Book Review: 'The Hawk and the Dove' by Nicholas Thompson

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By Jacob Heilbrunn
Sunday, September 13, 2009


Paul Nitze, George Kennan, And the History Of the Cold War

By Nicholas Thompson

Henry Holt. 403 pp. $27.50

After a dinner party at his Georgetown home, Joseph Alsop, the legendary newspaper columnist, watched George F. Kennan head to his car and yelled, "You know, George, the problem with you is that you're a nineteenth century man." Kennan turned around and countered, "No, I'm an eighteenth-century man." It was hardly a charge that anyone would have lodged against Kennan's friend and longtime antagonist Paul Nitze. Alsop diagnosed Nitze's failings during a bibulous evening at Martin's Tavern in Washington, D.C.: "The trouble with you, Paul, is that you're just a bureaucrat."

For much of the past half-century, Kennan and Nitze formed a classic odd couple, battling over cold war policy both while in government service and out. Kennan was a learned diplomat and historian who had witnessed Stalin's show trials and purges as a young man stationed at the Moscow embassy. He went on to draft the basis for cold war doctrine by famously warning of Soviet intentions in his 1946 "Long Telegram," only to retreat from his prescriptions, leave government service and devote himself to warning of the perils of an arms race that threatened to obliterate the planet. Nitze was an inveterate hawk who attached great importance to the balance of nuclear firepower between the Russians and Americans. He formulated the foundation for American nuclear strategy in the early 1950s and occupied numerous government posts for presidents from Truman to Reagan, while persistently sounding alarms about Soviet nuclear intentions and capabilities.

In "The Hawk and the Dove," Nicholas Thompson, an editor at Wired magazine, skillfully contrasts Nitze and Kennan. Thompson, who is Nitze's grandson, brings a judicial impartiality to the fierce disputes that raged between the two men. Thompson has enjoyed full access to his grandfather's archival documents, but perhaps his most impressive accomplishment is to have mined Kennan's extensive diaries for new insights. In this important and astute new study, Nitze emerges as a driven patriot and Kennan as a darkly conflicted and prophetic one.

Kennan boosted Nitze's government career by hiring him to join the State Department's policy planning staff during the Truman administration, but the differences between them were wide. Nitze, as Thompson notes, breezed his way through Harvard, whooping it up with fellow members of the exclusive Porcellian Club before landing a job on Wall Street; Kennan was a lonely student at Princeton, brooding about what he saw as his own deficiencies. His constant musings included some rather disdainful beliefs about Jews and blacks that Thompson carefully examines, as well as contempt for the 1960s student activists. Kennan was an elitist conservative, deeply wary of democracy itself.

On the issue of nuclear weaponry, Nitze was an optimist, convinced that superior American technology and atomic firepower could save the day. Kennan was always a fatalist imbued with a melancholy sense of the unexpected catastrophes that have regularly ensued from human follies.

In his 1947 "Mr. X." article in Foreign Affairs, Kennan laid out the doctrine of Soviet containment -- essentially the intellectual scaffolding of the cold war. Then he spent the next decades disavowing his authorship of it. Thompson observes that Kennan later wrote that he felt like "one who has inadvertently loosened a large boulder from the top of a cliff and now helplessly watches its path of destruction in the valley below, shuddering and wincing at each successive glimpse of disaster."

Nitze would have none of this. According to Thompson, "Nitze was in sync with the times, far more confident than Kennan in his country's ability to do good." In 1950, he presided over the drafting of Document NSC-68, which rejected Kennan's recommendation that America forswear first use of nuclear weapons; the document also called on the United States to fight communism worldwide and to invest in a massive arms buildup. Decades later, Thompson writes, Nitze crossed out a line in a student's master's thesis which argued that in NSC-68 he had advocated military containment over political means. In the late 1950s and in the '70s, Nitze warned that America was in danger of becoming the weaker combatant in the superpower contest and needed to rearm.

How did it play out? The Soviet Union crumbled, and the United States emerged triumphant. But Kennan never believed that the United States had all that much to do with it. He had originally predicted that the Soviet Union would decay from within, leaving behind a handful of ideological dust. Speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations in 1977, he observed that the Soviet leaders were "ordinary" and "perhaps the most conservative ruling group to be found anywhere in the world," which meant that there was no need to go on a crusade to topple the regime; rather one could wait patiently for the denouement.

It was the workhorse Nitze who had the nose for power, while the self-lacerating Kennan commented from the sidelines. Thompson perceptively writes, "Too fragile and easily hurt, he was like Chiron, the wise and immortal centaur of Greek mythology who is shot by an arrow and develops a wound that never heals." Towards the end of their lives, however, Nitze and Kennan reconciled their differences as the Cold War's end prompted Nitze to endorse the abolition of the weapons whose existence he had once done so much to promote.

Jacob Heilbrunn is a senior editor at the National Interest.

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