Odd Couple

The Hawk and the Dove is a composite biography told through the story of Paul Nitze’s and George Kennan’s divergent stances on U.S. policy during the Cold War. Each man was a significant figure in the development of policy toward the Soviet Union: Kennan, the diplomat, from 1933, when he was posted to the U.S. embassy in Moscow; Nitze, the military and strategic planner, from the end of World War II in 1945.

The narrative is shaped by the conviction of author Nicholas Thompson (Nitze’s grandson) that the two men, who were State Department colleagues in the Truman administration, remained friends over the years in spite of their vigorous disagreements. Each fiercely opposed the other’s position on policy toward the Soviets. Nitze favored confrontation, Kennan containment. The author argues that their views represented polar opposites on U.S.-Soviet relations from 1948, when the Cold War broke out in full force, until 1989, when the Soviet Union finally collapsed. Hence the title, The Hawk (Nitze) and the Dove (Kennan).

Reviews and reflections about the book and its author have appeared in the New York Times and the Washington Post, and on TalkingPointsMemo.com. Those reviewers are moderately admiring, slightly demurring over this point or that, but generally approving of the book. The historian-reviewers find a few nuggets; a pundit applauds the vanished civility of yesteryear (the civility of Kennan and Nitze, that is); and an interviewer is charmed by the idea of a grandson’s writing about his grandfather and his grandfather’s good friend—headline: “Grandpa has his own sphere of influence.” Cute! That captures the buddy theme, the book’s key point, but leaves the substance of U.S. foreign policy trailing behind.

I’d looked forward to these reviews. I had hoped that they would pinpoint what puzzled me in reading the book myself for a Commonweal review. The Hawk and the Dove arrived at my door in June and I spent July reading it. The pleasures of reviewing—following the argument, absorbing the facts, focusing on the rhetoric—are many. Translating a close reading into a written assessment is absorbing and challenging. Not this time. Something was amiss, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. When my uncertainty persisted, I decided not to write the review.

But here I am, having read the reviews, still puzzled. What is wrong with this book? Well, to go back to July: There were the typos, misprints, mistaken and missing words in the galleys, which hinted at a hurried finish: “from my computer to your printing press.” The usual disclaimer on the back of the galley, “This is an uncorrected proof,” might have better read: “This is an unedited manuscript.” Then there was the title itself, The Hawk and the Dove, a Vietnam-era metaphor that didn’t accurately capture the positions of either Nitze or Kennan. Still weightier matters arose. Did the author’s thesis—the rivalry of friends mirrored the development of policy—hold up? Was the author fair and accurate to Kennan especially, but to Nitze as well? Did he know enough about history, foreign policy, and the throw weight of missiles to assess the work of Nitze and Kennan? Did I know enough about throw weight to assess his accuracy?

Nothing coalesced, neither the book nor my review. I threw in the towel and looked forward to the reviews that would tell me what was wrong. But they didn’t, or at least they haven’t yet. What did they miss? I go back to my underlines and marginal comments, my notes and attempted outlines.

First, the author has constructed a false parallel, intellectual and political. Once out of government, Kennan wrote widely over the years in the New York Review of Books and the New Yorker, as well as professional journals, often at times of national crisis. Thompson makes much of Kennan’s disdain for the democratic (or demagogic) pressures on U.S. foreign policy, but over many years his knowledgeable and judicious writing contributed greatly to an informed public discussion. Kennan’s elegantly written and moving memoirs give a hint of his solitary character, and reveal his deeply felt patriotism and concern for the future of the United States. Nitze had no such track record as a writer. His memos, bulleted talking points, written arguments, and personal lobbying, to which Thompson had access through research and interviews, were directed to those making policy. His fixed judgment was that weapons, including the hydrogen bomb, were the key to overcoming the Soviets. If it came to that, nuclear war could be winnable by superior military power. Nitze was a consummate bureaucrat, an in-fighter of considerable skill and deviousness, and something of a bully. The paired biography creates a false sense of equivalence.

Second, Kennan’s classic 1947 essay in Foreign Affairs on containment (attributed to “X”) drew on his unparalleled knowledge of Russia: the Soviet Union was not a mortal threat to the United States, militarily or economically. His many years in Russia and his command of its language and culture persuaded him that the ramshackle state of its economy and society would bring it down. In the long run, he counseled, the Soviet Union would collapse from its own mistaken premises and misbegotten policies. Containment was the word and the strategy. Diplomacy, conversations with his Russian counterparts, research, and reflection were key elements in Kennan’s outlook and policy advice. But his proposals did not preclude military force, spying, covert operations, or the black arts. He was not a dove. Nitze believed, on the contrary, that the Soviet Union was a deadly threat and should be thwarted at every turn, above all by military might; the balance of power had always to be pursued for the benefit of the United States. He lacked Kennan’s depth and breadth of knowledge about Russia, though that never tempered his belief in its malevolent intentions. He spent his career promoting and selling to Congress and presidents ever more lethal weapons systems—most of which are still with us. He favored a thrust-and-parry form of conversation with his Soviet counterparts and mistrusted their every word and gesture. He may have been a hawk, but with a vengeance—more like a vulture.

Third, both men held important positions in various administrations and both had influence beyond that, Kennan in academic and intellectual circles, Nitze with Wall Street, business leaders, and Cold-War Democrats like Scoop Jackson (that circle subsequently morphed into the neoconservatives, with Nitze playing a key role in their hard-line views). Yet even at their most influential, neither man reached the highest level of the State Department or Department of Defense. Others, perhaps less knowledgeable but more powerful than they, weighed their advice (among others) and made the decisions: Harry Truman, George Marshall, Dwight Eisenhower, John Foster Dulles, John Kennedy, Richard Nixon, and Henry Kissinger, to name a few.

Why didn’t I just put all of that in a review and be done with it?

After much mulling, I realize that I didn’t trust Thompson’s treatment of the two men and their worldviews. Nor does he ever come to grips with the consequences of their positions—which man turns out to have had a surer grasp of U.S.-Soviet realities and the policies those realities required. Tethering Kennan and Nitze obscures rather than exposes the consequences of past policy for our current national-security dilemmas (too big to fail) and choices (a new cold war). Is there too much of the doting grandson in the treatment of the once-doting grandfather? Once that suspicion came to mind, there seemed to be no way to write the review. How could I answer that question, except to note the author’s resistance to the question of Paul Nitze’s responsibility for persuading so many presidents to put their trust in so many weapon systems? Nitze championed a national-security system dependent on weapons superiority that, even after the end of the Cold War twenty years ago, continues far beyond our borders and those of Russia. However kindly Nitze was to his children and grandchildren, he was hard-nosed in his dealings, even with his good friend George Kennan.

To illustrate: The prologue to The Hawk and the Dove opens with an eightieth birthday party in 1984 in honor of Kennan. Nitze raised a gracious toast. Later, another guest asked how the two men had remained friends despite their opposed national-security views. Nitze replied with this bon mot: “he had never had any difference with George ‘except over matters of substance.’” What kind of friendship was this?

Published in the 2009-10-23 issue: 

Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal, writes frequently in these pages.

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