Thursday, September 17, 2009

Thursday Night in Cobble Hill: Nicholas Thompson and "The Hawk and the Dove: Paul Nitze, George Kennan, and the History of the Cold War" at Book Court

Tonight, with a fall chill in the air, we took the R train to Court Street and then walked down to Cobble Hill to the great indie bookstore Book Court to hear a fascinating reading and talk by Nicholas Thompson, whose new book, The Hawk and the Dove: Paul Nitze, George Kennan, and the History of the Cold War, has gotten glowing reviews and a lot of praise from people we trust.

We were impressed by the passages that Johnson, Nitze's grandson and an editor at Wired Magazine, read from his book and look forward to reading his account of the two friends, who were what one critic called "the Jefferson and Adams of the Cold War," often on opposite sides in foreign and defense policy disputes and whose long lives included over half a century of active engagement in the highest levels of government at the most dangerous time in American and world history.

The Washington Post review had a good overview:
For much of the past half-century, Kennan and Nitze formed a classic odd couple, battling over cold war policy both while in government service and out. Kennan was a learned diplomat and historian who had witnessed Stalin's show trials and purges as a young man stationed at the Moscow embassy. He went on to draft the basis for cold war doctrine by famously warning of Soviet intentions in his 1946 "Long Telegram," only to retreat from his prescriptions, leave government service and devote himself to warning of the perils of an arms race that threatened to obliterate the planet. Nitze was an inveterate hawk who attached great importance to the balance of nuclear firepower between the Russians and Americans. He formulated the foundation for American nuclear strategy in the early 1950s and occupied numerous government posts for presidents from Truman to Reagan, while persistently sounding alarms about Soviet nuclear intentions and capabilities. . .

In his 1947 "Mr. X." article in Foreign Affairs, Kennan laid out the doctrine of Soviet containment -- essentially the intellectual scaffolding of the cold war. Then he spent the next decades disavowing his authorship of it. Thompson observes that Kennan later wrote that he felt like "one who has inadvertently loosened a large boulder from the top of a cliff and now helplessly watches its path of destruction in the valley below, shuddering and wincing at each successive glimpse of disaster."

Nitze would have none of this. According to Thompson, "Nitze was in sync with the times, far more confident than Kennan in his country's ability to do good." In 1950, he presided over the drafting of Document NSC-68, which rejected Kennan's recommendation that America forswear first use of nuclear weapons; the document also called on the United States to fight communism worldwide and to invest in a massive arms buildup. Decades later, Thompson writes, Nitze crossed out a line in a student's master's thesis which argued that in NSC-68 he had advocated military containment over political means. In the late 1950s and in the '70s, Nitze warned that America was in danger of becoming the weaker combatant in the superpower contest and needed to rearm. . .

Towards the end of their lives, however, Nitze and Kennan reconciled their differences as the Cold War's end prompted Nitze to endorse the abolition of the weapons whose existence he had once done so much to promote.

We're particularly interested in the Cold War these days because this term we have the privilege of teaching a course in Cold War Literature at City College of New York - we've already read The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and The Quiet American with our students - so it was very interesting to get the perspective of Nicholas Thompson's book, which as the New York Times review noted, "succeeds admirably in blending biography and intellectual history, painting colorful portraits of complicated men who embodied conflicting strains of American thinking about foreign policy."

Thompson began by making note of the presence of his little son, who "knows about six word and one of them is book." He talked about the genesis of the book, when his grandfather Nitze in 1999 had an op-ed in the New York Times saying "I see no compelling reason why we should not unilaterally get rid of our nuclear weapons" and got a letter from his old friend George Kennan, who said he loved the op-ed and was glad they were finally "in complete accord." Thompson had not realized the closeness of the adversaries' friendship - they attended each other's family weddings - and the parallels in their lives made Thompson realized he could tell the story of the American Cold War from a unique vantage point.

As Nitze's grandson, he had access to Nitze's papers, including a trove apparently known only to a janitor at Johns Hopkins' Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, which he founded. Thompson also got access to a lot of Kennan's papers, including the diaries he kept over the years.

Thompson begins his story at the end of World War II, with Kennan in Red Square on V-E Day and Nitze interrogating Albert Speer in Berlin and then going on to Hiroshima to report on the effects of the atom bomb. He was able to get a wonderful start to his narrative, starting from the point of view of Martha Mautner, then a clerk in the American embassy in Moscow eager to go out on a date for the evening, when Kennan comes in asking her to stay late and send what became known, famously, as the Long Telegram.

Thompson read two excerpts from Kennan's diaries, the first from April 1951 when he and Nitze, working together on the Marshall Plan, began to have seriously divergent views on the conduct of the Cold War and defense policy. Kennan's unsparing self-criticism and perhaps even self-hatred in this entry reminded us more of Dostoevsky's Underground Man than the diplomat and scholar we'd known of.

The second excerpt from Kennan's diaries, from 1957, as he pondered a lecture he needed to give on the BBC, toys with being "honest" and suggesting that the U.S. should be merged with Canada and Britain with a new capital in Ottawa as well as banning cars and drastically reducting population, was also eyebrow-raising.

Thompson mentioned that neither man achieved his goal of becoming Secretary of State or Defense. Nitze, in particular, while much more congenial in person than the rather cold Kennan, seemed unable to resist being totally blunt and impatient when he thought the person with whom he was speaking was somewhat dense in not agreeing with Nitze's views - even if that person was the President Kennedy or President-elect Carter.

Thompson's editor is also Jimmy Carter's, and the editor gave Carter the manuscript of The Hawk and the Dove; after reading it, the former president said, "Nitze always was a horse's ass."

Kennan also tended to be self-destructive in his dealings with his superiors, as when, being considered for a top post in the Eisenhower administration and was asked to write a policy paper, Kennan wrote a devastating critique of everything in Eisenhower's foreign policy.

It's a tribute to both men that they endured. Nitze worked for ten presidents and was fired by most of them, but he kept being listened to. People always paid attention to whatever Kennan wrote about foreign policy. While neither of the subjects of Thompson's book sound like a very nice person, Nitze sound like a wonderful grandfather and Kennan probably was, too.

The Book Court audience was small, fifteen to twenty, but were appreciative of Thompson's discussion and digressions. On everything from Nitze challenging JFK's fear of his own generals starting a nuclear war on their own during the Cuban missile crisis and Nitze's trying to manipulate a somewhat befuddled Reagan at Reykjavik to the weirdness of Svetlana Stalin's letters diagnosing what she thought was Kennan's deep unhappiness, Thompson is a compelling storyteller.

So we're really looking forward to reading The Hawk and the Dove.

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