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'A Fiery Peace in a Cold War' by Neil Sheehan

The prize-winning author of 'A Bright Shining Lie' chronicles America's scramble for ICBM superiority and the many (often colorful) personalities behind it.

September 23, 2009|Tim Rutten

In the not-so-very-distant past, when newspapers had staffs large enough to include a variety of talents, there were journalists known mainly for their sure handling of breaking or specialized news and others valued mainly as writers. Among the latter there were always a few who labored so long and intensely over their stories that some colleagues -- and frustrated editors -- derisively referred to them as "stone cutters."

It was meant to be an epithet, of course, but the metaphorically inclined sometimes would point out that those who work in stone, though they proceed slowly, sometimes produce monuments.

Neil Sheehan is both a giant among the American reporters of his very distinguished generation and, in the best sense of the term, a genuine stone cutter. As a combat correspondent for United Press International and the New York Times, he spent three years on the ground in Vietnam and, later, obtained the Pentagon Papers for the Times. Twenty-one years ago, he produced "A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam," a meticulously reported, Homeric account of our role in the Southeast Asian war that portrayed the idealism and delusion, the selflessness and self-deception that characterized the U.S. intervention there. The book won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.

"A Fiery Peace in a Cold War: Bernard Schriever and the Ultimate Weapon" has preoccupied Sheehan ever since, and, if the result lacks some of the passion and existential profundity that marked "A Bright And Shining Lie," it is nonetheless an important contribution to our understanding of those decades when the United States and Soviet Union held each other -- and the world -- in a balance of terror.

Sheehan structured his Vietnam book around the brilliant and, initially, iconoclastic Army Lt. Col. John Paul Vann. "A Fiery Peace" utilizes a similar structure, though here the protagonist is the late Gen. Bernard Schriever, father of the American intercontinental ballistic missile and through it -- the author argues -- the United States' military and civilian space programs. Like others, Sheehan also contends that ICBM forces were the terrible fulcrum on which the strategic balance between the United States and Soviet Union rested throughout the Cold War.

Ballistic brains

In Sheehan's telling, Schriever -- who came to America as a German immigrant schoolboy and served with distinction in World War II -- was that rare thing, a scientifically minded visionary of both great personal integrity and bureaucratic savvy. Melding those things, he not only identified the centrality of bomb-bearing rockets to the nation's continued security but also recognized and promoted whole new systems of weapon development to realize his goals. In the process, he confronted -- and bested -- not only a host of skeptical military superiors and politicians but also corporate fat cats eager for new sorts of profiteering.

While Schriever is at the center of Sheehan's history, the author surrounds him with a compelling -- indeed, fascinating -- cast of characters whose critical contributions to U.S. security deserve to be honorably remembered. None of these is more mesmerizing and, ultimately, tragic than the great Hungarian-born mathematician and physicist Johnny von Neumann. His formulation of "game theory" would be critical to the Cold War's nuclear strategy (his mathematical modeling of implosion was a key to the development of the first atomic bomb). As chairman of the committee of scientists and cutting-edge technologists Schriever put together to advise him, Von Neumann would deliver most of the brilliant briefings that convinced then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower to approve the first ICBM program on terms that made its unprecedentedly rapid development possible. A little more than a year later, Von Neumann was dead of cancer. A secular Jew driven from his native land by prewar anti-Semitism, Von Neumann -- terrified of oncoming mortality -- converted to Catholicism on his deathbed only to be denied burial in Princeton's Catholic cemetery because he'd divorced his first wife.

Lt. Col. Edward Hall, the "rocketry genius" who devised the Minuteman missile that became the cornerstone of U.S. nuclear deterrence, was another fiercely patriotic refugee from another kind of anti-Semitism, the sort that blocked his prewar progress as an engineer and led the New York-born young man to change his name from Edward Nathaniel Holtzberg. His equally brilliant brother was, along with Klaus Fuchs, the most important of the Soviet spies who penetrated the Manhattan Project.

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