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Paul Nitze, George Kennan and the History of the Cold War

Review by John Coffey

Nicholas Thompson, The Hawk and the Dove:  Paul Nitze, George Kennan and the History of the Cold War, New York:  Henry Holt and Company, 2009, ISBN: 978-0805081428,403 pp. $27.50

In our age of coarse partisan rancor, Nicholas Thompson graces us with a portrait of the remarkable half-century friendship between two giants (and gentlemen) who shaped Cold War strategy.  This respectful, yet judicious and fair, account by Paul Nitze’s grandson should be read by anyone interested in American statesmanship.

This is, writes Thompson, a “story about friends, but not about friendship.”  The protagonists attended each other’s family birthday parties and weddings and alternately inspired and exasperated each other with their ideas about national security.  The friendship was not marked by lengthy personal communication.  What stands out is the civility shared by two great men of profoundly different characters and views.  They respected and admired each other’s integrity and dedication.  At Kennan’s eightieth birthday in 1984, a guest asked Nitze how they remained friends, despite their differences.  Nitze, smiling, said he never had any disagreement with George “except over matters of substance.”  Alexander Bessmertnykh, the Soviet foreign minister who worked with both men, declared to the author:  “They were both great in their own gardens.”

Kennan and Nitze represented William James’s distinction of philosophic temperaments into two types, the tender-minded and tough-minded.  Kennan, the thinker and elegant prose stylist who defined the Cold War policy of “containment” as a political strategy to counter a political threat, was the “dove.”  Nitze was the “hawk,” the man of action who mastered the policy and gave it a military face.  Nitze didn’t deal well with his superiors, alienating six of the ten presidents he served.  Kennan’s brooding sensitivity turned minor slights into bouts of despair.

At Princeton in the 1920’s, Kennan, scarred by his mother’s early death, remained an outsider and loner obsessed with good form and self-control to master an underlying melancholy.  Nitze possessed a winning sociable nature, enabling him to finagle his way into the elite Porcellian club at Harvard.  After Harvard, Nitze went to the Wall Street firm Dillon Read, where he met James Forrestal who brought him into government in 1940.  Kennan and Nitze met on a New York to Washington train in 1943, falling into conversation about world affairs.  Nitze found his companion “charming, witty, and urbane.”

The core disagreement between them revolved around the role of military power in foreign policy.  Appointed to State’s Policy Planning Staff (PPS) by Secretary Marshall, Kennan had little influence on the Truman Doctrine of 1947 and disapproved of its dramatic, open-ended commitment.  He, however, largely crafted the Marshall Plan, though he lacked the temperament for promoting it on Capitol Hill.  Nitze, at State’s Office of International Trade Policy, heartily approved of Truman’s tough stance and became the Plan’s senior economist and its skillful public advocate.

By 1949 Kennan’s influence at the PPS began to wane.  He opposed NATO for over-militarizing containment, formation of a West German government sealing Europe’s division, recognition of the state of Israel, and the United Nations.  Nitze supported these measures and became PPS Deputy in the summer of 1949.  The Soviet A-bomb test that summer generated intense debate over whether the U.S. should build the H-bomb.  Nitze believed it necessary to develop a policy for weapons that could not be wished away and that the U.S. could not allow a Soviet strategic advantage.  Kennan opposed the super-bomb.  He argued for international control of atomic weapons, a no first-use pledge, and warned of an expensive arms race.  Despite their disagreement, Nitze was courteous to his colleague:  “All of us who worked with him were absolutely devoted.”

When Nitze became PPS Director in January, 1950, he ordered a broad strategic review.  The result was NSC-68, calling for a massive arms buildup, particularly in conventional forces, in a global battle with Communism.  Kennan repudiated NSC-68’s analysis of Soviet intentions and militarization of policy.

After Kennan’s abortive four-month ambassadorship to Moscow in 1952, the Eisenhower Administration eased him and Nitze out of government.  Both joined Adlai Stevenson’s 1956 campaign.  The following year Nitze drafted the Gaither Report, arguing for the feasibility of limited nuclear war.  Kennan’s famous Reith Lectures in 1957 calling for U.S.-Soviet disengagement from Europe drew sharp criticism.  Dean Acheson charged, “Mr. Kennan has never, in my judgment, grasped the realities of power relationships, but takes a rather mystical attitude toward them.”  Nitze declined to join Acheson’s rebuke out of respect for his friend and later became foreign affairs adviser for John F. Kennedy’s 1960 campaign.

As Kennedy’s Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, Nitze advocated a hard anti-Soviet line, but fell from favor because he was unable to work smoothly with the Kennedy inner circle.  Nitze at first viewed his 1963 appointment as Navy Secretary as a demotion, but later considered it the best job he ever held, despite an uneasy relationship with Defense Secretary McNamara.  The failure of Kennan’s two-year ambassadorship to Yugoslavia ended his diplomatic career and, Thompson notes, exemplified it.  Kennan didn’t grasp American domestic politics and was too easily hurt.  He had overreacted to Tito’s actions and tactlessly lobbied Congress to repeal Yugoslav trade sanctions, even personally appealing to President Kennedy.  Kennan, said one of his subordinates, “was a better writer than ambassador.”

During the 1970’s, Nitze immersed himself in the details of nuclear weapons, while Kennan grew increasingly neuralgic about them.  By the end of the decade the two had become competing icons, who admired each other from opposite poles.  Their basic disagreement, writes Thompson, hinged on Nitze’s belief that the U.S. could responsibly and rationally handle nuclear weapons.  Kennan did not share his confidence in the U.S.

In the 1980 election, Nitze, seeking another government position, joined the Reagan campaign and became the Administration’s INF negotiator the next year.  Nitze was sent to negotiate Richard Perle’s “zero option” for INF, winning Administration enmity for his insubordinate departure from instructions in his famous “walk in the woods” with Soviet negotiator Kvitsinsky.  Both Washington and Moscow rejected their deal leaving some INF on both sides.  After Reagan’s surprise SDI speech in 1983, Nitze favored swapping SDI for deep, offensive nuclear cuts.  He played a key role in the 1986 Reykjavik Summit, which came close to deep offensive reductions, but foundered over the issue of missile defense research.  The collapse of the Soviet Union ended the arms race.End.

John Coffey
John Coffey

John W. Coffey received a Ph.D. in American history from Stanford University and taught for 20 years. He served in OSD Policy at the Pentagon from 1986-88 and as a civil servant at the Commerce and State Departments for 15 years, retiring from State in 2005. He has written widely on foreign and defense policy.


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