Library book sales are great places to find good reads, and while perusing the shelves at the Pacific Beach branch of the San Diego library I came across this volume. I had never heard of the book but I had heard of the author. Neil Sheehan is the author of one of the greatest books about the Vietnam War ever written, “A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam”. This book won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award and is one of my favorite nonfiction books of all time. Despite its 1000 plus pages it is as fascinating as a novel. So I was willing to give Sheehan another try, especially when I saw that this book’s subject matter concerned one of my ongoing interests, the modern history of the cold war.
As in “A Bright Shining Lie”, Sheehan uses a focus on the story of one man to flesh out an era, in this case the mad race between the United States and the Soviet Union after World War II to develop intermediate and long range missiles with nuclear warheads. It was an insane period of time during which the U.S. military sought to produce an absurd amount of nuclear missiles as a deterrent to nuclear war. The plan was that the missiles would never be used, but as the book brings out, there were plenty of gung-ho generals who would have been all too happy to unleash the entire arsenal on the Soviets, not comprehending or uncaring if they did that they would bring nuclear winter upon the whole northern hemisphere.
The story traces Schriever’s early life as an immigrant from Germany, the struggles of his mother after his father died, his education, his entry into the Army Air Forces (before the Air Force was a separate branch of the military), his service during World War II, and ultimately the assignment to his life’s work, the development of an intercontinental ballistic missile. The book outlines the lives and deeds of a number of famous figures of the times, including the mathematician and physicist John von Neumann; Edward Hall, who created the Minuteman missile, and his brother Theodore, who spied for the Russians; Curtis LeMay, the bombastic general who was Schriever’s nemesis; Wernher von Braun, the German creator of the V2 rockets; Joseph Stalin, the tyrannical Russian dictator; and presidents Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy.
This is history brought to life through the stories of the men who made it, and it rivals any novel in its excitement and depth of characterization. Sheehan is a great writer and he is in great form in this fascinating history. As I said, the story itself tells of an insane period of human history. God knows what future generations will think of the crazy race to build more and more and more death-dealing nuclear weapons until there were enough of them to destroy the world many times over. At the same time, though, Sheehan has a gift for explaining the motivations of the times that led men to such deeds, and the personalities that struggled on heroically doing the best they could considering the circumstances.
I highly recommend this book as a first-class retelling of an important period of modern history. Anyone interested in the cold war and how things developed as they did would do well to read this book. If you want to go beyond James Bond and understand how things really happened, give it a try.