A FIERY PEACE IN THE COLD WAR: Bernard Schriever and the Ultimate Weapon,

by Neil Sheehan. Random House, 534 pp. $32.

The son of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev recalled his father lamenting the cost of Russia's first intercontinental ballistic missiles, asking, "What will we do, we'll be without pants."

That anecdote, from Neil Sheehan's "A Fiery Peace in the Cold War," dovetails with the main premise of this book, both a biography of Bernard Schriever, the main mover behind America's development of ICBMs, and a history of the nuclear-tipped missiles: "In doing so much to foster a nuclear stalemate, Schriever and his associates contributed mightily to buying the time necessary for the Soviet Union to exhaust itself."

Sheehan offers a deep look at American defensive thinking in the Cold War, portraying the birth of the aerospace industry; illuminating the interlocking interests and personnel of government, industry and scientific academe; and opening the somewhat cloistered world of military life to wider view, from rivalries between the services to high-stakes internal battles over directorship of specific programs. We also see clearly how heavily policy and technology drove one another.

Schriever conceived of lobbing nuclear weapons through space rapidly via missile in March 1953, and he consulted a Princeton physicist named John von Neumann (a Hungarian immigrant and "possibly the finest intelligence of the twentieth century after Albert Einstein," Sheehan writes) to see if the idea was feasible. It was, and the long grind of assembling technical personnel and gaining support and funding, all the way up to lobbying President Dwight Eisenhower for his imprimatur, forms the bulk of "A Fiery Peace."

Sheehan begins his story in World War II, the root experience for many who were to determine the future of missile programs, and details the incipient Cold War, including establishment of containment as a policy to articulation of the Truman Doctrine - that the United States would aid countries threatened by Communism - the following year. Gen. Curtis LeMay, who was to become head of the 2-year-old Strategic Air Command in 1948, looms large here. LeMay was a fervent believer in high-altitude bombers and strenuously opposed Schriever's idea of the ICBM; for years he was Schriever's main antagonist. Ironically, LeMay's commitment to the idea of massive retaliation made pressure from him the "major impetus" in America's growing nuclear stockpile, to its 20,941-megaton peak in 1960.

When Schriever gave a 1955 secret briefing to staff of the RAND Corp., a think tank for the Air Force, about his idea, he suggested the missile was not built to be used as a weapon but would have the "highest probability of not being used"; in other words, he invoked the logic of Mutual Assured Destruction.

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Sheehan's book is rich in cultural detail, beyond iconic moments of the Cold War as refracted through the lens of the missile race. The Mercury capsule in which John Glenn orbited Earth, for example, was a modification of a Mark 2 hydrogen bomb re-entry vehicle - a warhead.