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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 bomb, in fact, also played a major role in this revision of containment. In a rebuttal to Kennan, Nitze argued that a no-first-use pledge by the United States “would be interpreted by the U.S.S.R. as an admission of great weakness and by our allies as a clear indication that we intended to abandon them.” Rather than wait for the eventual mellowing of communism that Kennan envisioned, Nitze suggested that the United States act decisively to win its arms race with Russia. The superior economic potential of the West would either cause the Russians to abandon the contest or drive them into bankruptcy in an effort to keep up. In either event, the “more rapid building up” of the nation’s military and economic strength was necessary “over the long haul,” Nitze argued, because a democracy “can compensate for its natural vulnerability only if it maintains clearly superior overall power in its most inclusive sense.” Otherwise, “a policy of ‘containment’—which is in effect a policy of calculated and gradual coercion—is no more than a policy of bluff.” For the foreseeable future—until the West rallied the strength and resolve to confront the Russians on equal terms—the key to containment would necessarily be the bomb.
Different as Nitze’s view of Russia and nuclear weapons was from Kennan’s, even greater perhaps was the gap in their understanding of what the Cold War was all about. Like an eager acolyte seeking a test of faith, Kennan in the “X” article acknowledged “a certain gratitude to a Providence which, by providing the American people with this implacable challenge, has made their entire security as a nation dependent on their pulling themselves together.…” Nitze, however, had no such confidence that the nation would prove equal to the test. In the meeting that he held with the Policy Planning Staff that March to review their seventy-page, single-spaced battle plan for how the country should fight the Cold War, Nitze began with a single question to his colleagues: “What confidence could you have that the American people would be willing to indefinitely sustain this type of effort?” Although Nitze’s fears persisted to the end of their full day of debate, neither he nor they could ultimately suggest a better alternative. He sent the document to the White House on April 7,1950.
Plainly Nitze’s own doubts concerning the will and endurance of the West lingered. In sending the report to Truman, Acheson advised Nitze to leave out his bleak assessment of what the “more rapid building up” would cost the country.
In the coming weeks Nitze became convinced that he and Acheson had made the right decision in choosing not to confront the administration with the real balance sheet for containment. The following June, when a war scare broke out in Washington following the communist invasion of South Korea, the cost of rearming and remobilizing America suddenly seemed academic. In the course of the Korean War, Truman would approve not only Nitze’s recommendations in the strategic reassessment—which became known as National Security Council memorandum No. 68, or NSC-68—but other increases in the military budget as well.
If Kennan, by containment, had established the creed of postwar American foreign policy, then Nitze, in NSC-68, had written the gospel according to which the Cold War was to be conducted. But it was becoming increasingly clear that Kennan and his original idea of containment were now irrelevant in the Cold War.
Just how much the relationship of the two men had changed was evident from an incident that Nitze remembers. On a sunny summer day, about the time of the Korean invasion, Kennan returned to Washington to have lunch with Acheson and Nitze at Acheson’s house. What might have been an awkward moment was deftly preempted by Kennan’s genial greeting to his former colleagues. Beneath Kennan’s glibness, however, was a kernel of bitter truth. “When I went up there to Princeton,” he told them brightly, “it never occurred to me that you two fellows would go ahead and make policy on behalf of the United States without consulting me.”
Kennan’s eclipse by Nitze did not diminish the personal feelings of friendship between the two men. In the spring of 1952, Kennan was temporarily called out of retirement to complete the term of the ailing American ambassador to Moscow. Less than six months after Kennan had presented his credentials, however, an offhand remark to a reporter, in which he compared being ambassador to Moscow to his internment in wartime Germany, prompted the Soviet government to declare him persona non grata , forcing his recall. Nitze was the first person to greet Kennan when he stopped off in London on his way home.
When Eisenhower replaced Truman the following year, Kennan and Nitze were summoned to the White House to take part in the review of American foreign policy that ritually attends the coming to power of a new administration. Reportedly, Eisenhower wanted Nitze to be his defense secretary but was quickly disabused of the idea by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, who persuaded the President of the unwisdom of appointing “an Acheson man” to that post, particularly since Vice-President Nixon had already branded the former secretary of state the “red dean of the cowardly college of containment.” Dulles later allegedly told both Kennan and Nitze—in separate interviews at his office—that while the new administration could not afford politically to be identified with the architects of Truman’s foreign policy, his own announced policy of “liberation” and of “rolling back” the Iron Curtain differed from containment only in rhetoric.