A brilliant and revealing biography of the two most important Americans during the Cold War era—written by the grandson of one of them
Only two Americans held positions of great influence throughout the Cold War; ironically, they were the chief advocates for the opposing strategies for winning—and surviving—that harrowing conflict. Both men came to power during World War II, reached their professional peaks during the Cold War’s most frightening moments, and fought epic political battles that spanned decades. Yet despite their very different views, Paul Nitze and George Kennan dined together, attended the weddings of each other’s children, and remained good friends all their lives.
In this masterly double biography, Nicholas Thompson brings Nitze and Kennan to vivid life. Nitze—the hawk—was a consummate insider who believed that the best way to avoid a nuclear clash was to prepare to win one. More than any other American, he was responsible for the arms race. Kennan—the dove—was a diplomat turned academic whose famous “X article” persuasively argued that we should contain the Soviet Union while waiting for it to collapse from within. For forty years, he exercised more influence on foreign affairs than any other private citizen.
As he weaves a fascinating narrative that follows these two rivals and friends from the beginning of the Cold War to its end, Thompson accomplishes something remarkable: he tells the story of our nation during the most dangerous half century in history.
The cold war was a matter of personalities as well as policies. From the 1940s through the 1980s, Paul Nitze and George Kennan were central actors at opposite poles. Nitze was the hawk. In the darkest days of the nuclear arms race, he argued that the way to avoid an atomic war was to prepare to win it. Few policymakers matched either his knowledge of weaponry or his persuasive skills. Even fewer matched Nitze''s ability to alienate superiors, but his talent could not be overlooked for long. George Kennan was the dove, consistently arguing that the U.S. must end its reliance on nuclear weapons, advocating forbearance in the face of provocation. He had an unusual ability to forecast events: the Sino-Soviet split, the way the cold war would eventually end. In these days of personalized polarization, the close friendship between these two men seems anomalous—but instructive. That Thompson is Nitze''s grandson does not inhibit his nuanced account of two men whose common goal of serving America''s interests transcended perspectives. Their mutual respect and close friendship enabled administrations to balance their contributions. That balancing in turn significantly shaped the cold war''s outcome.
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“The book is brimming with fascinating revelations about the men and the harrowing events they steered through.” —The New York Times
“In this important and astute new study, Nitze emerges as a driven patriot and Kennan as a darkly conflicted and prophetic one.”—The Washington Post
“Paul Nitze and George Kennan were the yin and yang of American foreign policy. They were also the only figures deeply involved in the Cold War from beginning to end, and so they make ideal focal points for Nicholas Thompson’s lively and illuminating book.” —Newsweek
“Few men did more to shape postwar U.S. Foreign policy than Paul Nitze and George Kennan. In tracing their dueling visions of America’s role in the world, Nicholas Thompson provides a white-knuckle glimpse inside the 20th century’s most dangerous moments.” —Time Magazine
“Thoroughly engrossing … Thompson succeeds admirably in blending biography and intellectual history, painting colorful portraits of complicated men who embodied conflicting strains of American thinking about foreign policy.” —The New York Times Book Review
“The Hawk and the Dove does an inspired job of telling the story of the Cold War through the careers of two of its most interesting and important figures, who were not only present at the creation, but were each a witness—and, in Nitze’s case, a participant—in its end.” —The Washington Monthly
“Gripping, stirring … Thompson has delivered a book that’s not just a labor of love for a grandfather; it’s a vindication of a tradition of civic-republican comity that can’t be coerced but is quietly stronger, even in this polarizing, frightening time, than anything the republic’s noisier claimants have to offer.” —Talking Points Memo Cafe
“A very good new book.” —The National Review
“A lifetime of documentation combined with a personal narrative create a compelling story of two men who shared a lifetime of conflict and camaraderie.”—The Daily Beast
“[An] outstanding dual biography … Excellent insights into these men and their roles in the era they helped shape.” —Booklist
“The key to understanding modern American foreign policy is appreciating the complex 60-year friendship between George Kennan and Paul Nitze. Nicholas Thompson brilliantly captures their divergent personalities, clashing politics, and intellectual bonding. It is an insightful and important tale, but also a colorful and fascinating one—an intellectual buddy movie with enormous historical resonance.”—Walter Isaacson
“With clarity and vigor, Nicholas Thompson has given us an engaging and insightful account of one of the great friendships of the modern age, the personal bond between Paul Nitze and George Kennan that illuminates the epochal stakes of the Cold War. This is a terrific book.”—Jon Meacham
“George Kennan and Paul Nitze were the Adams and Jefferson of the Cold War. They were there for the beginning, they witnessed its course over almost half a century, and they argued with each other constantly while it was going on. But they maintained throughout a remarkable friendship, demonstrating—as few others in our time have—that it is possible to differ with civility. Nicholas Thompson’s is a fine account of that relationship, carefully researched, beautifully written, and evocatively suggestive of how much we have lost because such civility has become so rare.”—John Lewis Gaddis
“With grace and a keen appreciation of human nature, Nicholas Thompson has written a revealing, moving history of the Cold War through two fascinating men.”—Evan Thomas
“They say that ‘history is an argument without end.’ In Thompson’s skillful hands, this momentous argument between two old friends on the most critical issue of the last century is thus history at its best. Thompson’s judicious and delicious depiction of Nitze and Kennan will fascinate anyone who cares about the Cold War or the ways that human beings shape the future.”—Jonathan Alter
“This is dual biography at its best: riveting, thought-provoking, and fair-minded throughout. Nicholas Thompson renders these two remarkable men—their ideas, their arguments, their personal passions—vividly, in three dimensions. Through the prism of this powerful rivalry, Thompson illuminates the entire Cold War era—as well as our own.”—Jeff Shesol
“The Hawk and the Dove is a wonderful idea for a book, wonderfully carried out. Nicholas Thompson has used illuminating new material to present each of his protagonists in a convincing, respectful, but unsparing way. Even more valuable, he has used the interactions and tensions between Paul Nitze and George Kennan to bring much of American 20th century foreign policy to life, with human richness ever present but with the big issues clear in all their complexity.”—James Fallows
“Nicholas Thompson is an exceptionally good writer and a very clear thinker; both of these talents lift up The Hawk and the Dove, an energetic, fair, revealing and highly readable account of two men whose thinking and public lives helped to define the Cold War—and whose views on the international order remain strikingly relevant to the era that has followed.”—Steve Coll
Nicholas Thompson is an editor at Wired magazine, a fellow at the New America Foundation, and a regular contributor to CNN. He has written articles for The New York Times, The Washington Post and numerous other publications. A grandson of Paul Nitze’s, he lives in New York City with his wife and son.
From The Washington Post''s Book World/washingtonpost.com Reviewed by Jacob Heilbrunn After a dinner party at his Georgetown home, Joseph Alsop, the legendary newspaper columnist, watched George F. Kennan head to his car and yelled, "You know, George, the problem with you is that you''re a nineteenth century man." Kennan turned around and countered, "No, I''m an eighteenth-century man." It was hardly a charge that anyone would have lodged against Kennan''s friend and longtime antagonist Paul Nitze. Alsop diagnosed Nitze''s failings during a bibulous evening at Martin''s Tavern in Washington: "The trouble with you, Paul, is that you''re just a bureaucrat." 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 the 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 "The Hawk and the Dove," Nicholas Thompson, an editor at Wired magazine, skillfully contrasts Nitze and Kennan. Thompson, who is Nitze''s grandson, brings a judicial impartiality to the fierce disputes that raged between the two men. Thompson has enjoyed full access to his grandfather''s archival documents, but perhaps his most impressive accomplishment is to have mined Kennan''s extensive diaries for new insights. In this important and astute new study, Nitze emerges as a driven patriot and Kennan as a darkly conflicted and prophetic one. Kennan boosted Nitze''s government career by hiring him to join the State Department''s policy planning staff during the Truman administration, but the differences between them were wide. Nitze, as Thompson notes, breezed his way through Harvard, whooping it up with fellow members of the exclusive Porcellian Club before landing a job on Wall Street; Kennan was a lonely student at Princeton, brooding about what he saw as his own deficiencies. His constant musings included some rather disdainful beliefs about Jews and blacks that Thompson carefully examines, as well as contempt for the 1960s student activists. Kennan was an elitist conservative, deeply wary of democracy itself. On the issue of nuclear weaponry, Nitze was an optimist, convinced that superior American technology and atomic firepower could save the day. Kennan was always a fatalist imbued with a melancholy sense of the unexpected catastrophes that have regularly ensued from human follies. 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 that 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. How did it play out? The Soviet Union crumbled, and the United States emerged triumphant. But Kennan never believed that the United States had all that much to do with it. He had originally predicted that the Soviet Union would decay from within, leaving behind a handful of ideological dust. Speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations in 1977, he observed that the Soviet leaders were "ordinary" and "perhaps the most conservative ruling group to be found anywhere in the world," which meant that there was no need to go on a crusade to topple the regime; rather one could wait patiently for the denouement. It was the workhorse Nitze who had the nose for power, while the self-lacerating Kennan commented from the sidelines. Thompson perceptively writes, "Too fragile and easily hurt, he was like Chiron, the wise and immortal centaur of Greek mythology who is shot by an arrow and develops a wound that never heals." Toward 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.
Copyright 2009, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.