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A Contest in the Cold

Nitze’s masterwork depended on an interpretation of Soviet intentions with which Kennan was beginning profoundly to disagree. The Korean War, starting in June 1950, showed that a small Communist state was willing, with support from the major Communist powers, to attack an American ally but that those powers were, if challenged, essentially cautious and able to negotiate peace with the United States. In fact it was Kennan, summoned back to Washington from Princeton, who made the first contacts—with the Soviet UN ambassador, Jacob Malik—to establish back-channel talks with the USSR on peace in Korea. In his gloomy, solitary, introspective way, Kennan had become increasingly disturbed at the course US foreign policy was taking. Instead of grandstanding and warring and constantly meddling in countries we did not understand, we should have, he wrote, “an attitude of detachment and soberness and readiness to reserve judgment.”

The Cuban Missile Crisis, in October 1962, provided an extraordinarily dangerous, but ultimately successful, test of this attitude. Nitze, with moderately hawkish views on how it should be handled, was a member of Excom, President Kennedy’s top advisory group on the crisis. He clashed with the President, who wished the standing order that no nuclear weapons could be fired without the President’s order to be urgently confirmed to all the US military services concerned. Nitze protested that this was unnecessary and was then told unceremoniously to confirm the order. After the Cuban crisis was over, his relationship with the Kennedys remained distant. The crisis also showed both that the Soviet leaders were willing to risk a secret installation of nuclear weapons close to the US and that they wanted to avoid a nuclear war.


Both Kennan and Nitze opposed the escalation of the Vietnam War. Kennan, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, made a comment that remains remarkably relevant today: “There is more respect to be won in the opinion of this world by resolute and courageous liquidation of unsound positions than by the most stubborn pursuit of extravagant or unpromising objectives.” Much as he may have sympathized with the antiwar protesters’ objectives, Kennan deeply disliked noise, violence, and lawlessness in domestic affairs. He was at heart an old-fashioned European conservative6 and at a time of national rage and uproar, he unwisely and unhistorically proclaimed that civil disobedience had no role in a democratic society. Distilling the furious public reaction to this remark, W.H. Auden responded that holding such a view is “to deny that human history owes anything to its martyrs.”

Neither Nitze nor Kennan was a central player in the Vietnam War period. Kennan supported the 1968 presidential campaign of Eugene McCarthy. (The New York Review reprinted his powerful supporting speech.7) Nitze, rejected at first by the incoming Nixon administration, set up, with Dean Acheson, the Committee to Maintain a Prudent Defense Policy with recruits like Richard Perle, Edward Luttwak, and Paul Wolfowitz. He was then appointed negotiator on the new Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT), thereby, as Thompson puts it, being given “a chance to try to bargain away the system his charges were working so hard to save”—a task he impressively performed.

Nitze was an immensely knowledgeable negotiator and problem solver, with an extraordinary grasp of detail and a firm conviction that only a stable balance between the two nuclear arsenals could keep the peace. The United States wanted to shrink the Soviet arsenal; the Soviets wanted to limit US missile defense technology. Nitze’s conduct of the highly technical SALT talks was paralleled by Kissinger’s simultaneous talks with the Soviet ambassador to the US, Anatoly Dobrynin, on the same topic. Nixon wanted a SALT success in time for the 1972 elections, and Brezhnev needed one to relieve the exhausted Soviet economy. In May 1972 Nixon and Kissinger arrived in Moscow to sign, with Brezhnev, the SALT agreements that reflected in large part Nitze’s two years of negotiation. Thompson writes, “Given the political benefits of the deal,” Nitze and his SALT delegation were left “to remain in Helsinki, out of the limelight.”

Kennan’s two-volume memoirs, published in 1967 and 1972, were extremely successful with the public and seemed to show how right he had been about major events, from Stalin’s 1930s purge trials, which he saw as Stalin’s murderous attempt to establish supreme power, to the advantages of negotiation, as with Nixon’s opening to China in the early 1970s. Kennan admired “détente” and Kissinger’s pragmatism in negotiations with the Chinese and the USSR. “Henry,” Kennan wrote, “understands my views better than anyone at State ever has.” Nonetheless, as the decade dragged on, Kennan fell into one of his dark moods about the fate of the world. He feared that US policy was becoming totally militarized and would inevitably lead to an armed showdown. In The Cloud of Danger (1977) he launched a withering attack on the United States and its policies. The book also presented a very different view of the Soviet leaders, as “an old and aging group of men, commanding—but also very deeply involved with—a vast and highly stable bureaucracy.” Unluckily for Kennan, Pravda approved, writing that Kennan’s “views have substantially evolved in the direction of common sense.”8

Meanwhile Nitze, with no place in the Carter administration, set up yet another citizen-lobbying group, the Committee on the Present Danger.9 It included among its members Ronald Reagan, Dean Rusk, Saul Bellow, Richard Perle, Richard Pipes, Elmo Zumwalt, and Norman Podhoretz. Thompson calls it “a holding pen for the men and women later called neoconservatives.” To emphasize the perils of Soviet supremacy, Nitze took to carrying around models of nuclear weapons. The Soviet ICBMs were ten inches long and black; US weapons were five inches long and white and were often laid down horizontally, while the Soviet ones pointed aggressively skyward. He was determined to derail the SALT II negotiations being pursued by the Carter administration and finally succeeded, deeply humiliating Carter.

Kennan, at first impressed by Ronald Reagan, was soon disenchanted. He was horrified by the “Evil Empire” speech and the demonization of Soviet leaders, the lack of communication with Moscow, and the vast and growing stockpiles of increasingly powerful nuclear weapons. He proposed an immediate 50 percent reduction of nuclear stockpiles, followed by a further two-thirds cut in the size of arsenals, and invoked “our duty to the great experiment of civilized life on this rare and rich and marvelous planet.” He led a group including McGeorge Bundy and Robert McNamara that urged a “no first strike” policy. When Nitze publicly denounced this idea, Moscow thought it meant that Reagan was planning a first strike.

Nitze, now the negotiator on intermediate-range missiles in Europe, was anxious to show this was not the case. When he was actually given responsibilities as a negotiator, he did not, as Thompson makes clear, follow the more aggressive policy he sometimes advocated while out of office. He disobeyed his instructions and took his Soviet counterpart on the famous “walk in the woods” in the Jura mountains in a desperate effort to get agreement on limiting nuclear weapons in Europe, a move that was strongly disapproved of by practically everyone else. The story, leaked to The New York Times on Nitze’s seventy-sixth birthday, made him, in the public eye, a new champion of peaceful solutions.

Reagan’s Star Wars (Strategic Defense Initiative) speech of 1983 surprised some of his advisers almost as much as it did Moscow, where SDI was seen as an offensive weapon that nullified the principle of Mutually Assured Destruction and violated the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. With Gorbachev’s succession to the Soviet leadership in March 1985, the long nightmare began slowly to be dissolved. Nitze’s most dramatic involvement as a nuclear negotiator was at the October 1986 meeting between Gorbachev and Reagan in Reykjavik. Reagan, contrary to expectations, came close to proposing nuclear disarmament. After a strong start the talks broke down over Star Wars.

Nitze was “exhausted, run down and crushed.” George H.W. Bush did not retain him, and Nitze played no further part in the START negotiations that, by reducing the stocks of strategic nuclear weapons, began to reverse the process that Nitze himself had spent much of his life driving in the opposite direction.


By writing a surprisingly personal account of two men who lived their professional lives at very high intensity, Thompson has given human form to the most terrifying aspect of the cold war, the nuclear arms race. The atomic bomb, created in panic in the mistaken belief that Hitler would shortly have nuclear weapons, used, for the first and, it is to be hoped, last time, to defeat Japan, and copied by a paranoid Soviet Union, became the dark center of the mutual hostility and fear between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Thus, until quite recently, we lived in a time when many of the most powerful and brilliant people in the world spent their energy and talent, and huge sums of public money, on developing weapons that, if used, would have almost certainly destroyed orderly life on this planet. That it was impossible, for forty years, for the two superpowers to discuss this most lethal of threats to all life in a rational manner must rank, in retrospect at least, as the greatest foolishness and the greatest shared irresponsibility in history. The Hawk and the Dove reminds us poignantly of this fact.

Kennan and Nitze ended up as friends, although not very close ones, after nearly forty years of disagreement. Nitze declared, in 1999, that we should eliminate our entire nuclear arsenal, a change of heart of the kind that seems usually to occur in public men only after retirement. I am not sure that the two men actually “complemented” each other, as Thompson puts it. Kennan formulated the basis for handling, for nearly forty years, the most important challenge of US foreign policy. Nitze tried to apply the formula to a high-stakes military and psychological gamble, at huge cost, as Kennan argued, to civilian society, the US economy, and even to an orderly Russia. It is a miracle that the world avoided a near-terminal disaster.

For much of their careers, Nitze and Kennan represented opposite positions, morally, politically, and militarily. Nitze won out in the short term, Kennan in the long term. When the cold war was clearly at an end, it was Kennan who was awarded the Medal of Freedom. “George is a happy man now,” Arthur Schlesinger wrote in his diary. “He basks in an atmosphere of belated but heartfelt recognition and approval.” Nitze too, although more grudgingly, was praised as the designer of the military strategy that may have kept America safe, but there were many who thought that American belligerence had encouraged Soviet belligerence and therefore intensified the arms race. Both men were sincerely convinced that their course was the right and patriotic one. Thanks particularly to Gorbachev and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet regime, things eventually worked out reasonably well, and no one could say with absolute certainty which one was right.

  1. 6

    Thompson reveals that in the 1940s Kennan had proposed a Foreign Service School with strict discipline and uniforms.

  2. 7

    George F. Kennan, “Introducing Eugene McCarthy,” The New York Review, April 11, 1968.

  3. 8

    In 1952, Kennan, talking to a reporter in Germany after four disagreeable months as ambassador in Moscow, described the treatment Americans received in Moscow as about like being interned in Germany during the war. He was immediately declared persona non grata by Stalin, who evidently could not accept being compared, by implication, with Hitler.

  4. 9

    Nitze was an indefatigable institution-builder. As early as 1943, he and Christian Herter had founded the School of Advanced International Studies, now Johns Hopkins’s highly respected SAIS.

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