Nicholas Thompson, The Hawk and the Dove: Paul Nitze, George Kenan, and The History of the Cold War

In 2005, Nicholas Thompson published an op-ed in the Boston Globe in which he compared the rivalry between George Kennan and Paul Nitze in the Cold War to that between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams in the early days of the American republic. The piece became the basis of his new book, The Hawk and the Dove: Paul Nitze, George Kennan, and the History of the Cold War, which has garnered attention and praise from the most prominent historians of the Cold War. In his gloss on the book’s back cover, John Lewis Gaddis—the resident Cold War expert at Yale—echoes the analogy to the founding fathers, declaring that Kennan and Nitze were indeed “the Adams and Jeffersons of the Cold War.” The antagonism between Jefferson and Adams is, of course, the meat-and-potatoes of early American history, as taught in thousands of high school American history classes across the country. Jefferson, we are all taught, played the role of the government-fearing, liberty-loving yeoman farmer to Hamilton’s urban, government-is-good central planner. And we come to understand that, with some qualifications, the entire history of American politics could be traced through this divide.

In the same vein, Thompson tells the story of the Cold War through the decades-long intellectual battle between Nitze and Kennan. There are important differences, of course, between the two sets of rivals. Many college-educated Americans, not to mention high-school graduates, have never heard of either Kennan or Nitze. In addition to never being president, neither of these men ever even held elected office. They were instead behind-the-scenes figures. And while they aspired to the highest echelons of the official foreign policy establishment, neither ever held a cabinet post. Amongst the many positions Nitze held in the Defense and State Departments, as well the White House, the highest was Deputy Secretary of Defense during the Johnson administration. Kennan, a career Foreign Service officer by training, never climbed higher than Director of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff in the Truman administration. The rivalry between Nitze and Kennan was thus one between two policy wonks who struggled to shape the way presidents, policymakers, and other policy wonks understood and approached the Cold War.

In the titular conceit of the book, the rivalry between Nitze and Kennan is one between hawk and dove. Nitze is the hawk. Entering government service in the Roosevelt administration, Nitze spent five decades advocating on behalf of a well-planned and well-managed buildup of America’s nuclear arsenal. As a member of Truman’s Policy Planning Staff, he authored National Security Council (NSC) Document 68, which recommended a vast increase in the country’s military budget and effectively militarized the Cold War. In the Kennedy and Johnson years, he held the posts of Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs in the Kennedy administration, Secretary of the Navy and Deputy Secretary of Defense. He was a U.S. delegate to the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT) talks in the Nixon and Ford years, although he opposed the ratification of the treaty in 1979. As key advisor to Reagan on arms control, he continued to emphasize the importance of America’s military capacity in the Cold War. Nitze’s hawkishness extended beyond the idea of military escalation to encompass a more general desire to broaden America’s presence and ability to do good in the world.

Kennan is the dove who spent the same five decades advocating on behalf of nuclear disarmament. A career Foreign Service officer and Soviet expert by training, Kennan spent the first two decades of his career in relative obscurity. Upon writing the Long Telegram in 1946 and the X-article in 1947, which warned again mollycoddling the Soviet Union, he established himself as a sought-after voice in inner policy circles. In 1950, just as Nitze was rising in the inner policy circles, Kennan dissented against the militarization of the Cold War and resigned his post as Director of Policy Planning. Although he would go on to hold two ambassadorships (to Moscow in the Truman administration and Belgrade under Kennedy), Kennan exerted his influence mostly from outside of the government. During the Eisenhower administration, he became the emblematic critic of the nuclear buildup that was so central to Nitze’s foreign policy vision. He argued against escalation in Vietnam and during the Reagan years, he challenged the logic of military readiness that formed the core of Nitze’s advice to the White House. Kennan’s dovishness extended beyond the idea of military de-escalation to encompass a more general desire to see America limit its international commitments and a deep skepticism about America’s ability to do good in the world.

Historical distance tends to mute our ability to perceive the depth, passion, and implications of political debates that appear to belong more to the past than the present. Even in the example of the founding fathers, it can be difficult to really understand the intensity of the disagreement between Hamilton and Jefferson. From our vantage point, the two men had so much in common, much more than anyone who wasn’t in government at the time, and much more than anyone living in the twenty-first century. Indeed, their differences constantly collapse under the proverbial label of Founding Fathers. The Cold War may be much closer to us in time, but, as someone who teaches college freshmen, I can tell you that it is in many respects even more distant than the days of the founding fathers. Typically, if it gets covered at all, the second half of the twentieth century is glossed over for about two weeks in June in high-school history class, when students’ thoughts have already turned to summer vacation. This is just one of many possible explanations for the fact that, outside of superficial knowledge about Reagan, Gorbachev, and Sputnik, our general knowledge of the Cold War is poor. How much more difficult, then, is the task of making readers appreciate the stakes of the rivalry between two behind-the-scenes figures in this period, who tried to shape foreign policy from outside of the inner sanctum of the White House. Indeed, part of the accomplishment of this book is the extent to which it does just that.

As Thompson deftly demonstrates, the most profound differences between Kennan and Nitze did not exist solely at the level of policy. They were also differences of temperament and style. Nitze was an extrovert, a socialite, and a doer. He had a rational mind, and liked to work with numbers, charts, and graphs. He carried physical models of ballistic missile stockpiles in his briefcase to use in presentations. Nitze was also an optimist. Kennan, on the other hand, was a brooding introvert. Skeptical of scientific rationalism, he was an extremely skilled and poetic writer. His most characteristic official communiqués were Dantesque explorations into the underworld of Soviet and American foreign policy. Kennan was in many ways a pessimist. As Thompson insightfully explains, his best writing tended to emerge from the darkest recesses of his mind. In Thompson’s account, these differences in style and temperament are not mere accoutrements to the story of the two men’s policy differences. Instead, they are in many ways the source and explanation for these differences. Nitze believed in nuclear escalation, in large part because he believed in the science of managing it. Kennan recoiled against nuclear escalation, in large part because he distrusted that science, as well as the very idea of a rational world. Nitze believed in America as a beacon of freedom in the world because he believed in Americans. Kennan recoiled against America as a beacon in the world because he did not have such a faith. Indeed, the central debates of the Cold War can be seen as battles between these two temperaments and styles. Thompson’s book thus gives a certain cerebral twist to the idea that the personal is the political.

The centrality of the personal in Thompson’s narrative stems partly from his personal relationship to one of the rivals. Nitze was his grandfather. He thus knew Nitze first as a family member and only later as a subject of scholarly research, which no doubt contributed to his focus on the human and biographical dimension of Cold War policy. Being Nitze’s grandson also meant that Thompson had access to colleagues, friends, and family of Nitze, Kennan, and other important people in the book, as well as early access to previously private materials in Kennan’s personal archive. The material from these sources is extremely vivid and engaging. In some cases, Thompson uses it to revise or complicate our understanding of Kennan or Nitze, as in his explanation of Nitze’s frustration at the idea that he was an advocate of nuclear war rather than a strategic buildup of military capacity to prevent such a war. But mostly, the new details are used to thicken the narrative, to make both of his subjects more human and more real. In the process, Thompson not only gives life to the rivalry between Kennan and Nitze, but also to the world of the Cold War.

At the same time, as with the founding fathers, the similarities between Nitze and Kennan constantly push up against the premise that Nitze and Kennan existed on two different sides of an ideological divide. Thompson himself considers this fact as he traces the intellectual tensions between Nitze and Kennan across the arc of the Cold War. The intellectual divide between Kennan and Nitze was especially sharp in 1950, he explains, faded somewhat over the next two decades, especially in the 1960s, when both dissented against the Vietnam War, then sharpened again in the Reagan years, and finally faded in the final years of their long lives, when both concluded that complete nuclear disarmament was the only real way of avoiding global catastrophe.

To speak of similarities between Kennan and Nitze’s views, however, is not only to observe the ebbs and flows of their rivalry. It is also to acknowledge some key respects in which their perspectives were always comparable. One of these is class and social status. Thompson points out that Kennan came from a middle, class midwestern family—he was born in Milwaukee—and, at least early on, didn’t entertain real hopes of ever being rich. One of the most poignant moments in Kennan’s memoirs is when he details the alienation he felt as an undergraduate at Princeton and compares himself to a character in a Fitzgerald novel. In contrast, Nitze hailed from the northeast establishment elite that, as a young man, Kennan felt scorned by. As Thompson writes, Nitze was “born to money, and he married more of it.” Without ignoring these differences, it is hard to overlook the fact that both men were WASPs and, well, men. To read Thompson’s book is to realize the extent to which this demographic shaped American foreign policy well into the Cold War, with Henry Kissinger as the notable exception.

Another important reference point from which Kennan and Nitze can easily appear more alike than different is that of the Cold War consensus. The overall spectrum on which the differences between Nitze and Kennan can be plotted is relatively narrow. Generally speaking, both ascribed to the ideology that the Soviet Union was a totalitarian state, in the sense that Hannah Arendt characterized it in 1951. And both ascribed to the ideology that the Soviet Union was an expansionist power, in a way that qualitatively differed from American expansionism in Europe and elsewhere after World War Two. Kennan did more than Nitze to drift away from the Cold War consensus and from his X-article, which contributed to it. But, even his most dovish of moments, the author of the X-article occupied a very different position from the more radical critics of the Cold War, especially those outside government circles. Thompson describes the fan mail Kennan received from antiwar activists after his testimony before Senator Fulbright’s committee in 1966. But, unlike the antiwar demonstrators who would march on the Pentagon just months later, Kennan did not support the immediate removal of troops in Vietnam, nor, as a self-ascribed realist, who believed in diplomacy only because he also believed in the struggle between states, did he advocate anything akin to pacifism. At times, especially toward the end of the book, Thompson himself participates in the Cold War consensus by suggesting that Kennan was right in his prediction that the Soviet Union would self-implode and Nitze was right in figuring out how to handle the Soviet Union in the meantime. The Cold War was a victory, he suggests, insofar as global catastrophe was avoided. As many historians have pointed out, this claim only makes sense when you ignore the proxy hot wars of the period, which resulted in the deaths of 25 million people … not to mention the nuclear war near-miss of the Cuban Missile crisis.

The question of whether Nitze and Kennan were more alike than different has implications for The Hawk and the Dove beyond the Cold War. For many readers, the Cold War has meaning primarily for its potential analogies to the current War on Terror. Thompson’s ability to bring readers into the Cold War does not only make the past more understandable, but also more relatable to the present.

At several moments in Thompson’s narrative, it is easy and perhaps even tempting to see Nitze as a founding father of the neoconservative movement. Indeed, as young men in the late sixties and seventies, some of the most influential neoconservatives, including Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz, worked under Nitze on various think tanks, such as Safeguard and the Committee on the Present Danger. But if we understand the entire Cold War and the consensus on which it was built as a predecessor to the War on Terror, then Nitze and Kennan would both be founding fathers. In their final years, both men moved closer and closer to nuclear renunciation, and in 2003, shortly before his death, Kennan spoke out against the invasion of Iraq. One way to interpret this ending is to see it as Nitze did—a testament to the fundamental difference between the Cold War and the War on Terror. What worked in the former can’t work in the latter. Another way to interpret it is to see it through Kennan’s eyes—as a testament to the lessons learned by the mistakes of the Cold War. In either case, the United States remains wedded to a foreign policy that was ultimately abandoned by the very people that helped to shape it in the first place.


Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1