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Friends in Disagreement

Longtime friends Paul Nitze and George Kennan disagreed stridently about how to defend America during the Cold War.

By From the October 2009 issue

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The Hawk and the Dove: Paul Nitze, George Kennan and the Cold War
By Nicholas Thompson
(Henry Holt, 416 pages, $27.50)

THE UNITED STATES WAGED THE COLD WAR for 40 years, and for 40 years George Kennan and Paul Nitze were perennial players in the struggle—from its beginning, which Kennan catalyzed, to its end. They were also longtime friends, but friends who disagreed stridently about how best to protect America, with Kennan typically (but not always) advocating diplomacy and disarmament and Nitze usually (but not always) arguing for a stronger military defense. They were friends, too, who could hardly have been more dissimilar in their personalities and styles. Kennan was cerebral, aloof, elitist—a pessimistic thinker removed from political skirmishing. The chummy Nitze tended idealistic, thrived not on deep thoughts but on numbers, data, charts, and graphs, and was, as the Washington Post wrote of him in 1988, “the consummate Washington insider.”

Nicholas Thompson, in his new book, The Hawk and the Dove, recounts the careers of both men. Thompson is an editor at Wired magazine and a fellow at the New America Foundation; he is also Nitze’s grandson. The familial ties do not interfere, though, for Thompson’s is a balanced depiction of both of his subjects and their works. In fact, a tad less balance and a smidgen more bite from the author would have made The Hawk and the Dove a more piquant read.

Thompson’s story begins, fittingly, with the fall of Nazi Germany. A middle-aged Kennan, an expert in Russian history and language and deputy chief of mission at the U.S. embassy in Moscow, is perched on the embassy’s balcony on May 9, 1945, gazing out over a crowd of Russian revelers. The deputy chief, unlike the throngs below him, is not overjoyed. Kennan had long perceived the USSR’s police-state scaf-folding, and he knew that Stalin was tailoring Marx’s Communism to fit a totalitarian figure. Kennan also knew that the Soviet Union and the United States were, as of that day in 1945, the world’s sole powers—and fundamentally oppositional ones. He fretted; few in America understood the emerging Soviet danger.

At 9 p.m. on February 22, 1946, what would become known as the Long Telegram was dispatched from the American embassy. For the preceding few days Kennan had been laid up with a fever and a tooth-ache but had used the convalescent hours to organize his many scattered thoughts about U.S.-Soviet rela-tions. He turned them into an essay-length polemic which, within weeks, was required reading in the State Department and in every U.S. embassy in the world.

The Soviet Union, the Long Telegram asserted, was convinced it lived “in antagonistic ‘capitalist en-circlement’ with which in the long run there can be no permanent peaceful coexistence.” The telegram was unambiguous about the USSR: “In summary, we have here a political force committed fanatically to the belief that with [the] U.S. there can be no permanent modus vivendi” and “that it is desirable and necessary that the internal harmony of our society be disrupted, our traditional way of life be destroyed, the interna-tional authority of our state be broken, if Soviet power is to be secure.” How to counterbalance the threat? Kennan laid out a plan the next year in an article in Foreign Affairs, “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” from which germinated the doctrine of containment. The U.S., Kennan wrote, must confront the Soviets “with unalterable counter-force at every point where they show signs of encroaching upon the interests of a peaceful and stable world.”

In the year that Kennan sent the Long Telegram, Paul Nitze was looking for work. The former Wall Street whiz had just completed a report for the United States Strategic Bombing Survey and was hoping to remain involved in government. Through his connections to James Forrestal, then the secretary of the navy, Nitze got a job in late 1946 on the State Department’s newly formed policy planning staff. It was headed by George Kennan.

Nitze brought to his State Department work an affinity for numbers and details and charts, which could complement Kennan’s penchant for broader thinking. In 1948, the two men worked closely together to push the Marshall Plan through Congress: “Kennan,” Thompson writes, “had the big ideas and thought through the grand strategy; Nitze understood the economics and managed the fight.”

Gradually, though, Kennan’s dour realism worked against him. As he argued against NATO, against the Truman Doctrine (which he had unintentionally helped formulate), against recognition of Israel, and against the UN, Kennan’s influence waned. Thompson notes that he became “like Justice Holmes: a man recognized mainly for his formidable dissents.” Nitze, by contrast, grew ever more influ-ential at State, in no small part because of his enthusiasm and idealism. In 1950, Kennan left the policy planning staff, and Nitze took over.

The two men’s ideological divergence had started the previous year, in fact. When the USSR deto-nated an atom bomb in the fall of 1949, Kennan and Nitze argued for rival American responses. Kennan counseled restraint and diplomacy, and Nitze pushed for developing a hydrogen bomb (Nitze’s view pre-vailed). Nitze also directed production of the now-famous NSC-68 strategic review, which declared that the U.S. could and should pay for a massive weapons buildup to counter the Soviet menace. Weeks after NSC-68’s publication, North Korean troops invaded their southern neighbor, and top American officials turned to Nitze’s document for guidance. Defense spending exploded, and the arms race that Kennan so feared com-menced.

SO BEGINS THE DECADES-LONG story of Kennan and Nitze’s shaping of the Cold War in their individual and competing ways. Nitze remained in Washington and went on to serve in powerful positions in the Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Reagan administrations. Kennan did not. He decamped for Princeton, where he spent most of the remainder of his life concentrating on writing, an activity for which he always had flair. He published 18 books all told, one of which, Russia Leaves the War, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1954. He continued to believe that his ideas about containment—most notably, that military strength must be part-nered with economic and diplomatic fortitude and exertion—had been usurped by Nitze and militarized. Kennan, with his pen, was relentless in criticizing the nuclear buildup that his friend Nitze oversaw (oversaw until the 1980s, that is, when Nitze helped effect a nuclear drawdown).

The Hawk and the Dove is a fine report of the events of the Cold War and of Nitze’s and Kennan’s in-volvement in them. Thompson has furnished all the old information, and even some new bits, having un-covered papers previously unperused by researchers and writers. Missing from the book, though, is that verve that animates the best historical biographies. To make the past, as they say, come alive, details are essential. But The Hawk and the Dove reads in too many spots like something extracted from A4 of the local daily—just the facts. It’s hard to fault Thompson overmuch for this. He undertook to build a grand edifice on a small patch of real estate—his work covers some 60 years of the lives of two very complex and significant men in just over 300 pages—and so there simply isn’t room for descriptions of houses, local bars, and morning commutes. Nonetheless, The Hawk and the Dove would have benefited from some.

It would have benefited, too, had its author been more willing to poke and prod his subjects. Thomp-son, to his credit, is not looking to make or break post-humous reputations, but his caution is not always judicious; sometimes it seems obsequious. His conclusion that both men were right—because “each was profoundly right at some moments, and profoundly wrong at others”—is too easy. Kennan and Nitze em-braced quite divergent views about how to wage and win the Cold War. Surely Thompson has an opinion about which man’s judgments were more sound, more often.

And yet, the book succeeds in an important way: its foundation is proved strong. After closing the covers of The Hawk and the Dove, the reader cannot for a moment doubt the veracity of Thompson’s in-troductory claim that “one can understand much of the story of the United States during the Cold War by examining the often parallel and sometimes perpendicular lives of George Kennan and Paul Nitze.”

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About the Author

Liam Julian, a Hoover Institution fellow, is managing editor of Policy Review.