Just as he used the pivotal figure of John Paul Vann in A Bright Shining Lie to tie together America’s myriad miscalculations in the Vietnam War, so Neil Sheehan focuses here on Bernard Schriever, another relatively unknown presence, to anatomize America’s arms race with Russia from the end of World War II through the mid-1960s.

A German by birth, “Bennie” Schriever came to the U.S. in 1917 when he was six years old. He grew up in San Antonio, earned a degree in construction engineering from Texas A&M and was commissioned into the fledgling Army Air Force in 1933. That same year he met Lt. Col. Henry “Hap” Arnold, a strong believer in the scientific development of weaponry. Schriever served in the Pacific during World War II, and in 1946, with the war over, Arnold appointed Schriever to serve as liaison between civilian scientists and the Air Force to develop new weapons systems. Although Schriever would rise in rank and responsibility, this essentially would be his mission until he left the service in 1966.

Sheehan argues that the arms race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union was predicated on an erroneous assessment of Joseph Stalin’s comparatively modest territorial ambitions. After Russia got the atomic bomb in 1949, however, the us-versus-them dynamic boiled out of control. Then the question became which side could deliver its A-bombs most effectively. Schriever’s nemesis in this calculation was Gen. Curtis LeMay, the man who had fire-bombed Japan into near submission before the A-bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki finished the job. LeMay’s solution was more, bigger and longer-range bombers, all carrying thermonuclear warheads—and a willingness to use them.

Since Russia couldn’t match the U.S. in number of A-bombs and planes, it turned its attention to long-range rockets. So did Schriever and his civilian teams. Much of Sheehan’s book concerns his circumventing or surmounting the political machinations, corporate greed and personal vanities that stood in the way of creating what would come to be called the “ICBM”— intercontinental ballistic missile—with the capability of delivering a targeted, nuclear-tipped rocket halfway around the world.

In telling his story, Sheehan profiles a gallery of fascinating characters, among them Paul Nitze (whose 1950 report to the National Security Council, Sheehan says, grossly overstated the Soviet threat); hawkish and brilliant mathematician John von Neumann; the Hall brothers, Ed and Ted, the former a member of Schriever’s first ICBM unit, the latter a spy for Russia who wasn’t unmasked until 1995; and Hitler’s morally accommodating rocket man, Wern-her von Braun, who was more interested in space travel than nuclear confrontation. In piecing this narrative together, Sheehan interviewed well over 100 sources, including Nitze, physicist and hydrogen-bomb pioneer Edward Teller, diplomat Richard Holbrooke and Schriever himself, who died in 2005. It is a dazzling display of scholarship.

To some, this book will be a triumphant tale of America once again winning the day, but to others it will read like a tragedy in which the brightest minds of a generation bent themselves to finding the best ways to slaughter people en masse.

Edward Morris writes from Nashville.

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