Paul Nitze

Cold War architect who served US Presidents over half a century
Click to follow
The Independent Online

For the reporter who covered superpower arms control negotiations in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s - so consumingly important then, the merest sideshow today - presidents and general secretaries might change, but one figure was constant: a suave senior official in the American delegation who might sometimes be observed drifting off for a quiet word in a corner with his Soviet opposite number of the day.

Paul Henry Nitze, government official: born Amherst, Massachusetts 16 January 1907; married 1932 Phyllis Pratt (died 1987; two sons, two daughters), 1993 Elisabeth Porter (née Scott); died Washington, DC 19 October 2004.

For the reporter who covered superpower arms control negotiations in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s - so consumingly important then, the merest sideshow today - presidents and general secretaries might change, but one figure was constant: a suave senior official in the American delegation who might sometimes be observed drifting off for a quiet word in a corner with his Soviet opposite number of the day.

The Russian would treat him with visible respect, and with good reason. For since 1946, when Moscow and Washington turned from allies into adversaries, Paul Nitze had been an architect of the doctrine of "containment" of the Soviet Union. In 1989 he published his memoirs, From Hiroshima to Glasnost: at the center of decision. The title was no exaggeration.

Nitze was never elected to any office, nor represented any party. Yet he was more influential than most Secretaries of State. Over four decades, he helped shape American security policy. Of that exceptionally gifted group of high officials under President Harry Truman who were, in Dean Acheson's words, "present at the creation" of the post-war world, none lasted longer in active government service. Long before the end of his life, Nitze had become one of Washington's listed human monuments.

Above all perhaps, Nitze's name is associated with the "Walk in the Woods", an event which inspired an award-winning 1988 play by Lee Blessing and has entered the diplomatic lexicon to denote informal back-channel contacts to advance a deadlocked negotiating process.

In fact Nitze took part in two such walks. The first, in 1972, took place in a forest near Vienna with the Soviet academician Alexander Shchukin and produced a compromise that led to that year's Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, for three decades the cornerstone of arms-control agreements between Washington and Moscow. Blessing's play however was modelled (albeit loosely) on the second, Nitze's long private conversation with his Soviet opposite number Yuli Kvitsinsky in the forests of the Jura mountains near Geneva in 1982.

The two men devised a "back of the envelope" formula to reduce intermediate nuclear weapons (INF) deployed in Europe. The deal would be rejected by their then political masters. But it presaged the historic December 1987 INF treaty signed by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, eliminating Cruise, Pershing and SS-20 missiles in their totality from the European theatre. It was a first, huge step towards the ending of the Cold War, and fruit of the patience, toughness and perseverance Nitze had shown through a career devoted to keeping the nuclear peace.

In real life, however, he was anything but the humourless, tedious do-gooder who was the fictional American negotiator in Blessing's play. Nitze might have been cool and incisive as he played the gambits of arms control - not for nothing did the Russians dub him "The Silver Fox". The private man however was another matter: witty, hugely attractive if a mite conceited, and possessed of an elegance which only grew with age. Into his nineties, he was still to be seen on the Georgetown party circuit, cutting a debonair figure with his crinkly white hair and smoking jacket of crimson velvet.

As for the young Paul Nitze, he was something of a tearaway. His family was of Protestant German stock, his father a philologist and professor of Romance languages at Amherst College in Massachusetts. After a comfortable East Coast upbringing, he attended Harvard where he studied economics and finance - and, more importantly, had a good time.

Nitze fell in with a fast crowd, in which, he remembered, "We all drank too much, had girls and a rich, glorious life." So glorious in fact that he skipped one of his final exams to attend a house party in Newport, Rhode Island, and received a mark of zero. No matter. In 1929 he joined the blue chip investment bank Dillon Read, and despite the Wall Street crash prospered mightily.

His destiny however lay elsewhere. One of Dillon's partners was James Forrestal who would be appointed Under-Secretary of the Navy in 1940. Nitze followed him to Washington as his assistant, and never really worked anywhere else again.

The jobs followed one after the other, at the heart of America's policy-making machinery: at the Board of Economic Warfare. between 1942 and 1943, then as Vice-Chairman of the Strategic Bombing Survey from 1944 to 1946 (where he acquired a deep lifelong admiration for the military), then at the Office of International Trade Policy, the State Department and, between 1950 and 1953, as Head of Policy Planning at the State Department, as successor to George Kennan.

Nitze helped plot the final campaign against Japan that culminated in the use of the atomic bomb against Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He worked on the 1944 Bretton Woods monetary agreements and then the Marshall Plan, and was an important adviser at turning points of the early Cold War, including Korea and the decision to develop a hydrogen bomb.

Unlike Kennan, Nitze was not a visionary. Acheson prized him for his acuteness, his conciseness, and ability to cut swiftly to the heart of an issue. Though shunned by President Dwight D. Eisenhower (for whom Nitze scarcely veiled his contempt) he returned to government under John F. Kennedy and - barring a brief hiatus after resigning from the Nixon administration at the height of the Watergate scandal - served the presidents of both parties with equal effect.

Technically, he might be described as a Democrat who became a Republican, before reverting back to the Democrats. In fact he was on a bipartisan plateau, a man of private means indebted to no patron. Almost certainly, a reputation for independence and awkwardness kept him from the very top jobs of Secretary of State or National Security Adviser, for which he was perfectly qualified.

But Nitze was unchallenged in his chosen field of throw-weights, multiple warheads, strategic defence and the alphabet soup of arms control acronyms that held Armageddon at bay. The Master of the Game was the title of a 1988 history of US Soviet arms control negotiations in the 1970s and 1980s, based around Nitze and written by Strobe Talbott (who later became Deputy Secretary of State under President Bill Clinton).

For most of those years, Nitze was pigeonholed as an archetypal Cold Warrior, not without reason. Since the late 1940s, Nitze had been deeply distrustful of Soviet motives, convinced that only toughness and strength could win Moscow's respect. Under President Gerald Ford, he led the so-called "Team B", the group of experts set up by arms control hawks to second-guess official US policy at the height of Henry Kissinger's drive for detente.

Nitze was no great admirer of Kissinger, and from Team B's conclusions grew the early, uncompromising anti-Soviet stance of the Reagan administration. But soon Nitze the self-described "hard-nosed pragmatist" seemed a veritable moderate, compared to the likes of Cap Weinberger, Reagan's Defense Secretary and Richard Perle, Weinberger's close aide and now a leading light of today's neo-conservatives.

Paul Nitze retired in 1988, and the following year Presidents George H.W. Bush and Gorbachev agreed that the Cold War was over. By 1991 the Soviet Union was no more. Yet Nitze was still busy in Washington, above all at SAIS, the School of Advanced International Studies which he co-founded with Johns Hopkins University.

In the early 1990s he vigorously supported early intervention against the Bosnian Serbs, in the late 1990s he was an equally vigorous opponent of Nato enlargement. And, just as at Harvard, his life remained richly varied. A fine skiier who once chaired the Aspen Skiing Corporation. he was also a pianist and tennis player as well as horseman and gentleman farmer on his estate in Maryland.

Indeed Paul Nitze, with his elegance, his fluent German and French, and his wide interests, carried the odour of an age which had vanished even before his later adversary, the Soviet Union, was born. In his memoirs, he referred to his "nostalgia for the warmth and beauty of European and American culture as remembered from my boyhood, prior to the tragedy of the First World War". In that sense, Nitze was not just a last throwback to the era of Truman and Acheson, but to an America before it became a superpower.

Rupert Cornwell



Comments