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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
George Kennan and Paul Nitze first met, purely by chance, over lunch in the crowded dining car of a train bound from Washington, D.C., to New York City in the winter of 1944. Kennan had recently returned from diplomatic postings in Portugal and London and was on his way to become minister-counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. Nitze was just about to leave his job in the Foreign Economic Administration to become a director of the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey. “We got into a discussion about the USSR in the war and the postwar world,” Nitze remembers. “1 found he was interesting, brilliant, charming. I was very fond of him right away. I thought everything he was saying made very good sense.”
It was probably the last time that Paul Nitze and George Kennan would agree wholeheartedly about the Russians. When Kennan and Nitze met, the Red Army was still hundreds of miles east of Warsaw. The atomic bomb’s feasibility was still uncertain. The term cold war had not yet entered the lexicon of international diplomacy.
By the end of the Second World War—and for some forty years thereafter—Kennan and Nitze would be combatants in a remarkable cold war of their own. It is a contest that has lasted as long and been fought over some of the same issues as the global Cold War of the United States and the Soviet Union. Unlike that struggle, however, Kennan’s and Nitze’s private cold war has been marked by mutual respect and even admiration. But the differences between them are no less fundamental.
Before hawk and dove became familiar labels, Kennan and Nitze embodied that clash of values and views. The battles in their private cold war have been fought over issues like NATO and nuclear arms control. The prize is the power to define this nation’s grand strategy against the Soviet Union. But the contest itself has always been about a conflicting vision of America. At its heart are the two subjects that have usually preoccupied and occasionally obsessed this country since the end of World War II: the Russians and the bomb.
Some of the men’s differences were evident from the start. Born in Milwaukee of middle-class parents shortly after the turn of the century, Kennan’s earliest and fondest memories were of the “almost unrealistically comfortable and safe life of a prosperous American city before the First World War.” Describing himself as “hopelessly and crudely Midwestern” at eighteen, Kennan was awed and made anxious by the East. As a student at Princeton in the Gatsby era, he was moved to tears by the closing scene of Fitzgerald’s novel, where Nick evokes “my Middle West—not the wheat or the prairies or the lost Swede towns, but the thrilling returning trains of my youth, and the street lamps and sleigh bells in the frosty dark and the shadows of holly wreaths thrown by lighted windows on the snow.” Like Gatsby’s Midwestern friend, Kennan confessed to harboring the secret fear that he, too, might possess some deficiency that made him “subtly unadaptable to Eastern life.”
Kennan’s childhood introversion was, he candidly admits, “lived with lessening intensity right on to middle age, in a world that was peculiarly and intimately my own, scarcely to be shared with others or even made plausible to them.” At college his behavior knew only two moods: “awkward aloofness and bubbling enthusiasm.” His painful shyness, Kennan said, kept him “an innocent, always at the end of every line, always uninitiated, knowing few, known by few … an oddball on campus, not eccentric, not ridiculed or disliked, just imperfectly visible to the naked eye.” Kennan remained at his own graduation ceremony only long enough to receive his diploma and then simply “hurried off,” leaving Princeton, he wrote, “as obscurely as I had entered it.”
Kennan’s decision to join the Foreign Service and become an expert on Russia came at a time when most of his colleagues aspired to more glamorous postings in the capitals of Europe. Thus he followed the lead of a famous relative, the explorer and journalist George Kennan, with whom he shared the same day of birth and toward whom he later claimed an almost mystical feeling of identity.
In the first instance of what would become an uncanny knack for being in the right place at the right time, Kennan in 1931 was assigned to the American consulate at Riga, Latvia. Until the United States extended diplomatic recognition to the Soviet Union in 1933, the port city on the Baltic served as a kind of unofficial “window” on Russia. Though only a lowly third secretary at Riga, Kennan, because of his interest and training, gained a reputation as a “Russian hand” and was chosen to go to Moscow with William Bullitt, the first U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union. When Bullitt returned home, Kennan stayed behind as third secretary at the embassy. “Words would fail me,” he later wrote, “if I were to try to convey … the excitement, the enjoyment, the fascination, and the frustrations of this initial service in Moscow.”
Recalled to Washington in 1937 to head the State Department’s Russian desk, Kennan continued to show signs of a willfulness and petulance that had been childhood traits. An earlier confidential State Department fitness report noted that his “excellent mind” notwithstanding, he betrayed a tendency to “entertain intellectual concepts rather emotionally, and to be a trifle more enthusiastically idealistic or more hopelessly cynical, than would be the case if he were a little more mature.” An example was the remarkably frank treatise that he wrote in the depths of the Great Depression titled “The Prerequisites: Notes on Problems of the United States in 1938.” In it Kennan proposed disenfranchising recent immigrants, women, and blacks—thus freeing the nation, he wrote, from the “fetish of democracy”—and replacing the two-party system with a meritocracy modeled after Plato’s Republic . These remained, however, Kennan’s private views. He chose—wisely—not to circulate the essay.
In public a chrysalis-like transformation gradually overtook Kennan following his marriage in 1931 to Annelise Sorensen and his subsequent service in Moscow. Involved for the first time in the social life of a major embassy, Kennan found himself unexpectedly attracted by the swallowtail-coat elegance of the diplomat’s life and curiously at ease in a world rigidly ruled by protocol. In this new environment he seemed to shed the awkwardness and insecurity that had plagued him since adolescence.
The change, however, was merely superficial; Kennan’s insecurities were only submerged, not removed. Earlier he had written of this outward transformation in an observation that was both remarkably prophetic of his later career and perhaps unintentionally self-revealing: “Under this welcome mask I felt a hitherto unknown strength.… Like the actor on the stage, 1 have been able, all my life, to be of greater usefulness to others by what, seen from a certain emotional distance, I seemed to be than by what, seen closely, I really was.”
By way of contrast, Paul Nitze, three years younger than Kennan, was born into the self-confident world of wealth and privilege that defined the Eastern Establishment. His family had made its first fortune in the nineteenth-century railroad boom. Nitze’s grandfather was the banker for the Baltimore and Ohio; a great-uncle by marriage ran the Delaware and Hudson. His father chose an academic career, becoming head of the romance languages department at the University of Chicago.
Unlike Kennan at Princeton, Nitze remembered warmly his years at Harvard, where despite his size, he played on the football squad and was stroke for the varsity crew: “I drank too much and didn’t do enough work. But in any case I got to know everybody.” In spite of what he professed was a lackadaisical approach to his studies, Nitze was graduated cum laude in the class of 1928.
As the lives of Kennan and Nitze progressed, the developing intellectual contrast between them became more pronounced than their differences of background and experience. Following the example of his ancestors rather than that of his father, Nitze went directly into business upon graduation from college. After some months as a cost accountant for a Philadelphia paper mill and then as office manager of a box factory in Bridgeport, he “had learned everything about bookkeeping I wanted to learn,” Nitze said, and he decided to combine the trip to Europe that his parents had promised him as a graduation present with the research for the investment prospectus he had agreed to prepare for a Chicago bank. There was now a new seriousness of purpose about Nitze that had been lacking in his student days.
Carrying a letter of introduction from the Wall Street banker Clarence Dillon, a friend of his family, Nitze at twentyone spent his six-month holiday investigating the potential for American investment in Germany. He returned home in the summer of 1929 and showed Dillon his report, which stood starkly at odds with the bullish optimism of the time: “I said that anybody who thought about investing in Germany ought to have his mind examined.”
Nitze’s new mentor was nonetheless impressed by the report and asked him to join the firm of Dillon, Read that fall. Two weeks later Nitze’s contrariant advice seemed prescient. He was, he notes with a sense of ironic pride, “the last man hired on Wall Street before the Great Depression.”
Nitze’s star rose rapidly at the bank—in part because of his special status as Dillon’s personal assistant. “I was hated by the other partners because I was the old man’s favorite,” he remembers, but Nitze’s popularity with his partners improved markedly two years later, when his premature calculation that the Depression was ending lost the bank a great deal of money Still, his reputation as a financial Nostradamus and his special relationship with Dillon flourished despite the setback, and two years later Nitze had recouped the loss. Nitze’s personal fortunes continued to prosper as well, the country’s persisting economic woes notwithstanding. By his thirtieth birthday, in 1937, he was reputedly a millionaire independent of his inheritance.
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.
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.”
Upon arriving in Russia in the thirties, Kennan, unlike many other Westerners, had been less fascinated than repelled by the Bolshevik experiment. Long before it was fashionable, he had begun publicly to herald the failure of communism. Confirmation had come with the bloody purges of the late 1930s, which, for Kennan, finally exposed the dimensions of the paranoia and cruelty in Stalin’s nature. But significantly, Kennan’s disgust was always more with the means rather than the ends of communism: ”… objectives were normally vainglorious, unreal, extravagant, even pathetic—little likely to be realized, scarcely to be taken seriously.… But methods were another matter.… In war as in peace 1 found myself concerned less with what people thought they were striving for than with the manner in which they strove for it.”
Kennan’s warnings about Russia predictably received scant attention from Washington in the giddy days of SovietAmerican “friendship” during and right after the war. After the death of Roosevelt and the early signs of Truman’s trouble with the Russians, however, his dispatches began to enjoy a small—and select—following.
In mid-February 1946 an innocent request from the Treasury Department for an explanation of why Russia had repudiated some postwar economic agreements provoked Kennan to a reply that was remarkable for both its length and its scabrousness. Kennan resolved, he wrote, that it “would not do to give them just a fragment of the truth. Here was a case where nothing but the whole truth would do. They had asked for it. Now, by God, they would have it.”
What they, in fact, got was an eightthousand-word telegram containing the message that Kennan had been trying, unsuccessfully, to pound home for years. That message, stripped of its qualifiers, was that what motivated the Kremlin’s leaders was the “traditional and instinctive Russian sense of insecurity.” Despite the Hp service that the Soviets paid to Marxism, Kennan argued, communist ideology was—in a memorable phrase—but the “fig leaf of their moral and intellectual respectability.” The Russians were at heart cautious opportunists, though “committed fanatically to the belief that with the U.S. there can be no permanent modus vivendi .”
The effect of what aptly became known as the Long Telegram exceeded its author’s greatest expectations. As Kennan wrote, “my official loneliness came in fact to an end.… My reputation was made. My voice now carried.”
Among those to whom Kennan’s voice carried was James Forrestal, the man responsible for bringing Paul Nitze to Washington. Forrestal now became the link between Nitze and Kennan. (The importance of having friends in high places had been first brought home to Kennan during the war. Confronted with conflicting instructions from the State Department and Pentagon, Kennan had finally gone directly to President Roosevelt. “Oh, don’t worry about all those people over there,” FDR had assured him with a genial wave of his cigarette holder. The fact that “those people ” included the “entire high command of the American armed forces in wartime,” as Kennan observed, was a point not lost upon the young diplomat.)
When Forrestal became the nation’s first secretary of defense, in early 1947, he took to asking a variety of people in Washington—including the Jesuits at Georgetown University and even casual visitors to his Pentagon office—their opinion on what he considered the essential conundrum of postwar U.S. foreign policy. “In dealing with Russia,” Forrestal asked, “are we faced with a nation or a fanatical religion?”
The answer Kennan gave was—in essence—“Both.” It took the form of an anonymous article—signed simply “X” and entitled “The Sources of Soviet Conduct”—which appeared in the July 1947 issue of Foreign Affairs . Where the “X” article differed from the Long Telegram was in promoting a policy “to contain Russian expansionism”—a phrase Kennan had first used in one of his unread epistles from Moscow nearly three years earlier. The containment of Russia’s inherently aggressive tendencies could be accomplished, Kennan advised, “by the adroit and vigilant application of counterforce at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points, corresponding to the shifts and maneuvers of Soviet policy.”
Even more than the Long Telegram, the “X” article caught the imagination of the Truman administration, which was still trying to rally popular congressional approval for its doctrine—to which the President had given his name—of aiding forces opposed to communist “subversion.” “Containment” became the rock on which it hoped to found the postwar renaissance of the West and to rally support for the Cold War already under way with Russia.
There remained, however, the question of exactly what a policy of containment meant. And here, surprisingly, the author was of very little help. Kennan’s writings have always shown a gardener’s affinity for analogies based upon the physical world, perhaps because of his belief, expressed in another forum, that no idea can be made to “stick… unless it can be drummed into the minds of a very large number of persons, including quite a few whose mental development had not advanced very far.”
In the “X” article Kennan likened the dynamics of Soviet power to a “fluid stream which moves constantly, wherever it is permitted to move, toward a given goal” and whose “main concern is to make sure that it has filled every nook and cranny available to it in the basin of world power.” Elsewhere he compared Soviet behavior to that of a toy automobile, a weed, and a growing oak. Its expansionist tendencies stymied, Russian communism would, Kennan predicted, either collapse or undergo a vague “mellowing” that might itself so transform the Soviet state as to make it no longer a danger to the West.
“To avoid destruction,” Kennan had written in Foreign Affairs , “the United States need only measure up to its own best traditions and prove itself worthy of preservation as a great nation.”
Kennan’s peculiarly metaphorical language and his evident desire to win a large audience for his views inevitably meant that containment became—as indeed it was seemingly meant to be—all things to all people. The problem with containment was immediately evident to its critics, if not yet to Kennan. The journalist Walter Lippmann, concerned with the potential military costs of containment, branded it “a strategic monstrosity.” Acheson, the chief architect of the administration’s emerging hard line toward Russia, concluded even more bluntly that Kennan’s “recommendations—to be of good heart, to look to our own social and economic health, to present a good face to the world, all of which the government was trying to do—were of no help.”
Nitze, too, was acutely aware of what containment lacked. Nitze remembers how Kennan once told him that two highly mobile divisions of Marines would, in Kennan’s view, probably be enough to meet the military requirements of containment. Nitze genially informed his friend that he thought this idea “nonsensical.” It was an aberration that Nitze later attributed to Kennan’s peculiarly academic cast of mind: “I don’t think that George understood anything about what the military requirements were to accomplish a given task.… It wasn’t something which was in his field of expertise.” Kennan, Nitze thought, was simply unwilling “to face up to the means to accomplish his own ends.”
The fact that Kennan did not consider the role that force or the threat of force might play in containing Russia seems a remarkable omission, given the state of the world in 1947. But his failure even to mention the atomic bomb in the context of containment was a gap of monumental proportions—particularly since the United States then had a monopoly on that weapon.
For Kennan it was a deliberate omission, not an oversight. His first memo on the subject of nuclear weapons, sent from Moscow just after Hiroshima, had contained the entirely unnecessary advisory that Truman not share the bomb with the Russians. After that Kennan rarely mentioned the bomb in dispatches, except to discount its effect upon diplomacy.
Over the years, Kennan’s views on the uselessness of nuclear weapons in diplomacy would remain remarkably consistent. In a 1979 letter to the author, Kennan confirmed that he “instinctively rejected (and continued to do so in the ensuing years) all the various calculations being advanced about the place of the weapon in our policy and strategy.” He “deplored all the talk about [nuclear weapons] and particularly any attempt to base strategy and defense planning on their possible use” and felt that our policy on the bomb should be that “we assumed that no one in his right senses would ever seriously contemplate the further use of weapons of this nature, and that the less they were talked about as something the use of which was even thinkable, the better.”
Washington, however, was not even remotely prepared to view the specter of a Soviet bomb with Kennan’s degree of equanimity. Since Hiroshima, the Truman administration, perhaps more out of necessity than choice, had come to rely increasingly, in both its military and its diplomatic strategy, upon the stockpile of the weapon that we alone had. A month before Kennan’s “X” article appeared, the Joint Chiefs of Staff had unanimously agreed that the bomb was the “one military weapon which may for the period until Russia obtains it exert a deterrent effect upon her will to expand.”
As author of the document that the government had suddenly seized upon as a kind of Rosetta stone for interpreting Soviet behavior, Kennan, ironically, found his own words being used to defend a policy he opposed. At meetings of the Policy Planning Staff, Kennan was often in the minority—the foremost critic of what containment had become. Privately he lamented the “divergences of basic outlook” he now had with the administration over the bomb, the creation of NATO, and the remilitarization of Germany. But he was powerless to resolve them.
Like one who has unwittingly loosed a juggernaut—or created a Frankenstein—Kennan increasingly tried to distance himself from the doctrine he had given name to. “I’m afraid that there has been a grievous misinterpretation of the term ‘containment,’ as I first used it,” he wrote an analyst at the RAND Corporation. “It was never meant as exclusively, or even primarily, a military concept.” In lengthy memos to Acheson, Kennan likewise complained of the “military preoccupation” of American foreign policy, admitting his “uneasy feeling” that the country was “travelling down the atomic road rather too fast.” We were, he cautioned the administration in 1949, “in danger of finding our whole policy tied to the atomic bomb.”
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.
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.”
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.
Once again on the sidelines of the foreign policy debate, Kennan began writing a history of nineteenth-century Russia, inspired by the example of his diplomat-explorer relative. A visit to Washington at this time he found depressing. Formerly close friends in the government now seemed “captivated,” Kennan wrote, by the “flat and inflexible thinking of the Pentagon.”
Nitze, uninterested in a return to investment banking, joined the faculty of the School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, where, as a newly minted Democrat, he became a vocal critic of the Eisenhower administration. Despite Korea, Nitze’s concern with the nation’s resolve, as reflected in its military budget, had not diminished but increased. In a pamphlet for the school, Nitze bemoaned America’s “reluctance to make the enormous sacrifices that true military strength requires.” The result of Eisenhower’s military policy of “more bang for a buck,” he complained, had been to sidetrack the conventional buildup called for in NSC-68 and to put an even greater emphasis upon nuclear weapons in American foreign policy. That reliance had even caused some—such as the syndicated columnist Joseph Alsop—to urge a preventive war against Russia, a step that Nitze opposed in a letter to Alsop on the grounds that it was “dubious as to outcome if assumed successful, and … doesn’t meet the test of conscience.”
Since the Russians, too, now had hydrogen bombs, Nitze argued in a 1956 Foreign Affairs article, nuclear weapons were useful only as chess pieces but were still a necessary surrogate for national will in America’s mortal game with Russia: “The atomic queens may never be brought into play; they may never actually take one of the opponent’s pieces. But the position of the atomic queens may still have a decisive bearing on which side can safely advance a limitedwar bishop or even a cold-war pawn.”
In the fall of 1957, Kennan interrupted his retirement to speak out against the Elsenhower administration in the Reith radio lectures for the BBC. But Kennan’s critique of American foreign policy was the opposite of Nitze’s. In his lectures Kennan argued—in characteristically Delphic language—for the “disengagement” of Soviet and American forces in Europe.
As he had in the controversy aroused by the “X” article, Kennan later protested that the ideas he expressed in the Reith lectures were deliberately misinterpreted and distorted by critics. He pointed out, for example, that the text of those lectures had simply urged a demilitarization of the Cold War and not, as some claimed, a unilateral disarming of the West. His intent, Kennan wrote in an unsent reply to one of his critics, had been to show how “the effort to build military strength had become an end in itself, in the pursuit of which we had not only driven ourselves into the blind alley of the atomic weapons race but had lost completely the idea of negotiation at any point.… We had forgotten, in other words, the very purpose for which, as I and many others had assumed, we had originally set out to arm …”
More upsetting to Nitze than Kennan’s disengagement thesis was the fact that his friend had called into question the main premise on which the Western alliance was founded: the reality of a Soviet military threat to Europe. At the time of Kennan’s lectures in London, Nitze was taking part in another topsecret reassessment of America’s Cold War strategy, this one approved by Eisenhower under pressure from the administration’s growing number of critics. When illness overcame H. Rowan Gaither, the chairman of the blue-ribbon panel conducting the review, Nitze became one of the group’s de facto leaders and a principal author of the report.
The Gaither Report ultimately urged a military buildup even more ambitious and expensive than that pressed upon Truman by NSC-68. Its recommendations included a tripling of the defense budget to build new missiles and bombers, as well as a forty-billion-dollar nationwide shelter program of the sort Nitze had unsuccessfully promoted in his report for the bombing survey.
Even some of the committee’s own experts had balked at the economic and social costs of the garrison state outlined in the report, such as the fallout shelters to be dug a thousand feet under the streets of Manhattan. The finished report nonetheless justified those costs as not only necessary but, in a sense, even desirable. The national shelter system, it emphasized in a line certainly familiar to Nitze, “would symbolize our will to survive , and our understanding of our responsibilities in a nuclear age.”
The report’s greatest critic turned out to be Elsenhower himself. There were, the President reportedly told the experts, simply not enough bulldozers to scrape the bodies from the streets after the kind of war they described in the Gaither Report. Eisenhower not only failed to adopt their recommendations but hoped to bury the report itself by refusing to declassify it. When portions of the report duly appeared in newspapers that November and December—inspiring warnings of an impending “missile gap” in the arms race with Russia—some in the government blamed Nitze for leaking the document.
Eisenhower told Nitze and his experts there were not enough bulldozers to scrape the bodies from the streets after the kind of war they foresaw.
In the midst of the public furor over defense that accompanied news of the Gaither Report, Nitze resolved that Kennan’s BBC lectures should not go unchallenged. Nitze evidently hoped that a personal intercession with Kennan while the latter was in Geneva might cause him to reconsider the assumptions behind the disengagement thesis. Before going to Europe, Nitze spoke at length with Acheson about how to approach Kennan and what to say. In Geneva, where the two men walked along the windy quay of the city’s lake, their coat collars turned up against the cold, Nitze pleaded with Kennan to think of the effect that disengagement would have upon the unity and will of the West.
And then there was Vietnam. That stalemated war in Southeast Asia threatened to become, for each man, the realization of his worst fears.
Kennan, if touched, remained unmoved. He readily conceded that some of the lectures had been quickly and sloppily prepared. Yet Kennan stoutly defended the correctness of their essential point: that the imperative of U.S. foreign policy was no longer containment but an end to the suicidal military competition of the Cold War. As before, the two parted amicably, agreeing to disagree.
Not all in official Washington shared Nitze’s view of Kennan as a naive and misguided idealist, however. Some argued that “disengagement” was actually a deliberate and thinly veiled attack on NATO, the creation of which, they noted, Kennan had opposed in 1949. Both Acheson and Henry Kissinger had hinted as much in Foreign Affairs articles written in reply to the Reith lectures. Kennan was particularly stung by Acheson’s attack. Even six years later, in a 1964 letter to a friend, Kennan still quietly seethed that his former colleague would publicly portray him as “something between a knave and a fool.”
For a brief time after the election of John Kennedy, Kennan and Nitze each had reason to hope that his own vision of the American future might prevail. Denied once again the post of defense secretary, despite his key campaign role, Nitze was picked instead to supervise the new administration’s traditional review of its predecessor’s policies.
Kennan, an early convert to the Kennedy mystique, was appointed the American ambassador to Belgrade in 1961. In a 1963 letter to the President, Kennan praised Kennedy’s effort to break the “morbid fascination” with nuclear weapons that had so long held the nation in thrall.
However, Kennedy soon disappointed Kennan’s and Nitze’s different hopes. For Kennan, it happened when the President abandoned the comprehensive test ban, and for Nitze, the blow came with the President’s cap on military spending. And, even before the assassination, there was Vietnam. The stalemated war in Southeast Asia threatened to become, for each man, the realization of his worst fears.
Of the two, Kennan was first to speak out against the war and the only one to do so publicly. As early as 1966 he decried President Johnson’s attempt to parlay a “hopeless effort” into an issue of national survival and even patriotic pride. At Senate hearings held that winter, he argued that “Vietnam is not a region of major military, industrial importance. It is difficult to believe that any decisive developments of the world situation would be determined in normal circumstances by what happens on that territory.”
By 1968, when student protests had reached his own Elbe at Princeton, Kennan feared that the antiwar movement and the reaction it provoked might finally bring about the authoritarian transformation of American life he had warned about in the 1950s. “Not since the civil conflict of a century ago has this country, as I see it, been in such great danger,” Kennan observed at the dedication of a new library at Swarthmore College that January. Kennan’s speech, titled “Rebels without a Program,” was widely—and properly—interpreted as an attack upon the student left. In it Kennan was, true to form, critical less of the movement’s ends than of its methods of demonstration and disruption: “How wonderful it would be, I sometimes think to myself, if we and they—experience on one hand, strength and enthusiasm on the other—could join forces.” The abstract issue of the war eventually came home to Kennan in an intensely personal way, as it did for many parents, through the rebelliousness of his collegeaged son.
Nitze came to oppose the Vietnam War for reasons entirely different from Kennan’s. But first as secretary of the Navy in the Johnson administration and then, by 1967, as deputy secretary of defense, Nitze felt constrained about voicing his growing doubts on the war. Nitze’s concern was that Vietnam represented the wrong war with the wrong enemy at the wrong time and that it distracted the nation from the mortal confrontation with its real foe, the Soviet Union. He believed that the war itself, even if it did not involve America’s vital interests, could nonetheless fundamentally affect the outcome of the Cold War with Russia. Thus, America’s failure to win in Vietnam might be interpreted by the Soviets as a sign of the nation’s failing resolve to oppose communism.
As a member of Johnson’s Senior Advisory Group—the so-called wise men—Nitze was one of those to whom the President turned for counsel in the disastrous aftermath of the communists’ February 1968 Tet offensive. Nitze was alone at that meeting in proposing that Johnson immediately send to the front another twenty thousand men—the maximum number that could be mobilized without calling up the reserves, which would have required congressional approval. Nitze briefly considered resigning from the government that February, in protest against the President’s vacillation on the war. And though he decided to stay, Nitze refused Johnson’s request that he defend the war in the nationally televised Senate hearings then being threatened by William Fulbright.
The national enervation that seemed both a cause and a consequence of defeat in Vietnam and the Watergate scandal prompted Nitze to despair anew of America’s will to contain and deter the Russians. A still-classified study of the nation’s Cold War strategy that was begun under Nixon, carried on under Ford, and finally submitted to Carter—and to which Nitze was, inevitably, a major contributor—predicted that the nuclear superiority that the United States had long held over Russia would entirely disappear by the late 1970s, with potentially grave consequences for U.S. diplomacy. The Russians could be prevented from drawing abreast or even surging ahead in the arms race, this study reportedly concluded, only if the American people were willing to make major new sacrifices for their defense.
Unlike NSC-68’s “year of maximum danger” and the Gaither Report’s “missile gap” (which Kennedy had hurriedly moved to fill, despite his discovery that the gap was a myth), the warning of an impending “window of vulnerability” contained in this latest report failed to grip the mood of Washington. “It just got nowhere,” Nitze said of its fate in the early days of the Carter administration.
Called to Carter’s Plains, Georgia, home in the summer of 1976, Nitze learned that he had been passed over yet again for the coveted position of secretary of defense. Nitze nonetheless proceeded to stun Carter and the future members of his cabinet by launching into a detailed presentation—complete with charts and bar graphs he had brought along for the occasion—on the looming vulnerability of the nation’s land-based missiles.
“It didn’t go over very well,” remembers one of those present. Another frankly described the briefing as “a disaster”; he thought it the first time Nitze finally realized that Carter was actually serious about trying to rid the world of nuclear weapons.
“He didn’t want to listen,” Nitze himself admitted of Carter’s reaction to the briefing. “I didn’t think he made any sense—he just got angry with me. He wanted me to become his agent for ideas that were nonsense.”
It was curiously appropriate that the final skirmish in the private cold war of Kennan and Nitze would be fought over the enterprise that for a generation has combined America’s twin obsessions with the Russians and nuclear weapons: arms control.
In 1950 Nitze had urged that the United States “always leave open the possibility of negotiations with the U.S.S.R.”—if only as “a means of gaining support for a program of building strength.” But Nitze also did not rule out in NSC-68 the possibility of “progress in the cold war” and of negotiations “facilitating further progress while helping to minimize the risk of war.” Since then, on more than one occasion, Nitze had reached the conclusion that the time had finally come to talk to the Russians in earnest. Yet on these occasions he also left no doubt that any agreement signed with the Soviets should be on terms clearly favorable to the United States.
In a top-secret memorandum that Nitze wrote for the Kennedy administration in 1963, he first raised the possibility of a nuclear freeze—at a time when the Russians, had they agreed, would have been frozen into a situation of permanent strategic inferiority.
As the Pentagon’s representative at the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks at Geneva during the Nixon administration, Nitze seemed an unlikely supporter of SALT. Henry Kissinger recalled how Nitze, in 1969, opposed any proposal placing limits upon those weapons in which the United States had at the time a decided advantage, as was then the case with accurate multiple-warhead missiles, or MIRVs. Five years later—when the Russians, too, had MIRVs—Gerard Smith, the chief US. negotiator for SALT, remembered Nitze’s “obsessive” concern with establishing limits on missile throw-weight, in which the Russians now had the advantage. Nitze’s highly publicized resignation from the U.S. SALT delegation in 1974 was reportedly because the talks had been unable to redress the growing imbalance in the size and number of Soviet and American ICBMs.
Once officially out of the arms control debate, Nitze quickly became the best-known and most outspoken opponent of SALT. Some months after his resignation, Nitze and Eugene Rostow founded a Committee on the Present Danger, the first goal of which would be the defeat of a second SALT treaty.
In committee broadsides, at congressional hearings, and with a widely noted article in the January 1976 issue of Foreign Affairs , Nitze presented an updated version of the nuclear-era Pearl Harbor he had been periodically warning about for the past thirty years. In this latest and most frightening scenario, Nitze estimated that the Russians would soon be capable, using only half of their MIRVed missile force, to destroy virtually all American ICBMs and bombers on the ground—keeping the other half in reserve to destroy U.S. cities if the President did not yield to their terms. (Ten years later Nitze argues that the actual situation is now even worse than he predicted.)
The prospects for SALT were further savaged by Nitze in the Carter administration. He led the opposition in early 1977 to Senate confirmation of Paul Warnke, Carter’s choice to head both the talks and the State Department’s Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. In his clash with Carter at Plains the year before, Nitze had proposed redressing the Soviet advantage in throw-weight by having both sides agree to eventually replace their MIRVed ICBMs with a force of small, single-warhead missiles. After Nitze had gone, Warnke was one of those to ridicule “Paul’s pinheads.”
Warnke and Carter ultimately paid a high price for humiliating Nitze at the Plains meeting and disregarding him thereafter. At Warnke’s confirmation hearing, Nitze attacked the nominee’s view of the Russians as “asinine,” “screwball,” “arbitrary,” and “fictitious.” Although Warnke was finally confirmed despite Nitze’s opposition, the closeness of the final fifty-eight to forty vote plainly vitiated his effectiveness as the negotiator for SALT and showed how much support for a new treaty had slipped, in no small part because of the efforts of Paul Nitze. Reportedly Carter’s inner circle was quietly relieved when Warnke resigned from the administration later that year and returned to his law practice.
George Kennan’s defense of SALT, when it came, was largely a rearguard action. Not until 1975 did Kennan finally end his long silence and speak out, for the first time since the Reith lectures, eighteen years before, with a rebuttal to Nitze. In a book published shortly after Nitze’s cofounding of the Committee on the Present Danger—pointedly titled The Cloud of Danger —as well as in subsequent articles, interviews, and public speeches, Kennan’s message remained what it had been in 1949: it was a cardinal mistake for the United States to allow nuclear weapons to dominate relations with Russia. As Kennan himself admits, his message proved no more persuasive to Washington in 1980 than it had thirty years before.
Only one year later, however, concern with the nuclear policies of Ronald Reagan created a more receptive audience. Following a private dinner with two of the three prominent Washington alumni who had come to share his views on nuclear weapons—Robert McNamara, McGeorge Bundy, and Gerard Smith—Kennan proposed that they revive his 1949 proposal of a no-first-use pledge. The article by the so-called gang of four that appeared in an issue of Foreign Affairs became an instant symbol of the nuclear disenchantment that had seemingly overtaken even the former stewards of the bomb.
Kennan was awarded the Albert Einstein Peace Prize in 1981. In his acceptance speech at the award ceremony in Washington, he compared the United States and Russia to lemmings in their rush for the precipice and called for an immediate across-the-board halving of the superpowers’ nuclear arsenals. The speech was reprinted in newspapers throughout the country and adopted as a kind of testimonial by the nuclear freeze movement. In retrospect, one particularly eloquent—and long—sentence stands out: “Whoever does not understand that when it comes to nuclear weapons the whole concept of relative advantage is illusory—whoever does not understand that when you are talking about absurd and preposterous quantities of overkill the relative sizes of arsenals have no serious meaning—whoever does not understand that the danger lies, not in the possibility that someone else might have more missiles and warheads than we do, but in the very existence of these unconscionable quantities of highly poisonous explosives, and their existence, above all, in hands as weak and shaky and undependable as those of ourselves or our adversaries or any other mere human beings: whoever does not understand these things is never going to guide us out of this increasingly dark and menacing forest of bewilderments into which we have wandered.”
Kennan’s metaphor would seem oddly apt and even prophetic the following summer, when Nitze took a walk in the woods outside Geneva with Yuri Kvitsinsky, his Soviet counterpart in the stalled “Euromissile” talks. In the course of the walk, Nitze handed Kvitsinsky a single slip of paper containing a plan for getting those talks off dead center. The compromise consisted of an offer by the United States to sacrifice deployment of its Pershing II missiles for a two-thirds reduction in the number of SS-20 missiles the Soviets were then putting in Eastern Europe. It was, Nitze later avowed, “about as good a compromise as you can work out.”
Indeed, his “walk-in-the-woods” proposal was a significant break with convention for Nitze. Undertaken entirely on his own initiative—without even the knowledge of the Reagan White House—it would have ceded a unilateral, if militarily insignificant, American advantage to avoid a dangerous new situation for both sides in the arms race.
Before the Russians could officially respond to Nitze’s proposal, however, the President himself disavowed it. In a climactic meeting with Reagan that September, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and Weinberger’s chief aide, Richard Perle, argued vehemently against abandoning the Pershing Hs. Despite Nitze’s counterargument that the weapon’s only real value was psychological—and in spite of the fact that the Joint Chiefs also seemed willing to sacrifice the Pershings—Reagan sided with Weinberger and Perle. It would be a “sign of weakness,” the President reportedly declared, for the United States to let the Russians keep their ballistic missiles while we gave up our equivalent “fastflier.”
The irony could hardly have been lost upon Nitze. Pene was one of those youthful ideologues whom Nitze himself had helped attract to the Reagan administration, within which the former disciple had quickly become a rival. A grade schooler during the “year of maximum danger,” not yet out of his teens at the time of the “missile gap,” Perle had turned Nitze’s own thirty-three-year-old NSC-68 arguments about “national will” and “resolve” against the walk-in-thewoods proposal. Like a new convert questioning the zeal of the old order, Perle claimed that Nitze had been “spooked” by the Russians and that his offer was an “act of intellectual and political cowardice.”
When the Geneva talks began again two years later, Nitze announced that he would no longer play a direct role in the negotiations but would act instead as an “adviser.” Though Nitze cited his wife’s worsening health as the reason for his decision, few of his friends believe that he will again serve in another major post in the Reagan administration. Indeed, many thought it significant that Nitze, for the first time, had begun to talk of writing his memoirs.
Looking back over the efforts represented by all these documents”—Kennan observed in the introduction to The Nuclear Delusion , a 1983 collection of his work—“one would have to recognize that they have been for the most part failures.” The only thing that redeemed his efforts, he concluded, was the “encouraging public response to the pleas, my own and those of many others, for a reversal of the weapons race.”
Kennan could rightfully claim that his efforts since 1949 had helped give impetus to the current antinuclear movement in this country. But it is a paternity he would, at other times, deny. In truth, Kennan would always be a commander well removed from his troops, a man with—but not of—the people. Tellingly he once admitted to a television interviewer that he thought egalitarianism one of the worst ideas of modern times.
Back in 1950 Nitze had expected that nuclear weapons as totemic symbols would eventually be replaced by substantive national strength and will. But Nitze, as much as Kennan, would ultimately be overtaken by the ideas and the events he helped set in motion. As one who had been the most outspoken opponent of a proposed nuclear “warning shot” over Russia at the height of the 1961 Berlin crisis, Nitze no doubt found chilling the earnest talk of similar “demonstrations” by the young ideologues of the Reagan administration. One such individual, who told a reporter in 1983 that victory in a nuclear war was a matter of having “enough shovels,” had been described by Nitze as “a brilliant analyst” a decade earlier when he prepared the charts and graphs showing the window of vulnerability.
Lately Nitze himself has seemingly come to recognize that the intricate calculus of advantage he developed in NSC-68 has gradually been overwhelmed by the sheer force of numbers, becoming, instead, a kind of numbing nuclear accountancy, one in which his previous notion of “maximum danger” today seems worthy of nostalgia, a sort of nuclear Arcadia. Indeed, as Nitze himself now seems to acknowledge, the weapons that he once looked upon as surrogates for human will and volition are growing increasingly independent of it.
This concern, at least, appears to have motivated Nitze’s latest, and probably last, attempt to define a grand strategy for the United States in the Cold War: the new “strategic concept” that he presented to the Reagan administration in early 1985. That concept has as its goal a “radical reduction” in offensive nuclear arms over the next decade, followed by a decade-long “transition period” when defensive weapons would begin to prevail over offensive ones, and ending—ultimately—with the “elimination of all nuclear arms.”
What has been most striking since Nitze’s elaboration of this strategic concept is the distance he has put between himself and the Reagan administration, particularly on the issue of arms control. Nitze was thus perhaps the only member of the administration at Geneva last November willing to include the President’s prized Strategic Defense Initiative—“Star Wars”—in the negotiations.
The article by Kennan’s “gang of four” became a symbol of the nuclear disenchantment overtaking even former stewards of the bomb.
The same week that Nitze unveiled his new strategic concept in Washington, an essay by Kennan entitled “Flashbacks” appeared in The New Yorker . Kennan recalled his life in a series of seemingly random vignettes, like a collection of snapshots: the sleigh in which he was sometimes driven to his office in Riga; skating with his wife along the Moscow River; walking on the paths at the Park of Culture and Rest, during their first winter in the Russian capital. At the end Kennan likened his current research into prerevolutionary Russia to his early experience as a diplomat in the Soviet Union. Regarding the heroes and antiheroes of his book, he observed: “I know, as they could not know, that they are all actors in what will ultimately be seen as a tragic drama.… And I find it striking that here, again, as in all my years of official service in Russia, I am myself remote from the people 1 am observing. I see them again, as I once saw the Soviet Union in Riga, through the record of the printed word; but 1 must myself remain unseen, as I was on the paths of the Park of Culture and Rest—must always be near to what interests me but never be of it.”
“My differences with Kennan,” Nitze had once joked to a friend at the dinner table, “are only over matters of substance.”
As is the case with any war—even cold ones—it becomes clear only in retrospect what the decisive moments have been, where the tide began to turn. But undoubtedly one of the most poignant moments in Kennan and Nitze’s cold war was the celebration in Princeton, two years ago, of Kennan’s eightieth birthday, at which Nitze was one of the invited guests.
The party took place almost exactly forty years after the two men had first met. The occasion was given an additional, almost mystical sense of presentiment when Kennan learned at the party that his daughter, Wendy, living in Europe, had on that day given birth to a son, whom she and her husband had decided to name after her father—the third George Kennan to share that birth date.
Nitze’s appearance at the party was another link to the past, an equally unmistakable sign of how the world, in its turning, eventually comes full circle. The presence of the two men in the same room symbolized, therefore, not only the rare coming together of the two warring worlds of American foreign policy but also the common traditional values of a generation then passing. The bond of friendship between Kennan and Nitze, said one guest from Washington, was all but unknown among those he called the “intellectual thugs” of the Reagan administration.
The occasion also offered a remarkable contrast between two very different personalities who—their friendship aside—were equally lifelong ideological combatants: Kennan the moralist, the impetuous resigner, the perpetual theorist, and Nitze the pragmatist, the practitioner, the “inveterate problem-solver,” as Perle once called him. “My differences with Kennan,” Nitze had quipped to a guest over dinner, “are only over matters of substance.” It was thus appropriate that Nitze himself offered the traditional after-dinner toast to the guest of honor.
“Among those born after 1904,” Nitze began, “1 know of no one who has been more fortunate in his bosses than have I.… George Kennan taught us to approach the issues of policy, not just from the narrow immediate interest of the United States, but from a longer-range viewpoint that included the cultures and interests of others, including our opponents, and a proper regard for the opinions of mankind. George has, no doubt, often doubted the aptness of his pupil. But the warmth of his and Annelise’s friendship for Phyllis and me has never faltered.” Raising his glass in salute to Kennan, Nitze extended his “appreciation, gratitude and thanks to George, who has been a teacher and an example for close to forty years.”
Kennan responded to Nitze’s salute with an equally gracious toast of his own. In it—disguised, if not quite hidden—was a thirty-year-long lament. Nitze had as well been a teacher and an example to him, Kennan said. But the chief lesson he had learned was that when one disagrees with a particular administration, “it may be best to soldier on, and to do what one can to make the things you believe in come out right.”
It was a remarkable admission from one who, for nearly two generations, had been the conscience of American foreign policy to one who, more than any other during those years, had acted to shape that policy—ultimately not without his own frustrations and regrets. The irony of their cold war was that, at its end, Kennan and Nitze stood on the common ground of their own mortality. Yet it was perhaps only emblematic of such a war that the outcome would seem moot, and the difference between victor and vanquished so surprisingly ambiguous.