41.

AN ASSAULT FROM AN UNEXPECTED QUARTER

Having bested McNarney and Lanphier, Bennie was astonished in mid-February to find himself suddenly involved in a totally unexpected fracas with Air Force Secretary Harold Talbott. He had been looking forward to Talbott’s scheduled visit to the Schoolhouse on February 16 as a “Happy to Have You” occasion, as he had written at the top of the outline for his briefing on the progress they were making. Instead, he subsequently recorded in his diary, “It was indeed a painful meeting.” Schriever and Ramo had, with the concurrence of Gardner and von Neumann and the other scientists on his committee, decided on a management strategy that was a dual approach. One side was called concurrency. On this side, work on every part of the missile—airframe, engines, long-range guidance, nose cone or reentry vehicle—was to go forward simultaneously. The objective was to gain time. They assumed that if each of these parts was adequately tested beforehand and Ramo and his colleagues did their job of systems engineering competently to make certain that everything would fit together, they would have a ready-to-fly ICBM much sooner than if they developed each part in sequence.

The other aspect of the strategy was fail-safe redundancy. They were going to build not one, but two different ICBMs. And they were going to create a complete second set of the subsystems that went into an ICBM. If the Atlas or any of its components proved a failure, they would always have a fallback. Schriever already had his staff sizing up which other aircraft companies were the best candidates to design and manufacture the airframe for the second ICBM. He intended to launch a competition as soon as possible. And, on Hall’s advice, he had also just negotiated a contract for the rocket engines that were to power this alternate ICBM. The firm was Aerojet General, a full-grown descendent of a seedling company started in 1942 by von Kármán and a number of his students with Hap Arnold’s assistance to build small rockets that would give heavily laden aircraft an extra boost to take off. Aerojet had agreed to develop the new engines in collaboration with a less well-known firm called Reaction Motors, Inc., another pioneer in the rocket business.

Bennie cheerfully recounted all of this good news to Talbott and got a reaction he least expected. As with his unnerving session with Power the previous July, he was so upset by it that he again wrote a long memorandum, this time eight pages, for his diary. Talbott paid no attention to what had been accomplished. Instead, he was solely concerned with stopping any additional work on the project in California. To render military industries less vulnerable to attack, President Eisenhower wanted to start dispersing them inland, rather than leaving them concentrated, as they were, on both coasts. He was also particularly concerned about the extent to which California’s economy was based on military industry. The state’s dependence on the military made California, he felt, highly vulnerable to future cutbacks. Talbott had obviously left Washington freshly briefed on the president’s wishes. He should have explained to Eisenhower that the ICBM project was so dependent on scientific and industrial resources virtually exclusive to California at this point in American history that an exception would have to be made if the program was to move ahead at an acceptable pace. But he had not done so. Instead, he had flown out a somewhat frightened man, determined to enforce what he interpreted as the boss’s orders.

He told an amazed Schriever, and Gardner and Ramo, who were also present at the meeting, that he wanted no additional work assigned in California, or at least none that would enable a California firm to enlarge its organizational or industrial base. He ordered Schriever to cancel the contracts with Lockheed and Aerojet General. When Bennie replied that carrying out those orders would severely impair the project, Talbott lost his temper and threatened to fire him on the spot and reduce him in rank. “Before this meeting is over, General, there’s going to be one more colonel in the Air Force,” he shouted at Schriever with a menacing look on his face. He yelled that he expected his orders to be obeyed. Other people might lose their jobs for failure to carry out the president’s wishes on this issue, but he was not going to be one of them, Talbott said. Bennie could also lose his temper on occasion, but never when he was under assault. He grew cold and deliberate then. He replied quietly, yet pronouncing each word with unaccustomed precision, that he could not accept the order “because I have a prior and overriding order. On being handed this assignment, I was directed to run this program so as to attain an operational ICBM capability in the shortest possible time.” Talbott also regained control of himself and began speaking calmly, but he did not back down.

Ramo and Gardner came to Schriever’s defense. So did Roger Lewis, Talbott’s assistant secretary for matériel, who had also apparently flown to Los Angeles for the gathering. They pointed out to Talbott that if the president wanted industry dispersed, production facilities could be found inland once research and development of the prototypes was completed. The R&D, however, had to be done in California. Otherwise, they would lose a year. Lewis said he had read the agreement with Aerojet and that creation of new rocket engines for the alternate ICBM with this firm in California was the way to go. The solution of development in California and production elsewhere did not satisfy Talbott. He lost his temper again at a remark by Gardner and then said that the Aerojet General contract should have gone to General Electric. With its headquarters in upstate New York, GE was presumably far enough away from the coast to satisfy Talbott’s understanding of the dispersal criterion. The company had never previously manufactured rocket engines. In a reflex search for new business, however, it had competed for the alternate engine contract and lost because of its lack of qualifications. To his listeners, Talbott’s championing of GE now smacked more of politics and favoritism than obedience to the president’s dispersal policy. Gardner snapped a Gardner retort at his chief and patron. Bennie recorded it in his diary. “This would have been a big mistake because GE was a shitty outfit.” Ramo was glum and grim. Bennie also recorded his warning. “If no R&D is done in Calif., you might as well scrub the [whole] program.” Talbott waffled somewhat, but he left still refusing to rescind his instructions and aimed a parting shot at Schriever. The secretary told him that whatever contractor he chose for the airframe of the second ICBM, it would have to be a company “east of the Rockies.”

Horatio Viscount Nelson, the British naval genius who brought his country a century of command of the seas and thus the freedom to build its extraordinary empire by destroying the combined French and Spanish fleets in the battle of Trafalgar in 1805, was once ordered by a superior to break off an action in which he believed he would prevail. In an account of the incident that may be apocryphal but which is entirely within character, Nelson put his telescope to an eye blinded in an earlier fight. He pointed it at the signal flags waving from his superior’s flagship and declared, “I really do not see the signal.” Bennie Schriever had not come this far in the United States Air Force to fail to learn the lesson that when a foolish order is issued, a wise officer ignores it. “The only way in which a development can be accomplished in the shortest period of time is when all other considerations are subordinate to time,” he observed in his diary. He canceled neither contract, instead forwarding both for approval. He ordered his deputy, Colonel Charles “Terry” Terhune, a redheaded Dutchman and one of the most accomplished engineers in the Air Force, who had been present at the meeting, not to tell anyone what had occurred. He also instructed Terhune to get the search for a second airframe contractor moving. He was careful with Power. The next morning, before leaving for Patrick Air Force Base in Florida to start planning for the launch pads and other missile test facilities they would have to construct on nearby Cape Canaveral, he telephoned Power in Baltimore, filled him in on the tumult of the previous day, and told Power what he intended to do. Power did not object.

The contracts went through and the ICBM project was eventually granted a complete exemption from the dispersal policy. Ironically, Harold Talbott, who had predicted that someone was going to lose his job but that it was not going to be he, was forced to resign that August because of a conflict of interest imbroglio. He had been using Air Force stationery and his phone and office to further the fortunes of a former business partner. Some of the companies he had contacted on behalf of his friend were Air Force contractors whom he had to have known would feel themselves under obligation to him. He had also retained his partnership in a New York investment group and had accepted more than $132,000 from them, he claimed for services not performed while he was secretary of the Air Force.

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