I guess for all my interest in preventing wars, I am still a bit of a military nerd from my teens, and so I loved this book for that reason and read it very quickly. But Sheehan also wrote one of the seminal books about Vietnam ‘A Bright Shining Lie’ and so this primarily a very interesting, probing account of the Cold War through the lens of its main weapons programs .
This story also uses the access to former Soviet archives gained by Russian historians to understand with the benefit of hindsight just how much irrational fear of Soviet expansionism existed, along with ignorance of just how evil Stalin had been in the 1930s. The Soviets were more wicked than was thought at the time, but also generally far more cautious.
This book is focused on a key figure in the nuclear arms race: Bernie Schriever who led the main Atlas, Titan and Minuteman missile programs, and manages to be gripping at the human level, as well as extraordinarily well informed about the technology and political intrigue. Once again, then head of the Air Force Curtis Le May, previously architect of the fire bombing of Japan in 1945, comes over as an extraordinarily dangerous threat to the survival of the world. And utterly blinkered as to the value of missiles over his beloved bombers. The man who would have caused catastrophe in the Cuban Missile Crisis if Kennedy had been weaker, was a menace to sensible weapons strategy too. The weapons strategy that probably was decisive at the time of the Cuban crisis too: US preponderance.
Ultimately though, the essential core of Bernie Schriever remains elusive and this book really has something of missing piece. Ultimately Schriever remains somewhat of an enigma. Who fundamentally was he?
As for contemporary relevance, most Cold War history presents lessons learned as to how to handle China. Probably the most telling from this book is the importance of really understanding your rival, how they think, how their political system really works and the difference between ideological posturing and realpolitik.
But what struck me as extraordinary, is how relatively rational politics were in those days (if you allow for the essential sane/madness of Mutually Assured Destruction strategy). This is a story of data driven engineers and the wisdom they acquired in the Depression and Second World War. This is a world of Eisenhower Republican rationalists and Democrat bi-partisans. Of Bennie striving to develop missiles, essentially to keep the peace so that the missiles would make a successful ‘first strike’ attack impossible for the Soviet Union and unnecessary for the US. Whereas Le May was all for ‘preventative war’ and his bombers were useless to prevent a ‘first strike’; indeed would have provoked it. John von Neumann was all for a first strike by the US because Communism was so evil: another example of smarts defeating wisdom, though to be fair he did not know about nuclear winter: blocking out of the sun by the dust of all those megatons going off.
How far this 1950s relative rationality seems from Sarah Palin: like a parallel universe. Is she the real Manchurian Candidate?
This is Bennie:
and this is Neil Sheehan: