The Perfect In-and-Outer

From Hiroshima to Glasnost: At the Center of Decision, A Memoir

by Paul H. Nitze, with Ann M. Smith, by Steven L. Rearden
Grove Weidenfeld, 504 pp., $25.00

Paul Nitze’s life should be an interesting subject. To the extent that there is an “establishment” in America and a “national security community” in Washington, Paul Nitze has long been prominent in both. A former vice-president of the Dillon, Read investment firm on Wall Street, he has had much to do with making defense policy for more than forty years. And yet Nitze’s memoirs are dull and dry.

Nitze was born in 1907, the son of a distinguished academic (“head of the Department of Romance Languages and Literature at the University of Chicago for over thirty years”). He was educated first at the university’s elementary school and high school, later at Hotchkiss, a Connecticut prep school “whose graduates, for the most part, go on to Yale.” The young Nitze went to Harvard, studied economics, excelled in sports, and decided to “go into the world of business rather than graduate school.” A friend of his father’s, a member of a Chicago brokerage firm, sent him to Germany to report “on whether German securities might be a better investment than American securities”; several “bankers, professors and others” provided him with letters of introduction. One of them was Clarence Dillon, the New York investment banker, who hired him after his return from Europe just before the collapse of the stock market, which Dillon had foreseen. At Dillon’s firm, Nitze became the friend of another young man, James Forrestal, the future secretary of defense, whom he described in a letter as “very keen and forceful—a much finer specimen than anything I have seen for a long time.”

In 1932, he met his future wife, Phyllis Pratt, the daughter of a congresswoman from “the Blue Stocking district of New York” (by which he apparently means the Silk Stocking district on the upper East Side). Oddly, Nitze does not mention that she was also the granddaughter of Charles Pratt (one of the organizers of the Standard Oil Company with John D. Rockefeller, and the founder of the Pratt Institute), that her uncle Herbert Pratt was the Chairman of Standard Oil of New York and her father, a lawyer, was the largest single shareholder in the same company.

His views about the Depression, he says, were close to Keynes’s, and he supported Franklin Roosevelt. In 1935 he joined with others to build a laboratory in order to market a successful “vitamin-mineral product” invented by two French scientists; when the company was sold to Revlon fifteen years later he became “financially independent.” He writes that he was troubled by his reading of Spengler and by the possibility of a European war and so decided to spend a year—in 1938 and 1939—as a graduate student of sociology and international relations at Harvard. He returned to New York, “still without answers.” He tried to set up his own business, but running it turned out to be too strenuous, and he went back to Dillon, Read and Company, of which James Forrestal …

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