three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
44-Jan-Feb-2010
By: 
Neil Sheehan
user_rating: 
0

Bernard Schriever and the Ultimate Weapon

A-A Fiery PeaceFormer New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for his incisive account of the Vietnam War in A Bright Shining Lie (1988). This is his first book in 21 years.

The Topic: Weapons of Mass Destruction as a means of ensuring ... peace? That, argues Sheehan, was precisely the goal of the nuclear arms race during the Cold War. The guarantee that a nuclear attack by either superpower would result in joint annihilation kept America and the Soviet Union locked in a functional, if uneasy, stalemate. Sheehan examines the Pentagon's attempts in the 1950s to surpass the Soviets and develop the first intercontinental ballistic missiles, focusing on U.S. Air Force General Bernard Schriever, a WWII pilot appointed by Eisenhower to oversee the burgeoning missile program. Schriever overcame intense political and military rivalries and disappointing engineering setbacks, and by 1963, America possessed 132 long-range, nuclear-tipped missiles--a potent deterrent to an attack. "We beat them to the draw," Schriever would boast.
Random House. 534 pages. $32. ISBN: 9780679422846

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"If the result lacks some of the passion and existential profundity that marked A Bright Shining Lie, it is nonetheless an important contribution to our understanding of those decades when the United States and Soviet Union held each other--and the world--in a balance of terror. ... While Schriever is at the center of Sheehan's history, the author surrounds him with a compelling--indeed, fascinating--cast of characters whose critical contributions to U.S. security deserve to be honorably remembered." Timothy Rutten

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"[A] deeply researched, compulsively readable and important book. ... Although he is mainly interested in his protagonist, Sheehan brings the other characters to life as well, and fully sets Schriever's career in the historical context of the early years of American-Soviet confrontation." Michael Beschloss

Boston Globe 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Sheehan's failure to master the elementary science behind his narrative or the larger paradoxes of the nuclear arms and missile race leaves me with mixed feelings about his book. Schriever's part in the development of the ICBM is a story that needed to be told, however, and Sheehan tells it with enthusiasm." Richard Rhodes

Contra Costa Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"A Fiery Peace in a Cold War offers an unparalleled look at the workings of what President Dwight D. Eisenhower memorably labeled the ‘military-industrial complex.' ... For all the pages expended on Schriever's thoughts and actions, he never fully comes alive: He's more a vehicle than a character." Rich Jaroslovsky

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Schriever, ‘the handsomest general in the United States Air Force,' who died in 2005, comes across as an exceptional administrator almost colorless in his rectitude. That said, Sheehan does an excellent job of describing, in terms that a layman can follow, the technical challenges involved in developing an ICBM and how they were overcome." Michael Dobbs

Seattle Times 3 of 5 Stars
"As in the earlier book, [Sheehan] has attempted to hang a big history around one character, and here he makes a strategic mistake. ... 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." Bruce Ramsey

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 2 of 5 Stars
"He's guilty of a classic sin of the insatiable researcher--‘writing his notebook' or using everything rather than self-editing. ... There's a larger story that gets lost in the welter of minute details." Bob Hoover

Critical Summary

Critics considered General Schriever's story an important chapter in U.S. history but were somewhat disappointed that A Fiery Peace did not rise to the level of the award-winning A Bright Shining Lie. Some shortcomings are inherent in the subject matter, given that bureaucratic struggles lack the excitement of the battlefield. However, critics also questioned Sheehan's decision to center the larger history on a single character--a technique that served him well with the charismatic Lt. Col. John Paul Vann but that backfires with the drab Schriever. Fortunately, Schriever is surrounded by a colorful cast of secondary characters. Despite critics' complaints, Sheehan provides a vital framework for understanding the ensuing events of the Cold War, and all reviewers agreed that this story needs to be told.

Also by the Author

A Bright Shining Lie John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam (1988): Award Star National Book Award; Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction. Having gained access to the U.S. Department of Defense's classified history of the Vietnam War, Sheehan penned this impassioned and ambitious account of the conflict. At the heart of this vivid story is Lt. Col. John Paul Vann, an outspoken army field adviser disillusioned by the corruption and incompetence around him.