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This sprawling chronicle is the story of the intercontinental ballistic missile -- its background in the Manhattan project, conception in the first years of the Cold War, creation in the late 1950s, and refinement to terrifying reliability and ubiquity by 1970. The book also covers the earliest years of the American space program, which grew out of military rocketry. The core protagonist is Bernard Shriever, an engineer from Texas who rose to the rank of full general in the US Air Force. Appointed by Hap Arnold shortly after World War II as head of a new air force research branch, Shriever struggled to coordinate the efforts of scientists, generals, and politicians to secure technical superiority for the United States. These secondary characters constitute more than a supporting cast; they frequently take over the show. Always, however, the narrative returns to Shriever as the one figure with the patience and management ability to see his projects to completion.A curious tension runs through the book. On the one hand, Sheehan is sharply critical of almost every aspect of American policy. From the beginning, he argues, the United States misjudged both the intentions and the abilities of the Soviet Union. American politicians chose, sometimes sincerely and sometimes deliberately, to perpetuate an unnecessary frenzy of public fear. This climate led them to develop unstoppable weapons of unconscionable destructive power, hellish devices that were supposed to prevent the destruction of the United States but that also placed enormous power in trigger-happy hands. On the other hand, Sheehan clearly admires many of his characters for their patriotism as well as their brilliance, and he tacitly agrees that a form of mutual assured destruction was an inevitable, and perhaps even the best possible, policy. This book thus has a strong Niebuhrian feel. Sheehan sees the arms race as a tragedy that bred execrable hubris and hatred in many people, but he also praises those who tried modestly to find the least unacceptable way through it. In other words, I think, the author honors those who could tell the difference between strategy and tactics. A stark contrast emerges between Shriever and one of his nemeses, Gen. Curtis LeMay, who saw nuclear war as an occasion for thrilling action by bomber pilots and who seemed to have no concept of overkill. Bernard Shriever saw from the start that the whole point of the ICBM was to make open nuclear warfare inconceivable, not winnable; Sheehan honors him for it. In fact, someone like the traitor Ted Hall, who passed early secrets from Los Alamos to the Soviets in hopes of balancing out American nuclear superiority, seems quite sympathetic in this book. This leads me to a paradox lurking within the tension I described above. Sheehan admires sang froid, yes, but he also admires zeal. He veers between lavishing praise on technocrats and showering admiration on dreamers, including dreamers from whom he differs. For example, Sheehan seems to like Johnny von Neumann, a brilliant Hungarian mathematician. This is despite the fact that Von Neumann advocated preventive atomic war against the Soviets, which is clearly an idea Sheehan loathes. Yet Sheehan loses no love on Werner von Braun, the former architect of the Nazi rocket program who didnt seem to care what his missiles landed on as long as they landed accurately. Von Neumann was mistaken, in Sheehans estimation, but Von Braun was amoral. In addition, Sheehan relishes the temerity of American officers who talked back to their superiors and who wrangled funding from tightfisted bureaucrats and committeemen. Fixity of principle apparently counts for a lot with this author.All in all, then, the central virtue championed in this book is courage. Sheehan derides any sign of panic. In his account, the Cold War began because the United States was unnecessarily frightened of the Soviets; the American military-industrial complex then overproduced planes and missiles by a factor of 100 because of wild stories about Soviet power. Sheehan also praises any sign of fortitude. He sees Shriever as a hero because he didnt flinch in the face of bullying by generals or politicians; he sees John F. Kennedy as a hero because he kept his cool during the Cuban Missile Crisis when everyone around him wanted to unleash war -- and because he was willing to risk war with Khrushchev. Sheehans position on the Missile Crisis is more than a little unbalanced. But it is consistent with his general admiration for people who hold firm in difficult circumstances.Im not sure it would be possible to resolve these tensions and still do justice to the inside of the story. None of these characters was a monster, however much some of them struggled with private demons; to show them as full human beings means producing an ambiguous account. Neil Sheehan has done this admirably.Full disclosure: I solicited and received a free advance copy of this book from the publisher through the first reads program at Goodreads.com.

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