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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
Unlike Kennan at Princeton, Nitze enjoyed Harvard. “I drank too much and didn’t do enough work.” He graduated cum laude in 1928.
Nitze s interests had by then also broadened beyond Wall Street. A longpostponed vacation in Germany that he and his wife, Phyllis, took that year opened Nitze’s eyes to the profound changes since his first visit. There was a clear warning of what was to come, Nitze said, in the “Juden hier nicht erw’fcnscht” (Jews not wanted here) signs they saw throughout the country. “But the question of what the hell was going on in the world was difficult to see through.”
“In dealing with Russia,” Forrestal asked, “Are we faced with a nation or a fanatical religion?” Kennan replied, “Both.”
After some graduate work at Harvard and a brief stretch running his own investment banking firm, Nitze returned to Dillon, Read as a vice-president in 1939—the year Kennan became second secretary at the U.S. embassy in Berlin. But Nitze discovered that the formerly exciting life of an investment banker seemed curiously flat and boring in the turbulent international and domestic politics of the time. When James Forrestal, Nitze’s friend and associate at the bank, left to become a personal adviser to Roosevelt the following year, Nitze eagerly accepted Forrestal’s invitation to join him in Washington, even agreeing to work without pay at a spare desk.
America’s entry into the Second World War was a turning point in the linked destinies of Kennan and Nitze. Nitze learned of the Japanese attack from a radio in the lobby of a tiny hotel in Asunción, Paraguay, where he was one of a threeman team trying to persuade Latin American governments to rid themselves of German and Italian collaborators. Kennan, now first secretary in Berlin, heard of Pearl Harbor on a shortwave radio in the blacked-out U.S. embassy. When Germany declared war on the United States some days later, Kennan and the entire staff of the embassy were shipped to an internment camp at Bad Nauheim, a fashionable resort before the war, where they spent the next six months. Having returned to the United States upon his release, Kennan was shuffled from neutral Lisbon to London and finally back to the embassy in Moscow, where he remained until the end of the war.
Put in charge of procuring overseas the strategic materials needed for the war effort, Nitze’s investment banking experience proved invaluable. He was able to assure the steady supply of a wide variety of exotic goods, including such esoterica as Mexican prairie bones and dried cuttlefish, ingredients used respectively in making glue and in grinding lenses for bombsights. His success at the job notwithstanding, Nitze found the task of running a big organization “contrary to my nature.”
Better suited to both his temperament and his talents was the job Nitze took in 1944 with the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey. Assigned the task of gauging the effectiveness of the Allies’ strategic bombing of Germany, Nitze and a staff of nearly a thousand engineers, economists, and architects spent months poring over aerial photographs of bombed enemy factories, comparing the visible damage to similar photographs of bombed British factories. He became vice-chairman of the entire survey within the year and was given the job of making the bombing more efficient and effective.
With Germany’s surrender the attention of Nitze and his experts turned automatically to Japan. Nitze was among the Americans to stand in the rubble of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the war’s end. He was assigned to analyze the effects of the atomic bomb and also to recommend changes in America’s postwar defense establishment. Nitze admitted he was “seized” by the job “right off the bat”: “Our task was to measure precisely the physical effects and other effects as well. To put calipers on it, instead of describing it in emotive terms. We tried to put quantitative numbers on something that was considered immeasurable.” Ultimately Nitze believed that he and his team of experts had been able to do just that. He wrote in his report for the bombing survey that exclusive of fallout, the devastation in Hiroshima had been equivalent to what would have been caused by the high-explosive and incendiary bombs of 210 B-29s. In the case of Nagasaki he estimated the comparable figure at 150 bombers.
While many in the coming months would point to the atomic bombings as proof of man’s inhumanity to man and the futility of war, Nitze found in the destruction a subtle and little-appreciated tribute to the indomitability of the human spirit. He dissented, he said, from the “common, popular view” of the bomb: “that it was an absolute weapon and that this changed everything.” Casualties in Nagasaki, Nitze pointed out, could have been reduced by as much as 30 percent if there had been even minimal warning of the attack. The bomb, he found, had not even broken the will of the Japanese to fight. The initial psychological reaction of most survivors of Hiroshima—”aimless, even hysterical activity”—had eventually given way to feelings of anger, hatred, and in some cases even admiration for the weapon and its inventors.