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The Great Foreign Policy Fight
For forty years George Kennan and Paul Nitze, architects of our foreign policy under nine Presidents, have squared off over Russia, the atom bomb, arms control—everything except their respect and affection for each other
April/May 1986 | Volume 37, Issue 3
The article by Kennan’s “gang of four” became a symbol of the nuclear disenchantment overtaking even former stewards of the bomb.
The same week that Nitze unveiled his new strategic concept in Washington, an essay by Kennan entitled “Flashbacks” appeared in The New Yorker . Kennan recalled his life in a series of seemingly random vignettes, like a collection of snapshots: the sleigh in which he was sometimes driven to his office in Riga; skating with his wife along the Moscow River; walking on the paths at the Park of Culture and Rest, during their first winter in the Russian capital. At the end Kennan likened his current research into prerevolutionary Russia to his early experience as a diplomat in the Soviet Union. Regarding the heroes and antiheroes of his book, he observed: “I know, as they could not know, that they are all actors in what will ultimately be seen as a tragic drama.… And I find it striking that here, again, as in all my years of official service in Russia, I am myself remote from the people 1 am observing. I see them again, as I once saw the Soviet Union in Riga, through the record of the printed word; but 1 must myself remain unseen, as I was on the paths of the Park of Culture and Rest—must always be near to what interests me but never be of it.”
“My differences with Kennan,” Nitze had once joked to a friend at the dinner table, “are only over matters of substance.”
As is the case with any war—even cold ones—it becomes clear only in retrospect what the decisive moments have been, where the tide began to turn. But undoubtedly one of the most poignant moments in Kennan and Nitze’s cold war was the celebration in Princeton, two years ago, of Kennan’s eightieth birthday, at which Nitze was one of the invited guests.
The party took place almost exactly forty years after the two men had first met. The occasion was given an additional, almost mystical sense of presentiment when Kennan learned at the party that his daughter, Wendy, living in Europe, had on that day given birth to a son, whom she and her husband had decided to name after her father—the third George Kennan to share that birth date.
Nitze’s appearance at the party was another link to the past, an equally unmistakable sign of how the world, in its turning, eventually comes full circle. The presence of the two men in the same room symbolized, therefore, not only the rare coming together of the two warring worlds of American foreign policy but also the common traditional values of a generation then passing. The bond of friendship between Kennan and Nitze, said one guest from Washington, was all but unknown among those he called the “intellectual thugs” of the Reagan administration.
The occasion also offered a remarkable contrast between two very different personalities who—their friendship aside—were equally lifelong ideological combatants: Kennan the moralist, the impetuous resigner, the perpetual theorist, and Nitze the pragmatist, the practitioner, the “inveterate problem-solver,” as Perle once called him. “My differences with Kennan,” Nitze had quipped to a guest over dinner, “are only over matters of substance.” It was thus appropriate that Nitze himself offered the traditional after-dinner toast to the guest of honor.
“Among those born after 1904,” Nitze began, “1 know of no one who has been more fortunate in his bosses than have I.… George Kennan taught us to approach the issues of policy, not just from the narrow immediate interest of the United States, but from a longer-range viewpoint that included the cultures and interests of others, including our opponents, and a proper regard for the opinions of mankind. George has, no doubt, often doubted the aptness of his pupil. But the warmth of his and Annelise’s friendship for Phyllis and me has never faltered.” Raising his glass in salute to Kennan, Nitze extended his “appreciation, gratitude and thanks to George, who has been a teacher and an example for close to forty years.”
Kennan responded to Nitze’s salute with an equally gracious toast of his own. In it—disguised, if not quite hidden—was a thirty-year-long lament. Nitze had as well been a teacher and an example to him, Kennan said. But the chief lesson he had learned was that when one disagrees with a particular administration, “it may be best to soldier on, and to do what one can to make the things you believe in come out right.”
It was a remarkable admission from one who, for nearly two generations, had been the conscience of American foreign policy to one who, more than any other during those years, had acted to shape that policy—ultimately not without his own frustrations and regrets. The irony of their cold war was that, at its end, Kennan and Nitze stood on the common ground of their own mortality. Yet it was perhaps only emblematic of such a war that the outcome would seem moot, and the difference between victor and vanquished so surprisingly ambiguous.