- The Hawk and the Dove: Paul Nitze, George Kennan, and the History of the Cold War
George F. Kennan and Paul H. Nitze were contemporaries, colleagues, and friends. Their lives and careers ran in parallel: each was born and raised in the Midwest, attended college on the east coast, became involved in foreign affairs, held important positions in the American government, and influenced the course of American foreign policy throughout the Cold War. These parallels make them, together, an appropriate subject for the insightful, informative, and well-written dual biography by Nicholas Thompson, a grandson of Nitze.
As the book’s title indicates, they took different positions on major issues of foreign policy. Nitze earned a reputation as a hawk, in particular in his approach to American nuclear weapons policy, while Kennan became a celebrated dove because of his opposition to the American war in Vietnam. In fact, as Thompson ably demonstrates, the differences between the two men stemmed not only from their judgments about how best to advance the interests of the United States in the world, but also from differences of talent and temperament.
These differences of personality account for the fact that Kennan is the better known of the two, well enough known in fact to rate a mention in a recent Hollywood movie. In the Coen Brothers’ 2008 film “Burn After Reading” John Malkovich plays a CIA analyst who is fired for alcoholism and decides to write a memoir. One scene shows him dictating it: “The ideals of George Kennan, a personal hero of mine . . .” he says into the recorder. Three years after his death Kennan’s name remained one that the filmmakers thought would seem vaguely familiar. How did this happen?
Kennan’s name initially became known because he wrote the document that outlined American Cold War foreign policy. In a cable later known as the Long Telegram that he sent to Washington while serving in the American [End Page 165] embassy in Moscow in 1946, he provided an analysis of the geopolitical aims of the Soviet Union coupled with a pessimistic assessment of the chances of good relations with America’s wartime ally. He then adapted it as an article entitled “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” (with the author listed as “Mr. X”) in the journal Foreign Affairs. It may be the most-cited journal article ever written. The American government accepted his analysis and adopted the policies that followed from it.
Kennan was the first to give voice to what became the axioms of Cold War policy, and he did so eloquently. Given the ongoing deterioration of Soviet- American relations, however, it is unlikely that the Truman Administration’s policies toward the Soviet Union would have been appreciably different had he never joined the State Department. His renown came not only from his effect on the people who conduct foreign policy but also, and perhaps more importantly, his effect on the people who write about it. What he did came to be seen by commentators and historians as evidence that clear analysis determines policy: that is, that words move the world. To such people Kennan became an exemplar and even something of a hero. Not surprisingly, he looms large in what they have written about American foreign policy. That is the source of his fame.
Kennan left the State Department in 1951 and for almost all of the rest of the Cold War devoted himself to writing, which often had an impact on the public debate about America’s foreign relations. For much of that time Nitze held high positions in the government, where, unlike Kennan, he had direct influence on the policies of the day. Because he co-founded, with Christian A. Herter, the world’s leading graduate school of international relations, The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, which bears his name, Nitze will have the same kind of immortality achieved by John Harvard and Elihu Yale. Still, despite his greater role in actually...