BOOK REVIEW: The Hawk and the Dove

By Carlos Guevara
Staff Writer
January 31, 2010

Nicholas Thompson, The Hawk and the Dove: Paul Nitze, George Kennan, and the History of the Cold War (Henry Holt and Co., 2009)

Nicholas Thompson’s book analyzes the influence that two icons of the Cold War and the foreign policy establishment had in the waging of it. George Kennan, the famous author of the containment policy towards the Soviet Union, was the more cerebral and intellectual of the two, preferring to think and write on his own. Paul Nitze was more the man of action, the bureaucratic infighter who liked to work in committees and build networks, who put forward the intellectual rationale for building up the military to counter the Soviets as a crucial part of containment, thereby feeding an insanely dangerous arms race that came close to ending civilization as we know it on earth.

What comes across perhaps most starkly in this twin biography-cum-history of the Cold War is the extraordinarily perilous journey humanity was forced to traverse as a result of the advent of nuclear weapons. For decades the U.S. and the Soviet Union glared across the nuclear divide while the fate of the world hung in the balance.

Also striking is how, in spite of all the enormous differences in political systems, the U.S. and the Soviet Union paralleled each other in mutual paranoid suspicion which nearly overcame their fervent desire to avoid nuclear war. That deeply held mistrust, added to mundane domestic pressures from their respective military-industrial complexes, nearly resulted in a nuclear war. It is difficult to fathom how the world came so close to a nuclear holocaust when neither side wanted it.

The title of the book, The Hawk and the Dove, is somewhat deceptive in that both Kennan and Nitze were Cold Warriors, both were implacably opposed to the Soviet Union and Communism, and both acted, in different ways, on their beliefs. What set them apart was their readiness to countenance the use of nuclear weapons. Nitze, in spite of, or perhaps because of having seen and studied the aftermath of the nuclear attack on Hiroshima, pushed for military superiority in nuclear weapons without realizing that the effect on the Soviet Union was to stiffen their resolve to match the U.S. in nuclear capabilities even while feeding suspicions and strengthening hard liners in the Kremlin. Nitze argued for the plausibility of administering nuclear weapons, making them an instrument of policy, up to and including in conventional and nuclear war, whereas Kennan withdrew in horror from the prospect of it.

Nitze’s position was essentially that nuclear weapons were only an extension, even if gigantic, of the destructive power of weapons of conventional war, a change in quantity, not in the essence or quality, of the destructive nature of war. Nuclear weaponry was more of the same, one more, if more fearful, instrument to use in realpolitik. The bottom line for Nitze was that nuclear weapons were not a game changer. That is, he did not look at those weapons as a phenomenon that made war obsolete in that there would be no winners after a full scale nuclear exchange, at least certainly not at the beginning of the Cold War when his thinking was most influential.

Kennan on the other hand thought that the use of nuclear weapons was self defeating, both on moral and practical grounds. The death and destruction would be so great that there could not possibly be any justification in risking, much less waging, nuclear war.

Both aspired to reach the pinnacle of policy making in foreign affairs but neither succeeded, due in no small part to their personal characteristics. Perhaps it is just as well, given their personalities, outlook and thinking. Kennan, the more brilliant thinker, was somewhat outside the political mainstream by being extremely elitist and therefore deeply suspicious of democracy. Along these lines he had weird notions about merging the U.S. with Canada and the U.K., having the capital moved to Windsor or Ottawa and splitting the nation into four regions. At other times he would confide in his diary that he wished “there were much more of what we have become accustomed to calling unemployment”. He even went so far as to propose a benevolent dictatorship.

Kennan married an extraordinary capacity for strategic thinking with a tin ear for politics, would rather be right than be in power and held on too long to ideas that had been superseded and discarded, not only by history but more importantly for his personal fortunes and advancement, by his superiors. He was prone to sticking his foot in his mouth and was simply too far out of the political mainstream.

Nitze was pugnacious to the point of being imprudent in his dealings with superiors. But more importantly, he countenanced the use of nuclear weapons and thought that some kind of victory could be achieved in a nuclear war. In the Cuban Missile Crisis, if any use of nuclear weapons was to be made he advocated a strategic strike against the Soviet Union. When in that crisis Nitze said “we could in some real sense be victorious” he sounded like air force general Buck Turgidson in Stanley Kubrick’s classic movie Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. After the B-52’s of the SAC had gone beyond the fail safe point General Turgidson - reputed to have been patterned after legendary air force general Curtis LeMay - advocated an all out nuclear attack against the Soviet Union by maintaining that the losses would be worth victory: “I'm not saying we wouldn't get our hair mussed, Mister President, but I do say no more than ten to twenty million killed, tops…depending on the breaks."

Nevertheless, they were more enduring, more far sighted in the case of Kennan, more tenacious in the case of Nitze, and more influential than most of their contemporaries in the foreign policy establishment, some of whom reached the highest positions in the foreign policy apparatus of government without leaving a comparable imprint behind.

This book review was edited on Oct. 5, 2010 at the author's request.


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Interesting story, I've read many research papers about cold war, spoke to my russian friends, but i think just here i will understand more and recognize new mysteries and secrets.

What comes across perhaps most starkly in this twin biography-cum-history of the Cold War is the extraordinarily perilous journey humanity was forced to traverse as a result of the advent of nuclear weapons. For decades the U.S. and the Soviet Union glared across the nuclear divide while the fate of the world hung in the balance. parkside credit union

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