Mutually Assured Friendship

For half a century, Paul Nitze and George Kennan wrestled with the Cold War, and with each other.

Diplomatic history does not, in order to be history, have to be literature as well. But there is nothing that says it cannot be; and my ideal is to make it so,” wrote George Kennan in 1980. History can also be biography, as this excellent book by Nicholas Thompson, an editor at Wired magazine, demonstrates. Thompsons dual subjects are George Kennan and Paul Nitze, arguably two of the most influential figures in the half-century-long confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union known as the Cold War. Kennan, a diplomat and scholar, was author of the containment doctrine that inspired and guided U.S. foreign policy from Truman to Reagan. Nitze, an investment banker and consummate Washington insider, translated Kennans rather gauzy prescription for dealing with Soviet power into practical reality: for Nitze, it was the bald threat of superior military force that would keep the Russian bear in check.

Although the two men were part of the so-called “Georgetown set” that dominated the nations capital in those days, they inhabited two different worlds. Kennan was the self-doubting intellectual, the nagging Jeremiah, the dove; Nitze was the decisive man of action, the self-professed “problem solver,” the hawk.

But, as Thompson points out, the truth was more complex than that, as were the two men and their conjoined history. Kennan-the-dove once mused speculatively that dropping ten atomic bombs on targets in the USSR might prompt the Kremlins leaders to surrender. Nitze-the-hawk decided to suppress the fact that Russians were flying the MiGs responsible for downing some American pilots during the Korean War, lest that revelation lead to a wider conflict. Significantly, both men promptly rejected the option of preventive war when it was raised in the early 1950s, vis vis Russia, and again in 2003, over Iraq.

Kennan famously came to prominence in the winter of 1946, as the author of the Long Telegram, the 5,300-word warning to Washington of the Kremlins expansive designs that he wrote while a foreign service officer at the U.S. embassy in Moscow. Kennan elaborated on that message the following year, in a Foreign Affairs article predicting that a “long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies” would so frustrate Stalins grand strategy that the Soviet Union would either collapse as a result or would be so transformed in character as to cease to be a threat to the West. For a Truman administration belatedly awakening to the Soviet threat, Kennans words became gospel. As he later wrote, “My reputation was made. My voice now carried.”

Curiously, however, Kennan never explicitly defined how the U.S. should contain the Soviet Union. When pressed, he spoke vaguely of reliance on small, mobile military units, economic sanctions, and even “moral suasion.” That task was eagerly embraced by Paul Nitze, who succeeded Kennan as head of the Policy Planning Staff, the State Departments incubator for ideas on how to run the new American imperium. Dismissed by his Foggy Bottom colleagues as a “Wall Street operator,” Nitze had left a highly lucrative career at Dillon, Read, & Co. to direct the wartime U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey. While Kennan was pondering Soviet motives from Moscow, Nitze and his staff were measuring the depth of bomb craters left by the Allies aerial assault on Germany and Japan. In contrast to Kennans arm chair theorizing, Nitze boasted that he liked to “put calipers” on a problem, and solve it.

Kennan soon had cause to question his choice of successor. Returning briefly to the State Department following the outbreak of the Korean War, he ruefully observed “that my whole framework of thought was strange to Nitze, and that he would be apt to act on concepts of his own which differ from those I had put forward.” Kennans concerns were justified. As Nitze himself later boasted to a biographer, he “hijacked [Kennans] Cold War policy of containment away from him.”

Indeed, when Truman asked State for an opinion on whether to proceed with development of the hydrogen bomb, Kennan characteristically submitted a seventy-nine-page treatise opposing the weapon, citing passages from Shakespeare and the Bible, and even helpfully appended a draft speech for Truman to announce a unilateral moratorium on H-bomb research. In contrast, Nitze sent the president a brief memo with a handful of questions, arranged bullet-point style, laying out the case for the super-bomb. Truman went with Nitze.

For the next fifty years, Kennan and Nitze would be on opposite sides of a major divide in this country over the conduct of its foreign policy. As with the Cold War itself, at the center of their conflict was the hydrogen bomb. For Kennan, who had been appalled, in a postwar tour of Hamburg, by the destruction visited upon that city, reliance on the threat of nuclear annihilation to deter Soviet aggression was not only dangerous but a sign of intellectual bankruptcy:

Americans seem little able to accustom themselves to the thought that their security must rest on the intentions, rather than the capabilities of other nations and are drifting toward a morbid preoccupation with the fact that the Russians could drop atomic bombs on this country.

Nitze, meanwhile, had carefully calculated the number of conventional bombs that it would have taken to wreak the same devastation as the atomic bomb upon Hiroshima, and concluded that a nuclear war could not only be fought, but won. What to Kennan was a “morbid preoccupation” was, for Nitze, the defining limits of a worldview.

Retreating to a kind of self-imposed exile at Princeton, Kennan assumed the role of dishonored prophet, issuing pronouncements criticizing U.S. policy toward Russia, opposing escalation of the Vietnam War, and, in the early 1980s, endorsing the nuclear freeze movementall the while lamenting, in correspondence and in the pages of his private journal, that official Washington no longer listened. Periodically, he would return to the fray, becoming ambassador to Russia near the end of Trumans term and ambassador to Yugoslavia under Kennedy. But these forays never lasted long, and were usually brought to an end by the dour Princetonians own dyspepsia. Thus, an ill-advised comment comparing Stalins Russia to Hitlers Germany resulted in Kennan being kicked out of the Soviet Union, and an intemperate remark on Congresss “appalling ignorance” with regard to trade policy ended his usefulness in Belgrade.

During this same time, Nitze was enjoying his role as Gideon on the Cold War ramparts, warning that the Russians wereor at least might becoming, especially if the U.S. allowed them to achieve nuclear superiority. In a variety of jobs through a succession of administrationsas secretary of the navy and deputy defense secretary under Kennedy and Johnson, and as a senior arms control negotiator for both Nixon and ReaganNitze played a critical part behind the scenes, even as his trumpet sounded the same shrill, monotonous note. In such a way, the “missile gap” followed the “bomber gap,” which preceded the “year of maximum danger” and anticipated the “window of vulnerability.” Presidents rapidly discovered that Nitze was more dangerous to them outside the government than in. In 1979, Carter could trace the demise of the SALT II treaty to his failure to offer Nitze the post of defense secretary at a get-acquainted meeting two years earlier in Plains. “Henry Kissinger we will have to stroke. Paul Nitze we will have to beat,” a Carter aide had predicted. But, ultimately, it was Nitze who won.

Notwithstanding their positions on opposite sides of the barricades, Kennan and Nitze remained friends throughout. Thompsons book opens with Nitzes gracious toast on the occasion of his rivals eightieth birthday. His differences with Kennan, Nitze quipped, had “only been on matters of substance.”

The Hawk and the Dove does an inspired job of telling the story of the Cold War through the careers of two of its most interesting and important figures, who were not only present at the creation, but were each a witnessand, in Nitzes case, a participantin its end. While never actually denying paternity, Kennan would always distance himself from the unruly youth that he believed containment hadunder Nitzes fosteringbecome.

Yet on the eve of the new millennium, approaching their own end, the two found themselves on common ground concerning the very issue that had always divided them. In an October 1999 New York Times op-ed article, Nitze proposed that the U.S. “unilaterally get rid of our nuclear weapons.” Kennan hid his astonishment in a grace note to Nitze, acknowledging that it was “a source of deep satisfaction to me to find the two of us, at our advanced ages, in complete accord on questions that have meant so much to each of us, even when we did not fully agree, in times gone by.”

Impressively well researched and, overall, beautifully written, The Hawk and the Dove nonetheless leaves some important questions unaddressed, and hence unanswered. One wishes that Thompsonwho is Nitzes grandsonwould have tackled the matter of whether his grandfather actually believed that the Russians might one day sail missile-firing submarines up the St. Lawrence River into the Great Lakes, or simply spun out such fantastical scenarios in order to sell the Pentagons weapons system du jour. Likewise, it would be interesting to know if the author shares the view of Kennans critics that it was the containment doctrine, as much as the domino theory, that inexorably lured the United States down the long road that led into the jungles of Vietnam.

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