'A Fiery Peace in a Cold War': Neil Sheehan's new history of the Cold War nuclear standoff
Neil Sheehan author of "A Bright Shining Lie," returns with the meticulously researched "A Fiery Peace in a Cold War: Bernard Schriever and the Ultimate Weapon." Sheehan's new book chronicles the history of Mutually Assured Destruction, the theory of peace through nuclear standoff that defined the Cold War years.
Special to The Seattle Times
"A Fiery Peace in a Cold War: Bernard Schriever and the Ultimate Weapon"
by Neil Sheehan
Random House, 510 pp., $35
Mutually Assured Destruction, the theory of peace through nuclear standoff, is abbreviated as MAD and is often thought of as insanity. In his new book, "A Fiery Peace in a Cold War," author Neil Sheehan tells much of the story of how the MAD world came about.
President Eisenhower, who led U.S. forces in Europe in World War II, feared a nuclear Pearl Harbor if the Soviet Union developed long-range missiles and America did not. Ike's answer was to have the missiles first — an effort that took years. Only in the Kennedy administration, Sheehan writes, did "the advent of the Minuteman put an end to the fear of a nuclear Pearl Harbor that had haunted Eisenhower."
Sheehan's book is a history of the strategic, political and personnel decisions that led to the Thor, Jupiter, Atlas, Titan and Minuteman missiles. It is not a war book. Its battles are bureaucratic — between the missile advocates and the airplane advocates, the aircraft contractors and the aerospace contractors, the Air Force officers and the secretary of defense.
Sheehan has spent many years of research on his new book, and it shows. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his history of the Vietnam War, "A Bright Shining Lie" (1988), and has aimed this effort just as high. As in the earlier book, he has attempted to hang a big history around one character, and here he makes a strategic mistake. His choice, Gen. Bernard Schriever, is not a colorful man. Sheehan takes up the first 49 pages trying to interest the reader in him, and it is a fruitless mission.
Luckily for the reader, this 500-page book is a story of many characters, and some of the major ones, such as mathematician John von Neumann and Gen. Curtis LeMay, are very colorful. Sheehan has a knack, too, of introducing a new character in a bureaucratic fight by telling a story of what he did in the war. For example, he introduces Thomas Lanphier Jr., a key man on the Atlas program, as one of two P-38 pilots who in "one Sunday morning in April 1943" jumped two Mitsubishi bombers, one of which carried Gen. Isoroku Yamamoto.
"Which P-38 pilot got which bomber was impossible to tell," writes Sheehan, "but Lanphier claimed to be the man who sent the legendary Japanese naval warrior, the inspirer of the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on another Sunday morning two years earlier, plummeting to his end."
Sheehan's book helps make sense of things we know. Those of an age to remember John Glenn on top of an Atlas rocket might not remember that the Atlas was designed to send nuclear bombs to Russia. The missile was that fat because at the time, the bombs were that fat. The reader will have heard of Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Sheehan tells why its geography — directly north of ocean, all the way to Antarctica — makes it the finest spot in the United States for launching spy satellites.
Sheehan tells the story behind the launching of Sputnik I in 1957 and calculus of destruction during the 1982 Cuban Missile Crisis. He portrays a skeptical Dwight Eisenhower, who "was the last American president to believe that military spending that was not absolutely necessary was money wasted."
There is much to like in this book. Start it on page 50.
Sam and Sara Lucchese create handmade pasta out of their kitchen-garage adjacent to their Ballard home. Here, they illustrate the final steps in making pappardelle pasta.