(Random House, 534 pages, $32)
Page backward through old covers of Time magazine, and eventually you will find, on an issue dated April 1, 1957, a portrait of an ordinary-looking man wearing the uniform of an Air Force general. He is identified by two words: “Missileman Schriever.” Three years earlier, he had been a little-known German-born, Texas-bred combat veteran, who agreed to develop a long-range missile program on one condition—that there’d be no “interference from those nit-picking sons of bitches at the Pentagon.” “Bennie” Schriever’s team quickly racked up a series of technological breakthroughs that altered the Cold War. The world has Schriever to thank for the fact that, by 1962, America held a nuclear striking power equivalent to 224,000 Hiroshimas.
Neil Sheehan, author of the “splendid” Vietnam War book A Bright Shining Lie, has spent the last 15 years researching this almost hidden “pivot point” in Cold War history, said Michael Beschloss in The New York Times. Until Schriever came along, no one would have predicted the U.S. military’s timely embrace of intercontinental ballistic missiles as the best defense against Soviet aggression. Even “truculent, impervious” Curtis LeMay, the most powerful man in the Pentagon, failed to foresee that Soviet missiles were about to render the U.S. bomber force obsolete. In detailing how the supremely confident Schriever outflanked LeMay, Sheehan has created a “compulsively readable” narrative from what might seem dry subject matter.
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Sheehan gets a lot right, said Michael Dobbs in The Washington Post. His secondary characters are vivid personalities, and “he does an excellent job” of outlining the technical challenges Schriever overcame and of tracing “the origins of the military industrial lobby.” But Schriever himself presents a problem the author can’t quite solve. In A Bright Shining Lie, Sheehan’s central character was a compellingly conflicted Army officer named John Paul Vann, said Bob Hoover in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. This time, his hero is “a careful plodder.” Try as he might, Sheehan can’t make up for the facts that combat is more interesting than bureaucratic wrangling—and that the designing of missiles is “a subject best suited to an engineering symposium, not a popular history.”
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