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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 question that Nitze put at the heart of his report—“What if the target for the bomb had been an American city?”—showed the extent to which he was already thinking beyond the aftermath of the atomic bombings to the fearful but not unimaginable prospect of a future war, one in which nuclear weapons would be used against the United States. Nitze’s answer to his own question portrayed the bomb neither as world-ending nor even as necessarily precluding victory in such a war. He recommended, therefore, that the United States disperse its vital industrial and medical facilities, consider adopting a nationwide shelter program, and arrange for the evacuation of its cities under the threat of war.
For Nitze the real surprises were not at Hiroshima or Nagasaki but in Washington when he returned home. There he found that “quite different things had achieved the center of the stage.… The thing that was central in most people’s minds was—‘How do you return to normalcy most rapidly?’ ” How far out of step his own thinking was with the public mood came to Nitze early in 1946, when he tried to convince New York’s Robert Moses that new buildings going up in the city should be equipped with civil defense shelters. Moses cut him off in mid-appeal: “Paul, you’re mad, absolutely mad. Nobody will pay any attention to that.”
Reluctantly Nitze conceded that Moses was right. He had awakened to a fundamental truth about the behavior of a democracy in peacetime. It was, in his subsequent view, a lesson as valuable as anything he had learned from the war or in the bombing survey.
While Nitze was unsuccessfully preaching the doctrine of preparedness to Moses, Kennan had also had time to ponder the conflict just ended. Returning from Moscow in 1946, he was appointed a lecturer and deputy commander at the National War College in Washington. The lessons that Kennan drew from the war were altogether unlike Nitze’s. A postwar visit to his favorite German city of Hamburg—the target of several massive Allied bombing raids—gave Kennan an entirely different perspective on strategic bombing. In an uncharacteristic outburst of rage, Kennan railed against the military strategy “which could have justified this stupendous, careless destruction of civilian life and of material values, built up laboriously by human hands over the course of centuries for purposes having nothing to do with war …”
The contrast between Kennan’s response to the bombing of Hamburg and Nitze’s to the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was eloquent of the intellectual gap that had opened between them. Rather than the coolly rational assessment that found cause for hope in the rubble, for Kennan the ruins of Hamburg were cause of a bitter epiphany: “It suddenly appeared to me that in these ruins there was an unanswerable symbolism which we in the West could not afford to ignore. If the Western world was really going to make valid the pretense of a higher moral departure point—of greater sympathy and understanding for the human being as God made him, as expressed not only in himself but in the things he had wrought and cared about—then it had to learn to fight its wars morally as well as militarily, or not fight them at all; for moral principles were a part of its strength. Shorn of this strength, it was no longer itself; its victories were not real victories; and the best it would accomplish in the long run would be to pull down the temple over its own head.”
Kennan and Nitze did not cross paths again until the early spring of 1947. When they did, it was at the State Department, and their conversation soon turned, once again, to Russia. That April, Kennan had been chosen to head the State Department’s newly established Policy Planning Staff; Nitze was then a director of State’s bureau on international trade. Kennan had wanted Nitze as his deputy, but the choice was vetoed by Undersecretary of State Dean Acheson, who reportedly regarded Nitze as too much “a Wall Street operator” and “not a deep thinker.” Nitze remained an economic consultant at State, while Kennan became director of the elite eight-member staff given responsibility for advising on the nation’s postwar foreign policy.
For some time the Soviet Union had been the central concern and focus of that policy. David Lilienthal, the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, remarked upon what seemed Kennan’s near obsession with the Soviet Union. Lilienthal remembered Kennan as a “quiet, rather academic-looking fellow, about 40, I should say.” “Bald, slight, not impressive except for his eyes which are most unusual: large, intense, wideset.” “Perceptive man,” Lilienthal thought, but “rather full up with Russia.”
Kennan’s five years in the Soviet capital had persuaded him that Roosevelt’s policy of accommodation with Stalin—a policy Truman at first seemed likely to continue—was plainly doomed to failure and disaster. Yet the stream of letters and reports that Kennan sent to Washington during those years had provoked only stony silence. Kennan later estimated that they were read, if at all, by only five people in the entire government. His frustration at being ignored prompted Kennan to write several more memos, including one thirty-five-page comparison of the wartime scene to the Russia of the purges. It ends with a lament on the fate of the Russian expert in the United States: “The best he can look forward to is the lonely pleasure of one who stands at long last on a chilly and inhospitable mountaintop where few have been before, where few can follow, and where few will consent to believe that he had been.”