Copyright ©2009 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

GUY RAZ, host:

I'm standing inside the missile pit at the National Air and Space Museum here in Washington, D.C. I'm right under a decommissioned Minuteman rocket. It's a rocket that can reach any part of the earth in minutes, and it's a weapon that would forever change the stakes of the Cold War.

Now, in 1961, when the Minuteman became operational, its development inspired a whole new term that would haunt people who lived on either side of the East-West divide, and that term was Mutually Assured Destruction.

But strangely enough, this weapon may have also prevented a nuclear war. And the man behind it, Air Force General Bernard Schriever, had deterrence in mind when he came up with the idea. Schriever is the subject of a new book by Neil Sheehan. It's called, "A Fiery Peace in a Cold War."

I sat down with Sheehan earlier this week back in the studio to find out about the dramatic race to build a better bomb.

Mr. NEIL SHEEHAN (Author, "A Fiery Peace in a Cold War"): Most people think of the Cold War as a long Ice Age, but it was not. In the beginning, the Cold War was a very warm confrontation. And during that period of time, we might well have had a nuclear war had it not been for Schriever and the people who worked with him.

We got the A-bomb in 1945. The Soviets got theirs in '49. We got the H-bomb in '52. The Soviets got theirs in '55. And we were dependent for our deterrent on the bomber in the Strategic Air Command under General Lemay, Curtis LeMay, who is the figure for General Jack D. Ripper in Stanley Kubrick's "Dr. Strangelove."

RAZ: And of course, bomber, you mean physically, airplanes flying to drop bombs.

Mr. SHEEHAN: Airplanes flying to drop bombs.

RAZ: That's what we were dependent on.

Mr. SHEEHAN: That's what we were dependent on. A force of airplanes, we called it Strategic Air Command.

We weren't paying any attention to the fact that the Soviets in secret were working their way toward building a fleet of intercontinental ballistic missiles.

RAZ: This, of course, is where Bernard Schriever comes in. He has sort of handed the assignment of developing this program.

You described 1954 as a key year for Bernard Schriever and the project to develop an American ICBM. He gets an assignment to run the Air Force's Western Development Division out in Los Angeles.

Mr. SHEEHAN: Yes. He - first of all, he saw how to build a fleet of them, then he understood the need to do so, that the airplane was going to be undermined if we didn't do so. And he finally - he got the program going and their first base was a vacant Catholic boys school in Englewood, California, out by the - it was a suburb of Los Angeles out by the airport.

They set up headquarters there. Everybody wearing civilian clothes to try to keep this thing secret…

(Soundbite of laughter)

…in August of '54. The chapel was - the former chapel was their briefing room. And they covered the stain glass windows with plaster board for security reasons and also because they felt uncomfortable in there talking about this mammoth weapon they were going to build amongst the pictures of all the saints on the walls…

(Soundbite of laughter)

…around them and giving their briefings from the former altar rail.

RAZ: In 1957, the Russians launched their satellite, Sputnik. And you described this as almost a mixed blessing for Schriever and the crew working out in Englewood, California, developing the ICBM. Why was it a mixed blessing?

Mr. SHEEHAN: Well, it was a mixed blessing because this scared the living hell out of everybody. And, you know, were we behind? Were we falling behind technologically in general? Were we behind in rocketry, et cetera? But at the same time, it opened the money spigot.

RAZ: To the point where he, Schriever, then goes on to control 40 percent of the Air Force's budget at one point.

Mr. SHEEHAN: Oh, it was huge. The program became bigger than the Manhattan Project. And the critical missile was something called Minuteman, which is still in service. There are 450 of them on alert.

The reason this missile was so important was it was not liquid fueled, it was solid fueled. You could store it for long periods of time, keep it active, and you could fire it within one minute.

RAZ: Hmm.

Mr. SHEEHAN: Now, remember I said they only had 15 minutes warning in that period of time. And Eisenhower lived in terror of what he called a nuclear Pearl Harbor. In other words, a first strike by the Soviets, which would knock out our nuclear potential.

RAZ: And inability to respond.

Mr. SHEEHAN: And absolutely, our inability to respond. But when Minuteman was built, it didn't matter if the Soviets launched their missiles. You only had 15 minutes, well, there was plenty of time. The Minuteman missiles were going to fly. So the Russians could never pull off a first strike. And this was the critical thing: these guys, what they accomplished was to create a nuclear stalemate.

RAZ: Mutually assured destruction.

Mr. SHEEHAN: That was the nuclear stalemate. It was called MAD. There was nothing mad about it because it removed the possibility of a first strike.

RAZ: There's a quote of Schriever's that I read in an article about him. I think it was his obituary. And I loved this quote. He said, it's a national disgrace that the term egghead has become a derogatory expression. It is the eggheads who are saving us, just as it was the eggheads who wrote the constitution. They are the people who form the first line of freedom's defense.

Bernard Schriever really believed in the power was science. That to win the Cold War, you had to outsmart the Soviets?

Mr. SHEEHAN: That's right. And he got that from Hap Arnold, who was his mentor. Arnold was a technological visionary like Schriever. And in 1945, when Arnold was - his heart was bad, he was going to soon have to retire, he passed on to Schriever the mission of using science as a way to enhance air power.

There were other accomplishments. They opened space for America. The first - our first astronauts went up on military missiles.

RAZ: The Atlas, which was developed by this group.

Mr. SHEEHAN: Right. John Glenn flew in a military missile and he came back in a modified hydrogen bomb capsule.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Because the problem was how did you bring the bomb back into the atmosphere from space without burning it up? That was one of the technological problems.

RAZ: And it had to land on the target.

Mr. SHEEHAN: On the target. And then (unintelligible) once you solved that problem, you could send a man up into space and bring him back without burning him up.

RAZ: It was going to be this group of scientists and eggheads in Englewood, California, working in an unmarked school, former Catholic school, who were going to win the Cold War.

Mr. SHEEHAN: That's right, and that's what happened. I mean, these guys were genuine American heroes. They beat the Soviets to the punch.

RAZ: Neil Sheehan, it took you almost two decades to write this book. This is an incredibly well-researched book. And I've read that you do not work with a research assistant. You keep unusual hours. Can you describe your process?

Mr. SHEEHAN: I have what the sleep doctors call a night metabolism. My best thoughts come late at night. My working day starts about noon and I go to sleep about 4 a.m. in the morning.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: And you don't work with a research assistant.

Mr. SHEEHAN: I do not work with a research assistant, no. I - If you do the kind of work I do, you're panning an awful lot of sand to get a few flecks of gold to put together a really fast-paced narrative in novelistic form without distorting the truth and history, recreating history, bringing it to life for the reader. And to do that, you've got to have a feel for the material. And I find if I don't do my own reporting, I don't find the flecks of gold.

RAZ: Neil Sheehan is the author of "A Bright Shining Lie," and the new book, "A Fiery Peace in a Cold War: Bernard Schriever and the Ultimate Weapon."

Neil Sheehan, thanks for coming in.

Mr. SHEEHAN: Thank you very much for having me.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: