Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Hawk & The Dove

I am reading Nicholas Thompson’s The Hawk and the Dove: Paul Nitze, George Kennan, and the History of the Cold War. Thompson is Nitze’s grandson and had access to his papers. Kennan’s diaries enable him to give an impartial account of the struggle for policy control between the two men with their widely differing approaches to dealing with the Soviet Union. They agreed on containment, but not the means to that end. A feature of their friendship is the civility of their discourse despite huge disagreement.

The contrast between them is an interesting approach to the foreign policy history of the USA during the Cold War. Nitze is presented as a hard-nosed realist, arguing for the development of the H-bomb. If they did not pursue it the Russians would. Containment must be backed up by military strength. Kennan was more conflicted – horrified at the massive arms build-up and the prospect of nuclear obliteration, and brooding over the impossibility of enforcing the American way of life on sovereign nations. To him, containment meant that in time the ‘evil empire’ would disintegrate from within.

Well-written, the book is very readable. I especially enjoyed the Korean War section and the concerns in Washington over McArthur’s imperial leadership. I’d almost forgotten that American and Chinese troops had fought each other during that war. The legacy of that conflict lingered long in the minds of the American public and policy-makers.

President Truman emerged with credit when he dismissed McArthur. The book abounds with little revealing vignettes and anecdotes. Like when Openheimer who directed the atomic bomb development met Truman and said ‘I’ve blood on my hands;' afterwards, Truman exploded to an aide, expletives removed, something to the effect of ‘how much more do I have on my hands.’

This was the world in which I grew up. Those two conflicting views were background to my development. In the book Eisenhower has just been elected – the two men are briefly on the outer. Ahead there is Dulles, Suez, Hungary, Cuba, Viet Nam, Nixon's visit to China. I know the general history outline but not the individual stories of the two men. History through biography, that’s an interesting twist to provide a satisfying read for the wintry start we are having to summer.

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