By Charles Matthews

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

8. A Fiery Peace in a Cold War, by Neil Sheehan, pp. 177-207

Book IV: Starting a Race, 29. Seeking Scientific Validation; 30. When Hungary Was Mars; 31. A Fascination With Explosions; 32. Finding an Ally; 33. Marshaling the Expertise
Rescued from exile in South Korea by powerful friends, Schriever continued to try to advance American air supremacy, now turning his full focus on the intercontinental ballistic missile "in the opening years of the the sinister arms competition between the Soviet Union and the United States, a rivalry that would help to bankrupt and dissolve the immense Soviet empire and bequeath America a national debt of colossal proportions." At a meeting of the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama in March 1953, he met two men who would be key figures in this competition: mathematician John von Neumann and physicist Edward Teller. They told him that it was theoretically possible to build a nuclear warhead light enough and a rocket powerful enough to blast any target within the Soviet Union. In May 1953, Schriever went to see von Neumann at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. While waiting for his appointment with von Neumann, Schriever met and introduced himself to Albert Einstein, who had become a vocal opponent of the postwar arms race.
One wonders what [Einstein] might have said had he known he was shaking the hand of a man who was making it his mission to put not a mere atomic bomb, but rather a hydrogen bomb of eighty Hiroshimas, on the tip of an intercontinental ballistic missile.
Von Neumann had none of Einstein's reservations about the nuclear age. He was an ultrahawk whose advocacy of "preventive war" -- a first strike against the Soviet Union -- exceeded even Curtis LeMay's. "If you say bomb them tomorrow, I say why not today? If you say today at five o'clock, I say why not one o'clock?" He once told Robert Oppenheimer, "I don't think any weapon can be too large." He was also a pioneer in the use of digital electronic computers, making possible computer simulations of proposed weaponry.

Like Teller and von Kármán, he was a product of the "golden age of Jewish secular life in Central Europe" that flourished from 1867, when the Austro-Hungarian Empire was formed, to the end of the First World War. Hungary had encouraged the participation of Jews in public and professional life after the unification with Austria as a way of seeing to it that its interests were on a par with Austria's.
Although a mere 5 percent of the population as a whole, by 1910 Jews comprised approximately half of Hungary's lawyers, journalists, and commercial businessmen, nearly 60 percent of its doctors, and 80 percent of its financiers.
The von Neumanns were secularists and John von Neumann was educated at the Lutheran Gymnasium in Budapest, where he was recognized as a mathematical prodigy. "As Mozart could hear the music in his head while he composed his scores, so von Neumann could see in his mind the steps leading to the solution of the mathematical challenge."

The first threat to Hungary's Jews came with the defeat of the Germans and their Austro-Hungarian allies in 1918, leading to the dissolution of the empire. In 1919, Béla Kun, a Hungarian socialist, led a revolution that lasted 133 days and was suppressed by the forces of Admiral Miklós Horthy, a right-winger who became dictator of Hungary and executed many of the supporters of Kun's revolution. Because many of these supporters were Jewish, there was a resurgence of anti-Semitism when Horthy took over. Von Neumann's family had been opponents of Kun's revolution, which was modeled on the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, and John von Neumann retained his antipathy to Russia and to communism, describing himself as "violently anti-Communist." But the Horthy regime resurrected many of the anti-Jewish laws that had been suspended since 1867, reducing the chances that John could get a position as a university professor of mathematics at the University of Budapest. So he went first to Berlin to study chemistry and then to the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich where he got a degree in chemical engineering in 1925. He returned to Budapest for his doctorate, which he earned in just one year, getting his Ph.D. in mathematics at the age of 22. He went back to the University of Berlin as an assistant professor of mathematics, but left in 1929 when Princeton offered him a visiting lectureship, followed by a professorship in mathematics and mathematical physics. He gave up his idea of returning to Europe when Hitler took power in 1933. Like Schriever, Sheehan comments, von Neumann had "the patriotism of the immigrant who is deeply grateful to a land that has been good to him."

Von Neumann became fascinated by the mathematics and physics of explosions, which caused Robert Oppenheimer to ask him to Los Alamos in 1943. Together with Stanislaw Ulam, he worked out the mathematics of the implosion method of detonating an atomic bomb. Despite his ultrahawkishness, he would later testify in defense of Oppenheimer at the hearing that took away Oppenheimer's security clearance because of his opposition to the hydrogen bomb. But it was von Neumann's hawkishness, as well as his scientific achievements and expertise, that made him such a valuable ally for Schriever in his quest to persuade the Air Force to support his vision of the ICBM.

Another ally was Trevor Gardner, special assistant to the secretary of the air force for research and development. He, too, was an immigrant, born in Wales in 1915. Gardner had a bachelor's degree in engineering and an M.B.A. from the University of Southern California, and had run the developmental engineering section of Caltech during the war. He then started Hycon Manufacturing, which produced electronic components for the military. Horace Talbott, the secretary of the air force under Eisenhower, brought him to Washington. Gardner's executive assistant was Col. Vince Ford, whom Schriever had hired as an assistant in 1948. Gardner's bluntness, as well as a drinking problem, had made him some enemies among the Air Force brass, but Schriever, who was introduced to Gardner by Ford, saw his potential for getting the ICBM project under way. And when Talbott was ordered by Secretary of Defense Charles Wilson to sort out the various missile projects being studied by the Pentagon, he put Gardner in charge of the task, Gardner saw it as an opportunity to advance Schriever's ICBM project.

One major problem was finding an American industry that could take on the project -- "the United States had an aircraft industry, but the nation was yet to acquire an aerospace industry. To get the ICBM built, Gardner would have to find the genesis of one." He found it at Hughes Aircraft Company, owned by Howard Hughes, who paid no attention to the company, letting it be run by Simon Ramo and Dean Wooldridge. Ramo was tapped to be the chief technical director and engineer of Schriever's ICBM project. It would launch the company co-founded by Ramo and Wooldridge, TRW Inc., into one of the country's major aerospace firms and make them "immensely wealthy princes of the American military-industrial complex."

Ramo had a Ph.D. in electrical engineering and physics from Caltech and had gone to work for General Electric in Schenectady in research and development in the electronics division. But he found GE's managers "unimaginative bureaucrats," so at the end of World War II he looked for a job that would take him back to California. He saw Hughes Aircraft as a place that was likely to be less hidebound than GE and ready to meet the postwar challenge of the atomic age. He went to work there as general manager in 1946, and brought on Wooldridge, a classmate and friend from Caltech, as partner that summer. Wooldridge took over the administrative side and Ramo the research and engineering. He hired young engineers interested in military innovation. "In these immediate postwar years, long before the Vietnam conflict, there was no stigma attached to employment in military industry." Hughes Aircraft soon established itself as a major provider for air defense equipment for the U.S. Air Force. And they developed the Falcon, the Air Force's first air-to-air guided missile, which led Schriever to them.

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