- Historic Sites
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
Recalled to Washington in 1937 to head the State Department’s Russian desk, Kennan continued to show signs of a willfulness and petulance that had been childhood traits. An earlier confidential State Department fitness report noted that his “excellent mind” notwithstanding, he betrayed a tendency to “entertain intellectual concepts rather emotionally, and to be a trifle more enthusiastically idealistic or more hopelessly cynical, than would be the case if he were a little more mature.” An example was the remarkably frank treatise that he wrote in the depths of the Great Depression titled “The Prerequisites: Notes on Problems of the United States in 1938.” In it Kennan proposed disenfranchising recent immigrants, women, and blacks—thus freeing the nation, he wrote, from the “fetish of democracy”—and replacing the two-party system with a meritocracy modeled after Plato’s Republic . These remained, however, Kennan’s private views. He chose—wisely—not to circulate the essay.
In public a chrysalis-like transformation gradually overtook Kennan following his marriage in 1931 to Annelise Sorensen and his subsequent service in Moscow. Involved for the first time in the social life of a major embassy, Kennan found himself unexpectedly attracted by the swallowtail-coat elegance of the diplomat’s life and curiously at ease in a world rigidly ruled by protocol. In this new environment he seemed to shed the awkwardness and insecurity that had plagued him since adolescence.
The change, however, was merely superficial; Kennan’s insecurities were only submerged, not removed. Earlier he had written of this outward transformation in an observation that was both remarkably prophetic of his later career and perhaps unintentionally self-revealing: “Under this welcome mask I felt a hitherto unknown strength.… Like the actor on the stage, 1 have been able, all my life, to be of greater usefulness to others by what, seen from a certain emotional distance, I seemed to be than by what, seen closely, I really was.”
By way of contrast, Paul Nitze, three years younger than Kennan, was born into the self-confident world of wealth and privilege that defined the Eastern Establishment. His family had made its first fortune in the nineteenth-century railroad boom. Nitze’s grandfather was the banker for the Baltimore and Ohio; a great-uncle by marriage ran the Delaware and Hudson. His father chose an academic career, becoming head of the romance languages department at the University of Chicago.
Unlike Kennan at Princeton, Nitze remembered warmly his years at Harvard, where despite his size, he played on the football squad and was stroke for the varsity crew: “I drank too much and didn’t do enough work. But in any case I got to know everybody.” In spite of what he professed was a lackadaisical approach to his studies, Nitze was graduated cum laude in the class of 1928.
As the lives of Kennan and Nitze progressed, the developing intellectual contrast between them became more pronounced than their differences of background and experience. Following the example of his ancestors rather than that of his father, Nitze went directly into business upon graduation from college. After some months as a cost accountant for a Philadelphia paper mill and then as office manager of a box factory in Bridgeport, he “had learned everything about bookkeeping I wanted to learn,” Nitze said, and he decided to combine the trip to Europe that his parents had promised him as a graduation present with the research for the investment prospectus he had agreed to prepare for a Chicago bank. There was now a new seriousness of purpose about Nitze that had been lacking in his student days.
Carrying a letter of introduction from the Wall Street banker Clarence Dillon, a friend of his family, Nitze at twentyone spent his six-month holiday investigating the potential for American investment in Germany. He returned home in the summer of 1929 and showed Dillon his report, which stood starkly at odds with the bullish optimism of the time: “I said that anybody who thought about investing in Germany ought to have his mind examined.”
Nitze’s new mentor was nonetheless impressed by the report and asked him to join the firm of Dillon, Read that fall. Two weeks later Nitze’s contrariant advice seemed prescient. He was, he notes with a sense of ironic pride, “the last man hired on Wall Street before the Great Depression.”
Nitze’s star rose rapidly at the bank—in part because of his special status as Dillon’s personal assistant. “I was hated by the other partners because I was the old man’s favorite,” he remembers, but Nitze’s popularity with his partners improved markedly two years later, when his premature calculation that the Depression was ending lost the bank a great deal of money Still, his reputation as a financial Nostradamus and his special relationship with Dillon flourished despite the setback, and two years later Nitze had recouped the loss. Nitze’s personal fortunes continued to prosper as well, the country’s persisting economic woes notwithstanding. By his thirtieth birthday, in 1937, he was reputedly a millionaire independent of his inheritance.