American patriotism, American arrogance and mutually assured fear in the Cold War. American technology and the military-industrial complex, born in paranoia and nurtured by Wall Street, sold by the author as a triumph of the Western will. US weapons and US weapons delivery rarely lagged behind the Soviet's capacity, if they ever did. The Russians, however, were dogged where the Americans were dilettantes...
... but one would think the USA triumphant underdogs from this work.
When I first saw this offering through Amazon's Vine program I groaned. Do I really want to read a 500 page book about generals, and the Cold War arms race? Fortunately I re-considered, after seeing the author, for whom I have immense respect for his quintessential book on the Vietnam War, A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam" And I was richly rewarded for overcoming my initial aversion.
Sheehan has spent some time in Arlington National Cemetery, a good place for reflection, for all of us. He commenced "A Bright Shining Lie" there, with the funeral of John Paul Vann in 1972, and that is where he ends "A Fiery Peace in a Cold War," in 2005, with the funeral of General Bernard Schriever (who I had previously never heard of.) Nine of the ten current four-star generals attended. Even Rumsfeld showed up. Sheehan's technique is to identify a major American historical event, in one case, the Vietnam War, in the other, the Cold War, and then identify an individual who was key to this event, and developed and changed as the event unfolded. True, Vann and Schriever were very different men, and I think it is very much to Sheehan's credit that his portrait of each rang true. Particularly in this book Sheehan provides numerous other mini-biographies of the major "players." I was impressed with the one on General Curtis LeMay, who as a young officer commanded the American Air Forces in the Pacific, particularly in the fire bombing campaign against Tokyo. Then he was quite willing to listen to all ranks for ideas on how to become more effective. He followed an all too human trajectory, and morphed into an arrogant, racist bigot, who entertained no opposing opinions, who ran as the vice-presidential candidate on the ticket with George Wallace in 1968, and was lampooned as the cigar-chomping General Jack D. Ripper in Kubrich's film, "Dr. Strangelove." Sheehan takes some heat from some of the more conservative reviewers, particularly Air Force officer types, but as one of those same officers says: "The Truth hurts." Another key mini-biography is of Johnny von Neumann, one of the most "brilliant" men of the 20th century, by numerous measures. Sheehan has a wonderful, keen journalistic knack for seeing a key detail in the man that explains so much. In von Neumann case it was a photo of him riding a mule down the Bright Angel trail at the Grand Canyon. He is attired in a business suit and tie, and even has a white handkerchief in his lapel pocket. Irrelevant trivia? Or, what a evocative way to underscore von Neumann's fundamental insecurity and dislocation from his Hungarian homeland, his hatred for things Russian, and his continued unease at having to flee the Holocaust to come to a new homeland. Therefore, he must always be immaculately dressed; no "screw-ups" the third time. Sheehan also underscores how both these brilliant dynamic men would accept the killing of a billion people or so, and even the elimination of all life in the Northern Hemisphere as part of their Cold War strategy.
The lessons of the Cold War are hardly ancient history. Sheehan examines the geo-political thinking of the time, and underscores in numerous ways how the threat of the Soviet Union was greatly exaggerated, both for political as well as economic reasons. Consider just this one fact: "Then, in 1958, when the Russians had about eight-five bombers of both types and SAC had 1,769, including 380 B-52s, the Soviets curtailed bomber production" (p 151). You'd think someone would say: "Enough is enough." Surely a three to one superiority ratio is sufficient. As Sheehan reports, one man was trying: "Dwight Eisenhower was the last American president to believe that military spending which was not absolutely necessary was money wasted and that a well-founded economy was as important to the security of the country as armed might" (p 363). Amen. And how many magnitudes worse is it now, with all the fighter jets and nuclear submarines chasing guys armed with box cutters? There is also the numerous "intelligence failures" (a now familiar term) from that era, from the failure to identify who was actually spying at Los Alamos, to the deliberate faking of intelligence by Edward Hall so as "to frighten the Air Force into leaving his money alone." (p 246) to the scaremongering of Dr. Edward Teller, who asserted that the Russians would be able to control the weather in the United States, restricting rainfall. (p 365). And Sheehan certainly does not spare the media either. Bernard Schriever made the cover of Time magazine in 1957, and Sheehan describes how their coverage of him was almost all completely fictitious (p392).
There is much else as well. Concerning the ability of those in power to wear ideological blinders, Sheehan says: "Their dissent (referring to two specialists on the Soviet Union) was of no consequence. The men of power were not interested in what the men of knowledge had to say. Their ears were attuned to the skirl of a different piper." Speaking of ideology, from the other side, Sheehan quotes Leonard Breznev, whose true interests ran to young mistresses and expensive foreign cars: "All that stuff about Communism is a tall tale for popular consumption. After all, we can't leave the people with no faith." Hum! Could the same thing be said about "free markets"? Finally, you had the poignant revelation that Ed Hall, one of the archetypical Cold War warriors forgiving his brother, Ted, in 1996, for being one of the two principal spies at Los Alamos.
There are already a number of excellent, thoughtful reviews on this work, including some by those who were directly involved in these events. Almost certainly, Sheehan has made some mistakes, and in dealing with events as complex and broad-scoped as these, it would have to be inevitable. Did Hitler put the gun in his mouth, or to his temple? And does it really matter? Did Sheehan get the technical details of some of the rocketry issues wrong? Probably. In an ideal world Sheehan would carefully evaluate the points made in the more thoughtful reviews, and issue a "revised," or, more commercially, a "new and improved" edition in two years time.
Like Tom Wolfe's book, The Right Stuff which concerned the American astronauts and the "race" to the moon, Sheehan has written an excellent book on an important portion of American, and world history before the embers of these events have gone completely cold. It is the equal to his previous book, and hopefully will be acclaimed as such.
(Note: Review first published at Amazon, USA, on January 02, 2010)