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.” 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.” 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 …

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