A review of The Hawk and the Dove: Paul Nitze, George Kennan, and the History of the Cold War, by Nicholas Thompson

Nicholas Thompson's The Hawk and the Dove: Paul Nitze, George Kennan, and the History of the Cold War reminds us that formulating and executing American grand strategy has always been a messy, contentious business. Thompson offers us the parallel lives of two friends who provided contrasting approaches to American national security policy—the advocate of diplomacy who sought to end the Cold War, and the proponent of military strength who wanted to win it (although the two never quite fit the dove-hawk dichotomy).

A senior editor at Wired magazine and a fellow of the New America Foundation, Thompson has a personal claim to authority. He is the grandson of one of the protagonists, Paul Nitze, and had access to Nitze's private papers as well as to family memories. He relies heavily on interviews with key players on both sides of the hawk-dove divide in the United States, as well as former Soviet officials, but he unearths no show-stopping revelations that change dramatically our view of the Cold War. His book aims to guide non-expert readers through issues and arguments that are increasingly obscure except to the cognoscenti, who still fight the old battle in new times. We might characterize that battle as between a linear and non-linear approach to American national security policy.

George Kennan staked his claim to fame with two seminal contributions to the formulation of American post-war national security policy. First, while serving as deputy chief of mission in the American embassy in Moscow, he made the case to his superiors in Washington in his "Long Telegram" of February 1946 that Soviet hostility to the West was rooted in Russian history and psychology and in the domestic necessities of maintaining the Stalinist-Marxist dictatorship. Soviet paranoia could not be addressed through ordinary diplomacy or adjustments in policy designed to reassure Stalin and his associates that the West meant them no harm. Second, back in America at the National War College and then as director of the newly-formed Policy Planning Staff in the State Department (194749), Kennan argued that "measures short of war"—economic, political, and psychological—would be sufficient to counter the Soviet regime. There was a sensible middle ground for the United States between military conflict and feckless appeasement. By rebuilding the strength and independence of the major Eurasian centers of power, especially Western Europe, the United States would deny the Soviets the easy route of expansion. The Marshall Plan was for Kennan the template for future American foreign policy.

Kennan's approach became public in his July 1947 "X" article in Foreign Affairs (his identity was soon known):

The main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies…. Soviet pressure against the free institutions of the Western world is something that can be contained by the adroit and vigilant application of counterforce at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points, corresponding to the shifts and maneuvers of Soviet policy, but which cannot be charmed or talked out of existence.

The "Cold War" (a term Kennan did not use or like) would end with the mellowing or collapse of the Soviet system, because that system held within itself "the seeds of its own decay."

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Kennan, remarkably, spent the remainder of his career walking away from what seemed to be the logical implication of these insights, at least those drawn by the foreign policy establishment then dominated by Cold War liberals and born-again Republican internationalists. While still in government, he supported certain covert actions against the Soviet Empire, but he opposed the Truman Doctrine, the formation of NATO, the rearmament of West Germany, and the development of thermonuclear weapons. When a private citizen, he opposed the Vietnam War and argued for radical changes in U.S. nuclear policy and force structure.

Kennan always denied any inconsistency. For him, international relations were essentially a non-linear phenomenon (to borrow a term from modern science). The international "system" is extraordinarily complex, yet simple changes in one part of the system can have enormous, often unpredictable effects throughout. The dominant law is that of unintended consequences—"blowback." The rise of nationalism and the breakup of the old European colonial order, the development of technology, especially nuclear weapons, and the increased importance of mass public opinion and secular ideologies further complicated the modern world. Efforts by governments to exercise positive control over this environment by traditional means—especially the necessarily blunt use of military power, even if that use was "virtual" or "defensive"—were likely to be counterproductive and risked a final, catastrophic conflict. "Nuclear strategy" in particular was a contradiction in terms. As to the Soviet threat, Kennan assumed that the imperative felt by Stalin and his successors to preserve their own rule would inherently limit Moscow's efforts to reorder the external world. But even if the Soviets miscalculated, the law of unintended consequences, as well as good old fashioned power politics, would serve to rein in Soviet expansionism. The harder the Soviets pushed, the faster they would decline.

But the same was true for the United States. The real danger, in Kennan's view, was not Soviet aggression but the risk that the United States would overreact to events and to apparent Soviet advances. The United States, with its insular culture, its inconstant democracy, and its moralistic-legalistic tradition in foreign policy, was particularly ill-suited to give direction to a New World Order. "We have nothing to teach the world," Kennan would say in later years. Kennan came to favor diplomacy aimed at disengaging the two sides, to minimize the likely effects of superpower jostling and to allow for the healthy development of other centers of power. He argued for negotiating the removal of U.S., British, and Soviet forces from central Europe and for unilateral and diplomatic measures to reduce the risk of nuclear war, such as a no-first-use policy. When the U.S. foreign policy establishment broke apart during the Vietnam debacle, Kennan's arguments provided intellectual currency to the opponents of the war in Vietnam and the advocates of arms control.

Kennan concluded essentially that an American grand strategy—in the sense of an intelligent, integrated approach to the world, applied consistently across the U.S. government—was impossible. Americans too easily equated strategy with military strategy, and besides, public opinion was too fickle. The bureaucracy always tried to apply written, general rules in an unthinking linear fashion, wrongly assuming that there was a close, predictable relationship between intended policy and real-world outcome in all areas and in all circumstances. In fact, judgments should be made on a case-by-case basis. The correct course of action was often counterintuitive, particularly in the military realm, where increases in military capability, especially nuclear forces, could drive an arms race, increase suspicion, and lead to an overall decrease in security and to war. His idea of containment had been hijacked; according to Thompson, he felt "like one who has inadvertently loosened a large boulder from the top of a cliff and now helplessly witnesses its path of destruction in the valley below, shuddering and wincing at each successive glimpse of disaster."

Kennan's preferred approach to foreign policy was one of grand sensibility, an appreciation of the tragic and the contingent, of the limits of human action and foresight, and of the need for nuance. A foreign policy of grand sensibility required giving authority to the few (or the one) who possessed great insight and allowing them (or him) to coordinate various aspects of policy in a way that the bureaucracy (with Congress looking over its shoulder) could not. When Kennan's ability to make such judgments and to direct U.S. foreign policy was challenged by his superiors, he became a dissenter, first inside government and then out.

The columnist Joseph Alsop, as Thompson records, described Kennan "as resembling the priestess on the tripod at the Greek oracle at Delphi who inhaled sacred smoke and then held forth. For part of the time, the God spoke truth through her mouth; for part of the time her speech was sheer gabble. The trouble was you never knew which element in what she said came from God." Kennan "has been more wrong than anyone else and more right than anyone else—and no one, including myself, has ever reliably deduced which was which at the moment of expression." Eugene Rostow, a one-time colleague in government, put Kennan's apparent inconsistency another way: "George isn't the man he used to be. But then, he never was."

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Frustration with Kennan's oracular pronouncements and dissents led Secretary of State Dean Acheson in fall 1949 to turn to Paul Nitze, who was serving as Kennan's deputy on the Policy Planning Staff and had been designated as his successor. Acheson sought to galvanize Congress and American public opinion, and the national security bureaucracy, to deal with what seemed to be a deteriorating strategic environment in the wake of the Soviet detonation of a nuclear weapon, the fall of China to Mao's Communists, and executive and legislative resistance to an increase in defense spending.

The hard-charging Nitze believed in the possibility of grand strategy, one that could be written down to guide national security policy and the military force posture. He also believed in the power of American idealism and example and using American power to improve the rest of the world (although Thompson, to stress the contrast with Kennan, perhaps overemphasizes that element of Nitze's thought). Nitze was the driving force behind the famous, or infamous, National Security Council report, NSC 68, issued in April 1950 (although not signed by President Truman until September, after the outbreak of the Korean War). NSC 68 stressed the ideological component of the conflict with the Soviet Union and the need to regain the strategic initiative, rather than waiting on history to sort things out.

Nitze and his colleagues favored a major military build-up across the board, both nuclear and conventional. He denied the accusations of Kennan (and of mainstream historians since) that NSC 68 represented a clumsy "militarization" of what had been a sophisticated political-economic-psychological policy. For Nitze, NSC 68 simply recognized the fact that American commitments and interests needed a credible military backstop, which the United States no longer possessed once the Soviets began to build up their own nuclear forces. Measures short of war required thinking about war, including nuclear war. War could happen and responsible officials had to face that prospect. But more to the point, the logic of war—what might happen if push came to shove—influenced critically the peacetime decisions of policymakers. Soviet policy, in Nitze's view, was fundamentally determined by the Kremlin's assessment of the correlation of forces (a broader gauge than the military balance of power, but ultimately the military element was the most important). Soviet leaders would be more inclined to run risks and broaden their ambitions to the extent that they believed the correlation of forces favored them.

Nitze, therefore, assumed a close, linear connection between American military capability (as well as other assets of national power) and the ability of the United States to influence international events favorably. But, in Nitze's eyes, linearity did not mean drawing lines (or erecting tripwires) everywhere, matching Soviet capabilities across the board, or necessarily using force. He opposed the introduction of American combat troops into Vietnam, for instance, out of prudential (rather than moral) concerns. Strategy required setting priorities, identifying the most essential dimension of the U.S.-Soviet competition, and creating flexibility to deal with an unpredictable world. Nitze advocated strengthening U.S. conventional forces—he was an opponent of Eisenhower's nuclear-focused doctrine of Massive Retaliation—so that the United States would have options at lower levels of conflict. But Nitze's one big thing was the correlation of strategic nuclear forces, measured over the long term by "throw-weight." Nuclear weapons were the queens of the geopolitical chessboard. Thompson describes Nitze's "arms management thesis" for nuclear weapons: "even if you never used them, nuclear weapons gave you leverage. If the other side knew you would triumph in the ultimate battle, they would more likely accede in the smaller skirmishes. Whichever side most feared escalation would make the first concessions."

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Nitze's views were a little more complicated than that. By the early 1960s, when he was serving in Robert McNamara's Pentagon, Nitze concluded that technical and political realities precluded the development of a true war-winning capability, in the sense of a World War II-like triumph. But he believed there was a difference between suffering 9 million and 90 million casualties. The United States could, and should, develop a force posture that would persuade Soviet leaders that they could not achieve a meaningful military advantage in any conceivable circumstance through the use of nuclear weapons, even if they struck first. The American nuclear arsenal should be survivable against Soviet attack and capable of degrading Soviet military capability throughout a nuclear exchange. The U.S. should never be forced to choose between suicide and surrender. Nitze believed that the U.S. should develop a nuclear force posture and arms control policy that aimed at "crisis stability" and "strategic stability," in which neither side would feel compelled to resort to war, threat-mongering, or an arms buildup because it felt that it was in a "use or lose" situation.

In much of his career, in and out of government, Nitze played (in the eyes of his critics) the role of Cassandra, warning of military gaps, greater than expected threats, and years of maximum danger. Nitze countered that such campaigns were necessary because the American political system was prone to assume (with Kennan) that nuclear weapons had rendered traditional strategy irrelevant and that the balance of forces was relatively meaningless. NSC 68 itself was one such advocacy effort. In the late 1950s, as a private citizen, Nitze participated in the Gaither Committee and other study groups that advocated increases in military programs. While serving in the Kennedy Administration, Nitze opposed McNamara's turn from nuclear counterforce targeting to a declaratory policy of city-busting. He joined with Dean Acheson in 1969 to form the Committee to Maintain a Prudent Defense Policy, which supported the development of the Safeguard anti-ballistic missile system. (Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, and Edward Luttwak were among the Committee's research assistants.) In the 1970s, Nitze served on Team B, a group of outsiders commissioned to review the CIA's (optimistic) assessment of the Soviet threat; and he was one of the founders of the Committee on the Present Danger, which opposed the SALT II Treaty.

Nitze was not above suspicion, however, among his conservative friends, who feared that his love of power and his problem-solving nature would lead to trouble. He did believe in the possibility of arms control, of the right sort, negotiated by the right man. For instance, as President Reagan's chief negotiator in the intermediate-range nuclear force (INF) talks in the early 1980s, Nitze attempted without authorization to cut a deal—the "Walk in the Woods"—that undermined the American "zero option" plan, devised by Perle, who was then in the Pentagon. More broadly, it was unclear why Nitze expected that the Soviets would ever accept an arms control agreement that would preclude them from developing a militarily significant advantage, which (by his own understanding) was the sine qua non of Soviet grand strategy.

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Who was right? the oracle or the original Prince of Darkness? Thompson presents the story without a clear hero and villain. He believes that the two perspectives, and their representatives, had strengths and weaknesses—"they pulled in different directions, but…the two men complemented each other." Kennan was a brilliant writer and saw far into the foreign policy future. Nitze was personally resilient and understood power, at home and abroad. Kennan was out of his depths in the practical world of policy, excessively sensitive to criticism, and unsympathetic to American liberalism. As Thompson documents, he held views that contained more than a whiff of racism, authoritarianism (or at least a deep distrust of democracy), and anti-Semitism. Nitze, according to Thompson, was excessively confident in the orderliness of international politics and military operations. He was not a deep thinker, and he failed to see the contradictions in his position of peace through strength; he was "a man who could let his conclusions outrun his facts."

Although Thompson does not offer an explicit judgment, he leans on the substantive merits toward his grandfather's rival. He cites uncritically, for instance, the argument of various American historians and former Soviet officials that the Soviets "were much more concerned to assuage their sense of technological inferiority, to prevent an American first strike, and to feed their sprawling military-industrial complex" than to blackmail the United States after achieving a posture of strategic superiority. The Kremlin, Thompson reports one Soviet official as saying, would never have gone into Afghanistan had the United States ratified the SALT II Treaty, an agreement that Nitze successfully opposed. In that case détente might well have survived into the 1980s.

That was not how things appeared in the immediate years after the end of the Cold War, when the collapse of the Soviet Union followed a major military (and nuclear) buildup under the Reagan Administration. Common sense then seemed to award the palm of victory to Nitze's traditional school of strategy. But mainstream American scholars and pundits were impressed with Kennan's intellectual sophistication—he won Pulitzer Prizes and National Book Awards for his histories and memoirs—and they sympathized with his "realistic" (in an academic sense) appraisal of Soviet and American power and objectives. The Soviet system failed, they say, not because of American strategic pressure, but because of its internal contradictions and because history brought forth an oracle (Mikhail Gorbachev) who was endowed with the power and opportunity to act that Kennan never possessed.

And now, according to the acolytes of non-linear strategy, after a brief and nearly catastrophic interlude of excessively linear grand strategy (the Bush Doctrine and the War on Terrorism), another oracle of grand sensibility has emerged; one who cites Kennan approvingly and who appreciates the complications of international relations, the limits of American power and wisdom (other than his own), and the need to accommodate the interests and felt needs of others, including those who now fashion themselves America's enemies. Somewhere, one suspects, Paul Nitze is saying, I told you so.