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September 20, 2009
Neil Sheehan
Author, "A Fiery Peace in a Cold War"
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Info: This week on Q&A, our guest is Neil Sheehan, author of a new book "A Fiery Peace in a Cold War: Bernard Schriever and the Ultimate Weapon." The book tells the story of the nuclear arms race and the intercontinental Ballistic Missile through the eyes of Air Force General Bernard Schriever. In 1954, General Schriever was the head of a research team that led to putting satellites in space and the development of missiles like the ICBM. 21 years ago this month, Neil Sheehan sat for five 30-minute interviews about his previous book, "A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam." Those interviews subsequently were the inspiration for C-SPAN's 16 year series "Booknotes." In 1989, Neil Sheehan won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction and the National Book Award for "A Bright Shining Lie." In addition to talking about the new book, this interview features video clips from the 1988 program to compare and contrast the two books and Mr. Sheehan's experiences in writing each of them.

Uncorrected transcript provided by Morningside Partners.
C-SPAN uses its best efforts to provide accurate transcripts of its programs, but it can not be held liable for mistakes such as omitted words, punctuation, spelling, mistakes that change meaning, etc.
CSPAN Q&A September 15, 2009 Neil Sheehan

BRIAN LAMB, HOST, C-SPAN: Neil Sheehan, it was 21 years ago this month that you started this network on its trek to this – to look at books and to do this interview show every Sunday night at 8:00 and 11:00, but I want to show you a little moment from 21 years ago.

(video begins)

What do you want to do next?

NEIL SHEEHAN, WRITER: I don’t really know. I want to help promote the book, because I – that’s a necessity. And then the only specific thing I have in mind that I would like to do is to go back to Vietnam to see what’s happened to the country and to write about it. Then, what I will do, I don’t know. I’m not worried about it.

I might go back to daily journalism. I don’t really know. I’ve stayed busy all my life and the one thing that I’ve been taught is is that you if you want to work you’ll find plenty to do and so I’m sure that I’ll find something to do and I – as you learn as a newspaper man that you go from story to story. In this case, I went to a book that trapped me for 15 years, but it’s finally done now and I’ll move on. I’ll do something else.

(video ends)

LAMB: That was your book, ”Bright Shining Lie,” 21 years ago. And the book I have in my hand is called ”A Fiery Peace in a Cold War: Bernard Schriever and the Ultimate Weapon.” Twenty-one years later, why did you decide to spend your time on this subject?

SHEEHAN: Well I decided I wanted to write another book rather than go back to newspapering. And first I went back to Vietnam, as I mentioned, and I did a short retrospective book on Vietnam called ”After the War was Over: Hanoi and Saigon.” And then it was I had to find another topic; it was time to move on.

And someone said to me, why don’t you write a book on the arms race and the Cold War? I said my God; that’s a – that’s a pretty diffuse subject. I want to – I want to do something with a – with a narrative. And so I started researching and I was over – it’s about 1994 now. I was over at the Air Force Association in Arlington here, right near Washington. And I was in their library and they keep files on prominent Air Force figures.

And someone said to me you ought to look up Bernard – Bernard or Bennie, as he was called, Schriever. So I asked the librarian for the file on Bernard Schriever and she handed it to me and I opened it up. And right there, at the first – in the beginning of the file was a photograph of this General leaning up against a table with all of these missiles around him. It’s in the book; that photograph. And I said this guy looks interesting.

So when I got home I asked some questions about him. He was well known with the – he was famous within the Air Force, but not outside. And so when I got home I looked him up in the phone book and he turned out to be eight blocks from my – to live in – to be living in retirement, eight blocks from my house. So I called him and arranged to go over and talk to him and it began the first of 52 interviews with him. And then I realized that this man had stood at a pivotal point in the Cold War.

See we always – we look at the Cold War as one long, glacial period, but it wasn’t. It was a period – there were – there were – there were changes and particularly at the beginning it was a very unstable business, in which we could have gone into nuclear war with the Soviets. And I realized after talking to this man that he had stood at the center of that pivotal period when – and when he and a group of others with vision had really saved us from what could well have been a nuclear war and you and I, but for him and those who worked with him, you and I might not be sitting here. I mean we might be – might – we might well be irradiated dust.

LAMB: I have in my hand ”A Bright Shining Lie.” It’s the new version, but brought out by Modern Library, just out this year. This book’s about 800 and some pages long. Do you remember how many of these – the original copy sold of both paperback and hardback?

SHEEHAN: Hardcover sold – the original hardcover sold about 165,000 copies. Paperback, I don’t know; a lot more.

LAMB: And in the – our interview, and for those who weren’t with us 21 years ago, when all this started, we sat down in a studio right across the hallway here for 2-1/2 hours and ran five 30-minute programs over five nights and then you sat with us for a call-in show at the end of that fifth night. And that actually started Booknotes. That was – we didn’t start it until the beginning of ’89, but in that particular interview, you – I’m going to show another clip from there, where you talk about a man named John Paul Vann. And the reason we’re going to do that is because this is Bernie Schriever; then it was John Paul Vann. Let’s look at what you said about him.

SHEEHAN: I realized that if I wrote a book about this extraordinary man, I could tell the story of the war through him, because he was such a compelling figure. And he summed up in the ten years he’d been in Vietnam, the American venture there. And he summed up the way we like to think of ourselves, the qualities that we admired in ourselves in that period, this enormous drive, the – this brilliant analytical mind, this incredible energy, sleeping four hours and only needing four hours of sleep a night, the fearlessness, et cetera. He had an extraordinary metabolism.

All of these things that we really admired in ourselves as a people and he had – he had devoted himself to Vietnam and he had died there. And I felt that if I wrote a story – a biography of him, I could also write a history of the war. That’s why I started out. And then, of course, I was trapped in the enterprise. It was too late to go back.

LAMB: Fifteen years, as you said earlier, you spent on that book. How many years in total did you spend on this book.

SHEEHAN: Probably about 14 years.

LAMB: Did Bennie Schriever turn out to be what John Paul Vann was for …

SHEEHAN: Yes, he did.

LAMB: Why?

SHEEHAN: Because I – because there was a period, as I said, in the Cold War when first we got the bomb. Then we fell into this period of hostilities with the Soviet Union. And then they acquired their bomb. And it was a very unstable period of time. We were dependent because you had to bring this nuclear possession of the bomb by both sides to some sort of stability. And there was no stability because we were depending on the aircraft, the bomber, the Strategic Air Command under Curtis LeMay, who was the figure for General – the General in Stanley Kubrick’s ”Dr. Strangelove.”

We were depending on the SAC; the Strategic Air Command. The Soviets were – decided not to go down that road. They, in secret – they were going down the road of intercontinental ballistic missiles. They were working their way toward building one. Now you only got 15 minutes’ warning of an intercontinental – of an incoming missile in those years because the radar – because of the limitations of radars.

And if they had acquired a fleet of ICBMs, intercontinental ballistic missiles, they would have destroyed the credibility of the – of the airplane as a deterrent and you would have got a period of real instability, in which you might have gotten –boy, well have gotten some adventurism by Soviet leaders, which would have led to a nuclear war, which would have destroyed the whole Northern Hemisphere because of the side effects of nuclear weapons; nuclear winter, the radioactive dust coming down every time it rained and making everyone – killing everyone.

These – and so you had to bring a – bring stability to this period and what – Schriever saw this. He and then later, those who worked for him, saw what was happening; that you had to – we had to build our own fleet of missiles in order to create a nuclear stalemate, which is what he did – he and those who worked with him did. They created a situation where neither country could pull off what was called a first strike against the other and escape destruction itself.

Eisenhower had been – lived in fear of what he called a nuclear Pearl Harbor, which was a surprise attack by the – by the Soviets and it’s called a first strike in nuclear-ese – nuclear strategy. And by building our own set of weapons, we created this nuclear stalemate, which neither country could pull off a first strike and you got stability, which lasted, except for Khrushchev, who was the exemplar of that Soviet adventure who might have triggered – almost triggered nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Once the – this sunk in to the Soviet; they just – you’ve got people like Leonid Brezhnev, who did not want a nuclear war. He wanted – he was a status quo type. He wanted to enjoy the perks of power; the mistresses, the tame boar hunting, the collection of foreign cars, including a Lincoln Nixon gave him. These were men who were not – they were – they were – they were opponents, but they were not interested in destroying their own country by attempting to destroy ours.

So these men really saved us from the possibility – possibly the probability of a nuclear war and they’re genuine American heroes and he personified it.

LAMB: Go back – this is in 1955, when all the discussions became very active. Up till this day – I got on the Internet today and you can correct me if my figures are wrong, but there is at least 5,500 intercontinental ballistic missiles active today, with the Navy, the Air Force, the Army. Am I right about that?

SHEEHAN: They’re – that’s probably too size – too large a number of ICBMs, but in terms of missiles, yes. You’ve got the Navy ICB – which are ICBMs out of – out of the nuclear submarines. Then you’ve got 450 Minute Man Missiles, which are intercontinental missiles, on alert. And the Army has tactical missiles.

LAMB: And all of that happened starting back when you started basically this book.

SHEEHAN: Well, yes. That’s right. Because we were – LeMay, who was – General LeMay, who was the command of – in command of Strategic Air Command, believed in the bomber. It was – it was his – he had – he’d been the great bomber leader in World War II. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a film called Twelve O’Clock High, on late night television. It’s about the bombing of Germany in 1942, 43, when these men were going through without fighter escort, taking on German fighters for an hour-and-a-half, fighting their way deep into Germany to bomb the industries.

LeMay lost 40 bombers in the raid of – on the first raid on the Messerschmitt Works at Regensburg, deep into Germany, but the bombers got through. So he believed in the bomber. He wasn’t interested in missiles. They were F-ing firecrackers, as he called them. He was opposed to the program. Schriever saw that the missile would destroy the credibility of the aircraft. He was a visionary and pressed ahead against major opposition from LeMay and the other Bomber Generals.

LAMB: How much firepower is there on the tip of one of those ICBMs today?

SHEEHAN: Right now, the Minute Man has – is enough to destroy several cities.

LAMB: But compared to, say Hiroshima or Nagasaki.

SHEEHAN: Vastly more; two or three megatons and one megaton equals 80 Hiroshimas.

LAMB: Let me go back to Bennie Schriever; Four-Star General in the United States Air Force before it was over, died, you say in your book, June 20th, 2005 at 94 years old. You did 52 interviews with this man. Set that up. What were the – what was the environment and how long did you talk to him?

SHEEHAN: We would meet on Saturday. He was in between marriages when I first met him. And we would meet on Saturday mornings at his house, which is about eight blocks from where I live in Northwest Washington, up by American University. And before he went to lunch at Burning Tree, which was his golf club. And we would – and I’d pick up where I left off the last time and I’d take him through the story.

And it was – and we got – he was a very – Bernie was a – Bennie was a very thoughtful man. He wanted to make sure of – that you were the person to tell his story. At first he was a bit standoffish with me. And then he decided that I was the person to tell his story and became very cooperative.

LAMB: How old would he have been the first time you met with him?

SHEEHAN: He was in his 80s. And in excellent health; excellent health, with all of his mental faculties fully intact, very acute. And I asked him for things like I told him; I said, General, I’ve got to have your entire military record, the whole thing, from the very beginning, from 1932 when you – when you joined the Army Air Corps, including all your efficiency reports, good or bad. And he didn’t have that.

I said you’ve got to submit it. You’ve got to ask for it; I need it. Fine, he said; I’ll get it for you. And he did. I mean he withheld nothing. He told all the people who’d worked for him who were still with us to talk to me and to tell me the truth. And they, of course, led to others. And the – and I was racing the grim reaper, because these were older men and their lives were in – were in the twilight years. And so I had to really work fast and hard to get – I did 120 interviews to get – to get the interviews I needed to tell the story, to get a narrative to tell the story.

I believe that you know in writing history in narrative form, because I think you have – and I believe in catching that segment – that segment of history which is in men’s minds, in the memory. It’s an important segment of history. If you don’t catch it while they’re still alive obviously it’s gone forever.

LAMB: A side bar is the woman he married, who people our age can remember her from entertainment years; Joni James.

SHEEHAN: That’s right.

LAMB: Is she still alive?

SHEEHAN: She is still alive and she’s still living in the home they shared together, where I first met him when – before he married her.

LAMB: But she was 20 years younger than he was.

SHEEHAN: Yes. But they met down in Palm Beach and fell in love and got married in his later years. He was 87 when they married, but a happy 87 to have married her. And she was a – he was – he was a lucky guy. I called it the Schriever luck. He never – he never had an air – he joined the Air Corps in ’32 when planes were quite unsafe, but – and flew through the Airmail Crisis, when 12 pilots were killed flying these uninstrumented planes through snow storms and hail storms and whatever in the Midwest trying to deliver the mail. Bennie was never – and he flew constantly in World War II; never in a crash.

LAMB: You were at the funeral.


LAMB: And I’m just going to dip into a little part of the narrative here and get you to explain a couple of things. You wrote, ”He bent over Joni for a few minutes with words of condolence, while everyone watched in curiosity. The man was Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense since the outset of the administration of George W. Bush,” comma, ”doomed to a resignation in disgrace because of his fervid promotion of the catastrophic war in Iraq.”

Both of those, the last statement from you about the catastrophic war in Iraq, I want you to talk about. But also, before that, explain that funeral and why was Don Rumsfeld there and all the other, as you say, 44 stars were there at that funeral.

SHEEHAN: Yes well the Chief of Staff of the Air Force at the time, General Jumper; first of all I should back off. General Schriever came to be known as the father of the modern high technological Air Force, as a result of building the ICBM and advocating other technological advances. He was, as I say, a technological visionary, like the founder of the modern Air Force, who was Hap Arnold; General Arnold, World War II, who was Schriever’s first commanding officer in 1932 and who was a technological visionary. And Schriever was, in effect, his disciple and his descendant. And the Air Force was deeply grateful to this man for what he had accomplished. And for the Air Force he really – he created.

And so General Jumper, who was Chief of Staff, decided he was not going to be buried as just a Four-Star General. He was going to be buried as a Chief of Staff. And so they gave him all the honors they would have normally given a Chief of Staff; the flyover of the planes, which is very dramatic. There are three aircraft, with a space for the missing co-pilot; missing wingman. And then Rumsfeld, I gather, felt that he had to come and pay tribute too.

And so in the midst of this – at the last minute, just before the last few minutes, just before the ceremony ended, Rumsfeld suddenly showed up from the wings, as Joni, who was an – who was a stage star, said he looked like an actor coming in from the wings. He did; he came in and he said some words of condolence to her and then he disappeared.

LAMB: How well did you get to know him from a personal standpoint and was it tough on you when he died?

SHEEHAN: It was in the sense that – well he was – he was – he was 94 years old and he was – he was declining and had been declining for several years. But it was tough in the sense that I hated to see this – I had gotten very – to respect this man and we’d become very good friends. And I had really come to respect and understand what he had accomplished. And he helped me – he said to me, after we got to know each other well, during one of their reunions – these men had a reunion every year. They called it the old-timers reunion and I went to every one of them.

And he said to me at one of them, look; I want you do this right. I won’t be here when it’s finished. I know that. But I want you do this right. I want you to tell the story right. And so I had enormous respect for him and, but he died in the fullness of life. And so, in that sense, one couldn’t regret it because he’d had a really full life and a good life. And he had accomplished what he’d set out to accomplish. And he’d helped me to tell the story through people, which is what I – I believe in writing history well and in a narrative form – a novelistic form, but you have to be careful. You have to – you have to tell – you – it’s tough to do it that way, because you have to make sure you don’t distort the truth.

And by using him, he was – he was my lens on this story, as Vann was my lens on Vietnam.

LAMB: I want to talk about the Vietnam thing and to connect it again and ask you, after we show this clip, about your statement about the Iraq War. But let’s go back to – and the last time I saw you was about ten years ago when we did a series on writers.


LAMB: With David Halberstam. We were down on the Mall near the Vietnam Memorial and we talked for three hours about your book and his book and – but here’s David Halberstam at that time, with you sitting next to him. Let’s watch this.

Will there ever be coverage of any future endeavor – any war endeavor in this country’s like there was in Vietnam.

DAVID HALBERSTAM, AUTHOR: If America’s involved. I would not think so, cause I don’t think we’re going to get into a long, grinding war like that again. In the Gulf War, it was all high technology and then you had about four days of armored combat. And then of course in Afghanistan, it’s very elite units that go in where you really can’t have reporters, I don’t think, camping out with them. But a lot of it is also – part of it is the new nature of the technology and the elite units; laser-guided missiles and stuff like that. And part of it is a desire to control the reporting.

But you really can’t control the reporting of things don’t work. I mean it will out and that’s one thing they’ll finally learn. If it doesn’t work, people will know.

LAMB: David Halberstam killed in a automobile – a strange automobile accident out in California. What – start with that. What was your reaction when you heard that?

SHEEHAN: Oh, it was devastating. David was a very close friend. He and I were partners in Vietnam. We’d worked together there. He’d worked for the New York Times; I was with the UPI and we partnered up. We shared – we would each – we shared an office, which was my – the front room in my apartment there. It was the dining room table. He typed on one side; I typed on the other.

We kept the friendship all those years, from 1963 on. And we talked – we didn’t see each other as often as I would have liked, because he lived in New York and I lived down here. But we’d talk on the phone frequently and I hear his voice all the time. Now that I – the phone rings and I’d hear David say how you doing, old buddy? It was a very close, wonderful friendship and he – it was so sudden that – his death in that auto accident that Susan – my wife Susan, who’s also, as you know, a writer. She came up the stairs and she said David’s gone.

And she was heart – broken over it and I was just – I broke down. I mean I couldn’t help it. He was – he was – he was just – he meant so much. He was a wonderful journalist and a – and a great guy and a really loyal friend.

LAMB: We have some video at this meeting. Had you seen him much over the ten years between the time we did this program?

SHEEHAN: Yes. I – as I said, we’d talk on the phone and we’d see each other. He came down for my daughter’s wedding. He was my – he was the godfather of my – our older daughter. We kept up the relationship.

LAMB: But as you know you’re still controversial years later. I mean you were responsible for the Pentagon Papers being published in the New York Times. But you prior to that, you and David Halberstam and Malcolm Browne and all still had this profile and people still can get upset to this day about what they think you did to the whole Vietnam War. What’s your take on it all these years later? Were you right?

SHEEHAN: I think we were right, yes.

LAMB: What does that mean, being right?

SHEEHAN: We told what – we reported what was really happening in Vietnam. I mean there was a – the command in those early years; General Harkins and the Ambassador General – Ambassador Nolting, were convinced they were winning the war and that the Ngo Dinh Diem Regime was respected by the population. It was a – it was a myth. It was a total myth. They were losing the war and Diem was despised by most of the population.

And wasn’t respected even by his own people when he’d come down for a speech at the National Assembly, which was a – which was a phony body he’d selected. You’d see the civil servants who were assembled to have a crowd; they’d lie down and go to sleep in the street. You know it was incredible. And we would – we would go out to the countryside and the advisors in the countryside, the military advisors like John Vann would tell us that the war was being lost. And then we would go out on military operations and we would see it ourselves.

And we’d go back to Saigon and we’d write the story and all hell would break loose from the military headquarters, who General – we’d be told how displeased General Harkins was by our reporting. Well, I later on discovered that these advisors in the field who were telling us the truth were also telling the truth to General Harkins. I saw it – when I wrote my book; I saw their reports. He just ignored them. Ignored the reports of his own people who say, General, we’ve got terrible problems here; we’re using the war.

Schriever didn’t do that sort of thing. Schriever – one of the reasons Schriever succeeded at a very difficult task, which was to overcome the technological problems inherent in building these missiles was because he was willing to listen. He would always listen. He – and he’d tell his people, don’t – he did not hold progress briefings like Harkins did. There was no – there was no retro briefing under most Army Generals. And Harkins was a perfect example of it. There was always progress.

Schriever held the – was in the opposite. He told his people look; I can – give me the bad news. I can stand the bad news. I will not fire you for giving me the bad news. I will fire you if you don’t give me the bad news. And they’d have a monthly briefing they called Black Saturday, which was – which was a – at which you talked about your problems. Because his attitude was if we solve the problems success will take care of itself.

LAMB: Come to this statement you make in this book and I’ll ask you, why did you say that the George Bush Iraq War doomed to – and then – and Don Rumsfeld; doomed to a resignation in disgrace because of his fervid promotion of the catastrophic war in Iraq. Why do you say that?

SHEEHAN: Because it’s gone on for all these years, without any resolution whatsoever. We’ve spent God knows how much money involved. I mean we – in the process, we’ve lost a hell of a lot of lives. We’ve inflicted terrible pain on the – on the populations of Iraq and killed a hell of a lot of Iraqi people for no good end. There still is no resolution to it and no one has any idea of what’s going to happen in the future except that there might well be more chaos.

You don’t – if George Bush had really been involved in the war in Vietnam, which he wasn’t – he escaped it by joining the Texas National Guard, which his father got him into. And Cheney got five draft deferments. Rumsfeld was not involved in the war. Wolfowitz got several draft deferments. These men were not involved in Vietnam.

If they had been, they might have known that you don’t fight war – unnecessary wars. You don’t go off and fight a war of choice, which is what it was, because once you fire the first shot you don’t know what’s going to happen after that. And they – their misjudgments on Iraq were colossal. I mean you saw it from the very beginning. When the looting started in that museum in Baghdad, you realized this thing is out of control. These people have no idea what the hell they’re doing.

LAMB: Back to the two books, the one on Vietnam and the current one on Bernard Schriever and the whole ICBM effort; one or the other, easier or more difficult to write?

SHEEHAN: They were both very difficult for me.

LAMB: Let me show you then what you said. This is our – on our – my sheet here, number six; when we – when I asked you about something called writer’s block, back in our first interview, 21 years ago.


LAMB: Do you ever find yourself blocked when you’re writing.

SHEEHAN: Not blocked, but I found I would spend days battering away at the problem, because you’re looking at a book, which is long; 360,000 words, but it covers an enormous span of years and events. And it’s very telescoped, actually, in its – in its writing. And I would spend days – excuse me – I’d send a day and not and not finish what I had started out to do that day. I would not write those pages I had wanted to write that day because I hadn’t solved the problem. That a telescoping historical section; the telescoping section on Vann’s life.

And I wouldn’t be able to sleep that night. I might not solve the organizational problem of putting those pages together until the end of the day, let’s say. And then I would – I’d go out and take a walk and come back and write down an outline and then I’d be able to sleep. But some nights I couldn’t sleep.

LAMB: Can you apply any of that feeling you had back then to this book?

SHEEHAN: I was able to sleep this time. But I got thoroughly exhausted through the process because I – it was the same problem; taking a vast amount of material and telescoping it into a narrative, which told the truth, but which would – which would move fast, which an ordinary reader would – not a specialist, cause this book is not a hardware book. It’s not written for specialists. It’s written for the general public, which the ordinary reader would want to read.

And I found that, for instance, the amount of reading I had to do was enormous, on the Cold War, on figures like Stalin, who was – and then you pick out the nuggets of – it’s like panning for gold. You pan an awful lot of gravel just to get a fleck of gold. And I – and the same thing was true in the – I would write. I wrote, for instance, a profile of General LeMay, who was the great opponent of this program. And the profile was much too long. I spend a long time researching it, a long time writing it, and then my editor and I agreed it was far too long.

I had to tell the – it was about 35 or 40 pages.

Well, I had to tell the same thing in nine pages. But you don’t just cut. Telescoping isn’t cutting. You’ve got to say the same thing in nine pages that you said before at 36 pages. And all of this took enormous amounts of time.

LAMB: Claude Loomis, your editor for both the book 21 years ago and this book?

SHEEHAN: Absolutely. Yes. I’ve been very lucky. He’s a wonderful editor because he has a great – he helps you shape a book. He has a great sense of pace and a narrative. And when you’ve gone off the track and a wonderful way of putting you back on it.

He doesn’t – he doesn’t edit – well, he’s not a line editor. He’ll suggest a word here or a word there. And he’ll suggest changes in tone. But he makes you do it yourself.

LAMB: I’m going to go to page 287 of your book. And I don’t know how much of this we can do, but I’m going to read back to you and stop periodically to ask you questions about what I’m reading so people can get a sense of your narrative.

This is chapter 46. Dazzling the Monarch is the title of it. Let me just – briefly tell us why did you call this Dazzling the Monarch?

SHEEHAN: Because Eisenhower – they had to go to the president to get this program going. They started it in ’54. But the bureaucracy was so – had built up so great in the period, in the post-war period, that it was impossible to really get the thing moving. Schreiver had to go to 42 different people, 42 different offices to get clearances for what he wanted.

I mean, it was a hassle just to buy an air conditioning unit to protect the computers for this company they hired for scientific expertise, Ramo Wooldridge, which became later on TRW Thompson Ramo Wooldridge. They hired Simon Ramo as their scientific expert.

And so they had to get clearance of the type the Manhattan project they’ve had, clearance from bureaucratic interference, streamlining, in other words, of decision making, plus funding, which was their own which no one else could interfere with which was – and only the president can give you that. Only the monarch can give you that.

LAMB: Let me read you this back to you. You know these words but I’ll stop here and kind of ask you questions. Bennie Schriever arrived at the White House at 9:30 am on July 28, 1955, half an hour before the scheduled briefing for the president. Trevor Gardner and Johnny Von Neumann were with him in the back seat of one of the Pentagon’s long black Cadillac limousines as the car entered the rear gate to the White House grounds and made it’s way slowly up the circular drive.

Schriever had been informed on July 11 that the briefing would take place on the 28th, and they had been readying themselves ever since, most intensely after Bennie flew in from California on the 22nd. It had been decided Schriever would anchor the briefing by wrapping up at the end.

Trevor Gardner was – who was he?

SHEEHAN: He was the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for science and technology and was another – was in his own way a visionary. And Schriever had recruited him, Schriever when he first got onto the idea was just a colonel on the list for brigadier. That’s pretty low on the pecking order of the Pentagon.

He needed somebody higher to get the thing going. And Trevor Gardner was – had come on and he was another immigrant like Schriever. He’d gone to Cal Tech. He was an electronic – electrical engineer by training but really is a technological visionary in his own right could see the problem – he could see the possibility of technology in other fields. And Schriever recruited him.

LAMB: Bernie Schriever, you say in your book, until six was a German citizen.

SHEEHAN: Yes. He came – all three of those men you mentioned were all immigrants. Schriever came here when he was six years old from Germany. His mother got – brought her two sons here, two months before we declared war on Germany World War I. And they went down to Texas where he grew up.

Trevor Gardner was a Welshman. His father was a boilermaker in South America, a boiler engineer. He came here when he was a young man and went through Cal Tech, got educated here.

John Von Neumann was a brilliant mathematician and mathematical physicist with a mind second only to Einstein’s who developed the first electronic computer and developed stored programming for the computer, among other things. He came here as a refugee from Nazism. He was Hungarian born.

And again – and he was terribly important to the project because he had enormous prestige from World War II. He had developed the plutonium – the explosive wrapper around the plutonium bomb, the Nagasaki bomb. He played a critical part in building the atomic bomb in the Manhattan project. And he had great prestige.

And Schriever, again, recruited him for the program.

LAMB: You pronounced it Von Neumann?

SHEEHAN: Von Neumann. Yes.

LAMB: Let me read ahead here. They had been told by the National Security staff that they were restricted to half an hour in all for the three presentations. Power, who was he?

SHEEHAN: He was the head of the Air Force Research and Development command. He’d been LeMay’s deputy at Strategic Air Command. He’d been LeMay’s deputy really since World War II when he – he was the guy who flew over Tokyo during the famous fire bombing and then had been deputy commander at SAC when he was head of the – made head of the Air Force technical command, the Air Force Research and Development command.

But he was – although he was LeMay’s disciple, rather, LeMay’s protιgι. He had – he was not locked in, and Schriever had converted him to the idea of building these weapons.

LAMB: You also mentioned in here Charlie Wilson.

SHEEHAN: Yes. ”Engine” Charlie Wilson. He was the Secretary of Defense who was opposed to the program. But they overcame him, too. I mean, they had enormous obstacles to overcome. They had to intrigue their way into this briefing. I mean, they because – they knew they had to get to see the president and get the president to give his imprimatur to this thing and clear the brush out of the way so they could get the job done.

But you just don’t ring up the president. So they went about an elaborate process of intrigue. They started – they leaked classified reports to Senator Henry ”Scoop” Jackson was a big hawk from Washington. And he held hearings in the joint atomic energy commission – committee, excuse me, and they fed him information for these hearings. And Von Neumann appeared at the hearings and Gardner – they were closed hearings, secret hearings.

And then Jackson and another prominent Senator wrote President Eisenhower and said you’ve got to look into this thing. This is terribly important and you’re not looking at it and you’ve got to do something about it. You’ve got to be briefed on it.

And Eisenhower told the head of the NSC to schedule a briefing not knowing that the men who were going to brief him were the men who drafted the letter that Jackson had signed and who’d instigated the whole thing. And the head of the National Security Council before the – before the briefing when he’s giving them instructions on how they’ve got to keep this thing to half an hour – told them they were not under any circumstances to refer to this letter which had been sent to the president by Scoop Jackson not knowing that they were the guys who drafted the letter.

LAMB: This kind of thing still goes on today.

SHEEHAN: It still does, but it was – it was very – I must say very shrewdly done by them. And it was absolutely necessary because if they had – the briefing was on July 28. Eisenhower – then you had some bureaucratic balder all to go through. Eisenhower signed off on the thing on September 13, and then he had a heart attack 10 days later and he wasn’t able to hold a cabinet meeting for two months.

LAMB: But on the business of leaking, you know one of the biggest leaks of all time.

SHEEHAN: Yes, that’s true.

LAMB: Pentagon Paper.

SHEEHAN: That’s true. Yes.

LAMB: And the Pentagon Paper, I remember when Robert McNamara was here years ago and I asked him whether or not he had ever read the Pentagon Papers and he – first of all, he told me they were in his garage, and he said he never read the papers.

SHEEHAN: That may be true. I’m not sure he – I’m not sure that’s true.

LAMB: Because?

SHEEHAN: Because I think his conscience may have drawn him to reading parts of the case. And he knew we were going to publish it.

LAMB: And you’ve admitted who leaked you those papers?

SHEEHAN: Well, the – Dan Ellsburg copied the papers.

LAMB: Let me go back to this narrative for this book --

SHEEHAN: The long complicated story but Dan Ellsburg copied the papers.

LAMB: You write – it’s on page 289. Vince Ford and Burl Biltman had preceded him to the White House much earlier with the paraphernalia for the briefing. 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 am.

As I’m reading this I’m saying to myself, how do you get this stuff? Who told you this stuff?

SHEEHAN: Now, this was another important thing. Vince Ford had put together a memoir. Vince Ford was a colonel who worked for – first for Schriever and then for Gardner as his assistant. And Ford had written using Schriever’s papers a memoir which he let me have a copy. It was a huge manuscript.

LAMB: Never published?

SHEEHAN: Never published. It’s sitting out in the Eisenhower library right now. It never will be published. It’s well over 1000 pages.

LAMB: And he let you have it?

SHEEHAN: And he let me have it.

LAMB: Did you read the whole thing?

SHEEHAN: I read the whole thing. And also I read all of Schriever’s papers, which were vast as well.

LAMB: And as a matter of fact, on the page before here there’s a quote – no it’s on the same page. I wanted to ask you about this because you say he wrote this in his diary that night, the night I guess before, termites in the woodwork.

SHEEHAN: Yes. That was Schreiber’s term because he sensed the hostility. When we got this briefing from the head of the NSC, who told them now, gentlemen, you’re restricted to half an hour and you’re not to refer to this letter from Senator Jackson to the president in order to pressure him into doing anything that you want him to do.

Schriever realized this man was not in favor of the program. And his term for that was termites in woodwork. He had wonderful phrases.

LAMB: How much of a diary did he keep then?

SHEEHAN: He kept – his diary was very sporadic. He kept – it was a daily diary, but it was a working diary. He’d write down appointments which – and remarks. They tended to be very terse, except when something big occurred. And then he’d write a memorandum as he did for this briefing, which he gave me. His memorandum is the – and what Vince Ford added to it in his memoir is the only record of the briefing that exists.

LAMB: Is Vince Ford alive?

SHEEHAN: No, he’s dead, too. He was Bennie Schriever’s age and they both – he preceded Schriever.

LAMB: And his job was?

SHEEHAN: He was assistant to Gardner, but his job was really intriguing. His job was behind the scenes man for Schriever and Gardner.

LAMB: How much were you able to talk to him?

SHEEHAN: I interviewed him at great length as well.

LAMB: Is all of this on tape?

SHEEHAN: Yes, it’s all on tape. It’s sitting at home in my computer, the transcripts of the interviews. I’m not online. I don’t have e-mail because I’ve been warned by the computer gurus that the – if I did get it, sooner or later somebody would – I’d get a bug in my computer and lose the book.

LAMB: As long as we’re talking about this because I assume you’ll have a similar reaction to all of this. I’ve got in my hands the Neil Sheehan papers of finding aid to the collection of the Library of Congress. And we had some video on your collection there. You can see it on the screen.

Where is this over there from the John Paul Vann story?

SHEEHAN: Well, I will eventually give these papers to the Library as well. There’s the – the papers I gathered in the course of writing this book. The Vann– my personal papers went over to the Library to be put with Vann’s papers because when I wrote the Vietnam book, I had all of John’s papers, John Vann’s papers. He finally gave them to me and – in exchange for sharing the film rights.

LAMB: Can the public see this?

SHEEHAN: Oh yes. Yes. All you have to do is go to the Library of Congress, go in the manuscript division reading room, and it’s fully available.

LAMB: Are your audio tapes in this collection from your interviews?

SHEEHAN: Yes. Yes. Two hundred and eighty-five of them from the Vietnam War.

LAMB: How many of them?

SHEEHAN: Two hundred and eighty-five from the Vietnam War.

LAMB: And how many are you going to have from this book?

SHEEHAN: Well, I did 120 interviews. I’d say about maybe 150.

LAMB: Can people record them?

SHEEHAN: Well, they can – I don’t know if they can record them. You have to ask the Library that but they’re available – they will be available to listen to just as my Vietnam tapes were available to listen to. I believe in preserving these things. And the Library of Congress does a wonderful job of preserving under Tim Billington has set up a system where there’s great – there’s perfectly wonderful security in the manuscript reading room - you have to agree to be searched. You lock up your everything including your pens, the issue you a pencil when they bring out the papers for your to look at.

LAMB: Back to the narrative on this meeting in the White House in 1955. You say here that it was often – the room was a broadcast room. Is that still there?

SHEEHAN: I don’t know. I know it’s been very hard. I don’t think it is.

LAMB: In the West Wing of the White House?

SHEEHAN: Yes, in the West Wing of the White House. The White House keeps changing constantly. And as far as I can figure out, that room is gone.

LAMB: Did you try to go in there and see it?

SHEEHAN: I did. But I was told, well, nobody really understood whether it was – knew whether it still existed or not. It probably is another – it’s another – if it’s still there, it’s another room.

LAMB: You say here, it was often used for briefings. And on this humid Washington morning in July, it was filled with rows of straight-backed wooden chairs. The one exception to this austere seating was a capacious plumply stuffed red leather armchair in the center of the first row for the comfort of the president.

Why did you put that in there?

SHEEHAN: Well, because it’s a nice detail. And because he was the monarch. Now you have to remember that after World War II when we had President Roosevelt who was such a great and towering figure, the president – the American presidency acquired enormous prestige and until the war in Vietnam changed matters and tipped things the other way.

The president was – the presidency was far outweighed in influence the legislative or the judicial branches of the government. And the president was treated as a monarch. I mean, to the point of John Kennedy adding six or eight trumpets to the three or four they had there already, you know it had a regal atmosphere to it.

And Eisenhower, of course, had also the reputation of having been commander in chief during World War II. So he really was the monarch.

LAMB: You point out that the meeting got started a little late. Normally presidents arrive – some presidents arrive on time. At 10 o’clock, he – then I read they had not waited long when suddenly the doors swung open and Eisenhower appeared striding at a fast pace down the corridor. He seemed angry about something, his face flushed. Whatever it was apparently concerned Defense Secretary Wilson who was walking beside him.

By the way, Secretary Wilson used to run General Motors?

SHEEHAN: Yes. We call him ”Engine” Charlie Wilson for that reason.

LAMB: He was hurrying to keep up as the two men swept past Ford and Biltman and into the briefing room. The briefing, then what happened?

SHEEHAN: Well, the president sat down. He nodded to the head of the NSC who was already up in the podium, and he gave a very brief introduction. And the first guy to get up was Gardner. And the tactic was very clever. Gardner scared the bejesus out of everybody in the room.

And you’re talking about the whole of the American establishment, the governmental establishment here, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, all the members of the joint chiefs, the cabinet secretaries. He proceeded to tell them just how dangerous a situation this was. The Soviets were in the process of building these things. We were not doing it seriously because of the impediments to it. And it was 15 minutes to doom’s day because that’s how much – that’s the only warning you got.

And then he passed it to Von Neumann who, again, scared the living bejesus out of these people. He gave them an analysis of the nuclear – you know the size of the warhead, the explosive force, et cetera. And then they set it up so that Schriever could wrap it up and tell what was needed to get this thing done to correct this very dangerous situation.

LAMB: You have a one-liner I want to read. He had no intimation that – on this we’re talking about Von Neumann – one of the most eventful days of his life he had less than 19 months to live to which that cancer was coursing through his body.

SHEEHAN: It was a tragic thing. John Von Neumann – he’s not well remembered now. It’s very sad because he died at the age of 53. He had testicular cancer. And they just discovered – they hadn’t yet discovered it just before the briefing. They discovered it a month later in August, and he died then 19 months later in Walter Reed.

LAMB: There’s a lot more that we’re not going to be getting to because it’s a long narrative, but what did the president say after this briefing, and how long did the briefing go?

SHEEHAN: The briefing – the briefing lasted around an hour and a half because Von Neumann in particular ran way over his time. But never lost a bit of the attention. They could see from the beginning they had the attention of the president and of the audience.

Then Schriever got up to give the final briefing, and they had an eight-minute film of a rocket engine testing out at Santa Susana in California. They were testing the first engines, these fiery things. They’d lash them down on concrete stands and test them, fire them. And they had an eight-minute film of this to show the president at the end of the briefing if he wanted to see it.

And so Schriever knew how much they were over running – they were running over their time. So he started his briefing and he was a very impressive figure. This handsome-- Bennie Schriever was one of the most handsome men I ever met. And he was really – in those days with the uniform and those striking good looks, this tall man at 6’3”, slim – he started his briefing and then he stopped and he said, Mr. President, we also have an eight-minute film we’d like to show at the end of this if you wish to see it.

And Eisenhower nodded to him. In other words, you’ve got all the time you want, General. Just go right ahead and brief me, tell me what’s going on here. And Ford noticed that Eisenhower had moved forward and he was sitting on the edge of his chair. He was no longer sitting back in the – back in the easy chair. He was on the edge of it as – sitting like this – as Schriever was briefing him on what they needed to get to do to get this thing working.

LAMB: And you say that General Eisenhower got up to the podium after that and said this has been most impressive, most impressive. There is no question this weapon will have a profound impact on all aspects of human life, not only in the United States but in every corner of the globe, military, sociological, political. Is that an accurate – did it pan out to be an accurate statement?

SHEEHAN: Well, it’s a bit broad, but it’s true in the sense that what it did was to keep the peace.

LAMB: Got to ask you, though, on the next page, you bring in the Vice President of the United States then, Richard Nixon. And what you quote here is he’s – him saying why haven’t we started this sooner after this – after General Eisenhower left the room?


LAMB: What’s been the hold-up, the vice president said, tapping the palm of his left hand with the stiffened fingers of his right and a gesture of emphasis that was peculiar to Nixon.

SHEEHAN: Yes, Nixon would do that.

LAMB: And the reason I bring it up, though, is that five years later in 1960, missile gap was a charge from the Kennedy Administration – or the Kennedy candidate – to the Eisenhower Administration. And it turned out that after it was over, supposedly there was no missile gap. So fill us in on that one.

SHEEHAN: Well, there was a missile gap, but the gap was on the Soviet side. By that time, Schriever and his guys have surpassed the Soviets in the race to build an ICBM and to create a nuclear stalemate.

And so but politics being what it was and – in other words, we just – we still had just the U2 then. We didn’t have the spy satellites. And the U2 showed that the Soviets did not have – there was no missile gap. They did not have a useable force of ICBMs.

And Eisenhower – but Eisenhower didn’t want to admit what he was getting from the U2. He held things close to his chest. And Nixon had been briefed on it. And they briefed Kennedy on it. And Kennedy stopped talking who was using this missile gap business.

They were all – this country has been filled from the beginning of the Cold War with fear mongers, beginning with that really erroneous long telegram of Kennan’s and then Mitch’s and Atchison’s hysterical national security action, national security memorandum ’68 and it’s this – which you know Russians are coming. Stalin has the plan for world conquest. They’re stronger than we are. They’ll be in Paris in the morning kind of business.

And so Kennedy was taking advantage of this to charge that there was a missile gap. The Russians were ahead of us, and he was briefed on it given the secret briefing as presidential candidates did – and he stopped talking about it himself. But he didn’t – he didn’t tell his other campaign supporters to stop talking about it.

LAMB: Let me ask you then again – we’re coming forward to the time now – Back then and in your book you talk a lot about Thompson Ramo and Wooldridge, who people today would know as the TRW Corporation.


LAMB: They were involved in all of this talk. Did they end up benefiting from building of a missile?

SHEEHAN: Oh yes. Yes. Simon Ramo, who was the scientific – Schriever realized – and so did Gardner – that we did not have an aerospace industry in this country. We had an aircraft industry in ’53, ’54, but not an aerospace industry. The aircraft companies were not capable of providing the expertise needed to overcome the technological problems involved in building this missile.

So they had to create an aerospace industry. They had to get the expertise to do it. And Ramo – who was a product of Cal Tech, again, and who had been up at General Electric and then started his own company with Dean Wooldridge after turning – after building the first air-to-air missile for the Air Force at Hughes Aircraft – was a – they spotted him. They realized that he not only had the sense, the expertise to overcome these technological obstacles themselves but he had gathered the talent that was necessary to do it.

And he and Wooldridge broke away from Hughes and formed a company which was designed to get high-classed talent to – recruit it, high technology talent. And so Schriever and Gardner recruited him and put him to work, Ramo to work, both – technically both Ramo and his partner, Wooldridge. But he turned it out with Ramo.

And the reputation they built was the basis for TRW.

LAMB: As I said, 21 years ago you sent us on this mission of over 1000 interview in this time slot, mostly about books. But I want to show the audience what you said 21 years ago about the impact of the book you wrote, Bright Shining Lie, on your family. And give us an update on the family. Let’s watch this.


SHEEHAN: The book was a very difficult time for the family all those years, although actually we – it made us closer as a family. I was around to help raise my children whereas I might have been on the road.


SHEEHAN: Two kids. Two daughters. I think the girls are happy with what’s happened with the book – daddy’s book is finally done.


SHEEHAN: My youngest is 19. And throughout most of her life, it was daddy’s book. And a family word was when daddy’s book is done. Well, daddy’s book is finally done. And I think they’re happy.


LAMB: Those daughters are how old now?

SHEEHAN: Well, one is 42 and the other one 39.

LAMB: Where are they?

SHEEHAN: The younger one is the special assistant to the general counsel of the FBI. She’s here in Washington. She’s married. She’s given us one grandson. And she’s pregnant with another boy.

And the older daughter has been unfortunately disabled through failed cervical surgery on her neck. She’s active in a sense that she’s able to drive and move around, but she can’t work anymore. But we – she still has – we have a very – we have a very close relationship with both of them.

LAMB: And wife, Susan?

SHEEHAN: Wife Susan is still writing. She writes now mainly for Architectural Digest, which because the New Yorker has changed. And they both were very patient – they’ve all been very patient with the book as they were with the first one. Daddy’s book is slow.

LAMB: We’re out of time. And this looks like – a lot like the last book that you wrote, the cover here, Neil Sheehan, A Fiery Peace in a Cold War: Bernard Schriever and the Ultimate Weapon. That’s the ICBM.

We thank you, Neil Sheehan, for joining us again.


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