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George Kennan (left, 1961) left the State Department in 1949 to devote himself primarily to writing, while his old friend and rival Paul Nitze (right, 1982) stayed in the scrum for decades, eventually serving as Ronald Reagan's lead arms negotiator. (© Bettman/Corbis; D. Gordon/NYT File Photo)
George Kennan (left, 1961) left the State Department in 1949 to devote himself primarily to writing, while his old friend and rival Paul Nitze (right, 1982) stayed in the scrum for decades, eventually serving as Ronald Reagan's lead arms negotiator. (© Bettman/Corbis; D. Gordon/NYT File Photo)

Worthy opponents

The lifelong friendship between George Kennan and Paul Nitze began with an accidental meeting on a train. It ended up defining the contours of US Cold War policy.

IN THE SUMMER of 1943, George Kennan and Paul Nitze met on a train going from New York to Washington. Neither knew who the other was, nor was there any reason they should have. Kennan was a 39-year-old diplomat, just returned from Portugal. A Wall Street man four years Kennan's junior, Nitze was a second-level official at the Board of Economic Warfare. But Nitze found something compelling about Kennan and sat down across from the distinguished-looking gentleman in the dining car. The pair started talking and began a friendship that would last throughout the Cold War, a war that both men did much to define but about which they would almost never agree.

Kennan and Nitze didn't cross paths again until a few years later, when the two worked together at the State Department as Washington was remaking the postwar world. In the interim, Kennan had served in Moscow, making his reputation with his famous 1946 ''Long Telegram'' identifying the Soviet Union as a malignant expansionist state and then coming back to lead the writing of the Marshall Plan. Nitze had also gone abroad, surveying the destruction of Hiroshima as vice chairman of the Strategic Bombing Survey and gaining a reputation as a skilled numbers man. Upon his return, he advised Kennan on the Marshall Plan, and then served as his deputy on the State Department's Policy Planning Staff.

But Kennan didn't stay long in the capital. Less than a year after Nitze joined his staff, Kennan took the train back to New York and - except for brief stints as ambassador to Russia and Yugoslavia - did not return to the federal government. He would spend almost all of the next half century at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, writing a stream of books establishing him as one of America's foremost diplomatic historians and the most cogent critic of its nuclear build-up. Nitze remained in Washington and more or less never left. His first job was to create our nuclear arsenal; his final job, as Ronald Reagan's lead arms-control negotiator, was to start dismantling it.

Their friendship, however, endured. The two remained in touch, dining together from time to time and corresponding cordially, even though each believed that the other was advocating policies that increased the chances of nuclear obliteration. ''I don't disagree with George on anything except matters of substance,'' Nitze used to say.

To some, Kennan's death last month at age 101 - less than sixth months after Nitze's passing last October at 97 - seemed to close the door on an era. ''One hundred years from now, historians of the Cold War will look at the legacy of George Kennan and Paul Nitze in the same way that American historians look at the legacy of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams,'' John Lewis Gaddis, a professor of Cold War strategy at Yale University and Kennan's authorized biographer, said in an interview last week.

Nitze and Kennan may not have had quite the influence of Adams and Jefferson. But the two Cold Warriors did shape foreign policy thinking during the most dangerous period of this country's historyand, to some degree, today's foreign policy as well. It's a cliche that people in government want to make the world safer for their grandchildren, but in this case the cliche feels particularly fitting. Paul Nitze was my mother's father, and, at the least, we all know now that the war he and George Kennan helped define didn't end in the catastrophe that so many feared for so long.

. . .

The differences in the two men's style and philosophy were evident from their days in the State Department. After the Soviet Union detonated an atomic bomb in 1949, Secretary of State Dean Acheson, according to Nitze's recollections, asked his two charges to prepare papers on whether or the not the United States should respond by building a hydrogen bomb. They both wrote quickly, Nitze arguing yes and Kennan arguing no. Then Nitze went to work trying to convince Acheson and other bureaucrats of the correctness of his views. Kennan sequestered himself in a small office at the Library of Congress and wrote a long, elegantly wrought document further elaborating the argument that we shouldn't escalate the arms race unless we were willing to use our nuclear weapons as part of a first strike, an option he considered immoral.

Acheson took Nitze's side, dismissing Kennan's ideas as ''Quaker gospel.'' Kennan left at the end of 1949 and headed for Princeton. Nitze succeeded him as chief of policy planning and one month later Harry Truman announced that the United States would build a hydrogen bomb.

Over the following decades, the two men would define the poles of establishment thinking on anti-Soviet strategy. Kennan wanted the United States to counter the Soviets through political force and the strength of our example. Pursuing a nuclear or conventional military advantage was folly. ''No one is good enough, wise enough, steady enough, to have control over the volume of explosives that now rest in the hands of this country,'' he said in a 1977 interview. As for nuclear weapons, ''these things shouldn't exist at all.''

To Nitze, a nuclear war was theoretically winnable; or, at the least, this country was likely to lose a nuclear war if it didn't act like it wanted to win one, and if it let the Soviets gain even a slight strategic advantage. While Kennan dismissed civil defense, Nitze built a bomb shelter at his farm in Maryland. In the early '80s, my cousins and I would play in it.

The difference in approaches also stemmed from their personalities. Kennan was an ideas man who never really felt at ease in contemporary America or in establishment circles. In his first memoir, he declared that he felt like ''a guest of one's time and not a member of its household.'' A cultural conservative and unabashed elitist, his writings were filled with denunciations of cars, television, and loveless sex. ''The first thing we Americans need to learn to contain is, in some ways, ourselves,'' he wrote in 1987, turning around a word he had made famous.

Nitze was always much more at ease, wherever he was. A dapper man until the last days of his life, he worked the social circuit the same way he worked the bureaucracy, attending Washington social events five nights a week. On the job, he felt most comfortable doing what he called ''working the problem,'' arguing with people while drawing charts on a yellow pad and jabbing his pencil into the page, trying to prove how a slight discrepancy in missile throw weights gave the Soviets an advantage they might exploit.

Perhaps the core difference is that Kennan was most comfortable elegantly stating problems; Nitze was most comfortable trying to solve them - often with a blizzard of calculations. This difference appears in the seminal documents that they produced - Kennan's ''Long Telegram'' (which later evolved into his famous ''Mr. X'' article in Foreign Affairs) and Nitze's NSC 68, an internal policy document for the National Security Council written in 1950 (of which Nitze was the lead author).

Kennan's 1946 telegram concluded that the Russians had ''learned to seek security only in patient but deadly struggle for total destruction of rival power.'' To his later regret, though, Kennan was ambiguous about policy responses. He wanted to contain the Soviets, and he put emphasis on what foreign policy analysts now call soft power: ''Every courageous and incisive measure to solve internal problems of our own society...is a diplomatic victory over Moscow,'' he wrote.

But Kennan didn't fully renounce bombs in favor of diplomacy, and many interpreted the memo as a call to arms. Within only a couple of years, Kennan was back-pedaling, and 40 years later he felt compelled to explain in Foreign Affairs that ''in no way did the Soviet Union appear to me, at that moment, as a military threat to this country.''

NSC 68 left no ambiguity. The United States needed a vast military build-up of both conventional and nuclear weapons. The Soviet Union was stockpiling weapons and preparing to annihilate us. In contrast to Kennan's historical and psychological analysis, Nitze's document was full of tables, charts, and blunt warnings. Perhaps most important, NSC 68 described the conflict in zero-sum terms. ''The implacable purpose of the slave state to eliminate the challenge of freedom has placed the two great powers at opposite poles.'' Acheson would later write that the document was ''clearer than truth,'' and it helped to trigger a massive increase in military spending.

As historian Ronald Steel said in an interview, ''Nitze wanted to win the Cold War. Kennan just wanted to get it over with.''

. . .

Still, when it came to politics, Nitze and Kennan had much in common. Neither was ever a strong believer in any political party, or even any ideology besides his own. Nitze worked for, and was fired by, both Republicans and Democrats. For much of his life, Kennan was a liberal icon - the Cold Warrior who opposed the whole thing - despite his cultural conservatism. He gained particular acclaim for his early opposition to the Vietnam War, though he denounced many of its other opponents, particularly student activists.

And in the end, both men lost control of some of their ideas. Kennan wanted his essays on the Soviet Union to inspire a movement of political, not military, containment. In inspiring a military build-up, he later wrote, he had ''inadvertently loosened a large boulder from the top of a cliff.''

Nitze had similar frustrations toward the end of his life. After the Soviet Union collapsed, he became more dovish. He also became more attentive to environmental issues, particularly acid rain - following Kennan, who had been a very early apostle of environmentalism.

A mentor to Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz, Nitze is viewed by many today as an early neoconservative. ''The idea of freedom is the most contagious idea in history,'' he wrote in NSC 68. But one of the last aspects of his legacy he lived to see was a war in Iraq that he opposed.

In 1999, my grandfather published an op-ed in The New York Times arguing that nuclear weapons could be abolished because of the advanced capabilities of conventional weapons. After it was published, Kennan responded to his nonagenarian young friend.

''Dear Paul: Warmest congratulations on your recent New York Times article, with every word of which I agree,'' he wrote. ''In the light of our long-standing friendship and mutual respect, it is a source of deep satisfaction to me to find the two of us, at our advanced ages, in complete accord on questions that have meant so much to each of us, even when we did not fully agree, in times gone by.''

Nicholas Thompson is a senior editor at Legal Affairs and a contributing editor to the Washington Monthly.


Paul Nitze
Paul Nitze
George Kennan
George Kennan
fighting words
''Problem of how to cope with [the Soviet threat] [is] undoubtedly greatest task our diplomacy has ever faced and probably greatest it will ever have to face. But I would like to record my conviction that problem is within our power to solve – and that without recourse to any general military conflict.''
– George Kennan, ''Long Telegram,'' February 1946

''The threat to the free world involved in the development of the Soviet Union's atomic and other capabilities will rise steadily and rather rapidly.... Time is short... and the risks of war attendant upon a decision to build up strength will steadily increase the longer we defer it.''
–Paul Nitze (lead author), NSC-68, April 1950
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