Two giants at odds in long Cold War struggle
An earlier review of this book that appeared elsewhere was inappropriately headlined with a question the reviewer never intended to answer: “Which of These Men Won the Cold War?” Flanking the article were large photos, one of a benign, formally attired George F. Kennan, the other of Paul Nitze kitted out in military gear and looking very much like Hunter S. Thompson off on a coke jag.
Of all the tiresome cliches of American politics, none is more irritating than the myth of the Cold War and that these two men wrestled for the nation’s strategic soul; the one — Kennan — more intellectually sound, urging a firm yet peaceoriented counter to Soviet bellicosity; the other — Nitze — more reactionary, ruthlessly tilting us toward global military aggression that was too costly in human lives and treasure and netted us nothing that would not have happened anyway.
This extremely well-researched and accessible book may be the most important political biography of recent memory, and if it does not win at least one of the major awards, that will be because of its unfashionable conclusions. This is a multifaceted story that Nicholas Thompson, an editor at Wired magazine, has produced, a double biography of two of our most important, intellectually creative foreign-policy architects of the past 60 years. It also is a story of why we have behaved the way we have since the end of World War II.
But more than a history, it is an invaluable primer for those of us who look ahead to seemingly insoluble dilemmas in Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran because it reminds us of the home truth that a nation can be neither safe nor a force for good in the world without at least judiciously prepar ing to exer t force.
Mr. Thompson is a grandson of Nitze’s, but instead of that being a handicap, it enabled him to gain access to both Nitze’s archives and Kennan’s vastly revealing diaries. The result is a scrupulously balanced and nuanced portrait of two men who maintained a lasting friendship despite a 50-year disagreement over how America should con- duct the leadership role it was thrust into at the end of World War II.
There is an answer to the question of whether Nitze or Kennan won the Cold War, if that is what we still must call it. Nitze did, hands down. And we are lucky he did.
The inescapable conclusion from Mr. Thompson´s portraits is that the difference in outcomes may have been owed to the fact that Paul Nitze genuinely cared about America; he saw it as a good nation that could handle greatness while avoiding the corruption that extreme power so often brings to nations.
Kennan, on the other hand, was not so sure he approved of the unruly and often bumptious American democracy he witnessed as an onlooker during decades spent abroad in diplomatic posts throughout Europe and Russia. While no one could ever say Kennan was soft on communism — especially the Stalinist kind — he deeply loved Russia and its people with what might be called 18th-century affection for the nobility of lesser people.
Kennan, it seems, was something of a prig, an overintellectualized snob who had little sympathy for the victims of the very oppressions he watched from embassy sanctuaries in Berlin, Prague and Moscow. Mr. Thompson convincingly refutes contemporary charges that Kennan was an anti-Semite as being off the point.
In Tim Tzouliadis’ splendid 2008 book, “The Forsaken: An American Tragedy in Stalin’s Russia,” the thousands of credulous Americans who flocked to the promises of jobs in the Soviet Union’s workers’ paradise of the early 1930s soon repented and, at tremendous risk, ran a gantlet of Russian police to plead with U.S. Embassy officials for repatriation.
Kennan is portrayed as coldly turning the petitioners away while acknowledging that nearly all were thus condemned to the gulag or immediate summary execution by Stalin´s thugs. He just had no sympathy for countrymen who were not of his own kind.
If Kennan was a more ethereal thinker, Nitze was both more humane, more politically liberal, less inclined to abstract intellectualizing, more focused and far more willing to scrap with adversaries to make his views prevail.
Where Kennan ultimately went off to Princeton to sulk and hector from the sidelines, Nitze endured the internal struggles involved in advising 10 presidents, many of whom rejected his advice and not a few who found ways to punish him for his temerity.
Contrary to the myth that portrays Nitze as “an inveterate hawk who attached great importance to the balance of nuclear firepower between the Russians and the Americans,” (as one cr itical version as- serts), his lifelong cynicism over the ultimate deterrence of atomic weapons dated from the strategic bombing survey he directed in Japan in 1945 to assess the real impact of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki destruction. Nor, to be fair, was Kennan fairly charged with being insensitive to Soviet aggressive ambitions and the threat to American security.
It is rather that in propounding his creative notion that America should “contain” Soviet expansion through selective diplomatic checkmating, Kennan readily conceded that the Kremlin was committed to permanent struggle for dominance of the world against the capitalist democracies. He repeated that conviction of permanent challenge in his famous “Long Telegram,” in the equally famous article “Mr. X” in Foreign Af- fairs, and in a notable “Resume of the World Situation” he sent to Secretary of State George C. Marshall in November 1947.
It is just that, as he concluded in the latter memo, “All in all, there is no reason to expect that we will be forced suddenly and violently into a major military clash with Soviet forces.” He defended that view for the rest of his long life.
Nitze knew better. He accepted Kennan´s point that all totalitarian societies have a fatal flaw, that their subject people will accept tyranny only as long as they see economic gains in their own lives but, fatally, as prosperity grows it becomes impossible for tyrants to keep a stranglehold on their populace. Yet he realized, as with Nazi Germany and its fascist Axis allies, one can keep the lid on at home for a long time if one subsidizes one´s tyranny with the treasure wrenched from ever more captive nations under the state’s domination.
While Paul Nitze earned the undying criticism of the unthinking left for daring to urge a massive buildup of both our conventional and nuclear arsenals — both as security for us and as a stressful and costly burden for the Russians — he earned very little praise when, after the collapse of the Soviet empire in the 1990s, he began to advocate dismantling the very arsenal he had advocated 30 years previously. It did not fit his myth-image of “inveterate hawk,” even though, at the end, George Kennan agreed with him.
This is an important story and one well told.
James Srodes is a Washington journalist and author.
A West Berlin police officer stands in front of the concrete wall dividing East and West Berlin at Bernauer Strasse as East Berlin workers add blocks to increase the height of the East German barrier on Oct. 7, 1961.