Book Review: Thompson's The Last Cold Warriors

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 The Hawk and the Dove.

Thompson is Nitze's grandson and had access to all his papers. But the book betrays no favoritism (and, for balance, he was allowed to go through Kennan's private diaries, too). Thompson is critical and admiring of both men, and he even leans a bit against Nitze on policy.

They differed on nearly every issue. Kennan, world-weary historian turned diplomat, was the ultimate realist: he opposed military meddling where we had no vital interest and thought it pointless to build more nuclear arms once both superpowers reached a level of destructive capacity. Kennan conceived the doctrine of "containment" at the dawn of the Cold War, then anguished as others—chiefly Nitze—twisted his concept, which emphasized political and economic pressure against Moscow, in a more militaristic direction. Nitze, Wall Street banker turned problem-solving policy aide, was forerunner of (and mentor to) the neocons: he saw the world as a chessboard, where all conflicts were a piece of the Cold War competition and where "nuclear superiority" had to be attained (and the arms race thus perpetuated), since, as he wrote, the "atomic queens" determined "which side can safely advance a limited-war bishop or even a cold-war pawn."

Much of this has been told before, but Thompson's angle dramatizes the stakes and passions of the debates. He also unveils some surprises. Liberals who lionize Kennan may be shocked that he advised the FBI on its covert plan against '60s radicals, or that he had contempt for democracy, the working class, blacks, and Jews. They may be equally surprised that Nitze, their dark knight, spent his youth carousing around Europe with Alexander Calder, or that he persuaded Defense Secretary Clark Clifford to oppose the Vietnam War, or that, toward his life's end, he opposed the 1991 Iraq War and called for unilateral nuclear disarmament.

Throughout the half century they shaped, Kennan and Nitze were friends, perhaps because they were the last survivors of an era and equally animated by bitterness. Kennan plunged into depression when excluded from power circles. Nitze crusaded against the SALT II treaty, mainly because Jimmy Carter didn't give him a job. As much as anything else, The Hawk and the Dove shows how America's most dangerous era was shaped no less by pique and rivalry than by politics and ideas.

Kaplan is Slate's national-security columnist and the author of 1959: The Year Everything Changed.