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Paul Nitze

By Edward Ericson Jr. | Posted 12/29/2004

In 1982, Paul Nitze, President Ronald Reagan’s Special Advisor on Arms Control, took his Soviet counterpart, Yuli Kvitsinsky, for a walk in the Geneva woods. The two came to a stunning agreement on limiting intermediate-range nuclear missiles. Both of their superiors rejected it—but five years later Reagan would sign a similar treaty with Mikhail Gorbachev.

The famous “walk in the woods,” later fictionalized as a Broadway play of that name, was the capstone of a legendary career in statecraft. An adviser to every president from Franklin Roosevelt to Reagan (except Jimmy Carter), Nitze, who died Oct. 19 at the age of 97, was dubbed “Master of the Game” by biographer Strobe Talbott. He also founded the school that bears his name—the Washington-based Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, now part of Johns Hopkins University.

Celebrated as a shrewd negotiator whose politics could not be pigeonholed (he changed parties twice during his career), Nitze epitomized for many the belief that dispassionate brain power was the only way to make policy in a world freighted with nuclear weapons. But on crucial occasions, Nitze “sexed up” the perceived Soviet threat in order to justify higher military spending. Each time he did this—in 1950, 1957, and finally in the late 1970s—Nitze’s flawed analysis made U.S. policy. When he advocated radical arms control—in 1960 and 1982—he was spurned.

Born in Amherst, Mass., Nitze spent his formative years in South Chicago, where at age 7 he joined a street gang for protection. A Johns Hopkins University Press biography called this incident Nitze’s “first lesson in pragmatic diplomacy.” Though he began his professional life in finance, he was drawn to the power locus of Washington and joined the State Department as a midlevel staffer in 1940.

In 1950, Nitze wrote in a National Security Council report that the Soviet Union was capable of defeating the United States in a protracted war, especially if America did not “deliver a powerful blow” at the outset with atomic bombs. Warning of impending attack, Nitze’s top-secret “NSC 68” document came just five years after the end of World War II, which took more than 20 million Soviet lives (vs. 400,000 American) and left the Soviet Union’s industrial base severely weakened. Nitze’s boss, Secretary of State Dean Acheson, later wrote that NSC 68 was propaganda meant to “bludgeon the mass mind of ‘top government’” into approving massive military spending. And thus was launched the Cold War.

Guided by NSC 68, U.S. policy-makers saw every small war as part of the struggle to contain global communism. When President Dwight Eisenhower was reluctant to continue the arms race, Nitze wrote another paper in 1957. The “Gaither Report” warned of the “spectacular progress” the USSR had made in its missile program. This was the “missile gap”—also illusory—on which John Kennedy ran in the 1960 presidential race.

That same year, Nitze gave a remarkable speech at a gathering of defense experts proposing that the United States turn the Strategic Air Command, its nuclear attack and defense arm, into a division of NATO, Fred Kaplan reported in an Oct. 21 piece. Then, Nitze added, NATO should “turn over ultimate power of a decision on the use of these [nuclear weapons] systems to the General Assembly of the United Nations,” and invite the Soviets to do the same. Such a move might have ended the nuclear threat then and there.

Kaplan reported that he asked Nitze about the speech in 1981. “He told me he was still proud of that speech, but that all of his friends and colleagues hated it,” Kaplan wrote. “He seemed bitter recalling their reaction, even 21 years after the fact.”

Nitze never made another speech like it. He helped craft the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty of 1972, but in 1976, reportedly angry that President Carter didn’t tap him for a top government post, Nitze co-founded the Committee on the Present Danger, a collection of policy heavyweights who again hyped the Soviet threat. The committee gave political ammunition to Reagan’s presidential campaign, and upon his election Reagan hired Nitze as an arms negotiator.

In power, Nitze tried to undo the damage his own false claims had caused, and he is rightly remembered as an important shaper of history. But Nitze’s dubious ideas brought him power, while his advocacy of logical (and peaceful) ideals limited his career. That is the legacy Nitze’s admirers should examine, for that paradox shapes America’s foreign policy still.

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