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The Cabinet of Dr. Strangelove

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Time, Inc.
Air Force General Bernard Schriever, one of the main architects of the American 
nuclear missile program during the early years of the cold war

On November 1, 1952, American scientists led by the Hungarian émigré Edward Teller oversaw the detonation of the first hydrogen bomb, code-named Mike, on an atoll in the Pacific Ocean. Mike possessed more than eight hundred times the destructive power of Little Boy, the bomb that flattened Hiroshima. The following March, Teller and his collaborator, the Hungarian-born mathematician John von Neumann, spoke about their work at a classified meeting of the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama.

An obscure Air Force colonel named Bernard Schriever happened to be in attendance. He was a handsome former pilot whose career had evolved into the unglamorous field of project management. At the meeting, Schriever thought he understood Teller and von Neumann to say that the technical characteristics of hydrogen bombs meant that it should be possible, by about 1960, for the United States to build extraordinarily destructive nuclear weapons—eighty times more powerful than Little Boy—that were also small enough to fit onto the tips of accurate, high-flying missiles.

In hindsight, it might seem inevitable that rocketry and atomic weapons, independent inventions of the demon-shadowed latter months of World War II, would be married into nuclear ballistic missile systems—the “ultimate weapon” of Sheehan’s subtitle. Within the United States military of the early 1950s, however, there was little understanding of this technological potential. Curtis LeMay, then the head of the Strategic Air Command, America’s newly christened nuclear deterrent and fighting force (both roles were considered valid and plausible at the time), believed ardently in the primacy of airplane bombers; he scoffed at the Air Force’s missile men as impractical dreamers.

Schriever, however, had a visionary streak. On May 8, 1953, he traveled to the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton to meet with von Neumann, to make sure that he understood correctly what had been said in Alabama. As he waited in a lounge, Albert Einstein walked by, and Schriever rose to greet him. “There was a certain irony in the encounter,” Neil Sheehan notes in his account of the scene in A Fiery Peace in a Cold War. Two years before his death, Einstein regretted the role he had played in educating Franklin Roosevelt about the possibility of the atomic bomb. In a matter of hours at Princeton, after an informal lecture by von Neumann, Schriever would be confirmed in his ambition to pursue a transformational advance in the atomic weapon’s military potential.

In part because of LeMay’s resistance, it was not until the summer of 1955 that Schriever and von Neumann obtained an audience with President Eisenhower, at the White House, to lay out their vision of a full-fledged intercontinental nuclear missile force. Vice President Richard Nixon, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and CIA Director Allen Dulles also attended the briefing, according to Sheehan’s fascinating account, which he developed from interviews and contemporary diaries. Schriever and von Neumann sketched out a world in which both the United States and the Soviet Union might soon be able to deliver nuclear bombs to the other’s cities within thirty minutes of launch. For dramatic effect, their presentation included a movie clip of rocket engines roaring to life. Sheehan quotes Eisenhower’s reaction:

This has been most impressive, most impressive! There is no question this weapon will have a profound impact on all aspects of human life, not only in the United States but in every corner of the globe—military, sociological, political.

Some weeks later, Eisenhower signed National Security Council Action No. 1433, which noted that “there would be the gravest repercussions on the national security and on the cohesion of the free world” if the Soviet Union were to prevail in the coming race to place atomic bombs onto intercontinental rockets. Eisenhower designated the American effort—which Schriever would eventually supervise—as the “highest priority above all others.”

The US–Soviet nuclear missile competition between World War II and the Cuban missile crisis provides the frame for Sheehan’s narrative in A Fiery Peace in a Cold War. It is an inspired choice. Fred Kaplan, in his definitive intellectual history of early nuclear deterrence, The Wizards of Armageddon (1983), covered related ground from the perspective of defense strategists in and around the RAND Corporation, the Air Force’s think tank. Richard Rhodes, in Dark Sun (1995), traced the spying and competition that surrounded US and Soviet drives to develop the hydrogen bomb. Sheehan draws extensively upon this and other published work, but in focusing on the military’s nuclear missile program, he has written a distinctive and original history of the early cold war. Through his exhaustive interviews with Schriever and other scientists and military officers involved in the programs, Sheehan has also added a substantial body of new research about one of the most perilous periods in human history—a time when two global powers simultaneously acquired the means to destroy human civilization in nearly a blink of an eye, but had not yet digested the implications of their discoveries.

Hitler’s V-2 program, supervised in part by Wernher von Braun, inaugurated the military rocket age. The single-stage short-range V-2 caused terror and death in Great Britain but never evolved into a war-changing weapon; among other limitations, it carried only conventional explosives. After the war in Europe, the United States and the Soviet Union picked up the rocket race on roughly equal footing in part because each had captured German scientists who had worked with von Braun. (An amoral character deeply fascinated by the potential of travel to outer space, von Braun surrendered to American forces in Germany; he later emigrated to the United States, where he participated in the US space program.*) As Sheehan documents, the US–Soviet ballistic missile race was often a messy and discouraging competition, punctuated by launch pad explosions, wayward test flights, and mysterious mechanical bugs. If the atomic bomb was an elegant physics problem largely cracked at the chalkboard, the long-range missile was a challenge of engineering that would only yield to expensive trial and error.

In popular understanding, the US–Soviet “race” to conquer space and apply rocketry to atomic warfare took off in October 1957, with the successful Soviet launch of Sputnik 1. A Fiery Peace describes how the competition actually began much earlier, shrouded in secrecy, and how it unfolded in a way that often managed to confuse both sides. For example, Sheehan reports that the Soviet Politburo decided in November 1953 to make missiles the primary delivery system for their emerging nuclear arsenal, even though Soviet scientists had not yet successfully tested a hydrogen bomb, which would be essential to make a missile force plausible. (Fission bombs were so heavy at the time that only enormous and unwieldy rockets could deliver them: the first Soviet ICBM, designed to carry a 5.4-ton fission warhead, was so huge that it could be moved only by rail, and required twenty hours to prepare for flight.) It would be years, however, before the US would learn of this Soviet decision. The first American impressions of the Soviet missile program often came in fragments, drawn from interviews with German scientists from the original V-2 program who were captured by the Soviets after the war and subsequently released. Throughout the 1950s, on each side, intelligence about a technological competition of profound danger was collected and assessed in a fog.

The American missile program’s development was informed by arguments over what role atomic bombs should or would play in the future of warfare. “Thus far the chief purpose of our military establishment has been to win wars. From now on its chief purpose must be to avert them,” wrote Bernard Brodie, the prescient defense thinker who helped to conceive of nuclear deterrence, in early 1946. Brodie’s wisdom was slow to take hold, however. Sheehan’s book suffers from a failure to engage with the development of strategic thinking about deterrence in tandem with missile technology; Brodie is not even mentioned. Still, A Fiery Peace shows how, during the 1950s, several factors conspired to slow the spread of deterrence doctrine—that is, the notion that in using nuclear forces to deter land invasions or to guarantee the security of a state, it was also necessary to deploy them in a way that would ensure none would ever be used.

One problem was the rapid but uneven pace of transformational technological advances. Great leaps in offensive capacity—the hydrogen bomb, the distance-shattering insight that a separating warhead could be accurately delivered from a rocket—occurred before the full deployment of reliable defensive surveillance systems that could allow decision-makers in Washington and Moscow to track the other side’s tests and military preparations.

Pearl Harbor had left early cold war military planners in the United States with an acute fear of surprise attack. U-2 reconnaissance flights over the Soviet Union, after 1955, helped gradually to calm American nerves about Soviet missile capability, which was emerging more slowly than anti-Communist hysterics in the United States sometimes claimed. From the U-2 photography, for example, Eisenhower knew that candidate John F. Kennedy’s claims in 1960 about a “missile gap” between the US and the Soviet Union were untrue, but Eisenhower had to swallow his frustration in silence, lest he reveal the U-2’s existence.

Still, even as overhead reconnaissance improved, a sense of blindness and uncertainty about Soviet nuclear capabilities and intentions persisted in the United States. This anxiety encouraged some generals—particularly Curtis LeMay—to engage in loose talk about a possible preemptive nuclear strike against the Soviet Union, if it were discovered that Moscow was preparing an attack. Neither the United States nor the Soviet Union understood the other’s geopolitical intentions correctly, Sheehan argues; nor had the science of radiation poisoning and the specter of nuclear winter yet emerged in popular consciousness to chill those who thought of “winning” a nuclear exchange. Many of these problems of atomic disequilibrium would converge during the Cuban missile crisis.

Bernard Schriever appeared on the cover of Time in April 1957, his profile enhanced by an illustration of a missile bursting through the clouds. Apart from this brief turn before the public as Henry Luce’s celebrated “missileman,” his work supervising the Atlas and Titan missile projects often took place in secret, based at a headquarters in Inglewood, California, known as the “Schoolhouse.” When Schriever retired as a four-star general in 1966, he was not a particularly well-known or influential public figure. In his “Source Notes,” Sheehan discloses, “Until I decided to write a book on the Cold War and the Soviet-American arms race, I had never heard of Gen. Bernard Adolph Schriever.” Nonetheless, early in his research, “someone suggested that I look up Schriever…. He turned out to be living in retirement only about six blocks from my own home in northwest Washington.” Sheehan telephoned; they met; and Schriever ultimately granted the author fifty-two interviews over a period of years.

In 1988, Sheehan published a masterful narrative of the Vietnam War, A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam, for which he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. In that book, Sheehan distilled American failure and disillusionment in Vietnam through the life of a single lieutenant colonel, John Paul Vann, whom Sheehan had first encountered in the field as a New York Times foreign correspondent. (During his Times career, Sheehan also helped to unearth the Pentagon Papers.) It seems clear that he decided to cast Schriever in a similar role for his cold war narrative. He describes Schriever as “the indispensable man” in the missile race, and even credits him with an indispensable role in “America’s penetration of space and [the creation of] an unspoken but permanent truce of mutual deterrence with the Soviet Union.”

  1. *

    See Freeman Dyson’s review in these pages of Michael J. Neufeld’s Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War, January 17, 2008.

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