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…
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