Book Review

Nitze, Kennan, and the Cold War

By Claude R. Marx
Globe Correspondent / November 19, 2009

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For many Americans, the Cold War is a distant memory, along with the enmity between the United States and Soviet Union and the threat of nuclear annihilation that characterized the period. While the dangerous world of today is quite different on many levels, reviewing the events of a previous era can help avoid repeating some of the mistakes of that time.

In “The Hawk and the Dove: Paul Nitze, George Kennan, and the History of the Cold War,’’ Nicholas Thompson tells the story of the Cold War through the lives of two key diplomats and thinkers.

Thompson, an editor at Wired magazine and Nitze’s grandson, has produced a balanced dual biography of these men with sharply differing world views. Both cut their diplomatic teeth at a time of heightened Soviet-US tensions but offered very different prescriptions for solving them.

Kennan, an architect of the doctrine of containment, took a more conciliatory approach and became a leading skeptic of the arms build-up. Nitze was much more hawkish and would move from serving in key positions under presidents Kennedy and Johnson to shaping the policies of the Reagan administration. The men were friends who maintained great respect for one another, despite their differing world views. At Kennan’s 80th birthday party, Nitze was asked how they remained friends and quipped that they never had any differences “except over matters of substance.’’

The book ably, if blandly, documents both men’s strengths and weakness and gives readers a sense of the time period and the difficulties that faced diplomats. The author doesn’t allow family ties to tip the balance in Nitze’s favor, although he does include some pleasant anecdotes about his grandfather.

Thompson is not a specialist in diplomatic history so he writes for the interested general reader. He revisits many of the diplomatic battles over issues such as the Vietnam War and the arms control negotiations with the Soviet Union, through the prism of the careers of these two extraordinary men.

Kennan and Nitze traveled in similar professional circles and were about the same age (Kennan, 1904-2005, and Nitze, 1907-2004). Nitze succeeded Kennan as head of the State Department’s office of policy and planning during the Truman administration. Both men were among the architects of the Marshall Plan, which helped rebuild Europe after World War II.

Subsequently, their paths diverged.

Kennan spent the majority of the rest of his life as an outsider and scholar who won two Pulitzer Prizes and two National Book Awards and returned to government only once, enduring an unhappy tenure as ambassador to Yugoslavia in the Kennedy administration. He is the better remembered because he became a hero to many of the liberals who tend to dominate modern diplomatic historical writing.

Nitze would spend the rest of his days in and out of key positions, playing a senior role during key events such as the Vietnam War (as assistant secretary of defense and secretary of the Navy) and as an arms control negotiator under Reagan.

Neither would reach the top of his profession but for different reasons: Kennan was too emotional, contrarian, and stubborn while Nitze was often arrogant and condescending and did a poor job of managing upward.

Thompson concludes that both men’s world views would prove only partially correct.

“Kennan, the outsider, accurately foresaw how the Cold War would play out. Nitze, the insider, helped bring about the Cold War’s end by behaving as if Kennan’s prophecy would never come true.’’

The world was a better place because of the contributions of both Kennan and Nitze and in “The Hawk and the Dove,’’ Thompson does an effective job of revisiting their lives.

Claude R. Marx is a journalist who has written extensively on history and politics.

THE HAWK AND THE DOVE: Paul Nitze, George Kennan, and the History of the Cold War By Nicholas Thompson

Henry Holt, 416 pp., $27.50

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