Last summer, as I prepared to take on the role of American negotiator John Honeyman in Lee Blessing’s A Walk in the Woods and researched the world of arms negotiators, no book became more valuable to my process than The Hawk and the Dove: Paul Nitze, George Kennan and the History of the Cold War by Nicholas Thompson. From the Amazon.com book description:
Only two Americans held positions of great influence throughout the Cold War. The two men embodied opposing strategies for winning the conflict. Yet they dined together, attended the weddings of each other’s children, and remained lifelong friends. … Paul Nitze was a consummate insider who believed the best way to avoid a nuclear clash was to prepare to win one. George Kennan was a diplomat turned academic whose famous “X article” persuasively argued that we should contain the Soviet Union while waiting for it to collapse from within. A masterly double biography, ‘The Hawk and the Dove’ “does an inspired job of telling the story of the Cold War through the careers of two of its most interesting and important figures.” (The Washington Monthly)
One of the most fascinating parts of absorbing this extraordinary book (called perhaps “the most important political biography in recent memory” by The Washington Times, among countless more critical praise) was realizing that author Nicholas Thompson is the grandson of Paul Nitze. Through a mutual connection, we were able to contact Mr. Thompson, who graciously agreed to answer some questions about his book, the two men it is about, and their story’s connection to A Walk in the Woods:
David Parkes (DP): Obviously, knowing of your grandfather’s considerable influence in the shaping of American foreign policy must have been a significant inspiration for the book. At what point did you decide to include George Kennan in the story, and relate the events of the Cold War through their, as you say, “often parallel, and sometimes perpendicular,” lives?
Nicolas Thompson (NT): The seed for the book was planted in 1999 when my grandfather read a letter he had received from Kennan. Nitze had just published an op-ed in The New York Times calling for the abandonment of our nuclear arsenal. Kennan had sent an eloquent note expressing his pleasure that they had finally agreed on an issue they had disputed for 50 years. I remember wondering then about the history between the two men.
I ultimately decided to write the book when I read the obituary of Kennan, who died six months after my grandfather. I hadn’t recognized how closely parallel his life was to my grandfather’s. But I remember sitting at my father’s house, reading the obituary in the newspaper and saying to my dad “Wow. Their lives were the same.” He then told me about their personal friendship, which made a possible book seem like an even better idea.
DP: What was the most surprising thing you learned in your research for the book?
NT: I had no idea about the depth of Kennan’s depression and his dark feelings about this country. I also had no idea how interesting a character Svetlana Stalin, the daughter of the dictator, would turn out to be. I had never even heard of her when I started, but it turned out that she was a seminal figure in Kennan’s life, and she and I actually became friends.
DP: Can you speak a little about your first recollections of Paul Nitze?
NT: I remember playing tennis, fishing, and hiking with him. I had a vague sense that he was important, and I wrote a 6th grade term paper on his arms negotiating. But mostly I liked playing in grandfather-grandson tennis tournaments. When I was 10, and he was 78, we were about equal on the court. I remember him as a kind, loving, brilliant man, and these personal memories led me to doubt the standard histories that cast him as a demon of the Cold War.
DP: How did you first hear of the famous “walk in the woods,” and what did you learn from Nitze regarding the negotiations with Kvitsinsky?
NT: I never learned anything from him. I was only seven when it happened, and I never discussed it with him. But I learned a great deal from Kvitsinsky! The most surprising thing he told me was that the Russians rejected the deal in part because they thought that Nitze, who had always been a hardliner, had played a trick on him. I was also impressed with how much genuine respect he had for Nitze. He’s still a member of the Russian parliament, but he was willing to speak with me, and answer repeated emails, entirely because I’m Nitze’s grandson.
DP: How do you feel Nitze’s thoughts changed over time on nuclear arms as a means of shaping foreign policy?
NT: I think his general philosophy — nuclear weapons should be at the center of foreign policy, and we need to set the strategic balance in such a way that minimizes the odds of war, particularly by making the U.S. stronger than the U.S.S.R. — was pretty consistent. What was also, strangely, consistent was his view that any given moment was a moment of urgent peril and that the Soviets were ahead in a way that we needed to catch up to.
DP: You mentioned that you saw a previous production of the play A Walk in the Woods … what were your impressions of the story in light of what you know of the actual events?
NT: I think the play does a good job of capturing the reality of events, though, of course, in real life, it was an old American pairing with a young Russian. But it was truly two men from very different worlds who undertook a risky mission to try to solve an unsolvable problem.
DP: How have your own views of American diplomatic efforts changed or evolved since your completion of the book — particularly with respect to the United States’ post-Cold War relationship with Russia, and the continued challenges of nuclear disarmament?
NT: One of the great questions of our times is the one Nitze struggled with at the end of his life: Can we actually get rid of all the nuclear weapons in the world? It’s a very tough question, in part because of game theory. If every big country gets rid of its nuclear weapons, it becomes particularly valuable for a small country to build them. But I’ve been impressed with Obama’s rhetoric on the issue, and I’ve been pleased by the limited progress that has occurred with Moscow.
David is a TimeLine Theatre Company Member and portrays American negotiator John Honeyman in our current production of A Walk in the Woods (playing at Theater Wit through November 20).