Thursday, January 26, 2017
Book Review 380: A Fiery Peace in a Cold War
A favorite slogan of antimilitarists goes, It will be a great day when schools get the money they need and the Air Force has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber. There’s a lot truth in that, but most antimilitarists might be surprised to learn that the Air Force didn’t always get everything it asked for.
President Eisenhower, the former general, was skeptical of military to-do lists and committed to shrinking the national expenditure. In Neil Sheehan’s very long runup to the story of Gen. Bernard Schriever and the Air Force’s ballistic missile program — Schriever doesn’t get to launch a missile until page 340 — the historian suggests several reasons, although never the real one.
Eisenhower (although he was registered as a Democrat when tapped to run for president) was a natural Republican of the old school — small government, low expenditures, disinclination to foreign adventures. He did not think a budget could be balanced if there was a big army, big navy and big air force.
Truman had already been seduced by the argument that A-bombs were cheaper than multimillion-man armies (which turned out to be incorrect), but in the late ‘40s it was still uncertain that America would return to full peacetime employment. By the time Eisenhower took over in ’53, business was desperate for labor. The Republicans, the party of business, did not dare suck millions of young men out of the civilian labor force.
The strategic bombers — meaning the crazed Curtis LeMay who really was just like the satirical version invented by Peter George, Gen. Jack D. Ripper, only meaner — were out to appropriate essentially all the military spending of the United States, and while they had to leave something for the Army and the Navy, they were determined not to leave an Air Force crumb for H-bombs on missiles (with no flyboys to ride them).
Enter long tall Col. Bernard Schriever, who when he got a star was acknowledged to be the handsomest general in the service, and among the best golfers. It is worth a long pause to consider whether, if Bennie Schriever had been shorter, uglier or less coordinated, LeMay might have gotten the thermonuclear war he wanted.
Schriever was born in Germany but his parents emigrated. His father was killed in a particularly stupid industrial mishap, and his mother was then sponsored by a well-off family in San Antonio, who set her up selling lemonade and ham sandwiches to golfers. Thus Bennie, a poor boy, got a chance to learn golf.
Golf paved his way into the Air Corps, right up to Chief of Staff Hap Arnold, who picked Schriever to help bring the Air Force into a new technical wonderland, despite the doubts of the half-educated louts like LeMay.
“A Fiery Peace in a Cold War” is far more a bureaucratic than a technological history. Schriever who had learned how to manage men (and boys) he could not order around as head of a Civilian Conservation Corps camp, was a Hairbreadth Harry of Air Force politics, helped by a corps of civilian engineers, scientists and engineer/businessmen, like Johnny von Neumann, Simon Ramo and Trevor Gardner.
He was just holding his own until Sputnik scared the wits out of America, after which it was just a matter of pouring money in until the rockets stayed lit.
It is an interesting story, if tediously told, and the one-man version of history is always suspect.
There are some incidents that demand more detail, and the most important of these is the first big move in Schriever’s campaign: get the missile development out of the hands of the uniformed services and into the hands of civilian scientists/engineers/businessmen. This is said to have been an insight of Arnold’s, based on the successes of the Manhattan Project bomb and the Radiation Laboratory radar projects.
If so, Arnold had to overlook the fiasco of the Norden bombsight. Sheehan, a specialist on the Vietnam War, confesses he was not well-versed on aviation or World War II topics, and it shows in his falling hook, line and sinker for the Air Force’s claims to be precision bombers. This was always shibai, the Air Force never even tried to aim until the invention of precision-guided munitions. (Admiral Raymond Spruance, the outstanding combat commander of World War II, mocked LeMay’s boasts of precision bombing, noting that it was being done “through ten-tenths cloud cover.”)
“A Fiery Peace in a Cold War” is full of controversial sections and requires careful reading.
Of these, the most consequential is the idea of Mutual Assured Destruction. Schriever’s belief was that the United States had to get an unstoppable, limitlessly destructive weapon as soon as, or nearly as soon as, the USSR; and the history is that he made it, be a small margin of time.
MAD worked, so far, although whether the USSR as sole possessor of such a weapon would have used it for foreign policy is an uncertain question. Nations do not use weapons because they have them. What is missing from Sheehan’s discussion is the fact that the United States, unknown to Schriever, was attempting to start a war in the Soviet Union and China.
The CIA, the Air Force, the Navy and perhaps other agencies were attacking the red countries, or paying surrogates to do so, sending planes over the borders, landing saboteurs. Had the Soviets or the Chinese been caught doing any of these things (they never did), there is no question there would have been public demands for open war. We know that within the military there were such demands being made outside the democratic process.
None of this is in Sheehan’s book. Perhaps he, like most Americans, is not aware of the extent of the hot war America was fighting while proclaiming Cold War. It changes the moral balance of the discussion, since it was not international communism that was the aggressor. Americans may wish to erect a monument to Kim Philby, since it was his spy reports that provided the Russians with the ability to thwart the CIA attacks. In the absence of those, it might not have been possible for the Politburo to restrain its LeMayskis.
If we limit our view to just Schriever, we see a talented, brave, intelligent officer who was given a complex job and got it done.
It was a good thing for him — and maybe for us — that we didn’t know what he was up to, because if the press had known the background of the writing of the original contracts to ensure that Bunker-Wooldridge (the germ that became TRW) got them, there’s no doubt that their would have been an outcry about fair dealing.
Of the making of missiles, like sausages, it does not help the digestion to know how it came about.