The kind of Cold War obsessive who can’t get enough details about SALT II is likely to wind up addicted to Nicholas Thompson’s dual biography The Hawk And The Dove: Paul Nitze, George Kennan, And The History Of The Cold War. But the book is a neat trick in general, viewing recent history through the lens of two men who arguably did as much to shape it as the big-name executive newsmakers. As the 20th century’s longest-lasting ideological battle recedes steadily into collective memory, and conservatives unleash accusations of “socialism” at the slightest opportunity, now’s as relevant a time as any to revisit long-fought battles.
George Kennan was the architect of “containment,” which he conceived as a way of economically and politically battling the Soviet Union without resorting to military action; it was a source of lasting grievance to him that it was misperceived and taken up as a belligerent call to arms. He’s the titular dove; Paul Nitze (Thompson’s grandfather) was the hawk, consistently convinced the Soviets were way ahead of us. By putting them together, Thompson develops a historical through-line for American history: Kennan as the outsider too impractical to work in government, whose theorizing nonetheless proved as influential as any policy; Nitze as the savvy administrative taskmaster pushing through on-the-ground negotiations for more than 40 years.
Thompson’s binary biography suffers from occasional oversimplification in reducing Nitze and Kennan to mirror images: He’s right to deem Kennan “a dove with hidden talons,” and Nitze as less than the Curtis LeMay-with-policy warmonger he’s been reduced to, yet he occasionally stops for tedious paragraphs juxtaposing the two, undermining his scrupulous research by building them up as caricatures. But The Hawk And The Dove wastes little to no time on the usual biographic niceties of background and family life. Anyone wishing to learn about the men’s wives or children will be sorely disappointed: This is all about the politics. Kennan’s angsty diaries are excerpted and analyzed; Nitze’s notes from the Cuban Missile Crisis are exhumed; inevitably, nasty new charges are brought against Henry Kissinger. But even without the tiny revelations and new details, Thompson tells a terrific story, looking at the ways administrative henchmen and academic theorists can redirect the course of national policy. Whether it’s Nitze sabotaging SALT II negotiations through a CIA leak or Kennan’s late-’70s domination of The New York Times as America’s official voice of nuclear reason, it’s at least as notable as the official “Tear down this wall” narrative oversimplification of how the war was won.