Hawk and Dove

An exclusive excerpt from Nick Thompson's new book on two unlikely bedfellows -- Paul Nitze and George Kennan -- and their Cold War.

Eric Schwab/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Eric Schwab/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Eric Schwab/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

It is hard to serve 10 presidents in a row. There aren't that many people, after all, who moved from Clinton to Bush or from Bush to Obama. The world moves more quickly now, ideas turn over faster, and partisanship makes it hard to switch from Republican to Democrat administrations, or vice versa. Fame and influence are now more likely to blow away in 15 minutes -- or, in an age of Twitter, maybe 140 characters.

It is hard to serve 10 presidents in a row. There aren’t that many people, after all, who moved from Clinton to Bush or from Bush to Obama. The world moves more quickly now, ideas turn over faster, and partisanship makes it hard to switch from Republican to Democrat administrations, or vice versa. Fame and influence are now more likely to blow away in 15 minutes — or, in an age of Twitter, maybe 140 characters.

But a couple of generations ago, two men emerged in the foreign-policy establishment who exercised influence over 50 years of debate: Paul Nitze and George Kennan. Nitze, with his bureaucratic skills and nimbleness, worked under every president from Franklin D. Roosevelt to George H.W. Bush. Kennan conceived of the policy of containment that guided America after WW II — and then spent the next five decades as a powerful, disillusioned voice combating what containment had become.   

Both men died five years ago. But their legacy endures. Many young men who served with and under Nitze remain influential today. (In 1969, for example, his crop of interns included Edward Luttwak, Richard Perle, and Paul Wolfowitz.) Kennan’s realist attitudes, and the ideas behind containment, connect to many of the policies of the Obama administration.

But really to understand the genesis and subtleties of their enduring impact, one must first understand the towering personalities behind these two men — and their unique friendship and rivalry.


The Policy Planning Staff (PPS) at the State Department was the ideal environment for George Kennan, perhaps the deepest — and gloomiest — thinker ever to serve the United States government. The offices were sparse: The conference room had one round table, scattered with ashtrays, and comfortable chairs. There were no inboxes or outboxes. On the walls hung two maps: one of the United States and one of the world. It was a place for Kennan to contemplate and to hold forth.

Kennan took over PPS in 1947 and for much of his first two years in the office he got his way. His country pursued a policy of containing the Soviet Union through political pressure, just as he famously advocated in his "X Article," "The Sources of Soviet Conduct." The Marshall Plan, quietly establishing a department of covert action, limited support for the corrupt Chinese Nationalists, extensive peaceful support to rebuild Japan — all these were the fruit of Kennan’s ideas for how to counter Soviet influence and ambition.

Nonetheless, Kennan’s overall influence in the Truman administration gradually began to fade. He tried to stop the formation of the Atlantic military alliance, NATO, because he feared that, as with the formation of a West German government, it would solidify Europe’s East-West divide. He opposed the recognition of the state of Israel. He thought the United Nations hopeless. By the time of his proposal for reunifying Germany, Program A, was scuttled in the spring of 1949 he was becoming known as a figure like Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes: a man recognized mainly for his formidable dissents.

As Kennan lost power, a slightly younger man named Paul Nitze was gaining it. The two men had met on a train in 1943 and become friends. They worked together on the Marshall Plan and, in the summer of 1949, Kennan brought Nitze on as his deputy at PPS. Kennan had already decided he wanted to leave and he was clearly entertaining the notion that Nitze might replace him. When the junior man showed up for his first day of work, on July 29, Kennan gave him his office and moved his own work space into the conference room.

At first, Kennan still dominated the PPS meetings, and the relationship started as one of eager student and admired teacher. During an economic crisis in Britain late that summer, Kennan delegated Nitze to handle most of the talks with the British. At the end, Nitze came to him with a summary paper. Kennan recorded in his diary the great mirth he felt when he and Nitze revised the paper together, inserting paragraphs that Kennan had written about the crisis before the meeting even took place.

Only six weeks after Nitze arrived, however, came the event that would put him on the track he would follow for most of the rest of his career — and that brought him head-to-head with Kennan. In early September 1949, an American B-29 specifically equipped to collect weather samples took off from Japan and headed north. It passed near Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula, sucking in air samples. The detected radiation levels exceeded anything nature could have caused. Soon scientists testing rainwater had uncovered radioactive sludge and the Air Force was tracking a radioactive cloud. The Soviets had caught up with the United States and detonated an atomic bomb. What had happened four years before in Hiroshima and Nagasaki could now happen to Houston and New York.

On Sept. 13, Kennan got preliminary word about the test. On Sept. 19, a second scientific panel confirmed it. And on Sept. 21, Kennan went over to have dinner at Nitze’s house to discuss how to manage the story with the press.

The two men got along well that evening, sitting at a grand dining-room table on a black-and-white marble floor. But that was the last time — or, to be precise, the last time for 50 years, one month, and two days — that George Kennan and Paul Nitze would agree on the fundamental issue that defined the Cold War.

When the first mushroom clouds rose over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Kennan was a nuclear hawk. But by September 1949, Kennan was terrified not only by the weapon, but by the way the country was interpreting Russia’s technological success. His countrymen did not realize, he wrote in his diary, that what matters are "intentions, rather than the capabilities of other nations." As a result, the United States was "drifting toward a morbid preoccupation with the fact that the Russians conceivably could drop atomic bombs on this country."

To Nitze capabilities did matter, perhaps even more than intentions. A passive regime could turn hostile overnight. Weapons that did not seem menacing on Tuesday could look deadly dangerous by Wednesday. And what evidence was there to suggest that the Russians did not have designs on us, or at least on our allies in Western Europe? Ask the Poles, Hungarians, Czechs, Yugoslavs, East Germans, Romanians, and Bulgarians about Stalin’s reserve.

Nor did the weapon itself spook Nitze. He had studied its effects as part of the Strategic Bombing Survey — walking through the rubble of Hiroshima and Nagasaki only a month after the bombs had hit — and he knew that it caused finite damage. He was also beginning to formulate an arms-management thesis: even if you never used them, nuclear weapons gave you leverage. If the other side knew you would triumph in the ultimate battle, it would more likely accede in the smaller skirmishes. Whichever side most feared escalation would make the first concessions. The ability to blast Russia might obtain better basing rights in Turkey. He did not worry about the hyperarmament that such a doctrine would almost necessarily engender. After all, if the United States really did wave its nuclear sword to get basing rights off Istanbul, what might the Soviets do next except redouble their efforts to catch up?

That fall, the central question for the government quickly became whether the United States should try to build a hydrogen bomb, a fearful weapon that used fusion, not fission. Scientists had kicked the idea around for years, with little progress made. But the capacity for annihilation was tempting.

Truman set up a committee of three people to help him make the decision: Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson, chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission David Lilienthal, and Secretary of State Dean Acheson. Johnson would surely be in favor, and Lilienthal would surely oppose it. Acheson was the tiebreaker, and his mind was far from made up. Before choosing, he wanted to consult with his two top policy planners.

In the weeks following the successful Soviet test, Kennan and Nitze had separated, slowly but inexorably. On Sept. 30, Kennan first complained in his diary about his colleague, adding that, "I face the work of these remaining months with neither enthusiasm nor with hope for achievement."

Later, he sent a quick memo to Acheson setting forth nine leading questions for the secretary to consider. After the first one — "Would the use of the super-bomb constitute a menace to civilization itself through the possibility that it would pollute the earth’s atmosphere to a dangerous extent?" — Nitze scrawled "no" in the margins. He then handwrote in a 10th question, trying to draw Acheson in the other direction. Would we know if the Soviets were making a bomb, too?

December 1949 was the critical month. Kennan had isolated himself in his office in order to write. He felt the weight of the future bearing down on him, and his pen was the only means by which he could push it back. He had essentially decided to defend his position in the bureaucracy with a single weapon — his coming opus.

Nitze, in contrast, would fight for the bomb by land, sea, and air. He joined the Atomic Working Group within the State Department. He lobbied Acheson. To opponents of the weapon, he offered compromises, like pairing the development of the superbomb with a strategic review. His notes from this period show a man playing with hypotheticals and theories. He covered each page with neatly ordered lists and often extremely dense doodles that look a bit like the broodings of a Kandinsky acolyte. On one page he wrote: "To live as free men or not at all. Test of will. Gotterdåmmerung."

Kennan emerged from isolation deathly exhausted, with a 79-page treatise that he would call the most important paper of his life. The Kennans had just had their third child, and, soon after completing the first draft, he wrote to Acheson that he "was tempted, day before yesterday, to go into the baby’s room and say: ‘Go on, get up. You’re going to work today. I’ll get in the crib."

Brilliant and prescient, Kennan’s paper called upon Shakespeare and St. Paul. America, he argued, needed to take a strong, decisive step away from its obsession with the atomic bomb. Human power now exceeded human wisdom, and if these weapons had to exist, some international organization should control them. Foreshadowing 40 years of debate, he advocated the virtues of declaring a policy of not using the weapons first. He worried about how the public would process the fact that "there are no issues which could justify mutual destruction."

Much of his argument was psychological. The power of these weapons stretched so far past the terrible ends of human imagination that we could not figure out how to set a rational policy around them. "I fear that the atomic weapon," he wrote, "will impede understanding of the things that are important to a clean, clear policy and will carry us toward the misuse and dissipation of our national strength." For example, he explained that moving forward on this path would begin a resource-devouring arms race that would provoke an "inability to find adequate criteria for putting them into proper perspective alongside other government expenditures."

Nitze found Kennan’s paper entirely unpersuasive. On his personal copy, Nitze marked the two passages cited above and put thick question marks in the margins next to them. Throughout the rest of the text, he scrawled question marks, comments like "no!", and such occasional caustic responses as, "Misreading of what we are about." At the bottom of Page 1, as if to emphasize Kennan’s position on the great debate, Nitze wrote "prohibition" and underlined it twice.

Nitze agreed that the bombs were deadly dangerous and that the world would benefit if they did not exist. But exist they did. We could understand them, and we could set rational policy surrounding them — starting with research into the Super. Nitze’s final argument was even simpler. The Soviets were going to pursue testing, and since we could not afford to fall behind, we must match them.

Over Christmas weekend, Acheson took versions of Nitze’s and Kennan’s memos home to think the issue over. A month later he would march over to the president’s office with Lilienthal and Johnson to present their recommendations.

The president of the United States began to speak: "We have known for a long time that there were possibilities of developing a type of atomic weapon which would have almost unlimited destructive power, depending on the amount detonated.

"At my direction, this matter has been given the most careful study by competent organs of this government. On the basis of their reports to me, I have decided, after grave deliberation and in full consciousness of the nature of the issues involved, that it is not in the national interest that we should proceed at this time to the development of this type of explosive.

"The American people view with abhorrence all weapons of mass destruction. It is a source of profound regret to us that failure to reach international agreement on atomic energy control has made it necessary for us to proceed with the production of atomic bombs. I hope that we will never lose our balance by entering on a race for the development of weapons of pure mass destruction unless it is clear that our security will be materially served thereby, on balance. In the present instance, I do not find that to be the case."

Had Truman so spoken, he would have utterly changed the course of the arms race. But he did not. The preceding words come from a draft speech that Kennan had written in case his arguments won the day. But they had not. No evidence exists that Truman read his paper, and the actual meeting at which the final decision about the hydrogen bomb was made lasted a mere seven minutes. For Acheson, Lilienthal, and Johnson, Truman had one question: "Can the Russians do it?" The answer came back: "Yes, they can."

"In that case," the president said, "we have no choice. We’ll go ahead." Nitze’s side of the argument had prevailed.

Nitze and Kennan would remain friends until the end of their lives, but they would seek influence in different ways. Nitze embedded himself in government: serving in one way or another under every president until Bill Clinton. Kennan became an outsider: gaining influence through his Pulitzer prize-winning books, essays, and congressional testimony. They worked in opposite ways, but sometimes toward the same ends. They collaborated closely inside the State Department during the Korean War and, together, presciently opposed all the authority being given to Douglas MacArthur. They both lambasted Dwight Eisenhower and his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles. In the 1960s, they simultaneously opposed America’s expanding engagement in Vietnam.

But they never saw eye-to-eye on nuclear weapons; and, as that issue gained prominence, it drove them further and further apart. Their division became most apparent in the 1970s, the decade when everyone in Washington learned the fateful acronyms of the arms race — ICBMs, SLBMs, and ABMs. Nitze, appointed by Richard Nixon to the SALT delegation in 1969, had helped coin the new vocabulary and now he would master it. He studied the weapons the way a monk studies scripture. Every word, and every weapon, had meaning. World peace, quite literally, hinged on a stable relationship between the U.S. and Soviet arsenals — and that stability could hinge on apparently tiny details. If Moscow was allowed to build just a few more of these, with those components, and we did not counter with this, the Soviets might be tempted to start a war. Both at the beginning and at the end of the decade, he knew more about these weapons than almost any other man alive.

Nitze’s fascinated immersion was matched by Kennan’s willfully uncomprehending alienation. To him, the acronyms and the details were preposterous. What could one, or 20, or 100 more of these horrors possibly mean if we already had enough to turn the planet into Venus? In one sense, the stockpiles were all-too-real. In another sense, they were imaginary. By tinkering with numbers and fretting over ratios, we created an illusion of control. But man had built something far too powerful for man to control. Kennan did not reach back to Hiroshima; he reached back to a crushing trip he had taken in the devastation of Hamburg after World War II, when he concluded that no rational man could countenance war on that scale, even with non-nuclear weapons.

These two men reached these opposite conclusions through temperament and experience. Nitze had spent his youth building home telephone sets; Kennan had quietly written poetry. Nitze came to trust and believe in the power of numbers; Kennan believed that technology destroyed more than it created. Nitze spent his life gaining confidence: he was unusually popular, generally the smartest man in the room, and always well off. From the death of his mother soon after birth, Kennan spent his life learning doubt — self-doubt as well as doubt in the wisdom of the men making decisions for the world. Nitze’s career had led him to believe that the U.S. government, especially when he was involved, could make sound decisions. Kennan felt that the U.S. government was all too likely to go astray. Nitze believed he could answer the new epic questions; Kennan believed that nobody could do that and that the ghastly weapons were now in the saddle and riding mankind.

Gradually, Kennan, and Nitze became the diplomatic equivalents of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson: competing icons who admired each other and who would be forever linked. By the late 1970s, Kennan had become a co-chairman of the American Committee on East-West Accord, an organization dedicated to reducing tensions between the two superpowers. Nitze, the face of the Committee on the Present Danger, was hard at doing the opposite. Each man appeared on talk shows and before Congress. The old sages were cited in the papers with similar frequency. From the beginning of 1977 to the end of 1980, the New York Times and Washington Post mentioned Kennan 102 times and Nitze 108. In May 1978, the New York Times Magazine placed the names of the two men on the cover, across from a picture of Brezhnev. "Can Carter Handle Him? Two Opposing Views." Nitze contributed an essay and Kennan acquiesced to a long interview. Kennan’s answer to the question posed by the magazine was a hedged yes. Nitze’s, of course, was no. He had been rejected for a formal job by the Carter administration (though he quietly worked as a consultant to the CIA) and he spent most of his energy during these years lambasting Carter’s SALT II agreement. His article ran alongside a photograph in which his eyes were wide open and he seemed to be pointing at the photographer, apparently ready to jump out of the magazine onto a million breakfast tables in order to mobilize the nation against the Soviet threat.

As was always the case, neither attacked the other personally. Nitze simply asserted that Kennan seemed to believe in "accommodation" and left the charge at that. Kennan did not invoke his former colleague’s name, but he did engage in dismissive psychoanalysis. Asked why the hard-liners were so worried about Moscow, he responded, "It sometimes seems to me that people have a need for the externalization of evil. They have the need to think that there is, somewhere, an enemy boundlessly evil, because this makes them feel boundlessly good." Still, Kennan, perhaps fearing Nitze’s teeth in his calf, tried very hard to depersonalize the disagreement. "I shall soon be 75 years of age," he wrote New York Times journalist James Reston in 1978. "My means and energies are obviously limited. For me to try to involve myself in public disputes with Paul Nitze and others would merely mean to get myself chewed up in controversy."

The two men reached a measure of personal détente in the 1980s when Nitze, as Reagan’s chief arms negotiator, became the president’s chief conciliator. In one of the most striking acts of disobedience in the history of arms control, he split off from his delegation in 1982 in order to conduct solo negotiations with his Soviet partner as they walked in the woods through the Jura Mountains. In 1986, he pushed desperately for an arms deal at the famously failed Reykjavik talks, working through the night to get the two sides inches close to a massive arms deal that Reagan and Gorbachev later rejected because of a dispute over the chimera of missile defense.

At the end of the Cold War, they felt quite differently about how it had gone. Nitze was triumphant and proud. Kennan pained at all the money and resources that had been wasted, he believed, because people hadn’t listened to him. Nonetheless, the two men found themselves lumped together as joint symbols of America’s success in the Cold War: Kennan for having framed America’s successful policy and Nitze for having carried it out.

And then in October 1999, Nitze decided he wanted to publish an op-ed in the New York Times stepping away from his long-held views and proposing the abolishment of all nuclear weapons. "Why would someone who spent so many years negotiating with the Soviet Union about the size of our nuclear arsenal now say we no longer need it?" Nitze asked in the piece. "I know that the simplest and most direct answer to the problem of nuclear weapons has always been their complete elimination. My ‘walk in the woods’ in 1982 with the Soviet arms negotiator Yuli Kvitsinsky at least addressed this possibility on a bilateral basis. Destruction of the arms did not prove feasible then, but there is no good reason why it should not be carried out now."

A short while later, he received a letter from his old friend. ”Dear Paul: Warmest congratulations on your recent New York Times article, with every word of which I agree,” wrote Kennan. ”In the light of our long-standing friendship and mutual respect, it is a source of deep satisfaction to me to find the two of us, at our advanced ages, in complete accord on questions that have meant so much to each of us, even when we did not fully agree, in times gone by.”

Nitze read it out loud at a dinner party the night he received it, smiling broadly. Both men were old — Nitze 92 and Kennan 96 — and it was the last time they would be in touch. "George could always write brilliantly," said Nitze later that evening while reflecting on the grace of his rival’s prose. "He really could."

Nicholas Thompson is a senior editor at Wired and the author of The Hawk and The Dove: Paul Nitze, George Kennan and the History of the Cold War.

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