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A Fiery Peace in a Cold War: Bernard Schriever and the Ultimate Weapon
Random House, 2009
560 pp., $32.00
A Cold War Story
Neil Sheehan's A Bright Shining Lie (1988), a Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the Vietnam War, examined that flawed American commitment by entering the world of one of our flawed heroes, the officer John Paul Vann. It is a fine book, and I have assigned it in my own teaching about the war. A Fiery Peace in a Cold War uses the same strategy. Looking at the career of Air Force general Bernard Schriever, who oversaw the creation of the U.S. nuclear ballistic deterrent in the 1950s and 1960s, Sheehan hopes to uncover the history of American national security in a crucial era. This time, however, the tale is not one of disaster and hubris but of prudence and good sense in the struggle with the old Soviet Union.
Schriever hardly appears in the initial one third of the book. The first 170 pages cover the early years of the Cold War, from the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan in August 1945 until the Korean War of 1950-53, when Schriever was making his way as a junior officer. Sheehan guides us deftly through the complicated diplomacy of the era, showing how the United States and the USSR were jointly responsible for the Cold War. Recognizing the exceptionally nasty nature of the Russian regime, the author nonetheless sees that each country contributed to the arms race. Sheehan notes that the invention and use of nuclear weapons by the United States in World War II justifiably provoked the Soviet Union—the existence of the bomb suggested that America might impose a postwar settlement hostile to Russia, and so the Soviets felt compelled to make their own weapon. "The confrontation was … inevitable," writes Sheehan, "because both sides were ignorant of or misunderstood the real motivations of the other." While not underplaying the horrible character of the Russian leader, Joseph Stalin, Sheehan also makes clear how a paranoid style gripped leaders in the United States and led to preposterous planning by the armed services. Sheehan writes of "the oversimplification ...