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The Silver Fox

For more than forty years, ever since the end of World War II, Paul Nitze has been prominent in national and international affairs. Mr. Talbott quotes him as saying that he had “advised every President since Franklin Roosevelt,” all of whom had to some extent “sought and taken that advice.”1 Starting out as a registered Republican, he switched to the Democratic party after serving under Truman. He was given important posts in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, as he was in those of Nixon and Reagan. There were also occasions when some political office that he wanted slipped from his grasp because of opposition that he had engendered in congressional quarters, sometimes to his right, sometimes to his left, or because those who would have liked to appoint him feared that he would prove a troublesome teammate. “When excluded from power,” Strobe Talbott writes, “he tended to be not just a critic of the incumbent administration but a savage, sometimes even seemingly vengeful opponent…with a passion that sometimes carried him to extremes of ad hominem ferocity.” The Russians and, we are told, some of his colleagues dubbed him “the silver fox” of the negotiating table. In the annals of East–West diplomacy Nitze will be remembered as what Strobe Talbott calls “the grey eminence of nuclear diplomacy,” as the silver fox who walked with his Russian counterpart in the woods.

Nitze began his Washington career in 1940 in a succession of posts that were concerned with the mobilization of resources for the war that had engulfed Europe, and for which the experience he had gained on Wall Street as an investment banker was particularly relevant. He was well-to-do, he had powerful friends and was already known as a forceful operator. In 1944, three years after his appearance on the Washington scene, he was invited to become a member of the board of the United States Strategic Bombing Survey—USSBS for short—an organization that was being set up to study the results of World War II’s strategic bombing. Franklin D’Olier, president of an insurance company and a man close on seventy, had been appointed as its chairman. According to David MacIsaac, the historian of USSBS, Nitze was selected because of his “keen analytical abilities,” and of his reputation as an “aggressive, energetic executive with a knack for getting things done in a hurry.”2 Another board member was George Ball, who, in contrast to Nitze, is described as a “quiet, thoughtful man.” A third member was the Harvard economist J.K. Galbraith. USSBS was Nitze’s introduction to the facts of war as seen on the ground. Although the point does not come out as sharply in Mr. Talbott’s book as it might have done, in retrospect it can be seen that USSBS was a major turning point in Nitze’s life.

The organization had been set up at the instigation of a group of senior Air Force commanders for a variety of reasons, including the hope that an affirmative answer would be provided to the question whether air power alone could be decisive in war.3 Starting in November of 1944, and in accordance with a strict timetable, Mr. D’Olier and his colleagues spent only five months in recruiting and briefing a staff of more than a thousand men and women, including three hundred civilians with diverse specialist qualifications—among them Adlai Stevenson and W.H. Auden. The organization then got to work in the field. In the following three to four months it made a survey of the physical destruction that Germany had suffered, and also competed with other intelligence agencies as the country was scoured in search of documents that could provide relevant information, and of officials, industrialists, and military men who could be interrogated.

It was an exciting time. In his auto-biography, George Ball tells how he learned that Albert Speer, Hitler’s minister for armaments, was a member of a small group that Admiral Doenitz had gathered around him in Flensburg in Schleswig-Holstein to form a caretaker government after Hitler’s death. All became prisoners of war, but not before Ball, Nitze, and Galbraith had spent six days, five hours a day, with Speer, whom they cross-examined about the damage that the bomber offensive had done to the German economy. At the end of the last day of what Ball styled “the Flensburg Farce,” Speer, groggy with whisky, was still talking away at four-thirty in the morning.4

Their work in Germany concluded, the directors of USSBS then took no more than two months before publishing in a brief report5 the main conclusions that they were able to draw about the air war in Europe. The organization then moved on to the Pacific Theater, leaving behind a mass of only partly digested documentary material that was to prove very helpful to the corresponding British organization (of which I was scientific director) in its much more leisurely and detailed study of what the bombing had achieved.6

Nitze, now deputy chairman of USSBS, was in the party that moved on to Japan, where the organization completed its ground work in even less time than it had spent in Europe—according to MacIsaac, fewer than three months. Nitze was the main author of the summary report on the Pacific War that the survey then produced.7 He is quoted by Mr. Talbott as having said recently that everything in the report still “stands up.” “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. I was trying to put quantitative numbers on something that was considered immeasurable.”

The report does not indicate that he succeeded. There is little in it 8 that suggests any novel mathematical approach. The few figures that are cited relate to matters such as the tonnages of bombs dropped and numbers of people killed. It is also clear that not enough time was spent by USSBS in Japan to permit an adequate assessment of what had happened to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Mr. Talbott quotes two passages from the report indicating that from what he had seen Nitze had come to the view that the advent of nuclear weapons did not invalidate “certain of the more basic principles and relationships” of air power—what they are or were he did not say. He also held that simple shelters could provide effective protection against atomic bombs: “A few feet of concrete, or a somewhat greater thickness of earth, furnished sufficient protection to humans, even those close to ground zero, to prevent serious after-effects from radiation.”9 Years later this belief provoked hollow laughter when T.K. Jones—later one of Nitze’s aides10—informed the American public that after an all-out nuclear onslaught, after thousands of Russian warheads had exploded over, or on, US territory, it would take the country only four years to make a full economic recovery, if only people had had the wit to dig simple air-raid shelters in their back yards. Mr. Talbott tells us that Nitze had long since built his own “atom-bomb–proof” shelter on his country estate in Maryland.

When USSBS was wound up in 1946, Nitze is said to have been among those who were considered for the office of secretary of the Air Force. Mr. Talbott believes that he was passed over because he was still registered as a Republican. However, this did not prevent him from being taken on by the State Department, where he joined the Policy Planning Staff, then under George Kennan, whom he succeeded as chairman in January 1950.

The USSR was at the time becoming increasingly menacing. It had made a forceful, but unsuccessful attempt to change Berlin’s status as the headquarters of the four occupying forces—the US, the USSR, the UK, and France. The Communist takeover in Czechoslovakia had taken place in 1948. And Stalin had started to make atom bombs. Truman had responded to this latter move by giving the go-ahead for the development of the hydrogen bomb. At the same time he directed that a review should be made of the US’s “objectives in peace and war.”

The outcome of this review was a memorandum known as NSC 68, of which Nitze is said to have been the main author, and which was delivered to the President in April of 1950. Steven Rearden, who has written an interesting monograph about Nitze’s part in the evolution of US strategic doctrine, reprints the document in full, and suggests that its forerunner should be regarded as the brief USSBS report on the Pacific air war.11 He also writes that NSC 68 is the foundation of all subsequent US security policy. Mr. Talbott refers to it as “one of the most famous interagency memos ever written,” and an “early example of what came to be known as threat inflation.”

It was certainly a powerful and elegantly drafted memorandum. It begins by strongly reinforcing the thesis that George Kennan had propounded some three years before about the need to contain Russian expansion, and goes on to say that the US cannot retreat into isolation. In order to contain the Soviet threat, the US had to take the lead for the free world, strengthening both its economy and its military forces. NSC 68, which reads as though war, and nuclear war at that, was just around the corner, ended by calling for a large-scale buildup of American nuclear and conventional forces. A national shelter policy was also recommended.

Mr. Talbott tells us that Kennan, Nitze’s mentor and friend, was appalled by the document, which he considered both as “symptomatic of the panic then sweeping the country” and of Nitze’s wish to translate everything into numbers, that is to say, into comparisons of the proportion of their gross national product that different countries spend on defense, or on the numbers of atom bombs or tanks they produced. For Nitze, writes Mr. Talbott, military force should and “could be both measured and treated as a constant.” Whether Rearden is right in regarding NSC 68 as the basis of all US postwar security policy, it was certainly a sign of Nitze’s concern that the US should be ahead in the arms race. For him, nuclear weapons existed not only to deter but, were hostilities ever to break out, to be used like any other armament. To prevail over the USSR, the US and its allies therefore needed to be numerically and qualitatively superior in all manner of arms, nuclear and conventional. That was the message of NSC 68.

Truman took no immediate action when he received the report. Only when the Korean War broke out a few months later did its recommendations become national policy. When their costs were estimated, they turned out to call for a three- to fourfold increase in defense expenditures.12

Eisenhower became president little more than a year later, and immediately applied the brakes on Truman’s ambitious program of rearmament. NSC 68 was cast aside. Nitze nonetheless hoped to be retained as head of the Policy Planning Staff. It was a vain hope. As head of the State Department, Foster Dulles—who, according to Mr. Talbott, Nitze later referred to as a “shyster lawyer”—would have none of it. A post in the Pentagon that Nitze was then ready to accept slipped from his grasp because of opposition from congressional quarters, leaving him free to attack the policies of his would-have-been colleagues. He deplored the Dulles/Eisenhower doctrine of “massive nuclear retaliation,” and turned upon Henry Kissinger, who, while also regarding the doctrine as “incredible,” lauded the introduction of nuclear weaponry into NATO’s armory as a move that conduced to a more flexible policy.13 Kissinger, according to Nitze, had not taken the issue of numbers into proper account.

  1. 1

    In the light of his relations with the Eisenhower and Carter regimes, this claim seems somewhat extravagant.

  2. 2

    David MacIsaac, Strategic Bombing in World War Two (Garland, 1976), p. 54.

  3. 3

    MacIsaac, Strategic Bombing in World War Two.

  4. 4

    George W. Ball, The Past Has Another Pattern (Norton, 1982).

  5. 5

    The United States Strategic Bombing Survey, Overall Report (European War), September 30, 1945.

  6. 6

    The reports of USSBS were unclassified. It took years to declassify the corresponding British reports—mainly because the conclusions to which they had led were unwelcome in some RAF circles.

  7. 7

    Published in July 1946.

  8. 8

    Most of which is devoted to an account of Japan’s situation before it entered the war and about the course of the war’s operations.

  9. 9

    Summary Report (Pacific War), p. 23.

  10. 10

    He served as such in the SALT I negotiations. In the early Reagan years T.K. Jones was one of Caspar Weinberger’s officials in the Department of Defense.

  11. 11

    Steven L. Rearden, The Evolution of American Strategic Doctrine (Westview Press, Foreign Policy Institute, Johns Hopkins University, 1984).

  12. 12

    In Dean Acheson, Present at the Creation (Norton, 1969), p. 377. There are no cost figures in NSC 68, and the estimate of a fourfold increase was clearly arbitrary. It presumedly represented the upper limit of what it was felt the economy could bear and that Congress might allow.

  13. 13

    Henry Kissinger, Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy (Anchor, 1957).

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