When Paul Henry Nitze died at the age of 97 on Oct. 19, an era died with him. If there was one man responsible for America’s emergence as a global military power in the mid-20th century, Nitze could lay claim to that credit. If one man was most responsible for the nuclear nightmares that many Americans suffered along the way, Nitze could wear that tag as well.
In the annals of Cold War history, three sets of documents stand out as potent hair-raisers—the kinds of documents that not only gave their readers cold sweats, but also changed the course of American security policy—and Nitze wrote all of them.
The first and most pivotal was a top secret paper, written in April 1950, called “United States Objectives and Programs for National Security,” more famously known as NSC-68. In the months leading up to this paper, the Truman administration was split on its policy toward the Soviet Union. Secretary of State Dean Acheson saw the Soviets as a serious threat that needed to be countered through an enormous military buildup. Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson sided with fiscal conservatives—and Truman himself—who believed that boosting the annual arms budget beyond $15 billion would wreck the economy. Acheson’s powerful policy planning chief, George Kennan, though worried about the Soviets, favored a “containment” policy that stressed bolstering the West more through political and economic means.
At the beginning of 1950, Acheson fired Kennan and put Nitze in his place. Nitze, a former Wall Street banker, had been one of Kennan’s deputies, but openly sympathized with Acheson. Nitze’s first task: Scare the daylights out of Truman, so he’d raise the military budget. NSC-68 was the vehicle for doing so.
The document (which was declassified in the mid-1970s) warned of the “Kremlin’s design for world domination,” an urge it posited as intrinsic to Soviet Russia. “The Kremlin is inescapably militant,” the paper argued. The Soviet system required “the ultimate elimination of any effective opposition,” and so it would inexorably seek to destroy its main opponent, the United States. Moreover, the paper continued, once the Kremlin “calculates that it has a sufficient atomic capability to make a surprise attack on us,” it might very well launch such an attack “swiftly and with stealth.” The Soviets would have this capability as early as 1954—”the year of maximum danger”—unless the United States “substantially increased” its army, navy, air force, nuclear arsenal, and civil defenses immediately.
Years later, in his memoir, Present at the Creation, Acheson admitted that the language was “clearer than truth,” as he put it, but justified the hype. “The purpose of NSC-68,” he wrote, “was to so bludgeon the mass mind of ‘top government’ that not only could the President make a decision but that the decision could be carried out.”
Truman received NSC-68 on April 7, 1950. Two weeks later, he called Louis Johnson into his office and told him the economy-in-defense policy was dead. On June 25, the North Korean army spilled over the border. The Korean War forced a reassessment of U.S. policy. NSC-68 may not have been the best fit for the circumstances, but it was there. The National Security Council adopted it on Sept. 30. The defense budget climbed—not just to beat back North Korea, but to tackle communism everywhere—and didn’t come down again for decades. From then on, U.S. foreign policy adopted the Manichean worldview that Nitze laid down in NSC-68, viewing every local struggle as reflecting the “underlying conflict” between the “free world” of the West and the “slave society” behind the Iron Curtain.
The next turning point came in 1957, when Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican and fiscal tightwad, was president. The Democrats, including Nitze, were out of power. Intelligence estimates were indicating that the USSR would soon outgun the United States in nuclear weaponry. Yet Eisenhower seemed passive in the face of this threat.
Nelson Rockefeller urged Eisenhower to form a panel to examine whether the United States should fund a nationwide program of fallout shelters in case of Soviet attack. Eisenhower appointed a prominent lawyer named Rowan Gaither to head it. Gaither and his staff expanded the mission to look at the nuclear balance generally. Nitze was one of the staff members. When Gaither got sick, Nitze was picked to write the final report.
The result—“Deterrence and Survival in the Nuclear Age,” aka the Gaither Report —was another barn-burner. It warned of the “spectacular progress” the Soviets had made in their missile program and the “increasing threat which may become critical in 1959 or early 1960. … If we fail to act at once, the risk, in our opinion, will be unacceptable.”
Eisenhower didn’t succumb to the logic of the Gaither Report, so some of Nitze’s associates—or perhaps Nitze himself—leaked it to the press. It became the basis of fears about a “missile gap,” which would fuel the next round of the U.S.-Soviet arms race, even though—as Eisenhower knew at the time (from top-secret satellite photos) and as John F. Kennedy (who campaigned on the missile gap) learned once he got into office—there was no missile gap, except perhaps in America’s favor. The intelligence reports of the mid-to-late ‘50s, it turned out, were wrong. The Soviets had only a handful of ICBMs. We were way ahead.
Kennedy gave Nitze a job as one of several assistant secretaries of defense. Under Kennedy, Nitze played a key role in building up U.S. conventional forces in Western Europe, which had genuinely dwindled under Eisenhower. But otherwise, he was viewed as too hawkish by many of his associates—especially during the crises over Berlin in ‘61 and Cuba in ‘62, when he seemed less averse to taking steps that risked nuclear war—and never became part of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s, much less Kennedy’s, inner circle. Lyndon Johnson finally gave him the deputy secretary of defense title he wanted—after a brief stint at secretary of the Navy. But, by that time, the country was embroiled in Vietnam and Nitze made little impact.
Nitze’s deepest embitterment came during the Carter administration. He was one of Carter’s earliest supporters in the 1976 Democratic primaries. He sent him papers, discussed policy with him, and gave money to his campaign. But when Carter took office, Nitze got nothing. Worse still, Carter gave all the plum national-security jobs to doves, Nitze’s rivals. These analysts, such as Paul Warnke, Harold Brown, and Anthony Lake, took a less alarmist view of the Soviet Union than Nitze thought responsible.
In 1975, Nitze had formed a group called the Committee on the Present Danger, designed to ring the alarm bells over a new Soviet nuclear build-up. After the Carter appointments, Nitze put his group on war footing. When Carter and Leonid Brezhnev signed the SALT II arms-control treaty in June 1979, Nitze declared war. SALT II was a modest treaty. But to Nitze, it was a disaster because it left the Soviets with superiority in missile megatonnage and throw-weight. He warned that the Soviets might use this edge to engage in “nuclear blackmail.” It was a bizarrely abstract argument, but Nitze recited it over and over, supporting his views with elaborate charts. He wrote highly influential articles—his third set of scary documents—in Foreign Affairs and Foreign Policy, warning of an impending Soviet first-strike capability. He wrote pamphlets for the Committee on the Present Danger, warning, in terms straight out of NSC-68, that the “Soviet Union has not altered its long-held goal of a world dominated from a single center—Moscow.”
Nitze also testified against SALT II before Congress. When one senator asked him if he considered himself to be more patriotic than Warnke, an old friend and colleague of his who was now Carter’s arms-control negotiator, Nitze replied: Yes.
When Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980, he gave jobs to the hawks and made Nitze his arms-control negotiator. Then something strange happened: Paul Nitze became a serious arms controller. During arms talks in Geneva in 1982, he and his Soviet counterpart, Yuli Kvitsinsky, went for a famous “walk in the woods,” and carved out a comprehensive package for eliminating intermediate-range nuclear missiles. The deal was so radical for its day that both of their superiors rejected it—though it set the stage for a similar treaty that Reagan would sign with Mikhail Gorbachev five years later.
It’s always been a mystery why Nitze took such an unexpected direction. Was it simply the urge to behave like a professional diplomat when entrusted with actual responsibility? Despite his invective against Warnke and Carter’s SALT II treaty, Nitze had been the one who negotiated SALT I and the Anti-Ballistic-Missile Treaty during the Nixon administration.
Maybe so. But a deeper explanation, I think, goes back to an almost-unknown episode in Nitze’s life, revolving around a speech he wrote in April 1960 for a national-security conference at Asilomar in Monterey, Calif. This was a nerve-racking time for nuclear strategists. Khrushchev had been threatening to invade West Berlin, a vital Western enclave deep inside East German territory. The United States and NATO could not beat back such an invasion with conventional arms. Would we—should we—use nuclear weapons? Could nukes play any useful military role? If so, what? If not, what were we supposed to do with them?
Nitze was one of several thoughtful people wrestling with these dilemmas. He used the Asilomar speech to offer some answers, and they were very different from what anyone expected. He proposed that the United States should “multilateralize” control over its nuclear weapons, turning the Strategic Air Command into a division of NATO. Then, he added, NATO should “turn over ultimate power of a decision on the use of these systems to the General Assembly of the United Nations,” and invite the Soviets to do the same with their weapons. He also suggested that, as part of this new arrangement, the United Nations would not fire the weapons except in retaliation for a direct nuclear attack by an enemy.
In my only interview with Nitze, in 1981, I asked him about the Asilomar speech (a draft of which I had found in the Kennedy Library). He told me he was still proud of that speech, but that all of his friends and colleagues hated it. He seemed bitter recalling their reaction, even 21 years after the fact.
Nitze never made another speech like it. One month after Asilomar, he gave another speech at Maxwell Air Force Base, in Alabama, and took the polar-opposite view—that, given its nuclear dilemmas, the United States should develop a first-strike capability. But it seemed clear to me from my interview with him that Nitze had continued to mull those dilemmas over in his own mind, and that he’d never entirely dismissed the Asilomar option. It may well have been Asilomar he was thinking about during that walk in the woods.