Cast of Characters

“This is dual biography at its best: riveting, thought-provoking, and fair-minded throughout.”
Jeff Shesol

Dean Acheson

Dean AchesonSecretary of State, 1949-1953, Acheson was Nitze and Kennan’s boss and mentor at the beginning of the Cold War. He remained close to Nitze throughout his life, but he eventually clashed with Kennan, rebuking his political views and slapping him with his legendary wit. He once compared Kennan to “an old horse pulling a buggy over a bridge who would stop periodically to see if it was he who was making all the noise.”

Svetlana Alliluyeva

Svetlana AlliluyevaThe only legitimate daughter of Stalin, she walked into the U.S. Embassy in Delhi in 1967 and announced her desire to defect. Days later George Kennan, summoned by the CIA, met her in Switzerland and arranged her move to America. They formed a close and often tumultuous friendship that lasted many decades. She once wrote to him: ”Dear George you are unhappy—and this is very obvious—because you constantly betray yourself.”

Joe Alsop

Joe AlsopA prominent journalist from the 1930s to the 1970s, Alsop was a dear friend, and an occasional antagonist, of both Nitze and Kennan. “The trouble with you Paul is that you’re just a bureaucrat,” he repeated over and over one night while wildly drunk with Nitze at Martin’s Tavern in Washington.

Charles Bohlen

Charles BohlenA dear personal friend of both men, Bohlen was a Soviet expert who served as Truman’s translator at Potsdam and later succeeded Kennan as ambassador to the Soviet Union. He disagreed with Nitze’s dark assessment of Soviet intentions in NSC-68 but the two stayed close until Bohlen’s death.

Harold Brown

Harold BrownA trained physicist who became a leading national defense expert, he served as secretary of the air force under Johnson and secretary of defense under Carter. He was a leading advocate of the SALT II treaty, which Nitze sabotaged—sabotage that Brown ascribed to something less than the highest motives. “[Nitze] tended to look for fights with any superior who was in a job he thought he should have had,” Brown said.

McGeorge Bundy

McGeorge BundyNational Security Advisor to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, Bundy was drawn closer into the Kennedy’s inner circle as Nitze was driven out. Hawkish on the Vietnam War, he would spend his later views exploring and recanting his previous views. And he joined Kennan in writing an article in the 1982 declaring that the United States should declare that it would never use nuclear weapons first in a conflict. “Mac was a great success as the dean of the faculty of Harvard, a position in which no man of integrity could possibly succeed,” Nitze once said.

Alexander Calder

Alexander CalderAn artist who befriended Nitze in 1929 when they were both in Berlin. At the time, Calder was making wire sculptures, including one considered quite scandalous that would produce the figure of a Christ child if you dropped a French coin into it. The two moved in together at the Pension Naumann, a place described as “glorious” by Nitze. “Frau Naumann was a very jolly old lady and her idea to take care of the needs of the clients was to have three large carafes on the dining room table filled with vodka, and one with white wine and one with red wine at every meal including breakfast.”

Jimmy Carter

Jimmy CarterIn July 1976, Presidential candidate Carter invited Paul Nitze and seven other leading Democratic foreign policy experts to Plains, Georgia for a meeting. When it came time for Nitze to speak, he pulled out a full presentation, along with charts. Chopping his arms for effect, he spoke fiercely about America’s vulnerability, Moscow’s ICBM build-up, and Soviet civil defense. The others found the performance awkward. “He was a lion in a den of Daniels,” recalled Walter Slocombe. Afterwards, seven of the eight participants received top administration jobs. Nitze did not.

Warren Christopher

Warren ChristopherA trained lawyer turned diplomat, Warren Christopher became Carter’s Deputy Secretary of State in 1977 and Clinton’s Secretary of State in 1993. In a family memoir written at the end of his life, Nitze declared that he worked with Christopher on a secret task force to undermine the radical anti-war movement in the late 1960s. Christopher said in an interview that he could not recall this episode.

James Forrestal

James ForrestalOne of Nitze’s senior colleagues on Wall Street, Forrestal was summoned in 1940 by FDR to begin work in the White House. He immediately sent a cable to Nitze. “Be in Washington Monday morning. Forrestal.” Later, as secretary of defense, Forrestal served as a mentor to both Nitze and Kennan, and was one of the major forces behind the publicity given to the Long Telegram. Forrestal’s obsession with the Soviets brought him to psychiatric care at Bethesda Naval hospital in 1949; there he died after plunging thirteen stories out of a window.

Mikhail Gorbachev

Mikhail GorbachevMikhail Gorbachev replaced General Secretary of the Soviet Union Chernenko upon his death in 1985. Gorbachev brought sweeping economic and social reforms to the Soviet Union and was elected as the nation’s first President in 1990. Both Nitze and Kennan underestimated how transformative a leader he would be when he first came to power.

Paul Hilken

Hilken was Paul Nitze’s uncle and namesake. In 1916, he served as paymaster to a German spy ring that blew up a barge in New York’s Black Tom Harbor laden with arms munitions headed for Britain. It was the largest terrorist act in American history before 9/11/2001 and Nitze would often wonder whether his connection to Hilken had thwarted his career.

Lyndon Johnson

Lyndon JohnsonAfter the Texan’s succession to the presidency in 1963, Johnson called Nitze in for a meeting. The then Navy secretary had prepared diligently. But Johnson asked no questions. Instead, he made Nitze sit on a couch while going about his presidential business: placing phone calls, dictating to his secretary, watching the three television screens in his office. After several hours, Nitze was allowed to leave. Reflecting on the odd encounter, he decided it was a test: Johnson was trying to size him up and decide how loyal he would be. It turned out: not much. Nitze refused to testify in favor of the war in 1968, leading LBJ to fume that his deputy secretary of defense was “just insubordinate.”

George Kennan (the uncle)

George KennanGeorge Kennan’s uncle was famous in his own right for traveling Russia in the late 19th century and writing books criticizing the Tsardom and describing life in Siberia. The two Kennans shared a name, a birthday, and a strong attraction to Russia. George Frost Kennan would sometimes muse that he was a reincarnation of his relative.

John F. Kennedy

John F. KennedyIn 1938, twenty-one year old John F. Kennedy was dutifully shown around Prague by the young diplomat George Kennan. Years later Kennedy named Kennan Ambassador to Yugoslavia and often called on him for advice on Soviet affairs. Nitze served as foreign affairs advisor to Kennedy during his presidential campaign and became assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs after the election. He did not go to the parties at the Kennedy compound on Cape Cod or let Robert Kennedy’s children throw him into their pool in Virginia—and he thought rather less of the people, like Robert McNamara, who did. Years later, talking about the Kennedys, he said, “I knew them all, and from time to time went to these things, but you know [my wife and I] don’t like to become parts of somebody else’s group.”

Nikita Khrushchev

Nikita KhruschevBorn in 1894, future Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev had grown up a peasant in the Ukraine, so poor that he spent much of his childhood barefoot. He had attended school for a total of two years, and barely learned how to read, and he never learned how to write.

He was bald and shaped like a pear. Nitze called him an “ugly, little man.” He drank heavily and governed by instinct and improvisation. He did not grieve over friends and colleagues sent to the gulag. But, unlike Stalin, he did not live for intrigue and revenge. He was not “sadistic,” Kennan wrote, “just rough.” He spoke in metaphors, very coarse ones. When he wanted to cause trouble in Germany, he declared: “Berlin is the testicles of the West. Every time I want to make the West scream, I squeeze on Berlin.”

Yuli Kvitsinsky

Kvitsinsky was a savvy Soviet diplomat and Nitze’s counterpart for many crucial arms negotiations in the early 1980s. He was Nitze’s counterpart in the failed “Walk in the Woods” effort to break through a negotiating stalemate by having the two men create a deal themselves. He was a great admirer of Nitze’s, but would later say that his former friend didn’t always understand the USSR. “Being a man of integrity and high education, Nitze had nevertheless some strange ideas about Russian history, civilization and intentions of Soviet leadership,” Kvitsinsky said.

Henry Kissinger

Henry KissingerPresident Nixon’s National Security Advisor and Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger dominated foreign policy for much of the 1970s. Kennan was sometimes called upon by Kissinger to advise Nixon on foreign affairs while Kissinger and Nitze had a fiercely competitive relationship, at times sabotaging the others professional standing. The relationship had gotten off to a bad start in the 1950s when Nitze had declared, in a review of Kissinger’s best-selling book, Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy, that “there are several hundred passages in which either the facts or the logic seem doubtful, or at least unclear.

Walter Lippmann

Walter LippmanArguably the country’s most influential columnist, Lippmann read Kennan’s X article while summering in 1947 on Mount Desert Island, Maine. He retreated into his little office in the spruce woods to respond with vigor, devoting 14 consecutive Today and Tomorrow columns to a critique of X. Harper & Brothers soon published the essays in a book titled The Cold War, which in turn gave the 40-year conflict its name.

Douglas MacArthur

Douglas MacArthurA great hero of WWI and II, General MacArthur became a national icon after leading the successful Inchon landing during the Korean War. But both Nitze and Kennan considered him stubborn, imperious, and egomaniacal. Kennan, who had met with him during his tenure as head of the Policy Planning Staff, compared consulting with MacArthur to “opening up communications and arranging the establishment of diplomatic relations with a hostile and suspicious foreign government.” Nitze liked him just as little. Both Nitze and Kennan then worked to limit his authority as he pressed further ahead in the Korean War.

George C. Marshall

George MarshallThe five star general served as the U.S. Army Chief of Staff during WWII. Marshall became a military advisor, Secretary of Defense, and was eventually named Secretary of State by President Truman in 1947. Marshall’s most famous diplomatic contribution was the European Recovery Act, known as the Marshall Plan, for which he received a Nobel Peace Prize. Reflecting back on Marshall, Kennan would write, “Like everyone else, I admired him and in a sense loved him.”

Martha Mautner

A young State Department employee, Martha Mautner was working the last shift in the American embassy code room in Moscow on Friday, February 22, 1946. It was nearly 7pm and Mautner was ready to bolt, when the tall figure of George Kennan appeared at the code room door. A cold, sinus problems, fever, and a toothache had laid him up for the past several days. But now he was standing before her and holding a thick stack of white papers. He had an important and urgent telegram. It had to go to America, and it had to go now. He handed the stack to Mautner and told her to send it.

Mautner respected and liked Kennan. But she was also a little bored with him. Besides, she had a date to get to, and sending this document would take hours. She gave it a quick scan, quickly got the gist of it, and handed it back. “Does it really have to go out tonight?” she asked. “You’ve said all this before.” He insisted, and she did send it. And with that, the document known as the long telegram began its journey into Cold War mythology.

Robert McNamara

Robert McNameraThe life of America’s dazzling (and very image conscious) secretary of defense paralleled, in many ways, the story of mid 20th -century America. When fighting men were icons, McNamara was helping plan the air offensives of the Second World War. When businessmen were lionized, he rose to run the Ford Motor Company. When the Kennedy administration galloped in and created Camelot, he was one of its strongest and most commanding cavaliers. By 1964, people were talking of him as a potential vice president.

By the time Nitze was working himself to exhaustion at the Navy in an effort to please his boss, McNamara had invisibly but inescapably started to crack. Deep beneath the Nitze-like exterior lay a Kennan-esque internal turmoil. McNamara was beginning a slow-motion nervous breakdown: tormented by the number of people who had died exercising his orders. Rational decisions piled upon rational decisions were beginning to seem to have created something entirely irrational.

By mid 1965, the human computer was beginning to stall on the unsolvable problem. We had to win in Vietnam, but the war was not winnable on any permissible terms. McNamara continued to attack the problem from every angle, but some kind of crash began to seem inevitable.

Robert Oppenheimer

Robert OppenheimerRobert Oppenheimer stood nearly 6 feet tall, weighed as little as 115 pounds, and seemed to have an IQ of twice that number. Born two months after Kennan, he was a brilliant theoretical physicist who pioneered work in black holes and quantum chemistry. He read eight languages, including Sanskrit, and once learned enough Dutch in six weeks to give a technical lecture in it. Selected in 1942 to run the Manhattan Project, he became an icon when his team succeeded in building the atomic bomb in time to win the war. The cover of the first issue of Physics Today simply displayed Oppenheimer’s signature porkpie hat. He became one of Kennan’s closest friends and hired him at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study.

John Paisley

John PaisleyJohn Paisley was the CIA operative responsible for delivering classified documents to the members of Team B for their controversial counter-analysis of Soviet capabilities. Years later, his son would say that Paisley had admitted being the man responsible for leaking news of the exercise to the press.

In 1978 Paisley went for a boat ride on the Chesapeake Bay and never returned. Days later a body was found with a bullet in the head and weights around the feet; authorities declared that this was John Paisley and that he had committed suicide. For many people, the story, and the discovered body, didn’t quite match up.

Ronald Reagan

Ronald ReaganA charming B-movie star, and governor of California, Reagan seen by many ordinary Americans as a challenger not just to the presidency but to the whole Soviet system. Nitze had supported him during the campaign and was appointed by him to run the INF negotiations in the fall of 1981.

Reagan believed profoundly and seriously in missile defense. The Soviets believed that Star Wars could only make sense as a method for Washington to back up an initial strike on Moscow. But Reagan thought it truly was for protection. He once told Gorbachev that he thought was the reincarnation of the shield.

Donald Rumsfeld

Donald RumsfeldRumsfeld’s political career began at the age of thirty when he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1962. One of his first acts was to work on sabotaging a nominee he considered too-dovish to serve as secretary of the Navy: Paul Nitze. Rumsfeld would later serve as secretary of defense under president Ford and then president George W. Bush.

George Shultz

George SchultzReagan’s secretary of state for most of his eight years, Shultz was a dear friend and close colleague of Nitze’s. . “George Shultz wouldn’t take a step on arms control without Nitze,” said Max Kampelman, a fellow negotiator

Joseph Stalin

Joseph StalinThe ruthless Soviet prime minister at the beginning of the Cold War. “His words were few,” wrote Kennan. “They generally sounded reasonable and sensible; indeed, often they were. An unforewarned visitor would never have guessed what depths of calculation, ambition, love of power, jealousy, cruelty, and sly vindictiveness lurked behind this unpretentious façade.”

Edward Teller

Edward TellerLike an impressive number of the 20th century’s most brilliant scientists, he was a middle-class Hungarian Jewish immigrant to America. That youthful experience of revolution and counter-revolution seared him, just as it seared his contemporary Arthur Koestler. The writer would turn his experience into Darkness at Noon; Teller would turn his into a lifetime effort to counter communism through weaponry. In 1949, he played a crucial role in convincing Nitze that the Hydrogen Bomb could actually work.

Harry Truman

Harry TrumanPresident of the United States from 1945 to 1952, Truman led the country through the early days of the Cold War and the Korean War. At the end of his life, Nitze would say that Truman and Reagan were the two presidents he admired most.

Paul Warnke

Paul WarnkeNitze and Warnke served together in the Johnson Defense Department and together they had tried to slow the Vietnam War: Nitze because he thought it was disadvantageous, Warnke because he thought it wrong. In those days, they had found themselves in agreement for the most part, but they had clashed more than once.

In 1977, Warnke was made Carter’s lead negotiator to the SALT delegation as well as head of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. Nitze fought hard to block his confirmation to both spots. “I think [Warnke] talks about numbers without knowing what the numbers mean,” he said before the Senate. “I [don’t] think his understanding runs deep enough to know what it is he wouldn’t have an understanding about.” “I think he has great ability at confusing people.”

Bud Zumwalt

Bud ZumwaltOne of Nitze’s best friends from the 1960s on. In early December 1975, the phone rang in his home and an unfamiliar voice gave a brief, hurried message: Henry Kissinger was soon going to hold a press conference to attack him. A few days later, the secretary of state did indeed hold a blistering 90-minute session in which he lambasted the former Chief of Naval Operations recent accusations before Congress that Kissinger was allowing the Soviets to violate SALT.

Four months later, on Friday March 26th, 1976, Zumwalt’s phone rang again and the voice of what sounded like the same man came on the line. “You should know that on at least two occasions recently Kissinger has said to Dobrynin ‘an accident should happen to Admiral Zumwalt.’” The caller hung up.

Zumwalt did not know where the call came from or exactly what it meant. Kissinger denies having anything to do with it. Still, Zumwalt passed the memo to Nitze, who would soon begin quietly describing Kissinger as a “traitor.”