The Way I See It:
Reflections on the
When I set out to write about Paul Nitze on the occasion of
his 90th birthday on Thursday, I was surprised at how little I
actually knew about the man whose name was most familiar because
the Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies is named for
For some insight, I phoned Steven David, a Hopkins professor of political science and an expert on international relations and U.S. security.
"If television were to produce a miniseries about the four decades of the Cold War, they would do well to portray a character like Paul Nitze," he said. "People not knowledgeable about that era might not recognize his name. It's not a household name. But it is difficult to think of anyone who has been as central to the most important decisions spanning the years following World War II as he has been."
Several hundred students, faculty, government officials, friends and admirers will attend a gathering at SAIS to honor the cold warrior who helped found the school in 1943 and for whom the school was named in 1986. Close friend and former Secretary of State George Shultz and current Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott will give talks on "Foreign Policy on the Eve of the 21st Century."
It seems a fitting way to pay tribute to the man who was so instrumental in shaping U.S. foreign policy and nuclear arms strategy in the last half of the 20th century. A man Steven David calls "living history."
In the process of gathering information, I screened a video tribute to Nitze that will be shown at the birthday gathering. I felt like I was watching a version of the Woody Allen film Zelig, in which the Allen character pops up (in photos and newsreels) in close proximity to all the major figures of the early 20th century. In the movie, it was meant as a joke; how could one man have been at the center of so much of an era's history. In Nitze's case, being at the center of history was for real.
In the photos and newsreels just included in the video, there's Nitze sitting next to John Kennedy, sitting with Secretary of State Dean Acheson, Secretary of Defense George Marshall, flanking Secretary of State Robert McNamara and the joint chiefs of staff, chatting with Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, counseling Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. There he is in Vietnam in 1966 for his second personal glimpse of the war. That's Nitze in Geneva as Reagan's principal arms negotiator for the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks and for the grueling Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces negotiations.
It was Nitze who took the historic "walk in the woods" with the chief Soviet negotiator, during which they hammered out an INF proposal. The "walk" was later made into a Broadway play.
Nitze is considered one of the principal architects of the U.S. foreign policy of containing the Soviets after World War II, believing then, and now, that if you kept the Soviets from expansion and world domination they would eventually be forced to look inward. And then, they'd see so many domestic problems that they'd give up on their global dreams and slowly decay from within. Nitze also preached to anyone who would listen that the U.S. had to deal with the Soviets from a position of strength, and, therefore, he was a steady voice advocating a strong military. He didn't believe Soviet arms buildup should be deterred; instead, the Soviets had to realize that our nuclear strength was powerful enough that they would know they could not start or win a nuclear war.
During the INF negotiations, NBC news anchor John Chancellor called Nitze "the ultimate hawk." But Nitze never particularly agreed with that label.
"I don't think I was. I didn't think we should go to war with the Soviets, and I don't think they wanted to go to war with us. But how did you conduct things so that the Soviets would be deterred from foreign expansion and be forced to look inward at their own problems? We had to work on how to contain the Soviets while building a coalition of the free world that would be strong enough to resist what seemed to be their ambition for world domination," he says.
As we talk in the picture- and book-lined office on the 8th floor of SAIS's Rome Building on Massachusetts Avenue, I find myself most curious about the sort of man he is, about what kind of person it is who can step onto the leading edge of the world proscenium and, beginning at 33 years of age, so clearly and confidently tell the leaders of the free world the right way to deal with the country's--the world's--most lethal threat. I can't recount everything here. His 1989 memoir, From Hiroshima to Glasnost, is pretty complete. There's also Strobe Talbott's 1988 book, The Master of the Game: Paul Nitze and the Nuclear Peace. And a forthcoming biography by SAIS Professor Eliot Cohen promises to be more detailed.
But as we talk, I think of a young Chicago schoolboy who claims to have learned his first lessons in power politics when he decided to join a tough Italian street gang to gain protection from a rival gang that regularly beat him up in his passages to and from school. And then he remained fiercely loyal to them.
Nitze was the son of a highly regarded Romance languages scholar--a Hopkins alumnus and chair of the department at the University of Chicago. At 12, he was already enough of an intellect to know that the scholars he knew through his father were brilliant, especially in their perspectives on current events. Yet he was already confident enough to realize that they were all talk; he wanted to be in a position to participate in world events and "be close to the levers of influence."
That can-do attitude was born of his mother's influence, he recalls.
"My mother had excessive confidence in me," he says. "I was told I was bright and competent and could do whatever I wanted to do. That was a great help to have her think that. I was, however, a little cross with her because she wouldn't stand up to me to ever tell me, "Paul, you're wrong." She always said, "Paul, you're right."
As I talk with this cold warrior, still physically fit and sharp in his recollections and beliefs, I try to picture the brash, cocky 21-year-old who, on a $200 dare, set out with a friend right after his Harvard graduation to canoe down the Ipswich River from Boston to New York's Yacht Club. Typical of Nitze's most enduring traits, he confidently accepted what amounted to a sucker bet, yet he persisted for eight days, even though he and his friend came perilously close to death a couple of times; he never thought of quitting. And he succeeded.
Before his career in government service, he was for 12 years a successful international investment banker on Wall Street, taking his father's advice to make some money before turning to public service.
"I worked with some of the most distinguished men on Wall Street and rubbed shoulders with some of its biggest crooks. ... The experience left me with little awe of the great and perhaps with excessive confidence in my own abilities and judgment," he wrote in his memoir.
In the introduction to his memoir, Nitze characterizes himself as "an assertive, hard-nosed pragmatist." He has said that dealing in foreign policy demanded cold, hard, objective analysis; the more long-lasting the decision, the colder the eye. But privately, as with his fateful canoe adventure, Nitze was a bit more impulsive.
For decades, Nitze and his first wife, Phyllis--who died in 1987 after 54 years of marriage--owned a farm in Charles County, Md., a place they nearly lost before it was bought.
"We had read in The Washington Post about a place with 350 acres on the Potomac for $35,000. We decided to go and take a look at it. Well, she went down there first and thought the view was terrific and that we ought to buy it. So I went down there and she took me to a place where I could see it in the distance. We had a picnic there. And I went back to the real estate fellow and said I wanted to make a bid on this place. He said, 'I wouldn't do that if I were you,' and I said, 'Why not?' And he said, 'I showed it to another man a week ago, and he was coming back at five o'clock today, and I think he's going to buy it.' And I said, 'Damn you' because I couldn't tell if he was telling the truth or not. I said, 'Where is your piece of paper,' and he pulled it out, and I signed it. I bought it right there. I didn't even know there was a house on the place."
Paul Nitze always embraced a challenge. That is how SAIS came to exist.
In the early days of the war, Nitze was among those scholar-practitioners who thought that a different sort of academic program would have to be undertaken to educate a new breed of policy makers capable of addressing the post-war challenges. To that time, only a smattering of historically based foreign policy schools existed, and he wondered why there were no current affairs courses offered that were backed by strong theory. So, along with Massachusetts congressman Christian Herter and a distinguished board of political and financial advisers, he created SAIS. In 1963, it became part of Johns Hopkins.
When asked if SAIS became what he hoped it would, he says unhesitatingly, "More so."
Throughout his nearly 50 years as a SAIS executive and scholar and as a government official, Paul Nitze served seven presidents from Franklin Roosevelt (whom he believes had the best grasp of the complexity of international relations and the ability to communicate that to the American people) to Ronald Reagan. Although an early supporter of Jimmy Carter's, Nitze chose not to serve in his administration in part because Carter's wife, Roslyn, "indicated that she'd had a private word from God, who worked for peace with the Soviets," he has said.
"I didn't think the president or his wife should tell me what to think on the grounds they had a private channel to God himself--it seemed to me to be unfair competition."
Of course, Nitze did not clarify who, exactly, was at the disadvantage.
In 1985, Ronald Reagan awarded his ambassador-at-large the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country's highest civilian honor, for his years of service and for "playing an indispensable role in our efforts to forge a bold and creative arms control policy."
"By the age of 7, I knew what I wanted to do with my life in the long run," Nitze says at the close of his video tribute. I ask him if he ever doubted his ability to get things done.
"I think one is born with a can-do point of view or without it," he says. "I look back and am amazed at how much can-do was in me in my early years. I did all kinds of extraordinary things. I'm still amazed at how bold I was in those days."
These days, he remains active, writing several books with chief of staff James McCall. Has his life turned out as he envisioned it as a young boy I ask him?
"I have been very fortunate," he says after a long, thoughtful pause. "Things have worked out better than I could have ever anticipated. I've been at the right place at the right time, just by accident; places where things needed to be done. And I was in a position to, perhaps, get something accomplished for better or for worse.
"What I look back on as an accomplishment is dealing with the Russians and how it was possible to avoid hostilities with them and still deal with them persistently and in a rather tough way to eventually come out on top. And I do think we did come out on top. As I look back on it, one could have done some things better, but at least we did things with some degree of energy and drive and I think a success.
"I look back on my life as more or less a fortunate series of accidents."
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