By Charles Matthews

Saturday, July 3, 2010

11. A Fiery Peace in a Cold War, by Neil Sheehan, pp. 261-278

Book V: Winning a President, 41. An Assault From an Unexpected Quarter; 42. A Sense of Adventure; 43. No Time for Family; 44. Getting to Ike
The "unexpected quarter" was Air Force Secretary Harold Talbott, who was put in a cover-your-ass situation by President Eisenhower. Schriever and his team had settled on a production method that relied on redundancy: They would build two prototypes, so that if the first one failed they would have a second to fall back on. And they chose another California firm to produce the rocket engines for the fail-safe ICBM. But Eisenhower was concerned that too much of the military's production work was taking place on the East and West Coasts, which were, he thought, more vulnerable to attack than places in the heartland, and that California's economy was growing too heavily dependent on military-industrial work. So Talbott flew out to tell Schriever that he should cancel his contracts with California firms and find places elsewhere in the country to do the research and development work.

When Schriever, who knew that the expertise he needed was at this time available only in California, balked at the order, "Talbott lost his temper and threatened to fire him on the spot and reduce him in rank." Schriever dug in his heels, however, and went ahead with his plans, telling Gen. Power that he was doing so. Power didn't object, and later in the year Harold Talbott was forced to resign because of a conflict of interest scandal. The ICBM project was also eventually granted exemption from Eisenhower's dispersal order.

Schriever's commitment to the project was based not only on a sense that the rockets being developed were necessary for strategic warfare, but also that they would be valuable in exploration of space. The capsules that the first astronauts rode in were in fact modified versions of the original warhead. As for strategy, in an address to the RAND Corporation in 1955 Schriever conceived of the ICBM as a weapon that "would have the 'highest probability of Not being used,'" that if it was successful "It would have 'deterred Total War.'" He "was articulating a concept that would subsequently become known as Mutual Assured Destruction." The rockets could also be used to send spy satellites into space, which "would deny the Soviets the possibility of a surprise attack, of a nuclear Pearl Harbor, the dread of which haunted many, including Eisenhower." His commitment to the project was so intense that it was straining his relationship with his wife and family, which now included a third child, Barbara Alice, born in June 1949.

The confrontation with Talbott had made it clear that what Schriever really needed to do was to get Eisenhower in line with what they were doing. He was chafing at the bureaucracy, and had his staff count how many agencies had to sign off on any request: forty-two. Convinced of the urgency of what they were doing, they wanted a "streamlined decision-making process," a separate budge and "a designation of the highest national -- not just Air Force or Department of Defense -- priority.... Only Eisenhower could give them these privileges." So they began to scheme how to get to him. Vincent Ford was the chief strategist in this mission, and Schriever and Gardner set to work wooing the powerful Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson with continued briefings on the top secret details of the missile program. Ford worked on members of the Presidential Science Advisory Committee (PSAC) and its subcommittee, the Technological Capabilities Panel. In February 1955, the panel presented a report "warning of the strategic consequences if the Soviets achieved an ICBM capability before the United States," and urging the National Security Council to endorse the ICBM "as a nationally supported effort of highest priority."

But nothing happened until Ford made connection with Carlton Savage, the executive director of the planning council of the Department of State, who arranged a briefing by Gardner and von Neumann for senior officials in the department, and another for William Yandell Elliott of the Office of Defense Mobilization. And in June 1955, Eisenhower received a letter from two senators, Jackson and Clinton Anderson, who was the chairman of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, recommending a separate budget and a designation of highest national priority for the ICBM project. The letter had been written by Ford, Schriever and Gardner. Eisenhower agreed to a briefing at the next meeting of the NSC, which would take place after a summit meeting in Geneva with the leaders of the Soviet Union. 

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