Cold War policy icons examined at foreign relations forum
Northport — Nicholas Thompson gave a speech to the Mid-Coast Forum on Foreign Relations on Feb. 7 and presented a history of the Cold War through the eyes of two “icons of foreign policy,” Paul Nitze and George Kennan.
Thompson discussed several points along the time line of history and how Nitze and Kennan influenced the policies of those times. Thompson, a grandson of Nitze, is the author of “The Hawk and the Dove: Paul Nitze, George Kennan, and the History of the Cold War.”
“There was a real relationship between the two men,” Thompson said. “They were friends but rivals for 50 years. They had entirely different views on American foreign policy — diametrically opposed — but they worked together for a period. I thought, OK, you could really tell the story of America during the Cold War … by looking at their lives. You could make Cold War history about these two people, about these two men, about what they do from 1945 to 1990.”
Nitze worked in finance until entering government service in World War II. One of his first assignments was to visit Japan to report on the damage from the atomic bomb attacks. In the 1950s, he laid out a policy for increased spending to combat the Soviet arms threat. He continued that in later decades with the Team B intelligence think tank. President John F. Kennedy appointed him assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, and Nitze was secretary of the navy from 1963 to 1967. He was deputy secretary of defense from 1967 to 1969 and assistant secretary of defense for international affairs from 1973 to 1976. From the 1940s to the 1980s, Nitze played a key role in developing the United States' policy toward the Soviet Union.
Kennan was a diplomat and scholar who developed the theory of containment to deal with the Soviet Union. He contributed to the Marshall Plan in the late 1940s. Kennan left the State Department in 1950 but was a prolific writer and scholar on U.S. foreign policy. He briefly held ambassadorial posts in Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union. In Kennan’s writings, he criticized policymakers, and advocated for political realism. He was known as the era’s wise man, and shaped policy and served as a source of information for political leaders.
Thompson said at the end of his grandfather’s life, Nitze had a change of heart concerning the country’s nuclear arsenal. That shift in views pleased Kennan.
“[Nitze] spent his whole life arguing we need more nuclear weapons,” Thompson said. “He’s constantly arguing for more nuclear weapons, whether he believes we’re trailing the Soviets, whether we’re even with them, or even ahead. Whole life, that’s his philosophy. There are different justifications at different times. Very complex, very complicated understanding of why and exactly when, but it’s always the same — faster, more, faster.”
But at the end Nitze’s life, in 1999, he wrote an op-ed in The New York Times that said weapons of mass destruction were no longer needed because the Cold War was over.
Thompson said he had dinner at Nitze’s house later, and Nitze read a letter from Kennan that said “isn’t it nice that after 50 years we finally find ourselves in accord on matters that meant so much to us as time’s gone by.” This inspired Thompson to write the book.
Some of the points in Cold War history that Thompson discussed was the decision to develop the hydrogen bomb and Kennan’s “long telegram” where he laid out his containment doctrine.
Thompson said Kennan’s idea of containment was that the Soviets viewed the United States as the enemy because they needed an enemy to justify internal repression and failures. “What we need to do is to stop working with them, stop pretending they are going to be our ally and our friend,” Thompson said of the containment strategy. “Not go to war with them, not threaten them, but just push back. Contain them. Prevent them from expanding and wait and eventually they will collapse.”
This long telegram earned Kennan, who was stationed in Moscow, a reputation in Washington, D.C., as a “great sage,” Thompson said. Kennan was brought in to run the Policy Planning staff, and Nitze joined two years later. The two briefly worked directly together.
The two were set on “totally different trajectories” when the Soviets set off an atomic bomb in August 1949, Thompson said.
“Once the Soviets had the atomic bomb it completely changes the strategic balance,” Thompson said.
President Harry S. Truman had to decide: should the United States go to the next level and develop the hydrogen bomb. With this decision, Thompson laid out the different views of Nitze and Kennan.
Nitze’s view was that the Soviets would try to develop the hydrogen bomb. And if they were going to build that weapon, the United States should too. It was a simple game theory solution to Truman’s question.
Kennan’s response to Truman’s question was a 79-page paper. “It lays out in many ways what will happen,” Thompson said. “If we build a hydrogen bomb, the Soviets will follow. And then we will build more and they will build more. Eventually we will have these incomprehensible arsenals. We’ll have these huge arsenals of nuclear weapons and we won’t be able to think rationally about policy. We’ll just be obsessed with numbers. [Kennan’s] right. In many ways he foresees what will happen.”
The decision in February 1950 to move forward with the weapons not only meant the arms race was on. It was a boost to Nitze’s view, and Kennan was depressed and left government.
“From that moment on, their trajectories are set,” Thompson said. “Kennan will from then on be a brilliant outsider. He will always write. He will write these beautiful essays and he’ll always be correct. He will see things that people don’t see. He will understand things people don’t understand. He will see deeper into issues. My grandfather [Nitze] will always work on the inside. He will work on every president up through [George H.W.] Bush. He will be an insider bureaucratic player.”
Nitze rose as high as deputy secretary of defense, although he was “fired or demoted” by a half dozen presidents, Thompson said.
From that split, Thompson went on to discuss events ranging from the Hungarian Revolution to the war in Vietnam, and other foreign policy plans.
He applied their differing philosophies to the Truman Doctrine, which said the United States would support democracies across the world.
Kennan thought it was a “much too reductive way to look at foreign policy,” Thompson said. Whereas Nitze thought it was “a brilliant speech,” Thompson said. “[Nitze] thought, it’s true we do want to get rid of communism, communism is a terrible thing, democracy is a good thing,” Thompson said.
In his speech, Thompson also tried to apply the views of Nitze and Kennan to current events such as the protests in Egypt and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Thompson said Nitze’s views could only be fairly applied to the Cold War era.
Thompson said Kennan’s realism and narrow objectives mean he would have opposed massive rebuilding projects in Afghanistan and Iraq. Instead, he would have focused on al-Qaida and terrorists. He also would have applied the containment doctrine. “The idea of containment is that you don’t have to kill your enemies,” Thompson said. “If you believe in the United States, if you believe in the system that the United States has, what you need to do is keep this country strong and hope that soon your enemies will collapse based upon their own internal flaws. The idea is to contain radical Islam. What you need to do is to not give it any incentives to further recruit people and bring people in.”
Kennan would have opposed the “global war on terror” label for the same reason he did not think all communists should be dealt with in the same way. “There are great differences in terrorists,” Thompson said. “There are al-Qaida terrorists that want to kill you. There are Hezbollah terrorists that have more nationalistic concerns than international concerns and if you group everybody together you will then encourage a worldwide enemy to rise against you as opposed to splitting them apart and figure how to play them off each other.”
With Egypt, Kennan would have been working in the area, learning the culture, and pressing for change more so a year ago than now. He would have been pleased that the State Department was working on the situation.
The Mid-Coast Forum on Foreign Relations meets monthly for a featured speaker. Joshua Landis is scheduled to discuss “How Syria Fits, and Doesn't Fit, into US Middle Eastern Policy” on March 14 at noon at Point Lookout. For more information visit midcoastforum.org.