- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 17, 2009

By Neil Sheehan
Random House, $32, 534 pages

In July 1947, President Harry S. Truman lamented to the National Security Council, “I am of the opinion we’ll never obtain international controls [of nuclear weapons]. Since we can’t … we must be stronger in atomic weapons.”

The increase was both in power and numbers. Through warhead design changes, the yield of the 20-kiloton Mark 3 bomb was multiplied 25 times between 1948 and 1952; the number of nuclear warheads jumped from around 100 to 720.

But how could this weaponry be deployed against the distant Soviet Union, the presumed foe in any confrontation? In the late 1940s, the public found solace in the belief that the same bomber force that pounded Germany and Japan could obliterate the USSR with atomic bombs.

In fact, the wartime bombers were now ill-maintained and manned by relatively inexperienced pilots. The scope of their inadequacy was demonstrated in a 1948 exercise in which the Strategic Air Command’s entire armada — more than 400 aircraft — simulated a raid on Wright Field in Ohio. Half the planes never got airborne; of those that transmitted the simulated “bombs away” signal, Mr. Sheehan writes, “not a single crew hit the target.” The results were hurriedly classified “secret” in a bid to “to try to hide from the Soviets that they faced a sawdust bogeyman.”

Fortunately, using a ring of foreign bases, Gen. Curtis LeMay rapidly transformed SAC into a force that put the entire USSR within range of U.S. bombers. But President Eisenhower wanted an even faster and more reliable means of responding to any Soviet attack.

According to CIA reports, the Soviets had snatched up German rocket scientists by the carload at war’s end — as had the United States — and the race was under way to see who could be first to militarize space.

The story of how the United States achieved superiority with the most important weapon — the intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM — is grippingly described by Washington writer Neil Sheehan in a book that was 15 years in the making.

Much of this time was spent interviewing Schriever, who lived six blocks from Mr. Sheehan’s Washington home. (Schriever died in 2005.) His research produced a highly readable work that is rich in both personal and technical detail.

Schriever was an unlikely hero. Born in Germany in 1910, he was brought to the United States in 1917, and his family settled in Texas. His father died in an accident when the boy was 8, and his impoverished mother had to park him and a brother in an orphanage for months while she worked as a housekeeper. Golf proved to be the salvation of “Bennie” Schriever. Playing on public courses in San Antonio, he won a number of tournaments — and a scholarship to Texas A&M.

During the war years, Schriever had noncombat assignments but distinguished himself as an administrator and out-of-the-box thinker. Serving on postwar advisory panels that studied new weapons systems, he hit upon the idea of “the ultimate weapon — nuclear-armed ballistic missiles hurtling across continents at 16,000 miles an hour.” He benefited from two brilliant allies — ironically, both also foreign born.

John Von Neumann, a Hungarian-born mathematical genius then at Princeton, along with other scientists had figured out how to reduce the weight of an atomic bomb from 80 tons down to a single ton — a size that could be carried by a rocket — with no loss of power.

But as a mere colonel (his first star was months away) Schriever did not have the political clout to overcome such Air Force powers as LeMay, who scoffed at the notion of “sky rockets” replacing manned bombers.

Enter another ally: the Welsh-born Trevor Gardner, an engineer who helped design nuclear weaponry during the war, founded a company that produced electronic components for aircraft and short-range, air-to-ground rockets for Navy fighter-bombers.

His expertise caught the eye of Harold E. Talbott, a New York investment banker who was a friend of Eisenhower’s. Ike believed that prosperous businessmen would make sound government executives, so he made Talbott secretary of the Air Force. Talbott, in turn, brought in Gardner as his special assistant for research and development.

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 [email protected]

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