39.

A PROBLEM WITH TOMMY POWER

Until three days before the Los Angeles meeting of the new Von Neumann Committee on July 20–21, 1954, Bennie did not realize how much peril he was in over the decision to abandon the prime contractor system and use the Ramo-Wooldridge organization for engineering and technical expertise. He had assumed that Power, as head of the Air Research and Development Command, supported him and the ICBM program as he and Gardner and von Neumann and the rest of their associates had conceived it. In a meeting with Power at ARDC headquarters in Baltimore on the afternoon of July 17, he was stunned to learn otherwise: Power privately frowned on virtually everything that was being done and let Bennie know it in direct and brutal fashion. Schriever was so upset by what he heard that he wrote out an account of the meeting, something he rarely did because he was so busy, and placed it among the pages of the sparsely noted diary he kept each day on the long, lined yellow paper of legal pads.

At forty-nine years of age with twenty-six years of service in the Army Air Corps and the U.S. Air Force, Thomas Sarsfield Power was a man whose ambition was as wide as his frame was lean. He had been born at a time when Irish-American families often named a son for an Irish patriot and his middle name was an apt one for a military man. General Patrick Sarsfield, the Earl of Lucan, had been one of Ireland’s most renowned soldiers, holding off the forces of William III at the siege of Limerick in 1691 longer than was thought humanly possible in the last major battle before the enveloping darkness of English colonialism closed over the Irish. Power had come up the hardscrabble way, studying civil engineering in night classes at Cooper Union in New York City until he had enough credits to join the Army Air Corps and qualify for Flying School. He had graduated from Kelly Field in 1929, seven months ahead of LeMay. Flying B-24 Liberators out of Italy, Power had gained a reputation as a hard-tasking, innovative commander, which is why Arnold had given him one of the B-29 wings and a star. He was cold-blooded in judgment and shrewd at his craft. LeMay had taken to him right away after his arrival in Guam and had sent him to lead that first night firebombing raid on Tokyo because he trusted him more than any of his other wing commanders. Power had just received his third star on appointment as commander of ARDC that April. Having served LeMay for the previous six years as his deputy at SAC, Power was intent on adding a fourth star to the row on his shoulder tabs and succeeding LeMay as commander-in-chief of the world’s mightiest aerial striking force. He saw Schriever and this ICBM burden he had been handed as a threat to his dream. It had been naive of Schriever to assume that Power would approve of him and his project, given the contrasting nature of their careers. Power personified the operational Air Force par excellence. LeMay had maneuvered him into command of ARDC precisely because he wanted to keep the research and development organization out of the hands of technological visionary types like Schriever. As an operator, Power naturally tended to view the Air Force world in conventional terms. Not having participated in the work of the Tea Pot Committee and its sequel, he also understood virtually nothing of the nature of the task Schriever faced. Furthermore, had the choice been his, as the former vice chief of SAC and a witness to LeMay’s repeated clashes with Schriever, he certainly would not have chosen this independent-minded colonel, now sporting a single star, for the ICBM job.

With White and Twining behind the project, Power was too shrewd to oppose it openly, but that did not stop him from letting Schriever know how he felt. The first thing he hit Schriever with was his objection to tossing the prime contractor tradition overboard in favor of this newfangled approach. He was obviously alarmed over the repercussions that were certain to follow when the aircraft industry fought back. Power was being drawn against his will into the middle of a fight in which he did not want to be involved and his ignorance of the technological obstacles inherent in building an ICBM prevented him from understanding why this revolution in contracting and program management was necessary. The B-52 Stratofortress, he told Schriever, was just as complex a weapon as the Atlas ICBM would be, yet Boeing had nurtured it to success. Why didn’t they just let the aircraft industry handle the ICBM? “He inferred,” Schriever wrote in his memo of the encounter, “that we were attempting to tie [a] can to Convair and R&W [Ramo-Wooldridge] would grab off the prize.” Power also objected to the nature of the directive he had received on June 21 from Air Force headquarters. He was carrying out the directive because it was an order, but he didn’t like it, Power said. The whole arrangement was unfair. He was being instructed to create a separate ICBM organization out on the West Coast run by a general officer who was to have complete authority over every detail of the program. Yet the directive also made Power responsible for the ultimate outcome. In short, he was to be held responsible for what he could not control. (His objection here was understandable, given the justly venerated military principle that there can be no responsibility without command.)

Schriever was still his subordinate, of course, but how was Power supposed to adequately supervise him from the East Coast? The field office ought to be located in Baltimore with his headquarters so that he could direct its actions. The argument that scientific and engineering expertise was most easily recruited in California and that many of the industries they would need were also situated there did not sway Power. “Only with inward reluctance does he go along with my moving west,” Schriever wrote. Moreover, out there in California an officer as junior as Schriever would be “a country boy among the wolves,” Power said. The aircraft industry would devour him at its leisure. His eventual discrediting could rebound on Power, and Power, allowing his ego and his ambition to flash, “made a point that he was senior to me and had much more at stake than I.” The necessity Schriever had stated so baldly to Gardner that momentous afternoon at the rathskeller on 15th Street, that to get the missiles built he had to be free to operate “without any interference from those nitpicking sons of bitches in the Pentagon,” had backfired when he had mentioned it to Power. “By his several allusions to my making big decisions on my own … he must feel that I am motivated by a personal desire for power,” Schriever noted. Worst of all, “He obviously does not trust me nor have confidence in me—very important factors when undertaking a job of this magnitude.” Bennie left Power’s office a shaken man. He had been put on probation. If he did not succeed in allaying Power’s worries, no amount of intervention from Gardner would suffice to protect him. Power would find a way to sack him in order to save his own hide.

Seeing the unity of the Von Neumann Committee at the July 20–21 meeting and the additional support from as ranking a figure in the Pentagon hierarchy as Donald Quarles, Power hid his misgivings. He played along by instructing Schriever to give him the memorandum on the proposed management structure, knowing in advance what it would say. But he also took out some insurance by playing a game known in the military as “cover your arse,” or “CYA” for short. Whenever a matter was up for decision, or some sensitive point had been discussed, he demanded a written proposal from Schriever or a memorandum for the record. He was preparing a defense for the investigation that would be certain to follow if the project failed—men eminent in their fields had urged these actions on him and he had had no logical recourse but to accept their advice.

Schriever now launched his own “win over Tommy Power” campaign. He became the most attentive subordinate any general could desire. He wrote Power a report every week and shot off a message by Teletype or called on the phone in between whenever the occasion seemed to warrant it, made certain Power was invited to all significant meetings, and traveled to Baltimore frequently to personally update the boss. Judo wasn’t Power’s only sport. He was a keen golfer as well and Bennie turned on the charm here too, arranging the schedule so that their get-togethers were also an opportunity for the general to play with a partner in top form.

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