Throwing light on Cold War
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The Cold War was one long preface to a nightmare that never materialized, but its hangover, from thousands of live nuclear warheads still poised to launch, millions of lives ruined and billions of dollars wasted, lingers.
It was raging 50 years ago in the days of the Cuban revolution, the Soviet shoot-down of the U-2 spy plane, competing satellite launches and even the rocky American tour of Soviet boss Nikita Krushchev.
Publishers' antennae are always tuned to anniversary years in search of sources for new books, and the Cold War offers no end of possibilities. Here are two new publications that take their inception from the dark era:
Sheehan is the quintessential reporter whose dogged coverage of the Vietnam War earned him the trust of Daniel Ellsberg. In 1971, he gave Sheehan the "Pentagon Papers," the Defense Department's history of that war.
Sheehan followed with his fine book, "A Bright Shining Lie," winner of the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for its deeply personal account of Vietnam and the people who fought there. In the person of John Paul Vann, a dedicated soldier who became disillusioned, Sheehan illuminated the conundrums of that conflict
To examine the history of the Cold War, he took a similar approach by focusing on one little-known, but key Air Force officer, Bernard Schriever. The World War II flier led the Air Force's development of the long-range ballistic missile.
Rocketry, while a preoccupation of America in the 1950s and early '60s, lacks the drama and struggles of the battlefield despite Sheehan's legendary research skills. From fuel pumps to nozzle design, the subject is best suited to an engineering symposium, not a popular history.
Sheehan also bogs down in tracing the bureaucratic politics, office intrigues and even the courtships of his large cast of 1950s Cold Warriors. He's guilty of a classic sin of the insatiable researcher -- "writing his notebook" or using everything rather than self-editing. The result is tedium.
Finally, there's the character of Schriever himself, not the colorful one of Vann, but more of a careful plodder.
The subject remains fascinating and frustrating, brilliant, patriotic souls on both sides constructing a doomsday machine with the ultimate goal of never using it.
It's now no secret that the former U.S.S.R. trailed woefully in what was called "the arms race" during the Cold War. Presidential candidate John Kennedy's warning of a "missile gap" was nothing more than a lie; Sheehan points out that he was shown the surveillance of Soviet sites during the 1960 campaign but never retracted his bogus claim.
Schriever's accomplishments had long erased that gap and he warrants Sheehan's praise. But there's a larger story that gets lost in the welter of minute details.
Today, it seems a serious miscalculation -- George Kennan's "long telegram" from Moscow in 1946 warning of Soviet plans of expansion. It set in motion everything from the Marshall Plan to the Central Intelligence Agency, even though historians now believe Stalin's motivations were mostly defensive.
The diplomat, who became a historian and opponent of the Cold War he helped foster, was counterbalanced by Paul Nitze, a friend with opposing views who strongly influenced administrations from Eisenhower to George H.W. Bush.
Thompson, a reporter and Nitze's grandson, argues that while Kennan set the course of the Cold War, Nitze tried to win it. His dual biography of the two reveals a great deal about the early days of that superpower conflict and its aftermath.
"The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and its Dangerous Legacy" by David E. Hoffman. (Doubleday, $35).
Former Moscow bureau chief for the Washington Post bares stories of the Soviet Union???s military programs, including plans for massive biological weapons uses, exposed after the Communist state collapsed.
"Red Cloud at Dawn: Truman, Stalin and the End of the Atomic Monopoly" by Michael D. Gordon. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $28).Historian details the development of the Russian A-bomb and its effect on the emerging scope of the Cold War starting in 1949.
"Dark Side of the Moon: Werhner Von Braun, the Third Reich and the Space Race" by Wayne Biddle (Norton, $25.95)
How Nazi Party member and SS officer Von Braun, a blantant opportunist, transformed himself into moving force behind American missile efforts in unsympathetic portrait by journalist.
First Published September 27, 2009 12:00 am