A gently critical assessment of two influential shapers of U.S. foreign policy, hawk Paul Nitze (1907–2004) and dove George Kennan (1904–2005).
Wired editor Thompson—Nitze’s grandson—transitions eloquently between his two portraits. Kennan was the urbane writer from Milwaukee who cut his teeth at the American embassy in Moscow at the end of World War II, and warned early on about the need for a policy of “long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.” Nitze was the Wall Street upstart who started at the Defense Department under FDR assistant James Forrestal in 1940. Despite surveying firsthand the devastation of Hiroshima, he would propagate the buildup of the nuclear arsenal to match the Soviet threat during the next 40 years. Kennan first hired Nitze as his deputy at the Policy Planning staff, attempting to figure out how to implement a plan to resurrect the economies of Europe and draw them closer to America. Though they initially agreed on a hard-line approach to the Soviet threat, they began to drift apart on the hydrogen-bomb debate. Kennan warned against the “resource-devouring arms race,” but Nitze’s alarmist strategies won the day, convincing President Truman to pursue the bomb. During subsequent events in Korea, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Vietnam, the SALT talks, glasnost and the fall of the Berlin Wall, both men would play key roles, either as the bruising insider (Nitze) or diplomatic outsider (Kennan). Both made mistakes and vast turnarounds. Kennan testified against pursuing the war in Vietnam, yet worked with the FBI to track student demonstrators; Nitze alienated President Carter’s SALT team by his hawkishness, yet admitted as an elder in 1999 that he saw “no compelling reason why we should not unilaterally get rid of our nuclear weapons.” While ably portraying the unlikely friendship between the two men, Thompson doesn’t take sides, but rather adheres to a respectful historic distance.
A fascinating revisiting of Cold War estrangements.