HISTORY SEPTEMBER 2, 2010
by Nicholas Thompson
Henry Holt & Company, 403 pp., $18.95
Foreign policy hands generally aspire to be one of three people. The first is George Kennan, who managed to acquire the status of sage and prophet by writing the most prescient Foreign Affairs article ever written. Another is Dean Acheson, the mustachioed Secretary of State and architect of the post-World War II international order, whose picture Condoleezza Rice kept on her office wall. And the third is Paul Nitze, Acheson’s onetime deputy, who managed to work for every presidential administration from Roosevelt to Reagan—except Jimmy Carter’s—and who, more than any other single figure, set the tone of America’s approach to the Cold War, having authored or helped to author, by a ballpark estimate, one-third of the seminal manifestoes from the era.
Nitze’s grandson has written a dual biography of Kennan ('the dove') and Nitze ('the hawk'), which aims to illustrate how the United States achieved a rough continuity in its policies, despite vicious disagreements over what course to pursue, through the generation-long challenge of the Cold War. In doing so, he illuminates some of the challenges we face in the war on terrorism: if Cold War America could synthesize different ideologies and vanquish Soviet Russia, perhaps a similar mixing of ideologies can seriously diminish Islamist terrorism.
Thompson had unprecedented access to Nitze’s and Kennan’s personal archives, in part because of his family connections. This has allowed him to give us a far-reaching portrait of George Kennan the intellectual—a Slavic specialist who called himself “an eighteenth century man,” savaged himself regularly in unsparing diary entries, and seemed more comfortable in the Eastern Bloc or sailing the gray Norwegian fjords than in his own country. Morose, colorblind, and constitutionally conservative, the Kennan who appears here is a poster child for the theory that mild-to-clinical depression actually enhances one’s ability to analyze the world.
We meet him on a balcony in Moscow, staring down at throngs of Communists celebrating the joint American-Soviet victory over Hitler. Euphoria was in the air, along with hopes in Washington that the two countries might partner up to police the globe. But Kennan did not like euphoria. Having watched the Soviet Union oppress its citizens and squeeze its neighbors, he saw Stalin as a paranoid thug who would never give up control over the countries he occupied on the way to Berlin. Sure enough, he was correct: Roosevelt promised the American people that Stalin would hold free elections in those countries, but Stalin reneged, throwing the American foreign policy community into chaos and dispersing American illusions about fraternal harmony like a lot of steam. But what would replace them?
Like many passionate functionaries and analysts the world over, Kennan had been writing furious telegrams to a bureaucracy that seemed unlikely to notice, much less to respond. Now, suddenly, the State Department was at a loss: casting about for a new way to explain Stalin’s behavior, it asked Kennan to lay out his views in another memo. Kennan obliged, fighting a head cold and toothache to compose a 5,300-word opus, before collapsing from exhaustion.
The “long telegram,” which was written in February 1946, was an instantaneous hit. Among its virtues, it explained what the Soviets were trying to do—gain ever more power and exalt the Russian state under the banner of Marx and Lenin. It also contained the germ of what we should do—contain them until the Soviet Union collapsed. Kennan’s paper ended up on nearly every desk in Washington, including the president’s, and it catapulted the misanthropic “pterodactyl” to foreign policy celebrity. He was promoted to professor at the National War College, embarked on a speaking tour, and had his article refashioned into an anonymous piece (written under the pseudonym “X”) for Foreign Affairs, in turn rapidly popularized by magazines like Reader’s Digest and Life. Around the same time, Kennan was asked to become head of Policy Planning for Secretary of State George Marshall, and helped to design the Marshall Plan.
Here, about a quarter of the way through the book, Kennan’s career essentially peaks. For one thing, he was ill-suited to bureaucratic infighting. After a few sublime years as head of Policy Planning, he was outmaneuvered by Nitze—more on him in a moment—and spent the rest of his life half-pining for a hand in the action, only to make his superiors wince each time he returned to government, and dispose of him after various ham-fisted faux pas.
More important for our understanding of the Cold War, Kennan soon fell out of step with U.S. national security policy. In his soul a quintessential realist—he would soon come to hate and inform on hippies; he despised the American public; and (Thompson reveals) he held negative views of African Americans, Jews, and the civilizations of Latin America—Kennan was nearly as repulsed by Truman’s support-freedom-everywhere rhetoric as he was by Roosevelt’s talk of American-Soviet harmony. In his conception, “containment” should have relied on covert action and aggressive diplomacy to undermine the Soviets, rather than military opposition to all Communist countries as practiced by Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson. As Thompson notes, Kennan would not be in sync with American foreign policy again until the administration of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. (Ironically, Kennan also became a hero of the antiwar left, testifying before Congress against our involvement in Vietnam. He would soon write to oppose the nuclear arms race, environmental degradation, and the industrial revolution itself, explaining that “I am a strange mixture of a reactionary and a liberal.”)
Thompson's portrait of Kennan provides us with glimpses inside the dark recesses of this odd soul, who was convinced that external comportment would allow him to control his internal demons, and it also reveals much surprising new biographical information. (Including the memory of some kind of adulterous Nazi-era love affair.) It is quite remarkable to watch Kennan’s vision of America's Cold War policies crushed, and in Thompson's telling ultimately redeemed, by his book's other subject.
A bon vivant in high Mad Men style, Paul Nitze was a wealthy heir who “rarely applied himself” through youthful drinking sprees at Harvard social clubs, and then, as a white-shoe investment banker, across Europe with a "traveling circus" of inebriated buddies. Finally, at thirty, he was seized by the desire to do something relevant with his life. Helped along by the disapproval of his father, a University of Chicago professor, he tried Harvard graduate school, and then tried founding his own investment firm. Then, finally, he was sucked into government when his boss, the politically connected banker James Forrestal, got a call from Roosevelt asking him to become secretary of the Navy, and would he please bring along an assistant?
Nitze had his own conservative tendencies, and his own cultural baggage. Privileged establishmentarian though he was—by the end of his life, he or his family members founded not only the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, but also the Aspen Ski Company and the Aspen Institute; and his first wife, Phyllis Pratt, was a Standard Oil heiress—there were rough spots during his childhood. Walking from his home to John Dewey's Lab School on the South Side of Chicago, he was regularly beat up by members of a local gang, and forced to join a rival gang for protection. According to Nitze, this experience left him with a lasting belief in the value that force and deterrence play in guaranteeing peace—and the fatal consequences that could stem from the appearance of weakness. (His grad-school reading of Oswald Spengler, the shrill prophet of civilizational decline, may have also informed what would become the Nitze style of national security debate.) As Forrestal's deputy, and then as Kennan’s successor in the office of Policy Planning, he applied the fundamental lessons drawn from these experiences to foreign affairs, transforming into a fierce, lucid advocate of American military toughness in the face of Soviet aggression.
In order to accomplish this, Nitze developed two distinctive techniques that would become mainstays of American national security politics: the ultra-dire, apocalyptic national security threat memo, and the ultra-alarmist, apocalyptic national security lobbying committee. The first report of this type was NSC-68, a paint-stripping jeremiad in which Nitze argued that the United States must increase its military budget by as much as 250 percent, lest the Soviets gain an overwhelming advantage. Following the lessons first learned from the Hyde Park thugs, he warned that such an imbalance would be fatal, emboldening the Communists to strike first and engulf the West. Much to Kennan’s “disgust,” Nitze’s paper reframed the doctrine of containment, linking it directly to the need for a military race against the Soviets and the deployment of conventional arms against Communism everywhere. Nitze’s framework established the Cold War as a battle of will and numbers: Do we have as many warheads as the Soviets? Are we devoting a large enough percentage of GDP to defense? If not, is it a sign that we have lost the will to protect ourselves?
NSC-68 also benefited from a lobbying committee, the Committee on the Present Danger, an outside pressure group founded by a Nitze friend, which pushed for the adoption of NSC-68’s recommendations in order to “prevent a ‘Korea’” in Europe. Although its efforts were modest, it set a precedent for a much more influential series of groups that Nitze would support or create during the 1970s—such as the Coalition for a Democratic Majority and the second Committee on the Present Danger—which would serve as catalysts for both the neoconservative movement and the Reagan revolution.
And yet, perhaps owing to his detailed understanding of nuclear weapons, Nitze turned out to be something of a dove too. He agreed to serve as Nixon’s chief negotiator of the SALT I arms control treaty, negotiated the treaty banning ballistic missile defenses, and, after a brief hiatus brought on by his hatred of Jimmy Carter, followed up in the Reagan administration by making the breakthrough offer that eliminated all intermediate-range nuclear missiles and ultimately led to the end of the Cold War. Having twisted Kennan’s preferred containment policy into something that Kennan considered monstrous, Nitze’s obsession with the “correlation of forces” ended up actually maintaining the everyday military balance with the Soviets, until the conflict ended almost precisely as Kennan had predicted—enabling the Soviet empire’s peaceful collapse from its own internal contradictions. As Thompson persuasively sees it, the two clashing visions of American policy, which seemed so at odds for many years, ultimately complemented each other and brought our long conflict to a happy conclusion.
The author’s personal tie to Nitze certainly shows through from time to time—we learn plenty of intimate family details: Nitze used to insist that he could mix a martini in perfect proportions by listening to the sound of the shaker—but the results of this extra-scholarly connection are usually beneficial to the reader. Indeed, Thompson reveals that Nitze’s assault on the Carter administration’s arms control efforts was “without a doubt” informed by Carter’s unwillingness to offer Nitze a job. But it is also hard to escape the feeling that Thompson had to tread softly in some instances where a more removed biographer might not, such as the episode in which a youthful Nitze, out on a date in New England, killed a pedestrian with his car. A similar event engendered psychological probing in recent books about Laura Bush, but Thompson only mentions that Nitze settled the case—because he thought a jury would resent him for seeming like a careless upper-class Tom-and-Daisy type—then pivots awkwardly to explain that “Nitze kept his cool and acted wisely.”
On the whole, though, the book’s historical sweep and efficient prose give it an almost cinematic feel. And some of the material Thompson has unearthed gives off the atmosphere of a gritty spy novel. We are taken on a tangent to learn that Henry Kissinger may have threatened the life of a bureaucratic rival, Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, and sent security agents to tail Zumwalt’s wife and daughter; that the CIA official who leaked information about the infamous “Team B” exercise to the press was found floating in the Chesapeake Bay with weights on his legs, shot in the back of the head, and declared a suicide (the extended tale is even more bizarre); that Warren Christopher helped George Kennan spy on antiwar radicals for the FBI. Joseph Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana, becomes a virtual third protagonist in the biography, contacting Kennan in order to defect from the Soviet Union and striking up a lifelong friendship that triggers multiple KGB attempts to lure Kennan into a trap.
But what is the relevance of these two men today, as we settle in for yet another generational struggle against a totalitarian political phenomenon? Certainly, one can discern echoes of Nitze and Kennan in the disagreements between supporters of the Bush doctrine and those who argue the battle against militant Islam has become far too militarized. This philosophical clash seemed to play itself out in the 2008 election, when America elected a man who would jettison the National Security Strategy that relied on American military dominance, opting for one that emphasizes global engagement. And yet in practice, there has actually been great continuity between the national security policies of the Bush and Obama administrations. The methods employed against terrorist cells worldwide remain nearly identical; the Iraq war is proceeding as it probably would have under a third term of President Bush; and, despite contentious debate, it seems clear that we will maintain a larger and long-term presence in Afghanistan, most likely downsized to a politically palatable point on the sliding scale between counterinsurgency and counterterrorism. There are certainly more dramatic clashes over policy to come—and perhaps this time the results truly will be catastrophic. Still, it is possible to take some solace in the view that, despite the many departures and disagreements, the pressures of an unstable world, and the complexity of foreign policy thinking, we may see an unwitting and successful collaboration between the hawks and the doves. The struggle against our new foe could turn out as well as the struggle against our old one.
Barron YoungSmith is an assistant editor at The New Republic.