DANGEROUS CAPABILITIES

Paul Nitze and the Cold War

By David Callahan

HarperCollins. 572 pp. $24.95

From Hiroshima to Reykjavik, from penning a seminal Cold War document to taking a walk in the woods at Geneva arms control talks, Paul Nitze has been at the center of the Establishment that plots U.S. policy on nuclear weapons.

In "Dangerous Capabilities," first-time author David Callahan traces the course of Nitze's singular career and, through Nitze's life, tells the history of American strategy on nuclear warfare from the dropping of the first atomic bomb to the Bush administration's review of relations with the Soviet Union.

Nitze's life is an effective vehicle for telling that story, giving a human dimension to an issue that otherwise assumes an air of unreality and gets clouded by differing assessments of throw weights, verification methods and multiple warheads.

Though he never rose to full Cabinet rank, Nitze held a variety of posts including head of the State Department policy planning unit, secretary of the navy, chief arms control negotiator and deputy secretary of defense. He was a political appointee, but Nitze still managed to serve six presidents, Democrats and Republicans alike. This rare feat of political survival also gives readers a detailed look at the bureaucratic infighting and personal rivalries that often seem more important components of foreign policy than the national interest.

This is an ambitious undertaking for the 25-year-old Callahan, who is the managing editor of a new liberal political quarterly called the American Prospect. He attacks it with a distinct point of view: that the United States may have "won" the Cold War, but it did so at tremendous financial cost. He suggests that hawks like Nitze pressed a Cold War arms buildup based on an inordinate fear of Soviet imperialist intentions and capabilities. Judging Soviet strategy seems beyond Callahan's expertise or research and he relies on a handful of prominent policy foes of Nitze, such as George Kennan, to cast doubt on Nitze's assessments of the Soviets.

That would be a more serious shortcoming if Callahan's book were an overview of the arms race, but by keeping the focus on Nitze, Callahan's view of Soviet strategy doesn't matter much. "Dangerous Capabilities" is a compelling narrative about a vanishing breed of gentleman-businessman-statesman, the permanent Establishment and the way U.S. policy is made.

Grandson of a successful German immigrant banker and son of a University of Chicago professor, Nitze was reared in an intellectual household and never wanted for material comforts. The family traveled to Europe, and young Nitze attended Hotchkiss and Harvard. Though he did little there to distinguish himself, he made contacts that would serve him well.

Through mutual contacts he met Wall Street financier Douglas Dillon, who hired Nitze just weeks before the 1929 stock market crash and kept him on through the Depression. At Dillon, Read, Nitze learned the importance of mastering details and met more of the old boy network that would later move to the State Department. Nitze also made a small fortune in his own right, fell in love and married into even greater riches.

Summoned to Washington by James Forrestal, the Dillon, Read president who had gone to help the government mobilize the country for World War II, Nitze never left. The fact that it was Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration seemed almost incidental. A Democrat by name, Nitze pursued influence above all and ideology came later. Even after he formed definite ideas about defense, Nitze seemed more of a doer and organizer than an original thinker, according to Callahan.

During Nitze's early years in Washington, he championed the nation's biggest peacetime military buildup. He helped nudge Kennan, who was regarded as soft on the Soviets, out of the State Department policy planning unit. He argued against physicists who wanted the United States to refrain from developing the hydrogen bomb.

As right-hand man to Secretary of State Dean Acheson, Nitze wrote National Security Council Memorandum 68 advocating military containment of the Soviet Union, and argued that the United States could afford far bigger defense budgets than previously thought possible. Callahan notes that not a single Soviet expert took part in writing NSC 68, which made important assumptions about the expansionist goals of the Soviet Union and was based on a fear of the possibility of a first strike by Soviet nuclear forces.

Dropped by the Eisenhower administration, Nitze spent the late 1950s serving on private blue-ribbon panels that said the United States was lagging in military power. He advised John F. Kennedy, who made that a campaign issue, and served the Democrats through the Cuban missile crisis and the Vietnam War. During Vietnam, Nitze was neither a booster nor an outspoken critic until it became clear that the war was not winnable.

The fear of a Soviet first strike in a nuclear war dominated Nitze's career, even after he focused more on arms control than arms proliferation. He helped negotiate the SALT I treaty under President Nixon, but he helped torpedo SALT II when he was left out of the Carter administration.

Callahan makes clear that by the late 1970s Nitze was becoming a bit curmudgeonly, lecturing Carter about weapon systems, impugning Paul Warnke's patriotism and joining the hawkish Committee on the Present Danger. But even in these waning years, the veteran of Washington's foreign policy bureaucracy outlasted all others. He was rehabilitated under Reagan, and at Reykjavik came closer than anyone ever has to negotiating deep cuts in nuclear arsenals. Throughout this time, he continued doing battle with reports and memorandums, thinking about the unthinkable.

The reviewer, a staff writer for The Washington Post, is the author of the forthcoming "Fighting Years: Black Resistance and the Struggle for a New South Africa."