In February 1946, George Kennan despaired that the U.S. government, mystified by Soviet unwillingness to cooperate in its plans for shaping the post-war world, understood neither the nature of Stalin’s Soviet Union nor its implications for the United States. Irritated that his State Department superiors had ignored the analysis he had been providing as chargé d’affaires at the embassy in Moscow, he made the most of the opportunity when Washington queried the embassy about Stalin’s truculence in recent speeches and the USSR’s rejection of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. As Kennan later wrote of his response, “Nothing but the whole truth would do.”
Kennan poured forth the “Long Telegram.” It was analytical, informed, and stark in its portrayal of the Soviet leadership and its motives and modus operandi. Kennan wrote that Soviet perceptions of and behavior toward the outside world had less to do with conditions beyond the USSR’s borders than with a traditional desire by Russian rulers to consolidate unchallengeable authority; joining that traditional insecurity with Marxist dogma, Stalin and his cohort “found justification for their instinctive fear of [the] outside world, for the dictatorship without which they did not know how to rule, for cruelties they did not dare not to inflict, for sacrifices they felt bound to demand.” The Soviet regime sought ever and only to increase its strength and prestige internally and externally. It intended to destabilize Western powers and split them from one another, and to expand its influence into colonial or once-colonial lands. The Soviets believed that to secure their own power they must undermine America’s way of life and international authority; with the U.S. there could be no modus vivendi.
In Kennan’s view, the problem of how to cope with the Soviet Union was the “greatest task our diplomacy has ever faced and probably [the] greatest it will ever have to face.” He argued that the U.S. should meet the challenge with neither belligerence nor inaction, but through a careful, thoughtful strategy of the sort employed during war. In that regard he offered some encouraging observations of the adversary: The Soviet Union did not take unnecessary risks and would withdraw in the face of strong opposition or likely defeat; it was, compared with the West, the less powerful force; and, because it was overextended and purely dictatorial, its permanence was not assured. The Long Telegram had an immediate, revelatory effect on Washington, a result of both insight and timing. Kennan brought clarity and understanding to murky and tense U.S.-Soviet relations.
In 1947, Secretary of State George Marshall established the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff to provide strategic thinking on the most important foreign-policy issues, and installed Kennan as its director. As “X,” Kennan anonymously authored a Foreign Affairs article that year titled “The Sources of Soviet Conduct.” In it he developed his theses that the USSR bore within it the seeds of its own decay, and that, while U.S. actions could not cause the fall of the Soviet regime, they could “increase enormously the strains under which Soviet policy must operate” and thus promote tendencies that would lead to either “the break-up or the gradual mellowing of Soviet power.” He also wrote, fatefully, that U.S. policy toward the USSR “must be that of long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.”
Three years later, Kennan’s deputy and then his successor as policy-planning director, Paul Nitze, led the preparation of a U.S. strategy for dealing with the USSR in the aftermath of the Soviet development of the atomic bomb and the Communist revolution in China. The report, “NSC-68,” argued that a peaceful strategy of containment required a sustained and broad military buildup. Even before then, Kennan believed that he had lost control of his idea of containment, which he saw primarily as a political strategy for a political problem. Nitze agreed with and admired Kennan’s analysis of the Soviet threat but thought Kennan’s prescriptions inadequate, even naïve. By 1950, Kennan and Nitze had helped lay the foundational premises and basic strategy of the Cold War.
In The Hawk and the Dove, Nicholas Thompson, an editor at Wired magazine and a grandson of Paul Nitze, has produced a well-conceived and deftly written joint biography of Kennan and Nitze, friends and rivals who profoundly influenced U.S. Cold War policy.
Kennan began training as a Russian specialist before the establishment of U.S.-Soviet diplomatic relations. He mastered Russia’s language, history, and culture, and pored over what information was available from the USSR. He spent the mid-1930s as one of the first officials in the new U.S. embassy in Moscow, observing in person Stalin’s show trials and the opacity and duplicity of the Soviet leadership. By the time he had completed his second tour in Moscow in 1946, he felt that he “knew as much as anyone in the United States about the ugliness of the problem that Stalin’s Russia presented to us.” His Long Telegram and “X” article were meant to help his government, in the words of the Long Telegram, “apprehend” that problem, “and recognize [it] for what it is.” Brooding, sensitive, old-fashioned, and eloquent, Kennan was both supremely confident in his intellectual abilities and regularly afflicted with punishing insecurities.
During the time Nitze served under Kennan, the latter was on his way to becoming a public intellectual; Kennan’s authorship of the “X” article was almost immediately revealed, and the article was widely excerpted, read, and discussed. Nitze, three years younger than Kennan, was still relatively unknown. He had studied the effectiveness of the U.S. strategic-bombing campaigns against Germany and Japan, and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (part of his duties included a visit to devastated Hiroshima).
Kennan and Nitze complemented each other at the State Department, and jointly contributed to the inception and execution of the Marshall Plan. Over time, however, fundamental disagreements emerged, as did clear signs of which would be the more effective policymaker in years to come. Kennan sought a global balance of power in which the world’s major industrial powers kept one another in check. Skeptical of any special role for America in the world — which he considered an unsophisticated basis for U.S. policymaking — and military alliances or any other “militarization” of containment, he opposed the establishment of NATO and argued passionately, and futilely, that the U.S. ought not to develop a hydrogen bomb. Adhering to Kennan’s analysis of the USSR, Nitze focused on building American and allied strength, as measured by military and economic might as well as by less tangible perceptions, versus that of the Soviet bloc. Nitze believed in the ability of America to lead an immense struggle and the necessity for America to spend substantial resources. He was unapologetic about America’s need for the hydrogen bomb, since the USSR surely sought it and would use it as leverage to further its global ambitions. (Thompson helpfully quotes a later reflection from Andrei Sakharov that the Soviets would have perceived any U.S. refusal to pursue the hydrogen bomb as either a trap or a “manifestation of stupidity and weakness.”)
Secretary of State Dean Acheson, whom both Kennan and Nitze served, later described Nitze as “a joy to work with because of his clear, incisive mind.” Acheson summed up his views of Kennan in an assessment of one of the latter’s policy papers. As perceptive and acerbic as Henry James, Acheson observed that Kennan’s paper was “typical of its gifted author, beautifully expressed, sometimes contradictory, in which were mingled flashes of prophetic insight and suggestions, as the document itself conceded, of total impracticality.”
Kennan would hold two other official jobs. Each was brief and ended in disappointment. Appointed ambassador to the USSR, a post for which he was uniquely qualified, in 1952, he was declared persona non grata by Stalin within five months for publicly comparing the Soviets’ treatment of foreign diplomats to the internment by the Nazis of Kennan and his embassy colleagues in Berlin in 1941–42. Recalled in 1961 by the Kennedy administration to active service as ambassador to Yugoslavia, Kennan spent two unremarkable years in Belgrade, marred toward the end by his unyielding and disproportionate insistence that the U.S. expand trade with Yugoslavia. Except for those interludes, Kennan spent the years from 1950 until his death in 2005 as a prolific and rightly celebrated historian and memoirist, and as a foreign-policy sage.
Nitze remained an enduring and influential policymaker throughout the Cold War, focusing always on relative U.S. and Soviet capabilities. He served Presidents Kennedy and Johnson as a senior Defense Department official, advising the former during the Cuban Missile Crisis. He was a formidable arms-control negotiator for Presidents Nixon and Reagan, impressing his colleagues and counterparts with his mastery of detail and capacity for work. Nitze influenced policy even when outside government. During a brief gap between his service to Presidents Johnson and Nixon, he rallied public and congressional support for the development of a missile-defense system, which he intended, and immediately used after returning to government, as a bargaining chip in negotiations with the Soviets. Out of office during the Ford administration, he played an important role in the “Team B” exercise, in which a group of outside experts thoroughly criticized the CIA for underestimating the nature and implications of Soviet strategic power. And during President Carter’s term, he revived and guided the Committee on the Present Danger, a bipartisan group that called for increased defense spending to counteract what it saw as years of neglect.
Thompson aptly tells the story of Nitze’s progression as an adviser, relating also Kennan’s anguish out of office, as Kennan increasingly feared that the nuclear-arms buildup and inept and ideological U.S. policy would lead to catastrophe.
Thompson’s book has its flaws. The title is misleading. Kennan, though wary of nuclear weapons, was far from a “dove,” at least as that term is commonly understood. Kennan considered the U.N. an example of dangerous and distracting idealism, believing that it would serve as a forum for the USSR and its allies to tie up the West and to exploit our high-minded purposes for their own ends. He attached little or no importance to regions outside the major industrial power centers of the world. For his part, Nitze was finely attuned to how particular military capabilities on each side would translate into global influence, but he was never eager to put those capabilities into action. Nitze, like Kennan, opposed expansion of the Korean War past the preexisting line of demarcation; he advocated an attack on Cuba during the missile crisis only if and when other options had been exhausted; and he opposed introduction of U.S. ground forces into Vietnam.
Beyond that, Thompson’s portrayal of Ronald Reagan as unserious and lucky overlooks the evidence that the Reagan administration, led by the president himself, devised and pursued one of the most sophisticated U.S. strategies of the Cold War. The most important of Reagan’s classified strategy directives — “NSDD 32” and “NSDD 75” — combined a thoughtful analysis of the Soviet regime with a policy approach aimed at shaping the environment in which Soviet leaders made decisions so as to encourage the mellowing of Soviet behavior and even changes in the nature of the regime. Both Kennan and his conservative critics would have been astonished at the degree to which Reagan’s strategy met the purposes of the Long Telegram and the “X” article.
Since the fall of the Berlin Wall 20 years ago, U.S. foreign-policy officials and academics have cast about to find a new grand strategy. It has become something of an obsession. Kennan, the progenitor of containment, haunts our post–Cold War failures to pursue U.S. interests in the world according to a durable, overarching strategy. Thompson notes that aides to President Clinton, seeking a label for their foreign policy, called the effort — to devise a label, not a strategy — the “Kennan sweepstakes.”
We should first remember what it was that Kennan contributed so consequentially to U.S. foreign policy. His Long Telegram and “X” article did not set out a grand unified theory to guide U.S. foreign relations. They were inductive explanations of what the USSR was about, how and why it acted, and what that meant for the U.S. The Long Telegram was a response to questions from Washington about the intentions and behavior of the Soviet leadership; the purpose of the “X” article was to clarify “The Sources of Soviet Conduct.” Kennan, who had a keen, cynical mind, and the drive to absorb and make sense of all that he had studied and experienced about the USSR, distilled his knowledge and insight about the Soviets in a way that helped the U.S. apprehend the real threat the Soviets posed. In so doing, he noted that through a thoughtful, concerted strategy, we could help foster the conditions in which a solution would emerge.
In the Long Telegram and the “X” article, Kennan did not specify such a strategy, and what he later recommended was frequently thought-provoking and cautionary but not always practical, even according to his admirers. But by first laying out the nature of the threat, as it existed in 1946 and 1947 — and based on that process, stating that there was a peaceful way to overcome it that centered on the weaknesses of the Soviets themselves — Kennan provided the basis on which ensuing policymakers formulated various specific strategies.
The U.S. has independent and enduring interests and objectives. It is useful, even necessary, to pursue them through an overall national-security strategy. For the last 20 years, there has been no shortage of proposed grand strategies — many of them almost entirely unrelated to a thoughtful analysis of the motives and capabilities of other important international actors. Yet any strategy is hard put to succeed without that analysis. This is a time of new and uncertain challenges to U.S. interests, and our efforts to bring about our best wishes often seem not to achieve the desired effect. The winners of the Kennan sweepstakes may be those who can help us to understand clearly what our most significant actual and potential adversaries — and even allies — are up to, why, and what it means for us.
– Mr. Lettow is an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of Ronald Reagan and His Quest to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.