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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
After listening to the arguments of both sides for only seven minutes, Truman announced that he was intent upon proceeding with the weapon. Afterward he told an aide that he had made up his mind before the meeting since “there actually was no decision to make on the H-bomb.” We “have got to have it,” Truman said, “for bargaining purposes with the Russians.” The experience, said one defeated and dispirited foe of the Super, was “like saying ‘no’ to a steamroller.”
When Kennan learned of Truman’s decision sometime later, he immediately drew the only conclusion possible about its significance: “I knew that my labor had been, once again, in vain.… 1 came away with nothing other than a heavy heart.…” But Acheson had little sympathy with Kennan’s agonizing. Had Truman decided otherwise on the H-bomb, Acheson curtly told Kennan, the latter should “don sackcloth and ashes and proclaim the end of the world as nigh.”
Before leaving Washington to begin a life of academic exile in Princeton, Kennan wrote a poem for the benefit of those he was leaving behind on the Policy Planning Staff. The poem was meant to be both an inspiration and a valedictory. But it was, perhaps unconsciously, a kind of self-indictment and confession as well. It reads in part:
Let not the foggy harshness of the air, the season late, The counsels of despair, The prospect of the sword, unsheathed, Deter you from persistence in this task. Do not, as I did, importune the skies.… The bureaucratic heavens do not ask… To tell you where the reasons lie Why you… why no one else… should bear this weight.
The alternative that Kennan proposed to traveling farther and faster down what he called the “atomic road” would be, forevermore, the road not taken in American foreign policy. With Kennan’s departure from the government, the task of interpreting what containment actually meant fell to Nitze, whom Acheson immediately appointed the new head of the Policy Planning Staff. It was a task that Nitze assumed with alacrity.
Under Nitze’s direction the academic quality of staff meetings characteristic of Kennan’s day was transformed into the businesslike deliberations of the boardroom. Kennan’s habit had been to disappear after he and his staff had discussed a particular issue. Typically he would draft a recommendation alone, free from the distraction of telephones and visitors. Perhaps three days later Kennan would reappear at the Policy Planning Staff and submit the paper for his colleagues to consider.
Kennan always regarded his document as received wisdom, however, and not as a draft subject to amendment. “George,” Nitze remembers, “did not welcome questions.” Kennan would then simply pass the recommendation on up to the secretary of state and “await results.”
His own conduct of the staff, Nitze said, was deliberately “quite different.” While acknowledging the “elegance of thought and expression” that was characteristic of Kennan’s labors, his emphasis was upon pragmatism and results: “There was no point in producing a marvelous piece of paper if it didn’t get read.”
Within weeks of Nitze’s taking over Kennan’s job, he and the Policy Planning Staff were assigned the task of reviewing American strategy in the Cold War with Russia. Truman had promised critics within his administration that he would approve a comprehensive “strategic reassessment” in light of Russia’s development of the atomic bomb and the beginning of the race for the Super. When Kennan first heard of the project, he had opposed it as likely to commit U.S. foreign policy to an even more rigid course than before.
Nitze suffered no such compunction. The rewriting of the containment policy that he and the staff undertook in the winter of 1950 ultimately produced a document that further transformed Kennan’s original idea.
At its heart was a wholly different image of Russia. Whereas Kennan had consistently dismissed as “unreal” the idea of a Soviet military onslaught against the West—believing, as did the Joint Chiefs, that the greatest danger of war was by miscalculation—Nitze wrote that “the Kremlin might be tempted to strike swiftly and with stealth” once it had enough atomic bombs to inflict a crippling blow, a number he calculated as two hundred. Since the CIA estimated that the Russians might have that many bombs only four years hence, Nitze declared 1954 the “year of maximum danger.”