Two Cold Warriors
The Hawk and the Dove: Paul Nitze, George Kennan, and the History of the Cold War is not a full-scale dual biography or a comprehensive history of the Cold War. Instead, Nicholas Thompson, Nitze’s grandson and an editor at Wired magazine, has written a fascinating and elegant account of a lengthy friendship between two brilliant but very different men who, to varying degrees, impacted U.S. foreign policy during what President John F. Kennedy called “the long twilight struggle” between the United States and Soviet Union.
Kennan’s Cold War odyssey began after President Franklin Roosevelt established formal diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union in 1933, and William Bullitt, our first ambassador to the U.S.S.R., recruited Kennan to the embassy staff in Moscow. Kennan, to his credit, early on perceived the totalitarian nature of the Soviet police state and its leaders’ hostile view of the outside world. He subsequently served at our embassies in Prague and later Berlin, where he was interned for five months after the U.S. entered the war against Germany. He returned to Moscow in 1944 and soon thereafter wrote memos warning of an impending postwar struggle with our wartime ally.
Kennan’s most significant impact on U.S. foreign policy occurred between February 1946 and July 1947, when he wrote three papers that profoundly influenced the thinking and action of policymakers in Washington.
On February 22, 1946, responding to a request from Washington for “an interpretive analysis of what we may expect in the way of future implementation of [Soviet] . . . policies,” Kennan penned what has since been called “The Long Telegram.” In it, he described Soviet policy as a combination of traditional Russian insecurity and aggressiveness and Marxist doctrine that preached irreconcilable conflict between communism and capitalism. The Soviet Union under Stalin, he wrote, constituted “a political force committed fanatically to the belief that with [the] U.S. there can be no permanent modus vivendi . . .”
The Long Telegram, writes Thompson, transformed Kennan from a relatively obscure embassy staffer “into the diplomatic legend he would remain for the rest of his life.” All key U.S. policymakers, including the President, read it. Two weeks later, Kennan’s warnings were publicly reinforced by Winston Churchill’s famous “iron curtain” speech in Fulton, Missouri. The United States was finally waking up to the fact that the Soviet Union, our wartime ally, had replaced Nazi Germany as the principal geopolitical threat to the global balance of power. The Cold War was on.
When Kennan came home from Moscow, he took a position at the new National War College. When George Marshall became Secretary of State, he hired Kennan to head up the department’s policy planning staff with instructions to provide long-term policy guidance. In that role, Kennan wrote a paper proposing a massive program of economic aid to Europe that would become the intellectual foundation for the Marshall Plan. More famously, Kennan wrote an article in Foreign Affairs, “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” under the pseudonym “X,” that proposed to meet the Soviet challenge by the “long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.”
Paul Nitze first met Kennan in October 1943 in a dining car on a train heading from New York to Washington, D.C. Nitze had worked on Wall Street before the war, and was then working on wartime economic issues at the State Department. According to Thompson, the two men discussed politics, Europe, and “the danger of Soviet communism” at that first meeting. After the war, Nitze worked for the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey, studying the effects of allied bombing of Germany and Japan, including the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was the beginning of Nitze’s immersion in, and mastery of, the minutiae of nuclear weapons, delivery systems, and other arms control issues.
Nitze first worked with Kennan in putting flesh on the bones of the Marshall Plan. He subsequently became Kennan’s deputy on the policy planning staff. They worked together on the Berlin Airlift and other early Cold War crises and issues. As the Cold War intensified and U.S. policy vis-à-vis the Soviets became more rigid, however, Kennan’s influence waned while Nitze’s increased. Kennan opposed the broad commitments of the Truman Doctrine, the formation of NATO, and the development of the H-bomb. He viewed containment as primarily a political, rather than a military, response to the Soviet challenge. Nitze supported all three policies because he believed that Soviet leaders would not view as credible Western political opposition unsupported by sufficient military power.
When Kennan stepped down from the policy planning staff, Nitze replaced him and soon thereafter began working on a grand strategic review of U.S. foreign policy that became known as NSC-68, the classified blueprint for U.S. Cold War policy. NSC-68 defined containment as a policy that sought to check further Soviet expansion; expose and exploit Soviet vulnerabilities; undermine Soviet influence within their empire and throughout the rest of the world; and “foster the seeds of destruction within the Soviet system.” It recommended a massive conventional military and nuclear build-up, and the use of psycho-political and economic warfare against Soviet interests.
With the end of the Truman administration, George Kennan’s active role in government ended with the lone exception of a brief stint as ambassador to Yugoslavia in the Kennedy administration. He turned to scholarly and academic pursuits, lecturing, writing, and, occasionally, consulting on national security matters. He wrote great works of history, such as The Decline of Bismarck’s European Order, The Fateful Alliance, Russia Leaves the War, The Decision to Intervene, Russia and the West Under Lenin and Stalin, American Diplomacy. He also wrote his memoirs in two volumes.
In his many writings on contemporary affairs, Kennan increasingly distanced himself from the containment doctrine he had conceived, contending that his advocacy of “political” containment had been unnecessarily and unwisely militarized. He became a frequent critic of his government and the increasingly liberal mores of his country. In calling Kennan a "dove," however, Thompson overstates his case. Kennan is best described as a foreign policy realist who viewed the Soviet threat in less ideological terms than many "hawks" did.
Nitze, on the other hand, remained an insider, tapped by almost every Cold War president to work on important national security matters. He was a top-level defense aid and Secretary of the Navy under President Kennedy, and participated in the ExComm meetings during the Cuban Missile Crisis. He served as Deputy Secretary of Defense in the Johnson administration. Presidents Nixon and Ford appointed him as a delegate to the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) with the Soviets. Nitze mastered the details of strategic nuclear weapons, becoming one of our nation’s leading experts in that area.
President Jimmy Carter, however, had a much more benign view of the Soviet threat. Proclaiming that the U.S. was free of its “inordinate fear of communism,” Carter, in Thompson’s words, “had no interest in having Nitze anywhere in his administration.” Nitze subsequently became a chief critic of Carter’s foreign policy, especially on arms control matters.
When Ronald Reagan became President, Nitze was appointed to lead the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) negotiations with the Soviets, where he and his Soviet counterpart took their famous “walk in the woods,” and agreed to a 50% reduction in theater nuclear forces. There was only one problem: Nitze had no authority to make that deal, and no agreement was reached. After a scolding from the president, Nitze continued his role as an arms control advisor, accompanying Reagan to Iceland where Reagan refused to trade the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) for an agreement to eliminate all nuclear weapons in ten years.
When the Cold War ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union, many observers said that it ended just the way Kennan said it would back in 1947, forgetting that in his later years Kennan had consistently and repeatedly distanced himself from his own proposed strategy of “vigilant” containment by “counterforce,” and instead advocated an approach to the Cold War similar to the Nixon-Kissinger policy of detente. Nitze, on the other hand, remained a strong proponent of containment throughout the Cold War, even as Kennan became less enamored of such policies. As Thompson notes, throughout the Cold War “the United States had, for the most part, followed [Nitze’s] militant version of containment . . .”
Through it all, despite heated policy disagreements, the two men remained friends who admired and respected each other. Policy differences were not personal. As Nitze explained to another guest after graciously praising Kennan at his 80th birthday celebration, “he had never had any difference with George, ‘except over matters of substance.’”
Francis P. Sempa is the author of America’s Global Role: Essays and Reviews on National Security, Geopolitics, and War and Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century. He has written introductions to four books on U.S. foreign policy, and has written on historical and foreign policy topics for Strategic Review, American Diplomacy, The Washington Times, Presidential Studies Quarterly, The National Interest, Human Rights Review, and National Review. He is an Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University, and a contributing editor to American Diplomacy.
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