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Mr. Sheehan’s account then becomes a blend of Washington political-military infighting and missile technology. Each service — Army, Navy and Air Force — wanted its own missile program, and confusion and back-stabbing were rife.

But Gardner was not cowed by generals (he once shouted, “Shut up!” at a three-star during a meeting) and he was confident that what he and Schriever were developing was the superior weapon. As manufacturer, he enlisted an unknown California company (it eventually became TRW) and the engineers went to work.

Years of frustration followed.

The Army’s Jupiter got off successful test flights, while Schriever’s Thor exploded on launch pads or fizzled back to Earth after rising just a few yards. The goal was the 1,725 miles required for a full-fledged ICBM. But Schriever and Gardner persevered, and they eventually won the competition. The Army was left with responsibility for lesser-range missiles.

Despite boasts by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev that the Soviets were churning out missiles “like sausages,” the United States far surpassed the USSR in both the quantity and quality of the weapons. And the adversary spent itself into bankruptcy, eventually ending the Cold War.

Although it is a good read, I had problems with some of Mr. Sheehan’s work. His take on the origins of the Cold War is revisionism at its silliest. He buys into the theory that Stalin had no postwar ambitions to extend communism beyond territories he already controlled. Mr. Sheehan disdainfully dismisses Americans who had the gall to think otherwise as “fiercely anti-Communist” (Defense Secretary James Forrestal) or “fervent anti-Communist” (Times-Life publisher Henry Luce).

His most misdirected barb targets Paul Nitze, whose high-level government service spanned half a century. Nitze is written off as “a polished, articulate man with a knack for convincing himself and others that he had knowledge of a subject when he, in fact, had little or none.” Anyone who knew Nitze and was familiar with his long career, especially his role in the SALT negotiations, must wonder where Mr. Sheehan acquired such a cockeyed notion.

Ignore the political elbows that Mr. Sheehan wields from time to time and enjoy a must-read on a key element of the Cold War.

Joseph C. Goulden is writing a book on Cold War intelligence. His e-mail is