- 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
Kennan didn’t know anything about military requirements, Nitze felt. He wouldn’t accept “the means to accomplish his own ends.”
Kennan was also dismayed by the “hysterical sort of anti-communism which … is gaining currency in our country,” which he felt was a grave distortion of the nation’s life and spirit. He feared that like Russia under the purges, the means the country had adopted to combat communism would eventually corrupt the end. The “greatest danger,” he wrote, “is that we shall allow ourselves to become like those with whom we are coping.”
If we decided to win the arms race, Nitze felt, our economic superiority would force the Russians to give up or drive them into bankruptcy.
Kennan’s defection from containment as interpreted by the Truman administration gradually forced him out of the government’s inner circle. By spring 1949, when Acheson took over the State Department from the ailing George Marshall, Kennan’s isolation was almost complete. His relationship with Acheson had never been close. The latter was “sometimes amused, sometimes appalled, usually interested” in what he had to say, Kennan wrote. Acheson, in fact, once described a memo he received from Kennan as “typical of its gifted author, beautifully expressed, sometimes contradictory, in which were mingled flashes of prophetic insight and suggestions, as the document itself conceded, of total impracticality.”
As Kennan’s star sank in Washington’s firmament, Nitze’s was in the ascendant. Acheson’s misgivings about having a Wall Street operator on the Policy Planning Staff had apparently vanished during his rise to the top in the State Department, for shortly thereafter he appointed Nitze Kennan’s deputy. In Nitze, Acheson recognized a kindred spirit.
The first real showdown between Kennan and Nitze occurred that fall, within days of Truman’s stunning announcement on September 23, 1949, that the Russians, too, now had the bomb. Calling both Kennan and Nitze into his office, Acheson asked them to spend the coming weekend reflecting upon how the atomic monopoly’s end was likely to affect the nation’s relationship with Russia. All three men already knew that the administration was under pressure in Congress to respond to the unexpectedly early Soviet bomb by pressing on with all-out development of the second generation of nuclear weapons—the “Super,” or hydrogen, bomb.
Kennan saw in Acheson’s request the opportunity for another Long Telegram or “X” article—one whose effect would supplant and even undo that of the illfated containment doctrine and whose influence might live on in Washington after he was gone. Sometime earlier Kennan had made the decision to leave the government at year’s end. At least once before he had threatened to resign from the Foreign Service, in protest over Roosevelt’s policy of accommodating the Russians. His final decision to quit the Truman administration, Kennan wrote a friend, was out of despair at the transmogrification of containment from a policy meant “to make negotiations possible and promising” to a military strategy based baldly upon the bomb.
The eventual product of Kennan’s ruminations—given to Acheson not the following Monday but months later—proved to be less a parting shot than a barrage. Seventy-nine pages long and written in a style that alternated between reflection and passion, Kennan’s last memorandum ranged from the conquests of Tamerlane to Shakespeare’s sonnets in making its case for a “clear and straight beginning” with the Russians on the bomb.
The centerpiece of Kennan’s memo was his plea that the nation move away from its reliance upon nuclear weapons by renouncing the hydrogen bomb and pledging that it would never again be the first to use nuclear weapons. Pointing out that there was an obvious paradox in the administration’s expressed desire to rid itself of the weapon that had become the chief instrument of its diplomatic and military strategy, Kennan asked a question that was sure to be seen as heretical in the Washington of that day: “Was it really our desire to see atomic weapons thus abolished?”
Haunting both Kennan and his memo was the looming prospect of the hydrogen bomb. Opinion in the Policy Planning Staff, as elsewhere in the government, had split over the question of whether to launch a crash effort for the Super. The dread possibility that the Russians might have the weapon before the United States was all it took to make up Nitze’s mind to join the H-bomb side: “You’d have Soviet hegemony right away.”
Nitze made his views known to Acheson in private conversations. Both men agreed that as America’s atomic advantage over Russia declined, so, too, would its diplomatic and military advantage in the Cold War. Until the United States rebuilt its conventional forces, however, Acheson and Nitze both believed that the threat of nuclear weapons—the atomic bomb and, in time, the Super—would necessarily remain the chief means for the West to contain Russia.
Kennan gave his lengthy memo to the secretary of state on January 15, 1950, barely two weeks before Truman was to decide on whether to proceed with the crash effort on the new bomb. Acheson chose not to pass the document along to the President, as Kennan had requested, but simply summarized its argument for Truman in a memo of his own.