Two giants at odds in long Cold War strug­gle

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. -

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.

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