Warning: this post contains spoilers for Neil Sheehan’s A Fiery Peace in a Cold War: Bernard Schriever and the Ultimate Weapon
This book, with its focus on Schriever and how he became known as the father of the high-technology Air Force, is more directly relevant to my professional life than most of what I read, what with the current efforts to stand up an independent Space Force. However, it is more than simply a chronicle of Schriever’s efforts to build an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). In fact, for all that this book uses Schriever as a common thread, Schriever seemed to exist in this narrative to assist in bringing all of the other pieces and players to the stage at the right times. In other words, if you’re looking for a flat-out biography of the man, this is not where you should look.
If, on the other hand, you’re looking for a book about the creation of American ICBMs, with significant, fascinating history of the early Cold War, then Sheehan’s creation would be a great place to go. It is, for the most part, well written, although its habit of taking half a chapter to provide the entire backstory of every person who comes into the action can leave the book feeling somewhat disjointed at times. This is a common biographical/historical technique, but the number of people who received this treatment in A Fiery Peace in a Cold War meant that hardly had a thing happened before some new individual was being introduced.
Unlike most of the circles in which I had previously studied or read about the Cold War, this book was written after the opening of the former Soviet Union, with much more significant access to source documents from the times involved. As much as the process through which the ICBM development went was interesting, to me the author’s analysis and conclusions about the nature of the Cold War were the truly fascinating information, especially the way that American leadership repeatedly misunderstood Stalin. To me, one of the largest lessons that can be drawn from books in general is an ability to see things from the perspective of another person. Understanding how the Cold War came to be, and the mistakes and misinterpretations on both sides that led to the bipolar world of the mid twentieth century, is especially valuable with more and more people warning of a new Cold War with China.
Many of the barriers that Schriever encounters were personified in LeMay, but the challenges faced by military space professionals and other, non-rated officers have not disappeared in the modern day. In fact, just as Schriever was obligated to find work-arounds and means by which to keep his command separate from the “operational” Air Force, pilots and former pilots continue to control the Air Force, and played no small part in the impetus for an independent Space Force. With any luck, that independent Space Force will finally allow the fulfillment of the vision of a high technology, continuously innovative military organization.
To me, the most interesting characters in this book were the people who worked with Schriever, not Schriever himself. Especially by the end of the book, it seemed that Schriever’s main contribution was the weight of his position and his ability to, with assistance from others who shared his vision, convince higher authorities of the importance of the ICBM effort. It’s probably my engineering background talking, but I found the people actually involved in the ICBM’s creation more intriguing, especially as I was able to see the origins of many of the procedures, policies, and conventions that are still in use in the space industry today.
With all of that in mind, I encourage you to consider reading A Fiery Peace in a Cold War.