The Great Foreign Policy Fight

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George Kennan and Paul Nitze first met, purely by chance, over lunch in the crowded dining car of a train bound from Washington, D.C., to New York City in the winter of 1944. Kennan had recently returned from diplomatic postings in Portugal and London and was on his way to become minister-counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. Nitze was just about to leave his job in the Foreign Economic Administration to become a director of the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey. “We got into a discussion about the USSR in the war and the postwar world,” Nitze remembers. “1 found he was interesting, brilliant, charming. I was very fond of him right away. I thought everything he was saying made very good sense.”

It was probably the last time that Paul Nitze and George Kennan would agree wholeheartedly about the Russians. When Kennan and Nitze met, the Red Army was still hundreds of miles east of Warsaw. The atomic bomb’s feasibility was still uncertain. The term cold war had not yet entered the lexicon of international diplomacy.

By the end of the Second World War—and for some forty years thereafter—Kennan and Nitze would be combatants in a remarkable cold war of their own. It is a contest that has lasted as long and been fought over some of the same issues as the global Cold War of the United States and the Soviet Union. Unlike that struggle, however, Kennan’s and Nitze’s private cold war has been marked by mutual respect and even admiration. But the differences between them are no less fundamental.

Before hawk and dove became familiar labels, Kennan and Nitze embodied that clash of values and views. The battles in their private cold war have been fought over issues like NATO and nuclear arms control. The prize is the power to define this nation’s grand strategy against the Soviet Union. But the contest itself has always been about a conflicting vision of America. At its heart are the two subjects that have usually preoccupied and occasionally obsessed this country since the end of World War II: the Russians and the bomb.

Some of the men’s differences were evident from the start. Born in Milwaukee of middle-class parents shortly after the turn of the century, Kennan’s earliest and fondest memories were of the “almost unrealistically comfortable and safe life of a prosperous American city before the First World War.” Describing himself as “hopelessly and crudely Midwestern” at eighteen, Kennan was awed and made anxious by the East. As a student at Princeton in the Gatsby era, he was moved to tears by the closing scene of Fitzgerald’s novel, where Nick evokes “my Middle West—not the wheat or the prairies or the lost Swede towns, but the thrilling returning trains of my youth, and the street lamps and sleigh bells in the frosty dark and the shadows of holly wreaths thrown by lighted windows on the snow.” Like Gatsby’s Midwestern friend, Kennan confessed to harboring the secret fear that he, too, might possess some deficiency that made him “subtly unadaptable to Eastern life.”

Kennan’s childhood introversion was, he candidly admits, “lived with lessening intensity right on to middle age, in a world that was peculiarly and intimately my own, scarcely to be shared with others or even made plausible to them.” At college his behavior knew only two moods: “awkward aloofness and bubbling enthusiasm.” His painful shyness, Kennan said, kept him “an innocent, always at the end of every line, always uninitiated, knowing few, known by few … an oddball on campus, not eccentric, not ridiculed or disliked, just imperfectly visible to the naked eye.” Kennan remained at his own graduation ceremony only long enough to receive his diploma and then simply “hurried off,” leaving Princeton, he wrote, “as obscurely as I had entered it.”

Kennan’s decision to join the Foreign Service and become an expert on Russia came at a time when most of his colleagues aspired to more glamorous postings in the capitals of Europe. Thus he followed the lead of a famous relative, the explorer and journalist George Kennan, with whom he shared the same day of birth and toward whom he later claimed an almost mystical feeling of identity.

In the first instance of what would become an uncanny knack for being in the right place at the right time, Kennan in 1931 was assigned to the American consulate at Riga, Latvia. Until the United States extended diplomatic recognition to the Soviet Union in 1933, the port city on the Baltic served as a kind of unofficial “window” on Russia. Though only a lowly third secretary at Riga, Kennan, because of his interest and training, gained a reputation as a “Russian hand” and was chosen to go to Moscow with William Bullitt, the first U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union. When Bullitt returned home, Kennan stayed behind as third secretary at the embassy. “Words would fail me,” he later wrote, “if I were to try to convey … the excitement, the enjoyment, the fascination, and the frustrations of this initial service in Moscow.”