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The Silver Fox

A new career was about to open up for Nitze. Reagan had appointed Eugene Rostow as head of ACDA, and it was Rostow who had brought Nitze in as one of the founders of the resurrected Committee on the Present Danger. Rostow knew of no one more experienced than Nitze to be the mainstay of the arms-control negotiating teams that were to be set up. So Nitze, now in his mid-seventies, became the new guru of US arms control, the silver fox at the negotiating table who now had to reconcile his deeply entrenched and well-publicized views about the evil Russians with the task of making them trustworthy negotiating partners. He also had to be nimble enough to deal with the charge that what he might find himself doing conflicted with the arms-control beliefs of some of his hardline colleagues in ACDA, and in the Pentagon. Talbott writes, “Perle was afraid that once Nitze was assigned to negotiate an agreement, that was exactly what he would do.”

Mr. Talbott retells the story—which he had described in his previous book Deadly Gambits15—of Nitze’s part in the first set of Reagan’s INF talks, when his task was to get his Soviet opposite number to accept what became known as the zero-zero proposal. This was an undertaking that the US would not deploy 572 new medium-range nuclear missiles in Europe (the number including Pershing II ballistic missiles that could reach Moscow from Western Germany) if the Russians removed the hundreds of SS-20 missiles that they had already deployed covering targets in Western Europe. He describes the setbacks that Nitze suffered at the hands of Richard Perle of the Pentagon and of members of the State Department in his efforts to reach an understanding, and of Washington’s eventual rejection in September of 1982 of the compromise to the “zero-zero arrangement” that he and Kvitsinsky, his Russian opposite number, had elaborated in their celebrated walk-in-the-woods in the Jura hills. The formula they had worked out allowed each side seventy-five INF launchers in Europe and excluded the deployment of the Pershing II missiles. It was also rejected by Moscow—but as subsequent events now suggest, probably because Gorbachev was already thinking of far more dramatic moves.

The round of INF talks that followed the rejection of the walk-in-the-woods formula also proved abortive; the USSR would not accept an arrangement that called upon them to remove hundreds of missiles that had already been deployed in exchange for a promise that the US would not go ahead with a deployment program that had not even been started. At the end of 1983 the US accordingly began to deploy the Pershing IIs and cruise missiles to which it had then committed itself. The next three years were marked by continuing stalemate in US-USSR talks in Geneva, and by interagency guerrilla warfare as the differing officials in Washington failed to agree on a coherent US arms-control policy. Nitze tried without success to persuade his colleagues that there could be no progress unless the US negotiating position became less rigid than it was.

The situation then changed dramatically. At Reykjavík in October 1986, Gorbachev, in order to break the deadlock, went one step further than Nitze’s walk-in-the-woods compromise. The USSR, he said, would be ready to dismantle and destroy all the SS-20s that they had already deployed. If the US wanted, he would also agree to the elimination of shorter-range nuclear weapons as well, given that a reciprocal move was made by the US. And if the American President wanted to halve their respective ICBM arsenals, as Reagan hoped to do, why not go one better, why not set a date, say the year 2000, for the elimination of all nuclear weapons?

However, before starting to reduce the numbers of ICBMs, Gorbachev wanted an assurance that the US would not pursue the SDI program beyond the point that was allowed for research by the 1972 ABM Treaty. As Gorbachev saw it, a defensive astrodome over North America, however unlikely, would in theory put the US in a position to undertake a first strike against the USSR without risking retaliation. Trying to achieve one would spur the arms race, not help arms control.

Nitze was with the President at Reykjavík, and he and Marshal Akhromeyev, then the Chief of the General Staff of the USSR, worked all one night to see if they could agree on a defense-offense compromise that their respective masters would accept—with Richard Perle at Nitze’s elbow to see that he agreed to nothing that was contrary to the Pentagon’s interests. They failed. Reagan would not agree to any limitations on the effort to make a reality of his SDI dream, and Gorbachev was unable to get him to accept that if there were to be reductions in offensive forces, there had to be complementary reductions in defenses. There had to be what Nitze came to call “a grand compromise.”

Reykjavík, however, succeeded in one important respect. INF negotiations were resumed, leading to the signing by Reagan and Gorbachev in Washington in December of 1987 of an agreement to withdraw and destroy all US and Russian INF missiles. At the same time negotiations, styled the Nuclear and Space Talks (NST), were resumed to try once more to see whether the two sides could arrive at acceptable compromises about the extent to which work on SDI could proceed without contravening the terms of the 1972 ABM Treaty. Negotiations were also pursued to see how to assure equivalence in offensive power as the numbers of ICBM nuclear warheads were reduced.

Mr. Talbott’s account of these talks is a tale of byzantine intrigue in Washington, and of Nitze, ostensibly the administration’s main adviser in the negotiations, straining and twisting as he tried to make progress with the Russians, without at the same time going too far in antagonizing certain members of the administration, in particular Richard Perle and Kenneth Adelman, the new head of ACDA. There was also the President himself, whose dream about furnishing North America with a space-based defensive screen was still shared only by those who, to paraphrase Francis Bacon, did not appreciate that it is an empty conceit to proclaim that something is going to be done that has never been done before and by means that have never been invented.

US accusations that the USSR had already unilaterally abrogated the 1972 treaty in the pursuit of its own ABM research program were inevitably met by denials and counterclaims, and even by unexpected concessions.16 Another line of argument that the US negotiators were instructed to use was that when properly interpreted, the terms of the 1972 treaty did not preclude the kind of SDI work and testing that was felt necessary by the Pentagon’s SDI office. This move put Nitze very much on the spot. The blessing that the new “broad interpretation” of the treaty was given by the State Department’s lawyers, while warmly welcomed by the White House, had been immediately challenged both in Congress and by Gerard Smith and other senior members of the US team that had negotiated the treaty.

According to Talbott, Mr. Nitze, who had taken great pride in his part in the drafting, had more than once insisted that its text meant what it said, and that the ban on testing in space applied as much to undiscovered new technologies as it did to those that were known in 1972. However, when the State Department lawyers delivered their contrary opinion, Nitze, to the astonishment of many, turned around and publicly joined Weinberger, Perle, and Adelman in accepting the new interpretation. At the same time, he seemed to offer some cryptic support to those who were skeptical of SDI when he also declared that even if the President’s dream proved technically feasible, an ABM space system would never be deployed unless it was “cost effective at the margin,” a piece of economic jargon that was first used in the discussions leading up to the 1972 treaty, and that simply meant that there was no point in deploying an unimaginably costly space defense system if it could not work.

Like those he had made before, Nitze’s switch on the interpretation of the ABM Treaty ill accorded with what Mr. Talbott keeps referring to as his reputation for having an orderly and logical mind. Fortunately however, George Shultz, as head of the State Department, then declared that while both the President and his department accepted the new interpretation, the R & D program of SDI would nonetheless not exceed the limits implied by the treaty’s “strict” interpretation.

Nitze, who had accompanied Shultz on his meetings with Eduard Shevardnadze (he was also a member of the parties the President took with him on his other summit meetings with Gorbachev), was therefore again in a position to enter into further discussions with Marshal Akhromeyev about permissible limits to SDI research. He also sat down with Academician Velikhov, the influential Russian physicist who is one of Gorbachev’s close advisers, to discuss “numerical parameters” for such matters as the power limits of a laser beam that would be permissible within the strict context of the 1972 treaty.

But all of Nitze’s comings and goings of the past two years failed to achieve the level of agreement that would have allowed Ronald Reagan to crown his presidency with a START treaty. Ten years from now it might well be said that the President was cheated of this honor by men who were only paying lip service to his wishes, and who were ready to make extravagant promises about the presumed progress of SDI, lest yielding to the Russians would result in a setback to the Defense Department’s SDI programs.

In earlier years, Nitze could well have been one of their number. Now, as the key figure in arms-control negotiations, he had become the victim of intrigue that always seemed bent on thwarting him. At a recent gathering in his honor, Senator Sam Nunn described Nitze as the man who had attempted to get “the President to reject [the] absurd positions” and who had “been in the forefront of the effort to get us to work our way out of various muddles toward sensible and creative solutions.” Senator Nunn, without quite saying so, seems to have been suggesting that Nitze’s backing of the INF Treaty had been of help to its supporters in the Senate. Nunn omitted to say that Nitze had himself helped to create some of the muddles he referred to—out of which George Bush will now have to find a way, and with the running still being made by Gorbachev.

In his preface, Mr. Talbott warns that his new book should be treated neither as biography nor as history,17 insofar as his journalistic “literary devices” provide only a first or second draft of history. If the book is not definitive history, it nonetheless is a storehouse of instant information that was passed to him without attribution over the past four years by the many people who flit through his pages. It is usually a questionable practice to rely on anonymous informants; but historians are unlikely to be unduly worried by the lack of references in this case. Many of the details of the abortive struggles and exchanges that were going on in Washington and Geneva these past few years have little more than transient interest. Mr. Talbott has given us a living picture of a determined and clever man who has not only sought and enjoyed public office but who has often failed to disguise his irritation when others received recognition for their part in negotiations on matters that he, Nitze, had come to regard as his own preserve, and who, finally, to his credit, had a part in negotiating a treaty that he might have been expected to oppose.

Whether postwar US policy would have been much different from what it was had there been no Paul Nitze and no NSC 68, I myself doubt. As Mr. Talbott’s book makes only too clear, there were always enough people in high places who shared Nitze’s fears about the USSR, and enough in the USSR who feared the purposes of the US, for the relations of the superpowers to have evolved in the way they have. What we must now hope is that when the talks between the US and the USSR resume under the presidency of George Bush, they will not do so in the morass of small print that marked the end of the negotiations in which Nitze took part, or in the aura of mistrust that in the past has frequently become so opaque that neither side could avoid tripping over fossilized beliefs and concerns as they sought the goal both so desperately need to reach.

  1. 15

    Knopf, 1984.

  2. 16

    For example, it was recently reported that if the US was as worried as it pretended to be about the Krasnoyarsk radar, the installation, which Gorbachev had permitted a US team to inspect, could be developed as an international space center.

  3. 17

    In writing his new book Mr. Talbott consulted a large number of American and Russian public figures whose paths have at one time or another either run parallel to or crossed that of Nitze. He also acknowledges the considerable help he was given by Nitze himself, both in interviews and through the record of his life as Nitze himself recorded it in 1977 in the oral history of the Air Force.

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