Review of “A Fiery Peace in a Cold War” by Neil Sheehan

Neil Sheehan is considered a “giant” among journalists: the reporter who obtained the Pentagon Papers for the New York Times, and the author of a Pulitzer Prize winning book on Vietnam, A Bright Shining Lie. This book by Sheehan is a fascinating look at the background drama of another major act in American history.


Military men seldom become famous except through their exploits in war. However, perhaps the most important military “event” of the twentieth century was the one that didn’t happen — the nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. Much has been written about the statesmen and politicians who helped avoid Armageddon, but very little has been written about the soldiers, scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs who developed the weapons, tactics, and strategy that made such a conflict unthinkable. A Fiery Peace in a Cold War is a tale of the people behind the evolution of the weapons and strategy that became Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD), the doctrine that kept the Cold War cold until the breakup of the Soviet Union.

The United States enjoyed a brief monopoly of atomic bombs from 1945 until 1949, when the U.S.S.R. detonated its own uranium and plutonium bombs. Five-star Army General Hap Arnold, the head of the U.S. Air Force at the end of WWII, had the vision to recognize the importance of science and technology for driving the defensive strategy of the U.S. in the atomic age. He also recognized the talents of a colonel with an advanced degree in Aeronautical Engineering, Bernard “Bennie” Schriever, a German immigrant who fought with the U.S. in World War II. Arnold picked Schriever to head the development of the ultimate military weapon – one which would deter war rather than be used in war – the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) armed with a thermonuclear (hydrogen) bomb.

Maj. Gen. Bernard Schriever on the cover of Time Magazine,  Apr. 1, 1957

Maj. Gen. Bernard Schriever on the cover of Time Magazine, Apr. 1, 1957

Sheehan’s writing is crisp and lucid. His description of the differences between uranium and plutonium bombs takes only one paragraph, yet it explains the reason why early production of the bombs was so meager [shortage of uranium, slow separation of U-235 from U-238 by gas diffusion] and the importance of the implosion concept for plutonium bombs [to avoid spontaneous fission from impurities].

Sheehan blames some of the frigidity of the early Cold War on a “misreading” of Stalin. Like the British Marxist historian Isaac Deutscher, he sees Stalin as a monster (on that, there is little to disagree about), but “he was not an expansionist monster in the likeness of Hitler,” as portrayed by George Kennan (an extremely influential American advisor on the Soviet Union). Where Kennan saw a “fanatical revolutionary,” Sheehan considers Stalin to have been a more complex mixture of genuine Marxist faith, cynicism, Realpolitik calculation, suspicion, and cruelty. In Sheehan’s view, it was in part the psychological insecurity of some U.S. leaders that led to the country’s distorted view of Stalin. Moreover, Sheehan characterizes Dean Acheson, Truman’s Secretary of State, as “an intellectual primitive” when it came to communism.

Dean G. Acheson, U.S. Secretary of State, January 21, 1949 to January 20, 1953

Dean G. Acheson, U.S. Secretary of State, January 21, 1949 to January 20, 1953

Once the Russians (likewise saddled with some influential but intellectually primitive careerists in its military and diplomatic corps) had their own atomic bomb and the Korean War had shown that at least some communists were expansionistic, the trillion dollar arms race between the two super powers began in earnest. The first key strategic decision for American military planners was to devise a method of delivering atomic bombs to Russia. By the early 1950’s, Hap Arnold had retired and his place was taken by the crewcut wearing, colorful, fanatic, and (some would say) evil Curtis LeMay, who was parodied so effectively by George C. Scott in the movie “Dr. Strangelove.” (LeMay was known for such policies as the firebombing of Tokyo with napalm in World War II; “Operation Starvation” against the Japanese; and the policy “to bomb [North Vietnam] back into the Stone Age.”)

Gen. Curtis E. LeMay

Gen. Curtis E. LeMay

LeMay spearheaded the development of the monstrous B-36 (too slow to avoid jet interceptors), the B-47 (supersonic and beautiful, but too light and short-ranged to carry atomic bombs to Moscow), and finally, the B-52 (there, that might do it). LeMay, however, was short-sighted in that he had no use for missiles, which he regarded as impractical. A former pilot, he thought “the bombers will always get through.”

Fortunately, others in the government and military saw the potential in guided missiles. Schriever becomes the ultimate hero of the narrative as he shepherds the development first of liquid fuel rockets and finally the highly reliable solid fuel Minuteman missile. [Minuteman was the name given to the second generation solid propellant ICBM.] He was aided by the genius of John von Neumann, the emigre physicist from Hungary who made important contributions to any scientific field he entered. Von Neumann was able to demonstrate that as the size of hydrogen bombs became smaller (less than 1500 pounds), practical improvements in existing rocket motors could result in missiles capable of flying from the continental U.S.A. to Russia. The ICBM could fly across continents at 16,000 miles per hour and reach its target in just 30 minutes. Mutual deterrence became the strategy of choice for rational political actors.

Minuteman Missile

Minuteman Missile

Sheehan limns the ferocious funding battles and turf wars among the armed service branches as well as the large aerospace contractors. He also reports on the struggle between design concepts: intermediate range (1500 miles) vs. intercontinental (6000+ miles) missiles. Eisenhower became convinced of the special importance of the ICBM (mostly thanks to von Neumann), and by the end of his term, the U.S. had far outstripped the Russians in missile technology. Eisenhower knew of the American advantage because of the U-2 spy plane flights made during his administration, but could not say so publicly without admitting violating Russian air space.

Thus, the evolution of four different technologies used by both Superpowers served to deter a catastrophic war: (1) reliable ICBM’s, (2) relatively small nuclear warheads, (3) powerful radar systems, and (4) spy satellites. With these in play, the nuclear stalemate called MAD became inevitable.

Evaluation: This is a highly readable, important contribution to Cold War scholarship which recognizes the personalities that developed basic strategy during the Cold War. It is recommended for those interested in a new perspective on this complicated and exciting period in history.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Random House, 2009


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