never forgave him.

Schreiver seems to have been a man who inspired unusual devotion in others. In the Amazon reviews of Sheehan’s book, someone made the following comment:

The first time I met Bennie Schriever, I got into an argument with him. Hell, I didn’t know who he was, yet. He was visiting Vince, and as it later turned out, he was right and I was wrong. I came to love Bennie the same as all the others who knew him. His abilities, his courage, his tireless dedication to our country made him a true hero to me. He was above all, a straight-shooter.

Sheehan, also, seems to have fallen under Schreiver’s spell during the writing of this book–a project to which he devoted 15 years. Despite his obvious liking and admiration for the general, Sheehan does attempt to present a balanced view and avoid portraying Schriever in totally glowing colors–for example, he refers to Schreiver as “an old-fashioned sexist” and presents evidence for this view. (On the other hand, Schriever’s second marriage was to the singer Joni James. Would a real “old-fashioned sexist” have wanted to marry someone with a highly successful career of her own and a large popular following?)

The speed with which the intercontinental missile program was carried out was truly remarkable. Although Convair had earlier done some company-funded work on ICBM concepts, significant federal funding was not made available until September 1951, and the “go” decision on the Atlas missile did not come until January 1955. Successful deployment of this system required the solving of very difficult problems in propulsion, guidance, and re-entry…yet in 1958 an Atlas nose cone flew 6000 miles and landed accurately. Operational deployment of the weapon began in 1959/1960. This accomplishment clearly had much to do with the fierce sense of ownership Schriever had for his mission and his rejection of “nitpicking from those sons-of-bitches at the Pentagon.”

I think that Americans too often tend to associate the country’s success in rocket technology mainly with Von Braun and his associates from Peenemunde. This book appropriately demonstrates that there are many others deserving of credit as well.

An interesting (if rather breathless) 1957 TIME cover story about Schriever refers to the general and his crew as “tomorrow’s men.” In retrospect, this was true only if one defined “tomorrow” as the interval between the appearance of the article and, say, July 1969. Actually it could be argued that Schriever was a man of the first two-thirds of the twentieth century, the era of the Panama Canal and the Hoover Dam and the Empire State Building. In our current era, the execution of such projects has become difficult almost to the point of impossibility. Schreiver faced down General LeMay and Secretary Talbott..would a modern-day Schriever be able to prevail against the lilliputian army of lawyers, “community activists,” and “public interest” nonprofits who obstruct every single project of any size? Further thoughts on this at my post like swimming in glue, but I’m afraid that the answer is “no,” and will continue to be “no” absent some major changes in our society.

This book is a little on the long side, and could have been a bit better organized, but is overall very worthwhile. Read it if you are interested in Cold War era history and/or the history of technology…Read it especially if you are interested in lessons about how large,complex time-critical projects involving many people work in practice, especially from the standpoint of the human relationships involved. (Another book which is valuable from this standpoint is Tom Watson Jr’s autobiography, Father, Son, & Co)

There is more information about Schriever and the management of the ICBM program in Thomas Hughes’ book Rescuing Prometheus. See also my related post deterrence.

4 thoughts on “Book Review: <em>A Fiery Peace in a Cold War</em>, Neil Sheehan”

  1. In 1959, I worked down the street from Ramo-Woolridge, later TRW. At first I worked in a trailer next to the Douglas Aircraft Co’s one foot wind tunnel. Some of my fellow engineers amused themselves by gluing little flags, about 1/4 inch square, and tiny strings to the flies that buzzed through our trailer. We would be working away on our Marchant calculators while flies slowly droned around towing their flags. They could not go very fast and if one bothered you, you could reach over and grab it by the flag and throw it across the trailer.

    Engineers are a bit odd.

    A year later, we moved into a brand new building that included a four foot wind tunnel and my job became operating the IBM 650 computer. A year later, I started medical school and a few month after I left, a hydraulic jack on the four foot wind tunnel exploded killing a couple of guys I knew slightly.

  2. Michael – small world – as a young boy growing up in the San Fernando Valley I had as a friend a boy named Wooldridge – As I recall his father was a typical scientist and rarely seen (by me) but I remember they had a cool ’58 T-Bird ;-)

    Colonel Ed Hall–a brilliant designer of missile engines, a hard-driving project manager, and in the opinion of many associates a complete jackass to work with. To call Hall “assertive” would be putting it mildly–when his wife was giving birth (in England during WWII) and the obstetrician was in Hall’s opinion acting indecisively, Hall pulled out his revolver and gave the doctor highly specific orders as to exactly what to do.

    I just finished reading an article in the WSJ about Steve Jobs (of Apple) retirement due to health. Said that while brilliant he was basically an SOB to work for. But what innovative products….

    Then there was Kelly Johnson of Lockheed’s Skunk Works (he founded the small division) – same thing. But what planes came from there!

    Thomas Edison….Henry Ford…..

    Seeing a pattern? ;-)

  3. Michael K…you should write about your experiences with the IBM 650 one of these days.

    Probably about 100,000 times slower than today’s typical laptop, but still a lot faster than doing it by hand…

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