Charles Matthews's Reviews > A Fiery Peace in a Cold War: Bernard Schriever and the Ultimate Weapon

A Fiery Peace in a Cold War by Neil Sheehan
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Jul 09, 10


I very much admired Sheehan's A Bright Shining Lie, which won him the Pulitzer Prize. So when Random House sent me this review copy I kept it, instead of donating it to the public library the way I do with most of the review copies I'm sent. I don't think it got much review attention -- at least I didn't notice it.

One reason may be that this is a less successful book than A Bright Shining Lie, though it takes the same approach: viewing a major period in American history through the life and work of one person. In the earlier book, that person was Lt. Col. John Paul Vann, a severe critic of the conduct of the Vietnam War, and his life and death provided great insight on an ill-conceived conflict. In A Fiery Peace in a Cold War, the central figure is Bernard Schriever, who eventually became a four-star general in recognition of his work directing the Air Force project that produced the "ultimate weapon" of the book's subtitle, the intercontinental ballistic missile. Schriever is not so vividly controversial a figure as Vann, and consequently the book lacks a strong conflict -- unless you count the conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union.

What makes the book valuable and readable in my point of view is that it illuminates so much of what you might call "mid-range" recent history -- the years from 1945 to 1962, or from Hiroshima to the Cuban Missile Crisis. It was a period I lived through and consequently never studied in history class, which means that a lot of my conceptions of the period are oddly unformed. My bias is to think of the arms race as a Bad Thing -- and in certain ways it was. It produced what Eisenhower (who comes off rather well in this book) called the "military-industrial complex," which still has a stranglehold on the American economy and American politics. And there's a strong case to be made that the arms race was unnecessary, that it arose out of a fear of the "international communist conspiracy," which didn't really exist. But Sheehan also makes the case that the development of ICBMs on both sides helped stabilize the post-WWII world. By achieving a balance of terror, Mutual Assured Destruction, the arms race helped bring about peace.

On the other hand, by focusing on Schriever, Sheehan is precluded from exploring what happened to the world, and especially to the United States, after the nuclear stalemate was achieved. That is, of course, material for another book or several, many of which have been written by Richard Rhodes. A lot of A Fiery Peace is anticlimactic: the book concludes with a long, detailed description of Schriever's funeral, which, while it has some touching moments (and some ironic ones, including the appearance of Donald Rumsfeld at the interment) takes up too much space that might otherwise have been devoted to exploring the consequences of what Schriever -- and what seems like a cast of hundreds of officers and engineers -- created.
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