The Man Who Made The Missiles

Posted October 26, 2009 at 3:08pm

Neil Sheehan is a master of presenting one person’s biography as a window into a significant moment in history. His 1989 book, “A Bright Shining Lie,— chronicled the arc of the Vietnam War through the story of Army officer John Paul Vann. And his latest work, “A Fiery Peace in a Cold War,— tells of the race to build the first nuclear missiles by recounting the life and career of Air Force Gen. Bernard Schriever.

“I think it’s a good way of bringing history back to life,— Sheehan says in an interview. “You end up being able to use a person as a lens on a whole era.—

In the popular history of the Cold War, Schriever is barely a footnote. Unlike renowned Manhattan Project scientists Richard Feynman and Robert Oppenheimer, the only public recognition that Schriever received during his lifetime for his brilliant stewardship of America’s postwar missile programs was an appearance on Time magazine’s cover in 1957.

“He was a man who sought to do his job. He was intensely patriotic and always sought to serve the country,— Sheehan says, adding, “He was not a publicity seeker.—

Sheehan’s compelling book rescues Schriever from obscurity and delves deep into the gripping tale of bureaucratic infighting, engineering brilliance and Cold War paranoia that ultimately led to the development of the intercontinental ballistic missile. Drawing its inspiration from the war reporting of Ernest Hemingway and the narrative nonfiction of Truman Capote, Sheehan’s book is a thorough and gripping account of a frightening period in American history as well as a biographical narrative.

Sheehan is remarkably concise with biographical details of Schriever’s early life, but the essentials are there: a bright young kid raised by a struggling single mother who shows an early aptitude for golf. During the height of the Great Depression, Schriever makes a fateful choice — spurning a lucrative career as a country club golf pro to realize a far-fetched dream of being an Army Air Corps pilot.

Sheehan then delves deep into Schriever’s long career with the Air Corps, which eventually spun off into the U.S. Air Force in 1947. Schriever, who started as a pilot in the early days of open cockpit propeller planes, steadily moved up the ranks to four-star general. The crowning achievement of his career, however, was his phenomenal management of the Air Force’s ballistic missile programs — a massive endeavor that was larger than the Manhattan Project.

In a race against the Soviet Union and the competing U.S. Army rocketry team of émigré German scientists led by Wernher von Braun, Schriever and his team managed to design, test and build a series of increasingly powerful ballistic missiles. Their work culminated in the Minuteman, a nuclear-armed ICBM that still remains in service today.

Still, there were formidable obstacles that stood in Schriever’s path. In addition to the engineering challenges, some Air Force brass clung stubbornly to the orthodoxy that bombers, not missiles, would protect the U.S. from Soviet attack.

Still, Schriever’s determination, persistence and leadership on the missile issue ultimately paid off. The paradox, Sheehan insists, is that in developing such a brutal weapon of mass destruction, Schriever and his team helped bring about a nuclear detente. The ICBM made Soviet leaders confront the reality that they could never pull off a first strike. And when Premier Nikita Khrushchev ordered his own medium-range ballistic missiles into Cuba in 1962, he was painfully aware that American missile power outstripped his own — and that any nuclear exchange would have reduced the Soviet Union to rubble.

By the end of Schriever’s missile programs, Sheehan writes, “The Soviet Union was confronted not with a [missile] gap but with a chasm.—

“Those people are genuine American heroes,— he adds. “They saved us from a nuclear war. I’ve always believed that if you could find a person like this, you could tell the wider story.—