Missile Man

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Missile Man

A Fiery Peace in a Cold War: Bernard Schriever and the Ultimate Weapon

By Neil Sheehan

(Random House, 534 pp., $35)


In late March 1953, a colonel named Bernard Schriever sat in a briefing room at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama, listening as John von Neumann, the brilliant mathematician, and Edward Teller, the physicist, discussed the future of the hydrogen bomb, the far more powerful follow-on to the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki eight years earlier. The United States had detonated its first hydrogen device the previous year in the Pacific, vaporizing a tiny atoll with a force of greater than ten megatons, or ten million tons of TNT. (In contrast, the weapon that destroyed Hiroshima yielded a mere twelve kilotons, or twelve thousand tons of TNT.) Whereas the A-bombs used against Japan had relied on the process known as fission, splitting atoms of uranium and plutonium, the new H-bomb used the power of a fission explosion to fuse isotopes of hydrogen, releasing even more energy in weapons of theoretically unlimited yield. The only problem, from the Air Force’s point of view, was that the first fusion device was an impractical behemoth. It weighed eighty-two tons--hardly something one could load into the bay of a bomber.

This problem of “weaponizing” the H-bomb afflicted another deadly gadget as well: the missile. Hitler had made much use of V-2 rockets during World War II, but they had been expensive and militarily ineffective. Still, as the Cold War heated up, both the United States and the Soviet Union were conducting research--aided in no small part by documents and scientists extracted from occupied Germany--into making the missile a more useful weapon of war. But building a missile that could fly across the Atlantic and land anywhere near its target was a considerable challenge. Although accuracy mattered significantly less with atomic (as opposed to conventional) explosives, the warheads were still very heavy and difficult to lift into space. Few people--especially not General Curtis LeMay, the highly decorated bomber commander who was in charge of Strategic Air Command (SAC)--put much stock in such a contraption when an airplane could do the job more cheaply, more accurately, and with greater reliability.

In their presentation, however, von Neumann and Teller said quite confidently that scientists would soon be able to shrink the hydrogen bomb until it weighed just a single ton, while still yielding a megaton of explosive force. As Neil Sheehan recounts in his new book, Schriever immediately understood that, in predicting the imminent miniaturization of the hydrogen bomb, Teller and von Neumann were saying that it would soon be possible, in theory, to build an effective nuclear-armed missile. The blast of a one-megaton weapon would obliterate nearly everything within sixty square miles, to say nothing of the subsequent damage done by fire and radiation, meaning that a thermonuclear warhead could miss its target by a couple miles and still be obscenely effective. There would be nothing surgical about the strike, but the target would be destroyed. A revolution in warfare was in the offing.

In the history of the arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union, the genesis story told most often has been that of the nuclear bomb itself. With its cutting-edge physics, awe-inspiring pyrotechnics, and vivid consequences, known to all through the excruciating photos and stories that came out of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the bomb’s development has held much of the drama. Rocket science, by comparison, seems almost pedestrian. What is often forgotten is that, while the nuclear bomb may have changed the nature of warfare, it was the nuclear missile that lent the arms race much of its apocalyptic tension. Airplanes carrying nuclear bombs took hours to reach their targets; they could turn around if their commanders, or even their pilots, changed their minds; and they could be defended against with fighters and surface-to-air missiles. They were, in other words, understandable in their scale. Missiles, by contrast, were launched with the turn of a key, they were no more recallable than a bullet fired from a gun, and there was no defense against them. A Soviet intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) would take a mere thirty minutes to reach its target in the United States. Given the early limitations of radar and the time it took to convey news of an attack, an American president would have only a few minutes to decide whether to retaliate before he was himself killed. For nearly thirty years, the fate of humanity rested on such inhumanly compressed time scales. The potential for disaster was enormous.

The missile was to blame for this anxiety. Yet for the nuclear balance to be maintained--for peace to have the highest chance of success--both sides had to have similar capabilities. If nuclear missiles could be built, then both the United States and the Soviet Union needed to build them. Perhaps more than any single individual, Bernard Schriever ensured that the United States not only kept up but excelled in this contest. A protégé of the legendary Hap Arnold, the five-star general who in the waning days of World War II saw how integral technology would be to the postwar military, Schriever built the bridge to a new Air Force that was as exercised by research and development as by flying and fighting. He also helped to spur a change in thinking about the nature of strategic warfare--away from the primacy of manned bombers and from men like LeMay, who fought Schriever and his missile program--and so helped usher in the modern nuclear age.

Sheehan has written an exhaustively researched and reported book that details the tremendous scientific, managerial, and bureaucratic skill that it took to produce the first American missiles. Unfortunately, he has done so in the service of a thesis that makes little sense. For Sheehan, Schriever was not simply a talented man who saw the future of warfare. Schriever’s efforts to build the ICBM, he claims, were “for the highest stakes--preventing the Soviet Union from acquiring an overwhelming nuclear superiority that could tempt Soviet leaders into international blackmail and adventurism with calamitous results for human civilization.” By beating the Soviets--by “winning the race”--to the ICBM, Schriever helped to stave off the catastrophe that would have ensued if the Russians had gotten there first. That is Sheehan’s argument. But it is untenable on theoretical and historical grounds, and Sheehan himself provides the evidence that undermines it. The result is a confused book that obscures rather than illuminates the nature of the arms race.


Born in Bremen in 1910, Bernard Adolph Schriever passed through Ellis Island with his family in 1917, just before the United States declared war on Germany. A reserved child who spent much of his adolescence playing golf--and getting very good at it--he ultimately matriculated at Texas A&M, where he majored in construction engineering. Unable to get a suitable job in Depression-era Texas after graduating, he joined what was then known as the Army Air Corps. He earned his commission in 1933 and was assigned to a squadron at March Field in California, where Arnold was the commanding officer. He initially served as a pilot, but during World War II, which he spent in the Pacific, it was his engineering and managerial skill that got him noticed, and he spent much of the war keeping American bombers in the air.

After Japan surrendered and the American military establishment began to consider how best to defend the United States in the postwar world, a split opened in the Air Force between warriors such as LeMay, who simply believed in bringing as much brute force to bear on the enemy as possible, and visionaries such as Arnold, who believed that a smarter touch would be essential. Arnold tapped Schriever to work with civilian scientists considering the future of air power, and a few years later he was named assistant for development planning, essentially putting him in charge of figuring out what weapons the Air Force would need to fight the Cold War.

It was in this capacity that Schriever heard Teller and von Neumann speak. Determined that the United States needed to build an ICBM as quickly as possible, but aware that he was too low in the hierarchy of power to initiate such a massive undertaking on his own, he sought out allies at the Pentagon. He found one in Trevor Gardner, the special assistant to the secretary of the Air Force for research and development, and together they advocated a crash missile program, which Secretary of Defense Charles Wilson eventually approved. In 1954, Schriever decamped to California, where he and his engineers set up shop in an abandoned schoolhouse. Despite the evident importance of the endeavor, however, Schriever and his team were regularly beset by the bureaucracy. Ultimately, to complete the project, he was forced to appeal directly to Eisenhower, who granted the program top priority, while also ordering Schriever to build an intermediate-range ballistic missile, or IRBM, to counter those the Soviets were building to target Europe.

This mandate put Schriever in competition not only with the Soviet military, but with the U.S. Army, which was already pursuing its own IRBM, aided by Wernher von Braun, who had led development of the V-2, on which all rocket work was based. This inter-service rivalry--it later grew to include the Navy, which at the time was developing Polaris, a submarine-launched ballistic missile, or SLBM--needlessly duplicated weapons and fueled the arms race, but even the parsimonious Eisenhower was unable to eliminate the redundancy. As a result, in the 1950s the United States built two intermediate-range missiles that looked nearly alike. Starting in 1958, the “Thor” IRBMs developed by Schriever’s team were deployed to Britain, and the “Jupiters” developed by von Braun were sent to Italy and Turkey.

At the same time, Schriever, convinced that delay meant disaster, hastily pushed ahead with two different ICBMs--“Atlas” and a backup known as “Titan.” Within three years his team grew from fifteen people to nearly seven hundred, supported by another two thousand at the Ramo-Wooldridge Corporation, a private contractor providing technical know-how that would eventually grow into the aerospace giant TRW. Testing proceeded fitfully. The first Atlas test was conducted in June 1957, but the missile spun wildly out of control twenty-four seconds after launch. The second, three months later, failed as well. As Schriever’s team grew frustrated, the pressure to succeed grew dramatically. That August the Soviets tested their first ICBM, and in October they launched Sputnik, triggering fears of a “missile gap.”


In truth, the Americans were making great strides and would soon overtake their Soviet counterparts. By 1959, Atlas launches were not yet reliable, but Schriever went ahead with deployment anyway, scattering 132 of the Atlas missiles across six bases in the United States. The first Titans were deployed, with similar reservations, in April 1962. As Sheehan writes, “How many of these Titan and Atlas missiles would fly if doomsday arrived and the command to launch was given, no one really knew. But Nikita Khrushchev and the other leaders of the Soviet Union could not afford to bet on percentages of reliability. All they could do was to count missiles…. As Schriever was to say years later to a reunion of those who had participated in the race against the Soviets: ‘We beat them to the draw.’”

That Schriever and his compatriots saw themselves in a race against the Soviets for the ICBM is completely understandable, given the fears of the day. Shaped and scarred by World War II, American policymakers feared a “nuclear Pearl Harbor” that, unlike the Japanese attack, would leave the United States in radioactive ruins, incapable of responding. This fear was compounded when the strategist and defense analyst Albert Wohlstetter (whose wife Roberta had written a definitive study of the strategic implications of Pearl Harbor) showed that SAC’s air bases could be decimated in a surprise attack. After all, when bombers were not in the air, they were on the ground, vulnerable to pre-emptive strike. These concerns were soon repeated and reinforced, most notably in the Gaither Commission report presented to Eisenhower in November 1957, which warned of the increasing threat and, when leaked to the public, amplified concerns about a missile gap.

Less understandable, though, is Sheehan’s embrace of this analysis of the danger. Over and over again, he argues that speed was of the essence in Schriever’s work, lest the Soviets gain a nuclear advantage. This helps to make Schriever seem more heroic, and his opponents more narrow-minded. But we know more now. The need to “win” the arms race is an odd conceit for a book published in 2009, especially one that repeatedly bemoans the fear-mongering that took place during the Cold War. For it soon became clear that there is no such thing as superiority in nuclear warfare. In the case of these hideous weapons, the deterrent capacity was well established, the notion of advantage was chimerical, and the race was never really about security. Except for his interest in drama, I do not see why Sheehan so willingly renounces the benefits of historical hindsight.

The nuclear balance between the United States and the Soviet Union rested, very simply, on the ability of each side to respond to a nuclear strike by inflicting unacceptable damage on the attacker. This is true of the nuclear balance between any two states. Since even a handful of nuclear weapons can inflict unacceptable damage, it takes only a modest nuclear arsenal to give you a deterrent capability. Beyond that, additional nuclear weapons do little, if anything, to increase a nation’s safety. As Bernard Brodie wrote in 1946, in his prescient book The Absolute Weapon, “superiority in numbers of bombs does not endow its possessor with the kind of military security which formerly resulted from superiority in armies, navies, and air forces.”

In reality, the 1,769 bombers that the United States possessed in the late 1950s provided us with a devastating secondstrike capability. Given that a single weapon could obliterate a city, one needed only a handful of bombers to deal a devastating counterpunch. Ensuring that enough bombers would survive a Soviet attack was a relatively straightforward task: in the wake of the Gaither report, Eisenhower shrewdly ordered that one-third of the force be kept on fifteen-minute strip alert, and by 1961 some bombers were in the air twenty-four hours a day. Besides which, generals like LeMay had no intention of waiting to be hit before striking the Soviet Union. If it looked like war, he favored striking first. Indeed, the doctrine of “massive retaliation” called for being the first to use nuclear weapons if the Soviets launched even a modest conventional attack in Europe. All of which is to say that, whatever the fears of the 1950s, it is clear in retrospect that the stakes of the race to build an ICBM were much lower than Sheehan suggests. The United States had a secure retaliatory capability well before the first Atlas and Titan missiles were deployed.


That said, the perception--that fateful term in the history of these weapons--of Soviet nuclear advantage could indeed have been a problem, and Sheehan argues, not implausibly, that if the Soviets had gotten an ICBM first, their feeling of superiority would have encouraged aggression, perhaps even provoking “nuclear adventures.” The problem is that the Soviets did embark on a nuclear adventure, and they did so after the United States beat them to the ICBM. In fact, they embarked on a nuclear adventure precisely because the United States beat them to the ICBM. It was the feeling of nuclear inferiority triggered by the deployment of the missiles developed by Schriever that led Khrushchev to place nuclear missiles in Cuba, setting off the most dangerous crisis of all. And what is utterly incomprehensible about A Fiery Peace is that Sheehan himself makes this point with conviction and no small amount of evidence.

By the second year of the Kennedy administration, thanks largely to Schriever’s efforts, the United States had attained what Sheehan calls an “awesome nuclear superiority.” The Soviets had made strides in their missile program, but were hampered by their late development of the hydrogen bomb. Instead of launching small but powerful warheads, they were trying to launch heavy ones, necessitating enormous rockets. Meanwhile, as Atlas and Titan were being deployed, one of Schriever’s underlings made another breakthrough, developing a missile that used solid, rather than liquid, fuel and therefore could be kept ready to launch at any moment. It was a huge advance in reliability and speed, enabling the United States to launch an attack much more quickly; and in 1962 the United States began to deploy the aptly named “Minuteman.”

In February of that year, Khrushchev met with his senior defense advisers and was informed just how far ahead the Americans were. Sheehan breaks down the tally at the time of the crisis:

By the end of the forthcoming October … Khrushchev would possess a mere twenty unreliable ICBMs, along with a bomber force of fifty-eight Bison jets, limited to a one-way trip, and seventy-six Tu-95 turboprops, slow planes that were dead pigeons to the American jet interceptors and surface-to-air missiles. In contrast, Kennedy would flaunt ninety-six Atlas ICBMs, fifty-four Titans, ten Minutemen, forty-eight of the Navy’s new Polaris submarine-launched IRBMs hidden on station in the depths, and SAC’s bomber force of 1,741 B-47s, B-58s, and B-52s. Uncounted because of their joint control but also ready were the sixty Thor IRBMs in England, the thirty Jupiters in Italy, and the sixteen in Turkey.

By 1962, in other words, we had not simply won the race, it had been a total blowout.

And just as the prospect of overwhelming Soviet advantage panicked Americans during the “missile gap,” spurring greater military spending and giving Kennedy an edge in the election of 1960, so it panicked the Soviets--into making possibly the most treacherous decision ever made. As Sheehan writes, “Khrushchev saw a way around this dilemma. The Soviet Union possessed plenty of well-tested IRBMs. If a substantial number of these were slipped into Cuba, their presence 90 miles from Key West would, as he put it in his memoirs, equalize ‘what the West likes to call “the balance of power.”’” So that is exactly what Khrushchev did: he packed several dozen intermediate- and medium-range ballistic missiles onto freighters and shipped them to Cuba. Rather than deterring Soviet nuclear adventurism, the enormous success of the American ICBM program actually encouraged it.

It is difficult to overstate just how close the ensuing crisis brought us to apocalypse--and therefore just what a flaw it exposes in Sheehan’s belief that ICBM superiority made us safer. The reaction of the Joint Chiefs to the discovery of missiles in Cuba was to urge an air strike. An attack would likely have backfired horribly. Although Kennedy and his advisers were not sure of this at the time, the warheads for the missiles were already on the island, able to destroy numerous American cities. They were joined by some ninety tactical nuclear weapons designed for battlefield use. As Sheehan notes, the FKR cruise missiles, each with a range of one hundred miles and a blast of up to twelve kilotons, could have been used to take out an invading American fleet. Any of the dozen Luna missiles, which could travel thirty-one miles and explode with a force of two kilotons, could have taken out an American beachhead. Worse, for a time Khrushchev had delegated authority to his commanding general in Cuba, Issa Pliyev, to use the tactical nuclear weapons as he saw fit--and Soviet colleagues later said that he would have used them in self-defense. Castro had urged Khrushchev to use the ballistic missiles if the Americans attacked.

It was American nuclear superiority, in other words, that helped get us into the mess, and, once we were in it, nuclear superiority did not help get us out of it. Sheehan might have argued that American superiority gave Kennedy the confidence to face down Khrushchev and force the missiles’ removal from Cuba--but he doesn’t do so, and wisely, given that there is little evidence to support the proposition. Kennedy understood that an attack very well could have precipitated a nuclear war, which would have been devastating for the United States irrespective of our massive advantage. Ironically, it was the removal of the Jupiter missiles from Turkey, symbolically ratcheting back our nuclear superiority and providing a diplomatic tit for tat, that helped bring the crisis to a peaceful end. Sheehan recounts much of this himself, and yet less than ten pages after doing so he writes, without a trace of self-awareness, that “by starting in the mid-1950s, before it was too late, and then winning the race for a practical ICBM, they had warded off the possibility of blackmail … and also discouraged nuclear adventures by the Soviets.” At this point it is simply impossible to take the book seriously, except perhaps as a good story.


What the ICBM did was more modest: it allayed our own post-Sputnik fears about nuclear inferiority, while helping to convince the Soviets that we would always be able to retaliate in response to an attack, because it gave us an additional way to do so. Yes, we already had a second-strike capability provided by our bombers, but the ICBM strengthened deterrence on both sides by bringing perceptions closer into line with reality. In this sense, ICBMs did serve a useful purpose; but Sheehan exaggerates their contribution when he argues that they were an unalloyed good, and that Schriever’s contribution was world-changing, taking us past the frightening possibility of nuclear war to the certain safety of nuclear stalemate.

That is a gross oversimplification. If ICBMs were in some ways stabilizing, they were in other ways destabilizing; and if at times they deepened the nuclear peace, at other times they made nuclear war more likely. Ultimately, the stalemate between the superpowers was best guaranteed by rough nuclear parity, which is what every arms control agreement, from SALT I to the “New START” being negotiated by the Obama administration, has tried to establish. But Sheehan misses that point, he contradicts himself, when he extols how much his hero did to “foster a nuclear stalemate” while simultaneously noting that “the creation of Minuteman now put the United States so far ahead in the strategic missile competition that the Soviet Union was confronted not with a gap but with a chasm.” Chasms do not make stalemates. They are, in fact, temptations to dangerous ideas about use. Soviet feelings of inferiority were dangerous, leading not only to episodes such as the Cuban missile crisis, but also to Soviet nuclear build-ups, which in turn prompted American build-ups, and so on.

That is why it is absurd for Sheehan to claim, in another overstatement, that “Minuteman put an end to the fear of a nuclear Pearl Harbor.” That fear never ended. If it had, we would never have built another nuclear weapon. But after taking office--and after learning that the missile gap was a fiction--Kennedy (and then Johnson) added to the arsenal more than 1,500 new ICBMs and SLBMs, carrying nearly 2,500 warheads, plus another five hundred warheads deliverable by bomber. And it was not just the numbers of weapons that mattered; it was also the types of weapons. Nixon may have negotiated the first agreements limiting nuclear arms, but he also proceeded with the development of multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles, or MIRVs, which gave each Minuteman three warheads and therefore tripled their lethality. Carter not only moved to deploy more intermediate-range missiles in Europe, he also approved development of the mobile MX missile--effectively accepting the view of American hawks that the United States, with its stationary Minutemen, was entering a “window of vulnerability,” in which it would be susceptible to a Soviet first strike. And Reagan authorized the deployment of an additional three thousand nuclear-armed air-launched cruise missiles and accelerated development of a new SLBM, new nuclear-capable sea-launched cruise missiles, and the B-2 stealth bomber, which could evade Soviet air defenses to deliver a nuclear payload.

We did all these things because we were constantly, inconsolably afraid of the effects of a Soviet numerical advantage in nuclear weapons, and even of the possibility of a “bolt from the blue.” Once again, Sheehan himself acknowledges this, writing (in one of the book’s more infelicitous sentences) that “technology was in the saddle of a horse named Fear in a race of human folly.” That may be true, but it completely undercuts his own insistence that the ICBM brought some sort of serenity to American security policy.

The ICBM was many things. At their most stabilizing, the rockets that Schriever built provided both transparency and predictability--not through their ability to send warheads hurtling toward the Soviet Union, but through their ability to loft spy satellites into orbit, giving us a better sense of what weapons the Soviets had, a way to verify arms control agreements, and a look at preparations that could instigate, accelerate, or defuse a crisis. At the same time, ICBMs could provoke strategic instability: as critics of the Minuteman noted, it was even more stationary than a bomber on an airfield, making it an easy target and therefore important to get off the ground quickly during a crisis. This was particularly true of MIRVed missiles, whose lethality made them extremely attractive targets and whose accuracy made them useful for taking out enemy missile silos. They were, in other words, excellent war-fighting weapons--which is to say, they enhanced fear rather than abated it. And because solid-fueled missiles were fast enough to launch on warning of an attack, before enemy missiles had actually struck the United States, they were far easier to launch in error than other types of nuclear weapons.

After bombers, ICBMs became the second leg of the nuclear “triad”--the three delivery vehicles that, between them, were supposed to guarantee the ability to retaliate. But if Sheehan had really been interested in the establishment of the nuclear balance, he might have looked at the creators of the third leg: the submarine-launched ballistic missile. Since submarines could lurk undetected, they were largely immune to the first-strike fears that plagued bomber bases and ICBM fields. Polaris, the first such American missile, was developed by the Navy at the same time that Schriever was building the ICBM for the Air Force, but Sheehan barely mentions it.

Perhaps the officers of the Polaris program simply were not as interesting. But Schriever, who died in 2005, was indeed a consequential figure. He did not simply build the ICBM. He changed the Air Force and spurred the creation of the American aerospace industry. His rockets did far more than carry warheads: by putting satellites into orbit, they enabled not only espionage, but also the communications revolution; and later they carried astronauts into space. But in the notes at the end of the book, Sheehan writes that in telling Schriever’s story, he hopes to “distill the immensity of the Cold War and the Soviet-American arms race into a human narrative that a reader could identify with and comprehend.” In this he has failed. His book does not accurately capture the immensity of the Cold War and the Soviet-American arms race. It is not even clear that Sheehan has fully captured the humanity of his subject.

We learn far less about Schriever the man--as opposed to Schriever the manager--than one would expect from a work of this ambition. The book is astonishingly detailed, but often meaninglessly so. Sheehan makes space for sentences such as this: “Their blue Air Force staff car had pulled up to the guard cubicle just inside the northwest gate to the White House off Pennsylvania Avenue at precisely 7:30 a.m.” Yet there is little more than one single-page chapter about Schriever’s relationship with his three children and their mother, who left him in 1968. It is not until the book’s epilogue, in which Sheehan quickly skims the last forty years of Schriever’s life, that we learn that the general was “an old-fashioned sexist … [who] did not appear to regard any woman as an equal.” That is not surprising for a man who was born in 1910 and spent his career in the mid-century military, but I finished the book wondering if Schriever was really more complex, and more flawed, and therefore more interesting, than I had been led to believe, which is not a question one should ask at the end of a vast biography.

For a book purporting to encapsulate the Cold War, we also learn little of its hero’s foreign policy views. Sheehan spends an entire section taking us through the onset of the Cold War, the misunderstandings that occurred, and the unfortunate Manichaeism that gripped much of the American foreign policy establishment. But how Schriever felt about the Soviet Union and our responses to it, we are never told; and we get almost nothing on his beliefs about the utility of nuclear weapons. Contra LeMay, he clearly saw them as a deterrent that was never meant to be used. But there is quite a range of thought to the left of LeMayism, and where Schriever stands on the most important questions that were raised by his most significant accomplishment is unclear. Did he believe that nuclear superiority mattered? Did he believe the ICBM had closed the window of vulnerability? What did he think about arms control efforts that were designed precisely to enhance the deterrent capability he lauded, but which tended to confound military officers who were interested in fighting a nuclear war most effectively should the missiles start flying? The real developments in nuclear stability during the Cold War came less from the development of specific weapons than from how we conceived of their utility--from “massive retaliation” to “counterforce” to “mutual assured destruction.” The decisive factors were intellectual, not mechanical.

Bernard Schriever was not a thinker but an engineer, as were the men around him. (We meet an interminable number of such people in countless digressions.) As Sheehan writes, “Yet anxiety for the security of their nation and a race against opponents who would endanger it were only half of what drove them. These men were engineers. They built things. Theirs was a different ethos from that of operators like Power and LeMay, who got their adrenaline rush from the lure of aerial combat. The engineers’ fulfillment came from creating the new, from bringing into being that which no one else had yet achieved.” All that is admirable, and in the right hands it is even exciting. But without an explanation of why the talent mattered, we are left with an obsessive and melodramatic tale of gadgets and gadgeteers. Finally Sheehan’s epic is empty. It is like Apollo 13 without the moon.

J. Peter Scoblic is the executive editor of The New Republic.

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