For the past two weeks I have been reading most of Neil Sheehan's new book, A Fiery Peace in a Cold War. Sheehan, who won a Pulitzer Prize for securing the Pentagon papers from Daniel Ellsberg back in 1971, has now written two substantial works of recent history. The hero the the first, A Bright Shining Lie, was John Paul Vann, a fellow member of the Silent Generation, who saw the flaws in American strategy in Vietnam but could not give up the idea, after his reckless personal behavior had helped force him out of the Army, that we could win. The hero of this one is some one of whom I do not think I have ever been aware, Bernard Schriever, a German-American Air Force officer and engineer whom Sheehan regards as the founder of the American ICBM program. And although many of the events of this book took place during a time securely within my memory, they seem as remote, in many ways, as the days of Pearl Harbor and D-Day, Napoleon and Wellington, or the Thirty Years War. The book--even more than the one I am working on now on American entry into the Second World War--is about another America, one whose strengths and weaknesses become extraordinarily apparent as time goes on.
Researching my own book, I recently read a column by Drew Pearson and Robert Allen from August 1941, purporting to describe President Roosevelt's mood. The President, they said--and rightly so--was deeply engaged in preparing the nation for war, but he was less jovial than in the past. During his first eight years he had put people to work, helped build bridges and dams, and established the beginnings of the American safety net. Now circumstances forced him to tend to the construction of warships, bombers and tanks instead. That choice had been forced upon the United States by political crises in Europe and East Asia but it was not a happy one. Pearson and Allen did not know that FDR was about to make an even more fateful choice: the decision to launch the Manhattan Project, which culminated, four months after his death, in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Roosevelt had looked forward to a postwar world of peace and prosperity. Secretary of War Stimson, along with some (but clearly not all) of the scientists who had built the weapon, understood the need to bring it under international control. Meanwhile, in one of my favorite, little-known documents, some senior military officials in Washington had presciently sketched out the military situation that they expected the United States to face when the war was over. Without knowing about the atomic bomb, they anticipated a stalemate. . "After the defeat of Japan," they wrote, "the United States and Russia will be the strongest military powers in the world. . . .the relative strength and geographic positions of these two powers are such as to preclude the military defeat of one of these powers by the other, even if that power were allied with the British Empire." That in my opinion was a sound judgment both before and after the development of atomic weapons and could have provided the basis for a sensible postwar foreign policy. Unfortunately, that was not to be.
As I had occasion to discuss in an article published a couple of years ago in a collection, the first war plans formulated for a conflict against the Soviet Union, beginning in 1947, did not foresee a stalemate: they planned on an atomic strategic bombing offensive against the Soviet Union that would lead to its complete defeat. This remained our plan throughout the 1950s, even though at the outset we surely lacked, and indeed may never have attained, the capability to bring it about. Much of the responsibility surely lies with the Air Force, which secured its independent status in 1947 based upon the largely mistaken idea that strategic bombing had won the Second World War and could therefore win the wars of the future. Without ICBMS--or, until the very late 1950s, intercontinental bombers--the need to plan for such a war vastly distorted our whole foreign policy. To cite just one example, it probably led to our long, painful, and currently troubling alliance with Pakistan, simply because that nation provided bases that would allow medium-range bombers to reach targets in the Soviet Union. All the while, the Soviets--who never believed in long-range strategic bombing--were steadily improving their air defenses, which, when tried on American planes in Vietnam, turned out to be formidable indeed. The guiding spirit of the Air Force, first as chief of the Strategic Air Command and later as Chief of Staff, was Curtis LeMay, one of the villains of Sheehan's book, who not only counted upon strategic bombing to wipe out the Soviet Union (and refused to recognize that bombers might be obsolete), but also thought that it could solve other problems, like Castro's regime in Cuba or the Vietnam War, if only the Air Force were let alone to do the job.
Sheehan thinks the ICBM was the key weapon of the Cold War and his book is about the men who pushed for it and developed it. The two main heroes are Schriever, an immigrant from Germany who actually built and tested the first (though not the most useful) missiles, and John von Neumann, the Hungarian-born mathematician and refugee who made major contributions to mathematical theory, high-speed computing, and nuclear physics. Like so many Americans during that period, von Neumann viewed the Soviet Union as essentially similar to Nazi Germany--that is, bent upon world domination--and thought that it was necessary for the United States not only to deploy but to use decisive weaponry against it. He made the ICBM program happen because he predicted early in the 1950s that a sufficiently small hydrogen warhead could be developed to be delivered by a missile into the heart of the Soviet Union. That prediction proved true.
The bulk of Sheehan's book is a story of engineers at work, making this happen, while outwitting bureaucratic rivals like LeMay (who feared missiles as a threat to his beloved bomber force), circumventing the budgetary strictures upon which President Eisenhower tried to insist (with a big boost from the Sputnik launch), and overcoming one technical problem after another. Watching them solve these enormous challenges, I could not help but wonder what similar advances had taken place during the last thirty years or so. Sadly, no non-defense project has ever had so much government money and so much engineering talent focused upon it as has sophisticated weaponry. The comparable advances in recent decades, I suppose, have been in the field of computer science, transforming the use of information in ways whose consequences we cannot yet predict. Diagnostic health care has made major advances but there have been relatively few big breakthroughs in treatment or prevention like the vaccines and new drugs of the first half of the century. And we have had no comparable effort in fields like clean energy or mass transit, even though we are talking about such things now. Unfortunately the United States has changed from a country of engineers and industrialists to a country of lawyers and financial analysts; younger, hungrier countries like China and India, as well as the defeated nations of the Second World War, may be the source of the next great breakthroughs. Our private economy, certainly, has not been able to generate a demand for engineering talent, or capital to put it to work, comparable to that which was mobilized for the Second World War and the Cold War, except in the field of computer science and information technology.
And meanwhile, was the great achievement of Schriever and company worth it? Was it as valuable as Sheehan claims? As soon as the Soviet Union detonated an atomic bomb in 1949 the United States government decided that it had to develop the H-bomb as well, and from there it was only a small step to von Neumann's conclusion that we needed the means to deliver a huge number of those weapons onto Soviet cities, one against which the Soviets could not defend. One dissenter was George F. Kennan, who argued very provocatively in one of his most brilliant and least-known internal papers that before doing so, the United States should make another effort to ban atomic and nuclear weapons. The reason, he argued, was that such weapons were so purely destructive that they could never serve the positive foreign policy goals of the United States. "By and large," he wrote, "the conventional weapons of warfare have admitted and recognized the possibility of surrender and submission. For that reason, they have traditionally been designed to spare the unarmed and helpless non-combatant. . .as well as the combatant prepared to lay down his arms. This general quality of the conventional weapons of warfare implied a still more profound and vital recognition: namely that warfare should be a means to an end other than warfare, an end connected with the beliefs and the feelings and the attitudes of people, an end marked by submission to a new political will and perhaps to a new regime of life, but an end which at least did not negate the principle of life itself.
"The weapons of mass destruction do not have this quality. . . .They cannot really be reconciled with a political purpose directed to shaping, rather than destroying, the lives of the adversary. They fail to take account of the ultimate responsibility of men for one another, and even for each other’s errors and mistakes." (Readers with a free hour can read Kennan's entire argument here. I do not think they will feel they have wasted their time.)
But Kennan was overruled. So, a few years later, was General Matthew Ridgway, then Chief of Staff, when he suggested at an NSC meeting that the execution of our war plan against the Soviet Union could not possibly serve the interests of the United States. In reply, President Eisenhower himself "said he was speaking very frankly to the Council in expressing his absolute conviction that in view of the development of the new weapons of mass destruction, with the terrible significance which these involved, everything in any future war with the Soviet bloc would have to be subordinated to winning that war. This was the one thing which must constantly be borne in mind, and there was little else with respect to war objectives that needed to worry anyone very much." The work on ICBMs and other delivery systems not only went ahead, it proceeded so rapidly that by the time the first SIOP, or nuclear targeting plan, was completed by the end of the Eisenhower Administration, there were far more available warheads than targets, leading to the multiple targeting of nearly every one.
The Soviet Union, Sheehan stresses, also had an ICBM program, and gave the arms race something of a push when it launched the first earth satellite. It was however far behind ours, as it turned out, and took many years to catch up quantitatively. (What I have read in recent years suggests that it never caught up qualitatively.) In fact, the two missiles whose development takes up most of the book--the Atlas and Titan--were cumbersome, liquid-fueled vehicles of dubious military utility. It was the Minuteman, to which he devotes much less space, that became the backbone of the US deterrent. Meanwhile, before the deployment of ICBMs, our desperate desire to deploy missiles within range of our enemy led to the placing of intermediate-range missiles in Britain, in Italy, and in Turkey. And that in 1962 led the world to the brink of nuclear war when Khrushchev sent intermediate range nuclear missiles to Cuba, as well as tactical nuclear weapons. Faced with that situation, the American military and much of the American political establishment wanted an immediate invasion of Cuba. That, we now know, would have led to the detonation at least of tactical Soviet nuclear weapons (including one that would have incinerated the Guantanamo naval base), and therefore, almost surely, to a general nuclear exchange. The only reason that it did not, as Sheehan acknowledges, was that John F. Kennedy did what Kennan had hoped some one would do, and took responsibility for Khrushchev's mistake and his predecessors, first by giving Khrushchev a chance to back down and secondly by promising secretly to withdraw the missiles from Turkey and Italy.
Perhaps the American reaction to the events of 1939-49 (from the outbreak of war in Europe until the Soviet nuclear explosion) was perfectly natural. Certainly there is no undoing it now, and no denying that we emerged from the Cold War intact. Yet one of the most poignant moments in Sheehan's book was a reference to Albert Einstein, who by 1950, according to Sheehan, deeply regretted having written the 1939 letter to Franklin Roosevelt that got the Manhattan Project going, because it had now led to a nuclear arms race. "Politics," Einstein once said, "is much harder than physics," and so it proved over the next few decades. We can take comfort now that we are no longer constantly prepared to unleash thousands of nuclear warheads upon an opponent just as ready to do the same. To have reached that point was not an achievement of which the human race can be proud. The task of unleashing human creativity for more beneficial aims, and of finding a civic purpose as compelling as, but less destructive than, war, still remains.
[Regarding the hoax email circulating under my name, I have fantasized for months that some big-time conservative talk-show host woudl call me about it, since they love Obama-Hitler comparisons. (One small town host did call, but my courage failed me, and I immediately disowned it instead of waiting until she had me on the air.) Well, that hasn't happened, but something similar did. Someone posted a supposed excerpt from a hoax undergraduate thesis by Barack Obama on a blog, and conservative writer Michael Ledeen picked it up as real. Rush Limbaugh got it from him and ran with it on Friday. When Rush's researchers rather tardily found out the truth, he said--you'll never guess--that it didn't matter, because we all know Obama believes these things anyway. See mediamatters.org for the full story.