Most people think of the Cold War as a long, glacial period, but in the beginning it was dangerously unstable. Author Neil Sheehan says there might well have been nuclear war — had it not been for one man.
Sheehan tells All Things Considered host Guy Raz that a quiet Air Force general, Bernard Schriever, kept the U.S. and Soviet Union balanced against each other by virtually creating the concept of mutual assured destruction.
Twenty years after releasing his landmark account of the Vietnam War, A Bright Shining Lie, Sheehan is back with a new book, A Fiery Peace in a Cold War. It tells the story of the Cold War through Schriever's eyes.
After World War II, senior military commanders grew increasingly wary of a Soviet program to build ballistic missiles. At the time, bombs could only be delivered by airplane. If, however, the Soviets developed the capability to launch an attack without using bombers, the White House would have less than 15 minutes to retaliate — not enough time to get American bombers alerted and up into the sky.
So in 1954, the top commander of the nascent Air Force, Gen. Henry "Hap" Arnold, recruited the young Brig. Gen. Schriever to head up America's intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) program.
Schriever's task was clear and consequential: build a ground-based missile that could accurately reach targets in the Soviet Union. And build it fast.
Schriever was sent to Inglewood, Calif., to assemble a team of 30 scientists later dubbed "the schoolhouse gang." They met in a vacant Catholic boys school and wore civilian clothing to make sure the project remained secret. According to Sheehan, the men even covered the stained glass windows in the school because they felt uncomfortable discussing the massive weapon in front of pictures of the saints.
When the Soviets launched the Sputnik satellite in 1957, Schriever's project received an unexpected boost. Sputnik "scared the living hell out of everybody," says Sheehan, "but at the same time, it opened the money spigot." Suddenly, Schriever could move ahead much faster.
Within a year, Schriever was controlling more than 40 percent of the Air Force's budget — a project that was several times larger than the Manhattan Project.
The group eventually developed the Minuteman rocket. It is still the only land-based ICBM in use today by the United States.
But Schriever never intended for his weapon to be used; it was designed as a deterrent. "The Russians could never pull off a first strike, and this was the critical thing," Sheehan says. By creating a nuclear stalemate, Schriever and his team introduced the concept of mutual assured destruction into international diplomacy.